Films on Stars: A Star Is Born  (1953)

10 01 2011

Stardom, and particularly the more media-based “celebrity” side of stardom, is typically understood as a feminized phenomenon. The overwhelming emphasis on images and the bodies that are the bearers of those images, not to mention the (at least contemporary) emphasis on the private and “real” person behind that image aligns the concept of stardom with the private and domestic sphere most associated with women. The vast majority of stars studied by scholars are women, and the ones most often torn down by tabloids for our voyeuristic pleasure are women. This is not to say men are not stars, but the condition or perhaps more crucially, the pathology of stardom and the tragedy of fame damage is feminized across academic and popular discussions of stars.

I revisited the classic film about the Hollywood star machinery (and my personal favorite), A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester. There’s no one better to play out the tragedy of stardom than Judy, whose own star image is tightly bound to her personal struggles as a result of her child and adult stardom (see here for a brief overview). These struggles are essential to her stardom, and are vital to understanding what makes this role/film such a perfect star vehicle for Garland.

This version of the film differs in several important ways from the 1937 version I previously discussed. It paints a somewhat different version of what it takes to be a star in Hollywood, likely because it was made at a time when the studio system was losing its power and, particularly since Garland and her star image baggage are involved, that system been exposed as a soul crushing factory not simply a dream machine.

In this version, Esther’s talent eclipses her drive to achieve stardom. She works as a singer and does whatever it takes to have the opportunity to do what she loves, but, unlike Janet Gaynor’s Esther/Vicki, her drive is towards the pleasure of her talent, not the achievement of public recognition for it. She has to sing because that’s who she is, not because she is ultimately gunning for the top of fame mountain. Though Norman Maine first heard her sing at a Hollywood benefit, it is her performance of “The Man That Got Away” during an informal jam session with her band that makes him realize her potential. The use of the talent itself is the end, and any fame or recognition that comes with it is just gravy, really. If you need confirmation of Garland’s tremendous talent, look no further than this iconic performance. I’m such a sucker for all the Judy singing mannerisms, and you get them all here…watch for the hand through bangs for emphasis moment:

In Gaynor’s version, we don’t get much on-screen evidence of Esther/Vicki’s talent. Instead, we get a lot of evidence that she is willing to be a good soldier and do the work necessary to become a star in the Hollywood system. In Garland’s, we are constantly reminded of it in numerous musical numbers that show her talent as innate, not something she must craft and package for Hollywood. But, of course, such innate talent must be shared with the public!

In both films, Norman, who is already a Hollywood star, serves as a guide/Svengali who guides Esther into the realm of stardom, but the 1953 Norman (played by James Mason) helps Esther realize that her talent can get her so much more. He tells her that listening to her sing is like hooking a fish or watching a prize fighter…full of “jabs of pleasure” that go beyond the constructed nature of his Hollywood life (the jabs of pleasure I get from hearing James Mason deliver this speech in his iconic cadence makes this one of my favorite moments of the film). He says, “you’ve got that little something extra” that makes a star and dares her to dream bigger than her current dream of just getting one hit song on the radio and then retiring on that glory. He knows she can be more because she’s not simply a studio produced commodity. She’s got something more, something, it seems, they cannot take away from her and will make her famous without any studio machinations.

That Norman wants to bring her into Hollywood stardom is ironic because he hates his life as a Hollywood star. He hates the lies and the fabrications of the publicity department. He hates the way you have to play the game to get anywhere. So it seems strange that even as he feels he has been crushed by Hollywood, he wants to bring this pure and innocent talent into the maw of the machine. Perhaps he thinks the purity of her talent will protect her? After all, he has her take off the fake nose, caked on makeup and blonde wig that resulted from her pre-screentest makeup session. This returns her to her true self and lets her talent, not her constructed beauty, shine through. This, not incidentally, is a key tie to Garland’s MGM experience and her own frustration with never being the stereotypical Hollywood Glamour Girl.

What’s interesting about this film as a depiction of stardom is that the female star is the one who has it together and whose talent actually grounds her in her real self instead of transforming her into nothing but a false image. Even as her star rises, she does not give in to the excesses of fame, remains her real “girl next door” self at heart, and finds her true love in Norman. Compare this to other films I’ve reviewed in this series where the female star either falls into debauchery or is unable to fulfill her true feminine self in relationships.

