Lady Gaga gets real?

31 05 2011

I was pretty obsessed with Lady Gaga’s first album, The Fame, when it was released in the summer of 2009. The combination of dance beats and commentary on the nature of stardom provided me a perfect escape that somehow still counted as work during my dissertation writing. (“I’m not dancing! I’m working!”) What drew me to Gaga, in terms of her image, was that in a celebrity culture dominated by the revelation of the ‘private’ and ‘real’ self behind the public persona, epitomized by celebrity reality shows and the nonstop paparazzi surveillance the crash and burn stardom of people like Britney and Lindsay, Gaga was nothing but image. I honestly did not even want to know anything about her private life, as that would somehow ruin the fun.

We only see what Gaga wants us to see

The private self wasn’t completely absent, but it was consciously constructed and a part of the overall “Gaganess” of her image. Though we learned there was a ‘real’ person named Stefani Germonatta, she was never anything other than Gaga (even her mom calls her Gaga, after all). Unlike other stars always tied to the idea that they are ‘themselves,’ I’m thinking here of reality stars like Kim Kardashian, Gaga’s image was rooted in her pop star self. Kim is always tied to her private self, but Gaga is always her public and constructed self. She consciously satirizes fame by both embodying and refusing the contradictions between the private and authentic self and the public and constructed persona that are at the root of stardom. By always being Gaga, it was never clear when the façade ended and the real person began. Or, more accurately, it never did.

This is partly because she never wanted to reveal that real person, and always wanted to be a star. In her memorable 60 Minutes interview, she said:

“As part of my mastering of the art of fame, part of it is getting people to pay attention to what you want them to, and not pay attention to the things you don’t want them to pay attention to.

My philosophy is that if I am open with [my fans] about everything and yet I art direct every moment of my life, I can maintain a sort of privacy in a way,” she continues. “I maintain a certain soulfulness that I have yet to give.”

Take a look at the video for “Paparazzi.: The song and the video play with the notion that being famous means that one’s self is always up for public scrutiny, always being watched, always being built up and then knocked down by the celebrity media. But the ‘real’ self revealed in the video, the ‘behind the scenes’ Gaga is just as constructed as the stage persona. She never takes off the makeup and fashion because that’s who she really is and, more crucially, that self (like all selves) is always already self-consciously constructed. At this moment, I think, we were meant to think of it as a private self, but not necessarily the ‘real’ self. It was still a part of the act.

So in the early days of Gaga’s stardom, she wasn’t really on the blogs or in the magazines (except to mock/adore her fashion, another key part of her persona). You didn’t hear about who she dated, see pictures of her grabbing a latte at Starbucks, or walking her dog in the park. Her image simply could not fit into those established public/private splits the magazines cling to for other stars. They tried though. There was the ‘media scandal’ when she caused a ruckus at a New York Mets game by she showing up in her black bra and studded leather jacket, had to be moved to Jerry Seinfeld’s private box to avoid “distracting” the fans, and flipped the bird to photographers. My reaction was first to just plug my ears and say “lalalala I don’t want to know anything about her ‘real’ self lalalala” and then to laugh at the fact that she was still ‘doing’ Gaga even in this more unguarded moment.

In the lead up to the release of her new album Born This Way, her image has taken an interesting turn in its inflection of private/public . She’s definitely public, as she’s been everywhere lately. And I do mean everywhere. Guest mentor on American Idol. Google Chrome commercial (see it below). The crazy egg thing at the Grammys. Appearances on daytime talk shows from Today to Ellen to Oprah. For the love of overexposure…she was the guest editor of the free newspaper they give you on the subway, The Metro.. What?

I have to admit that even I was getting a little tired of seeing her every time I turned around. Plus, I’ll also admit that I was not immediately sold on her new singles. Since listening to the entire album, I’ve come around and am remembering why I loved her in the first place. Though I still don’t really like the single “Born This Way.” I like the impulse behind it, just don’t really like the song itself. But it does fit in with this new turn where what we once thought was constructed and part of the act of ‘being’ Gaga is actually who she really is. Or at least we are now meant to see it as less constructed (though certainly still conscious) and more ‘real.’

