The allure of illusion

Times Staff Writer

IS Paris Hilton glamorous? She meets all the criteria. She's young, shiny, obscenely rich and reckless. She does precisely as she likes. She's an heiress. Old money! (Mature, anyway.) She is pure, uncompromised artifice. Noel Coward or Preston Sturges could have made her up -- if it weren't for the sex tape. And the hamburger ad. And the album. And her mother.

What does it mean to be glamorous anymore? What did it mean in the first place? Is Jessica Simpson glamorous when she's playing Daisy Duke? Is she glamorous as herself, eating tuna out of the can? Or is she glamorous only when she's posing for InStyle, in-styled within an inch of her life?

Every once in a while a celebrity comes along who looks good in a tux, or seems smart and urbane, or doesn't attend an award show wearing a string, and magazines start chirping about "a return to glamour!" or "a return to Hollywood glamour!" Which is a redundancy, because there never really was any other kind. The word itself is practically a Hollywood invention, derived from a Scottish word for charm and enchantment, and then dusted off in the 20th century by studio publicity departments and the press. (The vestigial "u" is intentional, by the way. It was kept for added glamour.)

Glamour popped onto the scene in the '20s, infusing the fantasies of fame, fortune and ease coming out of MGM, Paramount, Fox and Warner Bros. The stars, like the movies, were not made so much as they were meticulously assembled. Contract actors -- who had gravitated to movies from the stage but also from the shops, the choruses and the clutches of rabid stage mothers -- were coached in feigning the kind of upper-class upbringing they'd be reenacting on-screen. They were educated in comportment and diction, coached in music and culture, taught to know their way around antiques and fashion, presumably so that they could convincingly re-create the kind of existence to which Hilton was born in real life.

The art of cinema was in its ability to make intimate even the most foreign lives and unattainable lifestyles. Cinematic lighting created glowing, flawless faces and diamond eyes. Hair and makeup were elevated to art forms. MGM art director Cedric Gibbons traveled to the 1925 exposition in Paris and brought Art Deco Modernism to the movies. Edith Head at Paramount and Adrian at MGM designed costumes that drew women to the movies by the thousands, just to look at the clothes.

Even off-screen, stars were contractually bound to be groomed and dressed to perfection at all times. In his book "The Glamour Factory," Ronald L. Davis quotes actress Mary Astor, who wrote, "At Metro, you practically had to go to the front office if you wanted something as real as having your hair mussed ... all automobiles were shiny. A picture never hung crooked, a door never squeaked, stocking seams were always straight and no actress ever had a shiny nose."

Hollywood's Golden Age arrived with the Depression, and Hollywood movies became a sort of mass escape from reality that gave the haves gloss and the have-nots hope. The romantic screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s were replete with lovers from every side of the track. If glamour in the '20s had been embodied by the Garbos and Dietrichs of the world -- tragic sirens, femmes fatales, highly strung and delicate romantic heroines in peril -- glamour in the '30s became more playful and lighthearted. Romantic comedy heroes and heroines were rich, poor, ruined, rescued and recognized as worthy no matter how much money they had.

All were sure of themselves in the way of people who know exactly who they are, and they belonged to specific social classes as surely as they lived.

The movies acknowledged the differences between the classes they satirized and drew their tension from them. But in films such as "The Palm Beach Story" and "My Man Godfrey" they also offered the consoling notion that class divides could be bridged, if only people tried hard enough, and had a sense of humor. It was typical in Depression-era comedies, for instance, for the ambitious working-class girl in love with a well-born swell to be put in her place for the way she spoke, dressed or behaved. Vulgarity, in other words, was a social liability. (Of course, the snooty critic would eventually get her comeuppance -- purity of heart always trumped rank in the movies.)