Here, it is Norman whose stardom produces pathology in the form of alcoholism, depression and his eventual suicide. Of course all this impacts Esther/Vicki, as she is crushed as she watches Norman fall apart. As with other cautionary tales of stardom’s excesses, a tragic personal life lurks just below the glamorous surface of life as a star, and perhaps Esther not entirely successful as a wife because of her stardom. But in this case, it is really Norman who falls victim to the excesses and who is ultimately responsible for these problems. Stardom has corrupted him even as it has fulfilled her. Esther, ever the dutiful wife, recognizes that Norman somehow needs the adulation of stardom in ways she does not, saying “Love isn’t enough for him.” She is grounded by her private and personal relationship with him, as well as by the pleasure of doing what she loves. She does not fall victim to any of the excesses of Hollywood because she already has real love and real talent to remind her who she really is. Norman, on the other hand, does not recognize such anchors. As Norman’s career is eclipsed by Esther/Vicki’s and he is eventually let go by the studio, he becomes a washed up and tragic victim of the Hollywood system.

Though this film does turn the feminized version of pathological stardom on its head, it’s not exactly a feminist dream. Vicki is the long-suffering wife who struggles to put her husband’s needs ahead of her own. She sees Norman as the architect of her stardom, downplaying her own talent and hard work to do what she does. That Norman’s fame is fading at the same moment hers is rising acts to emasculate him. He has become Mr. Vicki Lester, the partner who stays home and cooks dinner, a terrible fate for a former matinee idol.

So while she experiences real love and personal connection, Norman’s experience with fame leaves him unable to fully reciprocate. He becomes increasingly distant and unable to connect with her because of this public and private emasculation. Norman overhears Vicki say she will leave the business at the height of her career in order to take care of him and kills himself in order to let her thrive. Such moments of self-sacrifice are hallmarks of melodrama, but are typically undertaken by female characters. Norman’s self-sacrifice could be read as the ultimate emasculation, perhaps demonstrating the stardom as a feminized phenomenon that destroys masculinity. However, the narrative quickly recuperates Norman’s masculinity when Vicki re-emerges into the public eye after mourning Norman’s death by introducing herself to her public not as Vicki Lester, but as Mrs. Norman Maine.

In the end, stardom still produces tragedy for both men and women. The idea that stardom is still a feminized phenomenon holds up in this film, but is applied to both men and women. Not exactly progress to see that man’s downfall framed as having to give up the public life for the private/domestic sphere as his wife achieves in the public sphere. But the fact that the female star is fulfilled (mostly) by her work, does not turn into a drug addicted mess and is able to balance her public and personal life (until Norman falls apart) is a unique view on the condition of stardom.

As a side note, rumors circulated about a year ago about a remake of this film starring Robert Downey Jr and Beyonce. No. Just no.





Comedy and Celebrity Critique: Kathy Griffin

21 11 2010

As my incredible lack of updates demonstrates, my first semester in a new teaching position has been a busy one. My attention has not just been diverted from this blog, but from blogs in general. Compared to the dissertation-writing-me of last year, I am woefully behind in my celebrity gossip. Considering I used to spend my days immersed in it and constantly checking the various blogs in my sample, it’s pretty amusing how far behind I am. Case in point: I found out about Jessica Simpson’s recent engagement from a gossip headline in the Boston Metro, the ridiculous free newspaper they give out at subway stations. The Metro, people!

Sure, I’m getting “things accomplished” and “being productive,” but for someone who is still interested in studying celebrity culture and gossip media, I’ve got to figure out a way to stay a bit more current. The answer is probably Twitter, which has essentially been my news feed for a variety of media and media studies related topics in these past few weeks. I’m actually enjoying Twitter much more than I thought I would. It’s an easy place to lurk as, I think, it lacks Facebook’s constant update imperative (yeah, yeah, I know I’m not on FB, but this is how I see it used by others, including those who constantly hassle me to join). Don’t get me wrong, I love the people who tweet frequently, but it’s easy to just follow and not have to post yourself.

