Richard Zanuck

Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is Director of the JSM+ New Media Lab. He interviewed Richard Zanuck from the producer's offices in Los Angeles

Motion-picture fans are set to celebrate their annual high mass of star worship, as the Academy Awards are handed out Monday night. The most fervent among them have already taken their places outside the Shrine Auditorium. A select few will gain entrance to the temple, while the rest gather in groups around television sets to engage in a ritualistic review of their screen heroes.

There's certainly nothing new about celebrity worship. It's as old as human society, reaching back to the brave hunter who thrilled his tribe with inspiring tales of man victorious over fearsome beast. Yet, in the space of the last generation, the public's attitude toward today's most celebrated celebrities has changed. Rather than being deified, today's movie stars are just as likely to be defiled. They become subjects of gossip journalism and are trespassed upon by anything-for-a-shot paparazzi, all working to slake the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity dirt.

Not so long ago, the men who ran Hollywood simply wouldn't let such things happen. But when the studio system, with its obsessive control over its contract players, collapsed in the 1960s, control over media access to the stars evaporated as well. Some blame escalating star salaries--and egos--for the frenzy to bring the stars back down to Earth. Others see it as simply a natural result of the explosion of media outlets.

Many in Hollywood have been around long enough to remember those old days, when stars were truly that--celestial bodies that shined brighter than the rest of us. But none has had a better view of the then-and-now than Richard Zanuck, son of Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck and himself a veteran producer. Zanuck grew up among classic movie stars, and ran 20th Century Fox while still in his 20s. He and his partner David Brown went on to produce films like "Jaws" and "The Sting"; later, Zanuck teamed with his wife, Lili, on the Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy." Still active at 63, his latest film, "Deep Impact," about an asteroid that threatens to destroy the Earth, is set to be released in May. In a conversation from his Los Angeles office, he talked about the nature of celebrity, the public shift in attitudes about movie stars and the effect that's had on the business of making motion pictures.


Question: What is the basis for our interest in celebrities, particularly movie stars? What is it about us that makes us want to worship others?

Answer: I think we simply all like to project ourselves into somebody else--somebody who is better-looking, richer, smarter. It's comforting. It's escapism, and that, of course, is what the movies are supposed to be all about. Ultimately, I think it's just part of human nature to pretend.

Q: Thinking back to your youth, and your father's time, what were the ingredients that the moguls looked for to determine if someone had "star quality?"

A: Star quality is one of the most difficult things to describe. It emanates from the person, and he may not even understand it himself. It's a quality that separates the star from the rest of us. When someone who possesses this quality walks into a room, everyone else responds automatically, though no one can really define what they're responding to. So in that sense, it's very elusive--it's a persona, a perception.

Q: But how did people like your father identify people as having the potential for being stars--how did they spot star quality?

A: The idea of discovering a potential star at Schwab's drug store is a little exaggerated, but the moguls did look for people with star quality. Usually though, they came through the normal process--they'd get an agent, send a photo to the studio, audition for a part or take a screen test. The common denominator--and this holds true today--is that they had to be able to act. You may have a wonderful aura around you, but that doesn't mean you can act. A lot of athletes have star quality, but they just can't perform in front of a camera. So no matter how good-looking you are, no matter what kind of presence you have, you still have to be able to be a convincing performer to become a star. Think of Marilyn Monroe. She had the beauty, and she certainly had the sex appeal, but she also had a unique personality, which she used to great advantage in her acting.

Q: Still, there have been many actors who weren't especially attractive in a physical sense, and yet they could rivet audiences simply because they were so interesting--I'm thinking of someone like Humphrey Bogart.

A: That's the elusive quality which is so hard to define. It's a projection of confidence, and it's something that didn't always translate into everyday life. Edward G. Robinson was not an attractive man, nor was he a large man, but on screen he projected a great strength and toughness. In fact, in real life he was a very mild, gentle person.

