The stairway to stardom

Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert, early actors who gained celebrity status, play a royal Russian couple who take domestic jobs in 1937's "Tonight's Our Night."
(File photo)
Special to The Times

BEFORE the age of photography, fame was a small club. God and the gods were founding members; there were kings and queens. Education was only for the privileged, and there was no need to know the masses because they had no power.

In our cultural history, rumors were the first attempts to generate “legend” or stories among the unknown. A rumor might spread about how, seven leagues from here or there, lived a beautiful woman — or she might be ugly. Tales, fairy tales, might be told about her.

But then, in the age of the photograph, it became possible for anyone to see a picture of the beautiful stranger. You can do it still by going to flea markets in small towns. There are often stacks of old postcards. You can find a picture of a young man or woman and it pulls you up short: He or she is such a knockout.

What does that mean? Well, they took a pretty picture or, as we learned to say, the camera liked them. But what it really means is that we love them as we look at the picture. We wish we had known them.

The photograph was a play on human sympathy, and it involved fact and fiction. It codified a quality called attractiveness. And celebrity — think about it — is the marketing of that same sympathy (or attraction) by mechanical or industrial means. It’s the industry, the entertainment or the political system that says, “Look, you don’t know this man, but could you dream about him and trust him and pay 50 cents to see his movie — or vote for him?”

The earliest movies used faces and people without thinking to identify them. What was the need? The excitement was in the image, not in the people themselves. But then audiences started asking the managers of nickelodeons, “Who is that girl?” The process known as stardom was underway, and obviously its factory was Los Angeles. The studios had their scouting system. They received thousands of pictures from unknowns every week, saying “Look at me.” And while no one could reliably predict attraction, it was clear that audiences treasured some people.

On one movie set, a set of studio bosses stared at Gary Cooper being filmed and tried to discern motion, let alone emotion. “He’s not doing anything,” they said.

“He’s being photographed,” said the cameraman, “and the camera likes him.”

And next day in the dailies, Cooper was beginning to be the heart of a story and an atmosphere and an attitude. Soon, there was a crowd that wanted Gary Cooper pictures. Meanwhile, poor Mr. Cooper had no idea what he was doing or not doing, even as people convinced him that he needed agents and lawyers because he was up for $100,000 a picture. Then some agent had a wild dream and said, “How about a piece of the picture?” Or: “Coop, suppose you owned the picture?”

A lot of stars, like Cooper, were naive and uncertain — maybe the camera loves you if your mind is on the empty side. (Let us decide what you’re thinking.) So the studios invented public relations. They started promoting the “image” of a star. If it was Cooper, you had him tall and alone, riding or shooting quail. If it was Joan Crawford, you had her polishing the furniture, looking after the children or polishing her own eyes till they shone. It might be hokum, but it was hokum that got pushed out into the rest of life. And if Gary or Joan did something silly or naughty, like being found in a “love nest” or crashing a car, the publicity machine covered it up (and to that end, knew the value of “influence” with the LAPD and the D.A.'s office). This is the origin of that celebrity-buffing that leads to what we don’t know about our public figures.

The system has now gone way beyond Los Angeles, of course. But L.A. remains the city where everyone is a little bit of an actor because it’s the place where the world first got organized about “the presentation of self in everyday life.” That’s the title of a book by the psychologist Erving Goffman, who saw that acting and behavior were codes that fed off each other. The result is fair measure of a community where being filmed is taken for granted, along with acting out and being good-looking. Where else would we expect professional actors to make the move into politics? The darkness has shifted. We’re all on film or video in our own homes, and fame is allegedly available to everyone for 15 minutes or so.

But celebrity plays upon our worst instincts as well as our best. Yes, we want to like these strangers and put them up on the wall. But we are fickle too, and so we rip them down as often as we change the wallpaper.

David Thomson is the author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.”