Someone who has no problems staying current, and in fact makes her living doing so, is Ms. Kathy Griffin. I had the pleasure of catching her live show in Worcester last night, and it was hilarious. I love when she mocks celebrities, but she’s also got a critical and political edge to her comedy that I think is often overlooked. If you haven’t seen the episode of My Life on the D-List where she judges and then participates in a toddler beauty pageant, I highly suggest you seek it out (and a big BOO on Bravo for not putting episodes of their shows on their website). It’s an episode full of feminist critique of the child pageant industry and our cultural obsession with youth and beauty.

Kathy Griffin takes on beauty pageants

At last night’s show, Kathy cast her insider/outsider eye on various aspects of celebrity culture. What was most interesting to me was the way that her own mocking reminded me of the type of gossip talk I saw across the blogs during my dissertation research. It’s complex and often contradictory. For example, though she made fun of celebrities (and herself) for “visiting the dentist” aka getting plastic surgery as a way to challenge ridiculous beauty norms, she also, fairly viciously, body snarked on Bristol Palin for “being the only contestant on Dancing with the Stars to gain 40 pounds during the show. Look, I’m not fan of any of the Palins, but this moment of contradiction really stood out to me. She talked explicitly about feminism and the idea that young women don’t relate to it in today’s culture even though it is still desperately needed, yet she mocked a young woman’s body size as a way to discredit her. If there was some deeper critique in that, I missed it.

Nevertheless, overall the show was fantastic and I continue to love me some Mrs. Kathy. I generally love her over the top performances because they show that female comics can be just as political, raunchy and hilarious as the guys. She uses her femininity in a way that makes people uncomfortable, particularly in the sense that she acts and talks like women “shouldn’t.” Furthermore, I think because so much of her work centers on celebrity culture that she is often dismissed in ways that reinforce “women’s talk” as something outside of the political sphere. She’s officially added to my ever expanding list of topics for further research.





The 62nd Emmy Awards: Red Carpet Live Blog

29 08 2010

Welcome to my experiment in live blogging! I’m gonna start with some red carpet coverage to kind of get the feel of the live blog before the main event. NBC’s red carpet starts at 7pm, so I’ll be watching E! until then. Show starts at 8pm EST.

By way of context, I’ll just say that the red carpet is a major moment for the construction of the celebrity image. Given the context of the event (which I discussed here), the emphasis is on the extraordinary and glamorous side of stardom. As much as contemporary audiences love seeing stars stripped down and caught off-guard in paparazzi shots, the awards show is where we want to see them LOOK like stars. The fact that celebrity media devotes so much attention to the fashion/glamor of the awards shows demonstrates, I think, the importance of the extraordinary star endures in contemporary celebrity culture.

The celebrity media obviously have a big stake in this, as best/worst dressed issues are generally big sellers. It’s also a big deal for the stars (and their cultural producers). Ending up on a best dressed list is a big plus for (especially female) stars because it gets them positive press coverage…even in the tabloids! That said, even ending up on the worst dressed list still gets you some coverage, so it can be a momentary image buster, but at least still gets name out there. I think some folks deliberately go crazy just for that sort of thing.

Either way, it’s a really important space for celebs to get their names/faces out there. Which also makes it a space that kind of gets away from the talent focus of the event (we’ll save that for the actual awards show). This also allows the industry to sneak in new faces (like Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who will star in the new NBC show from J.J. Abrams Undercovers premiering this fall. She’s there as a presenter, but it’s obviously a move by NBC to promote the show since she’s an unknown) and people whose talent is not their claim to fame or, really, the reason they are at the show (I’m looking at you, Kim Kardashian). So the overall event is not all talent-based fame, but it still holds on to the stars-as-extraordinary focus no matter who is on the carpet.

I’m turning on E! now, so let’s get this red carpet live blog started!

6:02pm Love that Ryan is keeping up the facade that this is a totally uncontrolled and unscripted glimpse of the stars. “You never know what will happen!” Also, Jane Lynch looks amazing in that plum dress.

6:14 I’m renaming the Glam Cam 360 to Scary Cam 360. This is almost as weird as the reporter hologram from the presidential election coverage.

6:17 Ty Burrell, my pick for outstanding comedy actor, wins points for not going for standard black tuxedo.

6:32 I love Kathy Griffin at these events because the celebrities are afraid of her.