The rich and sophisticated were held up to ridicule too. But their lives were served up as utopias and escapist fantasies. And they were ubiquitous in Depression-era and '40s comedies. Rather than feeding resentments -- the large majority of the moviegoing audience was working class -- screwball comedies delighted in exploiting social clashes for fun and for love. In George Cukor's "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), the spoiled and haughty heiress, Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), is brought down to Earth by Jimmy Stewart's scrappy reporter. But he learns something from her too. Eventually, Tracy remarries within her class -- but it's to the relatively human, flawed (he drinks) C.K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant), not the stuffy, social-climbing George Kittredge (John Howard), whose snobbery and naked opportunism make him utterly unlovable.

The glamour was built into the story. The girl in the gown could be an heiress or a chorus girl, the guy in the tux could be a millionaire or a regular guy in a monkey suit. Slumming and social climbing were acceptable as long as the character was pure of motive and charming of personality. Fundamental to glamour were wit, urbanity, intelligence and a talent for adapting to change. And it was all wrapped up in very adult sequined dresses, martini glasses and flutes of champagne. Kids rarely entered the picture, and when they did, they were usually waved away -- Mommy had a hangover.

By the '50s, when the middle class boomed, moviegoers were less fascinated with class than with money, suddenly more attainable. And indeed, in the movies of Marilyn Monroe, the glamour icon's glamour icon, there's a shift from stories in which poor boys and girls proved themselves worthy of rich boys and girls by virtue of their cleverness, resourcefulness and character. Monroe's persona, though charming and innocent, isn't interested in love or class. She's interested in diamonds and millionaires. And to make the match, all she needs is sex. All he needs is money.

Except that the personas of Monroe and Jayne Mansfield also incorporated a wink to acknowledge this scenario's absurdity. That has all but disappeared -- we no longer find sex funny.

The movies and glamour have long since amicably divorced, but some of the old aura clings. After going off to find themselves in the '60s and '70s, the movies went crawling back to glamour in the '90s and begged to make up. Glamour agreed, but you can tell they still don't sleep in the same room. The "glamour" icons of today, Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley, say, are beautiful, poised and smart enough to leave their red carpet looks to the pros. As for wit, class, intelligence and urbanity -- they've been devalued in American life, where money trumps all. (Is Donald Trump glamorous? How about his late-model wife?) So why would they matter in the movies?

The contrast between what is glamorous now and what was glamorous in the days of Cary Grant and Norma Shearer says much about how American society has changed. Glamour used to present an idealized version of adulthood. Now it presents an idealized version of adolescence. In the old days, glamour was all about unattainability, i.e., fantasy projection. These days, it has become unthinkable that a major Hollywood director might echo Cecil B. DeMille, who instructed Edith Head's department at Paramount to make clothes "that make people gasp when they see them. Don't design anything anybody could possibly buy in a store."

Today glamour is tied to the idea of shopping to maintain the illusion that you are (a) kind of famous, or (b) on your way to being famous, or (c) essentially the same as famous people, because you share the same taste in home furnishings, core values and dog shampoo. Some of the stars with whose dog shampoo brand we may be intimately acquainted don't even appear in the movies, or at least not often. They may appear in TV shows that aren't so much TV shows as a chance to observe celebrities in their natural habitats. Which kind of resembles ours. Mainstream magazines have transformed themselves from facilitators of idol worship to guides to glamour consumption.

Ironically, the movies are just about the only kind of media left not dedicated to creating complex mythologies about the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

Once upon a time, a life like Paris Hilton's (pre-fame) was just the sort of fantasy life the movies sought to re-create for our amusement. With the rise of the glamour industry, no one, not even Paris Hilton, is immune to the lure of mass-media glamour.

The real-life heiress marshals all of her considerable powers to transform herself into the loudest, gaudiest, most embarrassing thing she can dream up -- a ketchup-splattering porn star, a gangster's moll who wants to be an actress, a chorus girl banging down society's door.

With $300 million in disposable income, she might have purchased anything her little heart desired. And what she bought was the cheapest kind of fame. The only way up for the celebrity is to pretend she's moving on down.

Carina Chocano is a Times film critic.

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