When I observed movie stars as a young man, either at my father's studio or at our home, I remember them not so much as celebrities, but as being different than everyone else. They weren't always handsome, or beautiful, but there was still a distinct separation between them and everyone else. Also, in those days, stars weren't exposed the way they are now. They were brought up, so to speak, by the studio--hand held and guided, told what to wear, where to go and who to date. If they got into trouble, the studio would clean up the mess. They were really products of the system, and when that system broke down, the stars lost a great deal of their support structure. Every element that the studio provided was replaced by a manager or an agent. The stars are now more or less on their own, whereas before the studios managed their destinies.

In the studios days, the public's perception of movie stars was much different, because the stars were so much less exposed. This made them seem more special, more unearthly. Today they're no longer perceived as different--they've become human, so to speak. So there is a distinct difference between the stars I met when I was growing up, and the stars of today. For instance, they were always beautifully groomed whenever they were seen in public--not always the case today. Of course, there were scenes and fist-fights at parties and such, but this was all on the inside, and the public didn't see it. And it seems like the public didn't want to know the dirt about these people--they were heroes, and the public seemed to like it that way.

Q: But haven't Americans always been interested in scandals involving stars, all the way back to Fatty Arbuckle?

A: Those were few and far between. Everybody goes back to Fatty Arbuckle because they're aren't a lot of other examples. These days, you pick up the National Enquirer and in every issue there's 10 more movie stars being exposed, whereas in the studio days, I don't think people wanted to see stars in ways other than the ways they imagined them to be. Sure there was dirty laundry, but the public didn't want to see it. If I was a star today, I'd have great concerns about this seemingly bottomless appetite for my uttermost secrets.

Q: Do you think it was easier, at least in terms of personal life, for the stars of the studio era than it is for stars today?

A: I don't think there's any question it was easier in the old days, with the studio machinery protecting you, enlightening you and taking care of all of your needs. There certainly wasn't the kind of media pressure that there is now--stars today are targets. They have to hide and go through all sorts of machinations to have anything like a private life. But the whole climate has changed, and rather than being revered and respected, today many stars are hounded and constantly on the defensive.

Q: But aren't movie stars better off in many ways? The most important stars are now more powerful than studio bosses.

A: It's true. Sadly, the star is now the most important ingredient in a movie. I say sadly because it used to be that the story was the most important factor. But in this new international market, it's pretty hard to sell a movie outside the United States without a star. There are a few stars who could open a movie doing the telephone book--that's power. The balance has changed radically. It's certainly changed my job as a producer.

I could come into a head of production at a studio and say, "I've got a little picture about a black chauffeur and a white lady in the South, and it will only cost about $7 million". Before I even finish the sentence, I know I'm in trouble. But if I say, "Look, you may not be able to afford this, it's in the $100 million category, but I know I can get Harrison Ford," then that's all I've got to say--I've got them.

Q: Do you have any hope that things might swing back in favor of the old school, where the story was the thing?

A: I wish I did, but I've become pretty cynical about it. I go back to "Driving Miss Daisy." We went down on our knees and everybody turned us down. We went to a group of dentists--they were going to use it as a tax shelter, and they turned us down! But we hung on, got the picture made and it went on to be hugely successful. You'd think after that experience people might pay more attention, but we still have to beg.

Q: And now you're doing a big budget film?

A: Yes, "Deep Impact." But there are huge nightmares even with that. [Long-time partner] David Brown and I presented this idea 22 years ago, to Barry Diller at Paramount. We went through a series of scripts, including one written by Anthony Burgess, and then Barry Diller went on to other things and so did we. Finally, three years ago, we took it to Steven Spielberg, and now it opens in May. Twenty-two years! So big or small, star or no star, they're all hard.

Still, I love to see the optimism that comes from the success of a picture like "Good Will Hunting." No star power, not even a star writer, just a wonderful picture that attracts big audiences.

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