6:35 Kim Kardashian may be on television, but, let’s face it, she’s there because she’s gorgeous and makes good red carpet fodder. Sort of a celebrity seat filler…can be in pictures and help the celeb media sell some magazines.

6:43 Except for that moment of awkwardness when Ryan asked Mark Salling about the rumor that his Glee castmate and rumored girlfriend, Naya Rivera, keyed his car, Ryan is keeping all the chatter at the level of star-as-worker (talking about show) or positive personal info (like the fascinating insight into the home life of Eva Longria Parker and Tony Parker). Keep the drama out of it, Ryan, this is the Emmys! Industry gossip only!

6:47 Sofia Vegaras is just crazy gorgeous. I love her!

6:48 John Hamm! Swoon! Love his gf, Jennifer Westfeldt, but also love to pretend that he sits at home pining away for me.

6:53 Kate Gosslin! No! That’s just wrong.

7:00 January Jones is wise to go very modern with her red carpet looks since she does the vintage in her character. Way to separate your “self” from your character!

7:02 Christina Hendricks. Like the purple color. Do not like the feathers or the sleeves. But she’s sure working the girls.

7:05 Switched to NBC just in time for Betty White! But now a repeat of Claire Danes. But I think I’ll stick here for Nate Berkus’ handsome scruff.

7:09 Now Nate Berkus is ruining the illusion by talking about the supportive undergarments that go into making these dresses possible.

7:38 Matthew Morrison has the innate inner talent necessary for fame! Thanks, mentor guy.

7:42 One benefit for changing to NBC…get to see John Hamm again.

7:57 I’m gonna start a new post for the show itself, so I’m calling this red carpet finished. Big winners: ladies: Lea Michele, Sofia Vegara men: Ty Burell and (duh) John Hamm.





Stars and Audiences, or Why I Hate Tom Cruise

12 06 2010

The irony of stardom is that stars are products of mass media and attempting to draw a mass audience, but ultimately their fans feel a personal connection with their favorite star. This is what Richard Schickel calls “the illusion of intimacy” because we never really know the star, but media representations of them make us feel like we do. The tension between the mass and personal appeal is relevant to the construction of stardom. Richard Dyer says stars take hold of our cultural imagination because they represent certain “social types,” and become an idealized concept of what it means to be a (certain type) of person within that cultural moment. For example, he points to Marilyn Monroe in the 1950s as the “pin-up” type who embodies female sexual objectification and spectacle. Or James Dean from the same time as “the rebel” who embodies a certain sense of alienation and youthful rebellion. These “types” stay at the core of the stars’ public and private image, and are the key to understanding what draws audiences to them.

Marilyn Monroe as "Pin-Up"

James Dean as "The Rebel"

But this tension also suggests that for some stars, no matter how much work goes into the presentation of the self in the media, some audiences just won’t connect. The various producers of star images (producers, managers, agents, studios, stylists, gossip media…basically anyone who has any interest in promoting the star image) work hard to make stars resonant with as many audiences as possible. Yet stars that are wildly popular still have people who don’t particularly care for them based on the same media representations that make their fans devoted. It may be that their image/type simply speaks to a certain type of audience and excludes others. I’m thinking here of Disney tween stars like the cast of High School Musical or maybe even the Twilight cast, who seem to resonate more with the social world of teens than adults, thus draw their audiences from that group. But the fact that there are legions of adults who are fans of these stars, particularly the Twilight stars, shows that the star image is, ultimately, never entirely under any one group’s control. What Robert Pattinson means to a Twilight Mom is probably not the same thing he means to her daughter.

What’s my point here? I hate Tom Cruise. Even before the Oprah-couch-jumping, Katie Holmes-marrying, Matt Lauer-berating storm of negativity that clouded his image back in 2006, I was not a fan. I don’t like his movies. I think his “acting” is confined to yelling and doing the Blue Steel look. I don’t like his extratextual image (Team Nicole Kidman!). He just rubs me the wrong way in all aspects of his image. And, I’ll be honest, I took at least a small amount of pleasure in those moments when it looked like his career was in serious trouble because of his extratextual antics. I mean, who criticizes Brooke Shields for her struggle with postpartum depression? Honestly.