I am in no way surprised that she would shake up her image, as she’s been doing some sort of shape shifting throughout her brief time in the public eye. But what does surprise me is the way her new image hails a ‘real’ self at its core. She’s still the ‘real’ self that is always constructed in her appearance (the fashion, the makeup, the horns), but is now being pulled back to a more ‘authentic’ private self. But it is still one she is actively controlling, rather than a self constructed by the tabloids or other media.

Gaga’s new(ish) Mother Monster self is completely rooted in the idea that she is being herself, even though that self is glamorous, constructed, extreme, over-the-top and all the things that we already associate with her image. Her new songs and the press she’s done surrounding the album foreground the idea that you should, like Gaga, be yourself no matter what. She has become the icon of outsiders by claiming her outlandish identity as not being artifice. What you see is constructed in the sense that it is thought out, but it is not “fake” or an “inauthentic” facade she puts on just to be famous (which is different, I think, from the Gaga of The Fame and The Fame Monster).

Now not only do we see her ‘real’ self, her image also explicitly invites audiences to connect with her and feel she is ‘just like us.” Anyone who has ever been on the outside can look to Gaga as someone who has been through the same ridicule and doubt that all outsiders experience. We see this in her recent Google Chrome ad:

The MTV documentary, Lady Gaga: Inside the Outside that premiered last week, is all about this view of the ‘real’ Gaga who is completely coherent with her public pop star image. Instead of the artifice of fame, her image is all about a highly stylized yet nevertheless authentic self as her claim to fame. Her talent and drive makes her special, but, at the same time, her message is that ultimately anyone who is true to themselves is already as special as she is. It’s a small shift, as she is still controlling what we see of her private self and is explicitly revealing things in her album and in the press surrounding it (in the MTV doc, for example, she discusses her early days as a performer, experiences being bullied in school etc) that showcase this more coherent image.


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.

Films on Stars: My Favorite Year (1982)

31 08 2010

It’s with great pleasure that I include My Favorite Year in my Films on Stars series, as it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I have no idea how old I was when I first saw it, but the movie, and its hilarious lines, were a mainstay in my house as a child. I have probably seen it dozens of times and could probably recite most of it from memory. I recorded it on Turner Classic Movies the other day not because I immediately thought of it for this series, but just for the pleasure of revisiting a favorite of my youth. Imagine my surprise when I realized it is clearly about stardom and fame damage, albeit from a comedic rather than melodramatic perspective. It also works well as an example of a film about stardom that centers on a male star, which does not seem to be the norm.

For those of you unfamiliar with this film, you can read a more detailed plot summary here or watch the trailer on TCM’s site here. Set in the early days of television, freshman comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, better known as Cousin Larry to fans of 80s sitcoms) must ensure matinee idol Alan Swann (played by the superb Peter O’Toole) shows up for his guest star appearance on a popular sketch/variety comedy show. Swann is a thinly veiled reference to movie lothario Errol Flynn, down to the heroic swashbuckling roles he plays in his films and this scandalous reputation as a ladies man off-screen. But he is also an unreliable drunk, so Benjy must babysit him to make sure he shows up, sober, to all rehearsals and for the live broadcast of the show.

Swann’s on-screen persona, like Flynn’s, is the epitome of masculine movie star glamor. He is handsome and debonair in an innate and natural way. He simply doesn’t even have to try to charm people. Female audiences swoon over him and male audiences, especially super-fan Benjy, look up to him as a courageous and heroic ideal of manhood. This sort of fame and devotion has allowed Swann to, as he himself says, “get away with murder” in certain contexts. Here’s a moment that encapsulates that movie idol charm and how it relates to his off-screen ladies man persona:

Fame seems to have given him everything he could possibly want. This is actually presented as the “problem” with fame because it ultimately robs him of the “real” things in life: real relationships and family. His life is a series of meaningless flings with women who want the Alan Swann they see on the screen, and, he says, “no matter what I do, I never fulfill their expectations.” He is keenly aware that he is a facade created by the studios. Late in the film, he tells Benjy his real name is Clarence Duffy and that his whole life, from his name to his lifestyle, was created by the studio. He is an image, and is increasingly lost in that image without any connection to his “real” self. To cope, he drinks and cavorts with women, simultaneously living up to his image and distancing himself even more from his real self. He tells Benjy he “can’t tell where the bogus [self] ends and the real one begins.” He’s sick of everyone allowing him to get away with whatever he wants (including his boorish behavior when he’s drunk) simply because he is famous, but doesn’t see the way out of it. He doesn’t know how to NOT be Alan Swann and just be Clarence Duffy.