I’m getting into a rant here. These negative moments were particularly damaging because he previously had more of an “All-American guy” sort of star image. He was kind of a cocky jerk (hello, Maverick!) but in a way that was (for many people) read more as confident, masculine, yet also, underneath it, some level of sensitive and tender guy (hello, Jerry Maguire and that stupid “you complete me” bs). Men could like him and so could women. But, his image, and his box office drawing power with all audiences, took a hit in the aftermath of these moments.

Recently, however, Cruise’s image has been on an upswing in the media. Cruise’s appearance on the MTV Movie Awards last week as his Les Grossman character from Tropic Thunder seems to be the latest in the rehabilitation of Cruise from those past moments of crazy. What’s interesting to me is that this new Cruise is more willing to make fun of himself and/or be the butt of the joke. Old Tom Cruise took everything so seriously (“you’re being glib, Matt”) but this Tom is more laid back and willing to laugh at himself and the industry that he’s a part of. Here’s his dance at the awards. I’m still unclear about what J.Lo is doing there, and doing one of her hits rather than a new song, but I suppose her career needs some rehabilitation of its own. You can also see a better quality and full length version (if you must) from MTV.com here, though you do get the added benefit of the hilarious Ken Jeong tiger dance intro.

This is an example of what I like to call a “What the What?!” moment (thanks to Liz Lemon for the phrase). The title of my blog was inspired by my reaction to these sorts of celebrity culture moments that just blow my mind for some reason. That this actually occurred at the MTV movie awards puzzles me. But what puzzles me more is that this new Cruise image is working!! The buzz on Cruise is pretty hot right now in celebrity media. We’re not seeing him framed as creepy cult member who keeps his wife locked in his Hollywood mansion anymore. His new summer movie hasn’t come out yet, so we’ll see how this new positive buzz translates to box office power (given the fairly dismal showing of his last few films). What’s worse, is there is allegedly a movie starring the Les Grossman character in the works. Yikes.

Normally, I’m quite a fan of the star who is willing to poke fun at him/herself and image. Check out the Ralph Macchio video on Funny or Die for a good example of this. But Cruise just seems so calculated…more like he’s doing it because it has to, not because he wants to or because he really “gets the joke,” It may be my pre-existing distain for him, but I’m not buying it. It lacks the appeal to “naturalness” that is so important to stardom. Though I think I’m in the minority here, I think the MTV thing just comes off as a sad attempt to connect with a younger audience.

The star image is a tricky thing that is never under anyone’s control. Though some audiences (even those who were previously alienated by Cruise’s image) might come back, I’m standing firm in my “No Tom Cruise movies” policy. You can’t make me like him, Hollywood star machinery! There. I said it.





New Media and Bieber Fever

25 05 2010

I’m in the midst of preparing my dissertation defense (that’s why I haven’t been posting…I swear!). In trying to discuss future directions for my research, I’ve been thinking about the role of social networking platforms (most notably Twitter) in celebrity culture. Celebrity gossip blogs have already changed the game in important ways that are directly related to the rise of new media as technology and social space. The most obvious way is the immediacy of the internet. No longer do we have to wait for the weekly tabloids to hit the newsstand to get our latest gossip fix. In fact, the magazines can’t even keep up at this point, and my survey of gossip blog readers suggests many see the magazines as “old news” and don’t necessarily read them regularly, let alone subscribe. Yet we are also closer to the daily lives of celebrities than ever before thanks to the constant stream of gossip updates provided by paparazzi photos on gossip blogs.

Which brings me to Justin Bieber. I do not personally have the Bieber Fever, but after seeing him perform “Baby” on SNL (rerun last week), I get it. I mean, OMG, he is so cute!!! His songs are typical catchy pop and he has a cute baby face and fancy hair. So I get it, tweens, but he’s still not for me. But then again, he’s not supposed to be. If you are unfamiliar with the non-threatening boy adorable-ness of Bieber, here is the official video for “Baby.” I’m not saying he’s the greatest singer ever to grace this Earth, but he is a reliably cute and reasonably talented boy band sort of pop star. Watch at your own risk, as this song will get stuck in your head for DAYS…DAYS I TELL YOU!!