His loneliness and fear of his real self is most evident in his (seemingly self-imposed) estrangement from his daughter, Tess. In his life as Alan Swann, everyone wants a piece of him, and he is usually more than happy to oblige. But when he goes to Connecticut to see Tess, he can’t even get out of the car because he is afraid of what she thinks of him. O’Toole’s face conveys so much in this scene:

This is all very serious, but I swear this is a comedy! And, as a comedy, the treatment of Swann’s fame damage and loss of “real” self to his “reel” self is not quite as serious as in, say, A Star Is Born. Swann’s drunken escapades are certainly played for humor, like when he tries to help Benjy win the heart of co-worker K.C. Downing by rappelling into her parents’ apartment on a fire hose. This move is straight out of his swashbuckling movies, as he can’t separate himself from them, and he nearly kills himself in the process. The contradiction between “real” life and “reel” life in this scene pure comedy gold, not a crushing melodramatic moment. This is clip is a bit long (6 minutes) and not the best quality, but the scene is hilarious and a good example of Swann’s fame damage in action.

I also think that because this is a comedy, we get a solution to the fame damage problem in the form of a happy ending. We are left with the sense that Alan Swann, though his experiences with Benjy, finally finds his real self, reconnects with his daughter, and generally becomes a happy (and presumably sober) person.

After having a breakdown at the thought of doing live television (the sketch show is, after all, live and Swann is used to the multiple takes of Hollywood movie making), Swann finally admits that he is scared. He says, “I’m flesh and blood, life-sized! I was never the silly goddamn hero!.” But Benjy refuses to let him get away with it, for once, saying “I can’t use you life-sized! I need my Alan Swann’s as big as I can get them…You couldn’t have convinced me the way you did if you didn’t have that courage inside.” Okay, a little schmaltzy, but that’s comedy wrap ups for you. Regardless, it is this realization that he DOES have an innate courage and specialness that makes Swann recognize that he is more than “just” a silly goddamn hero and that his “real” self matters too. He saves the day on the show and, as we learn in a voice over, goes back to see Tess and “this time, he knocked on the door” and is greeted with open arms.

As a side note, Swann’s breakdown is also makes a distinction between talent-based stardom and media-based stardom. He is afraid to do live television and perform in front of an audience and says “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” Any talent he may have believed he had has been overshadowed by his persona, leaving him unsure of his ability to actually do the work of acting. Being a movie star is not the same sort of work, from Swann’s perspective. It sort of happens to him, rather than him being an active agent in creating it.

Though I chalk this happy ending up to the fact this film is a comedy, I think there are also some gender implications here. The male star can overcome fame damage and rediscover his true self in ways we haven’t seen in the other films I’ve discussed. His daughter, apparently, instantly forgives him for being an absentee father and he goes right back into a happy family life. Compare that with the failed attempt to forge a real family or relationship in A Star Is Born or The Rose.

The male star’s fame damage, in this case his drinking and womanizing, are played off as essential, if not endearing, elements of his appeal as a star. His private life exploits help elevate his star status, not diminish it. Though there is clearly still damage, he is never abandoned by others (like Rose is) nor does his damage alienate people (he can always smooth talk his way back). It’s a much more private failing compared to the public downfall we saw in The Rose, for example. He is never humilitated and shamed by his behavior, and even frankly answers Benjy’s uncle’s question regarding a paternity suit and laughs off a newspaper report of him swimming naked in a fountain with a girl he met at the Stork Club. Compare that to the “brave face forward” of Vickie Lester after her husband’s suicide in A Star is Born.

Of course, maybe Swann gave up the public life to become a father, we don’t know. But I think the film leaves us with the sense that fame can be a problem and can make one lose sight of what is really important for a false sense of entitlement and attention. But fame and movie stardom also gives audiences (personified by Benjy) something to aspire to and dream about. It also can enable the star (Swann) to find his true inner strength by appealing to the very star image that seemed to trap him. He can still be “Alan Swann from the movies” because he always was that courageous person on the inside…he just lost track of it for a while. In other words, some people are still destined to be stars, but may need a little help staying grounded.