He may not be for me, but he is ENORMOUSLY popular with younger audiences. Which makes it particularly interesting that he apparently doesn’t move magazines. He still is regularly featured in teen-oriented celebrity magazines in their “gallery of stars” type coverage where they feature photos of a bunch of young stars, but his solo covers are not big sellers. This seems to indicate that how and where (particularly the young) audiences go for extratextual and “private” side personas has changed. By which I mean, social networking platforms.

When Bieber was on the cover of People back in April, the issue sold 20% below average. But in the new media age, this makes perfect sense to me. Why buy a magazine when you can read his inner most tweets for free? Indeed, Beibs has over 2 million Twitter followers and frequently among the top trending topics, indicating that he has a large fan base who are interested in the details of his private life. Even more interesting for the old vs. new media divide is that Bieber actually tweeted that he thought he “looked as crazy as heck” in the People photo just before the issue was released.

I doubt this is the only reason for the poor sales of Bieber’s People cover (a magazine aimed at an older audience than Beiber ‘s typical fans), but it does reflect a change in how fans interact with their favorite celebrity. Though you can’t hang a tweet on a wall like a pull out Tiger Beat poster (or a People cover), social networking platforms like Twitter offer access to the star that (at least in appearance) is more authentic and intimate than a magazine profile. For (young) audiences well versed in the revelation of the self through social networking platforms, it seems this would be more satisfying than any magazine profile.

But the move away from old media as primary extratextual source of celebrity lifestyles is not related just to the youth of Bieber or his audience. This Daily Beast story argues that celebrities as cover models are not selling (non-gossip) magazines as much as they once did. Unless they are young celebrities, like Miley Cyrus or Taylor Swift (because Angelina Jolie is so 2008). Even though these younger stars are more likely to be active social network users (Cyrus in particular famously “quit” Twitter and even used her YouTube channel to let fans know why), there is still some sort of appetite for magazine features on the (new/young) celebrity. The key seems to be integrating the two by giving something new across the platforms to keep fans/audiences interested. Younger audiences may be much more interested in the daily minutiae of a Twitter feed, so the magazines have to figure out how to give something new in their profiles that will still draw these audiences. Often it is images in the form of official photos exclusive to the magazine (as seen in the above People cover) that are glossy and beautiful in contrast to grainy paparazzi photos. So maybe Bieber’s “crazy as heck” cover photo was not enough of a draw both because of his Twitter-take on it and a lack of appeal to the fans.

Celebrities and magazines both have to adapt to this new media world. But, celebrity-oriented magazines, whether gossip tabloids or more legit outlets like Vanity Fair, are not going anywhere. Sure, their numbers are down, but they still rake in millions. Some, particularly Us Weekly and People, have online counterparts that, along with the print versions, remain major players in the gossip industry. More importantly, the magazines continue to have access to celebrities that the blogs and other online outlets do not, Twitter-feeds notwithstanding. They still claim to bring us a private and unguarded side of the celebrity that one wouldn’t necessarily get in a 140-character tweet.

As I mentioned before , the bloggers I interviewed pretty emphatically told me they are not journalists. Blogs, even Perez Hilton and all its alleged “exclusives,” are largely reactive. They rely on existing online content (culled from places like People.com) as a springboard for their commentary and gossip talk. This is certainly a problem for the magazines, as audiences may be less likely to buy a magazine if they’ve seen the pictures or heard the details of the story online. But it can also help. I’d wager the Sandra Bullock People cover was helped by the fact that the gossip blogs were exploding with this revelation and many audiences wanted to see it for themselves. Even though I saw all the pictures online and knew most of the details of the story, I still bought this issue (which, unlike Bieber’s cover, sold twice as many newsstand copies as a typical for that week).

So there’s still a place for print magazines as well as the type of content and access they bring to the gossip media landscape. But I’m fascinated with the increasing popularity of Twitter as a medium for celebrities to (again, allegedly…many celebrities (like Britney) do not actually write their own tweets) bypass these media outlets to bring their fans a more intimate view of themselves. And how the media (both “old” and “new”) is working to incorporate this sort of perspective into their own content.

Finally, is it wrong that I find it oddly soothing to watch Justin Bieber dry his famous hair? It’s some sort of Zen moment for me.