Celebrity Culture and the Awards Show

27 08 2010

Awards shows play an unusual role in celebrity culture. On one hand, they (allegedly) reward the famous for their talent—for actually doing something to deserve our adulation and, in turn, their fame. We are asked, if only momentarily, to put aside any extratextual details of the star’s life and focus only on her performances. The awards show privileges the extraordinariness of stars…these are exceptional individuals who do exceptional things, wear amazing and glamorous gowns and tuxedos, and generally are gorgeous and fabulous at all times.

But, as is always the case with stardom, the private or “real” person never goes away. Thus, the awards show is also a key, albeit tightly controlled, moment for the audience to see the “real” and private person appear in public as her extraordinary self. We logically know we are looking at Katherine Heigl as she accepts her award, not at her Grey’s Anatomy character. But we are always brought back to her talent in portraying that character as the key to her image (despite any extratextual reports we may have read about her). We are also asked to equate the “real” Katherine Heigl with the fabulous extraordinary person we see on stage, without bothering to think about all the effort that went into producing the self we see on stage (hair, makeup, dress fittings, endless campaigning for the award etc). In other words, her private “real” self is the effortlessly extraordinary vessel of glamor and talent!

Aren't I Fabulous? Now give me an award!

Thank You! I REALLY mean it!

Contemporary awards shows are a throwback to the glamor and control of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when stars were created to support the interests of the studio and then tightly policed by the studio to uphold that image. Make no mistake, the awards show is work for the star, and they know how to put on the proper kind of private self in this public moment. A successful appearance at an awards show (whether nominated or not, and whether or not the star actually takes home a trophy) is key to continued work in the industry and audience devotion. Even if they end up on the worst dressed list, their still wearing designer dresses and hanging out with other celebs and you aren’t.

On the hallowed ground of the awards show, the stars are nothing but special. Even Joan Rivers saved her snarking for the next day. Awards shows are full of ridiculous, self-aggrandizing, and ass-kissing behavior, so obviously they are perfect vehicles for celebrity culture! Where else do you get a bunch of beautiful people congratulating each other for being so beautiful and fabulous? I kid, celebrities, I kid. I do (much to my partner’s chagrin) love the major award shows precisely because of the stylized glitz and glamor that, I think, perfectly encapsulates stardom.

Which, of course, means I am quite excited about this weekend’s Emmy Awards. At the request of frequent (dare I say favorite?) commenter, An Admirer, I’ll be live blogging the event on Sunday. I’ll probably start with some pre-show red carpet ridiculousness on E! around 6pm EST, but will definitely be on board for the entire awards show proper.

I’ll even venture some picks for the major categories, based mostly on my personal preference over what industry buzz I might have read. I’m gonna stick to just the acting categories (and “big” award of best comedy and best drama series), since that’s most relevant to my focus on stardom here. Though I will say Lost’s final episode is probably the one to beat in the Drama Writing category. I invite you to share your own picks or tell me why mine are wrong in the comments section. You can find a full list of nominees here

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series
I’m gonna go with Alec Baldwin for his continued excellence on 30 Rock. Though the fact that Steve Carell is leaving The Office after this season may make him a dark horse. Sorry Mr. Shue.

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series
Tina Fey’s my favorite here, but I think Julia Louis-Dreyfuss has a shot since her show, The New Adventures of Old Christine, was canceled and there’s nothing like sticking it to the man by rewarding a show that did not make it (see: Arrested Development)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series
Will the Modern Family men cancel each other out? Will NPH finally get his due? How much do I love Chris Kofler as Kurt on Glee? I don’t know, so let’s say Ty Burrell as doofus Dad Phil Dunfey on Modern Family. One part of me loves to see so many gay characters (and actors) nominated, but sort of sad (though not entirely surprised) that it is in the supporting category.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Jane Lynch as Sue Sylvester on Glee. The end.

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
My heart says John Hamm, but my head says Bryan Cranston. Who completely deserves another win for his portrayal of Walter White on Breaking Bad. Dark horse is Matthew Fox from Lost. He did a great job this season, and the voters love to reward a show in its final season.

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series
This is a tough one for me, because I only watch one of the nominated actress’s shows. Which probably makes me a bad feminist spectator, what with the strong characters and actresses nominated here. So I’ll say Julianna Margulies for The Good Wife because I know some other people like her. 😉 And because as much as I enjoy January Jones’ portrayal of ice queen Betty Draper, I somehow think her performance is related more to the luck of finding the perfect role for her than her acting chops. Though no one furrows her brow quite like Jones.

Outstanding Supporting Actor Drama Series
Gah, this one is so hard! I really want John Slattery to win for Mad Men’s Roger Sterling, who always gets the best lines. But I think it will be either Terry O’Quinn or Michael Emerson for Lost, both of whom were fantastic in the final season. Edge to O’Quinn for so convincingly turning Locke into FLocke.

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
I am still a bit miffed that Anna Gunn was not nominated for her tense and nuanced performance as Skylar White Breaking Bad. She really was outstanding this past season. Nevertheless, Christina Hendrick’s Joan on Mad Men keeps getting more complex and fascinating. Her scenes with her no-good husband last season were brilliantly subtle. Go Joan!

And the really big ones:

Outstanding Comedy Series
Though 30 Rock continues to be one of my favorite shows ever, I think they’ve probably won it enough times. Torn between Glee and Modern Family, I’m gonna go with Modern Family because the sneaky punchlines and deadpan delivery make me laugh out loud and rewind my DVR to see it again.

Outstanding Drama Series
As much as I love Mad Men, no other show makes me say “holy crap!” more consistently than Breaking Bad, which just keeps getting better. That said, Lost is totally winning this category.

See you back here on Sunday night!

Films on Stars: The Rose 1979

18 07 2010

Some say love, it is a river…. You’re probably familiar with Bette Midler’s hit song, The Rose. It’s a fabulous tear jerker of a song, but it actually has very little to do with the film that shares its name. (As a side note: the abundance of videos of Midler doing this song live as well as countless other people (both famous and not) doing covers of it has made it extremely hard for me to find clips of the movie on the old internets. People LOVE this song). It plays over the end credits and does, sort of, reflect some of the themes of love and loneliness from the film. But I think the song’s lyrics end on the hopeful note that love, though at times difficult, can save someone from sadness and loneliness, which is the complete opposite of the ending of this film. Ultimately, The Rose is about my favorite theme of stardom narratives, fame damage.

It’s Bette Midler’s film debut, and she knocks it out of the park as the hard living rock star “The Rose” (Mary Rose Foster) who is obviously a thinly veiled reference to Janis Joplin. Like other films I’m considering for this series, The Rose is not a bio pic of Joplin, nor of Midler, though it certainly draws heavily on existing knowledge about the public and private selves of these two female stars. This is a great film about stardom because it combines the public performances (in a series of raucous and satisfying concert performances by Midler as “The Rose”) with the behind-the-scenes look at the machinery of fame, and the damage it does to Rose herself. Fame is appealing, but it is ultimately a hollow drug that has some serious consequences. Here’s the trailer for the original theatrical release:

This narrative of stardom presented in this film is quite different than the one I discussed in the original A Star is Born in which drive and authentic desire to be a star was more important than talent. In The Rose, Rose’s fame is firmly rooted in an amazing, and almost uncontrollable, talent. The scenes of Rose as her on-stage persona “The Rose,” are intense and full of passion. She has this innate talent inside that will not be denied and that must be shared with the world. But, as we know, stars are not confined to their public performances. It is not simply that she is a great singer that she has achieved fame. Instead, that talent offers a strong base for the development of the rockstar persona that catapults her from “just” a singer to a star.

Throughout the film, Rose is acutely aware that it is her rockstar image combined with her talent that really makes her a star. Furthermore, that image must be constantly maintained in order to be read as authentic. She is a constructed commodity who must continue to play the part of “The Rose” in her off-stage life. It is not that Rose and “The Rose” are completely different personae. It is pretty clear throughout the film that her on-stage persona is an amped up version of her real self. This is sense of authenticity (that she is who she seems to be) is crucial to her fame in the world of the film. But the problem is that this constructed and hyperbolic version of herself is threatening to take over and push out any “real” Rose that remains.

"The Rose" on stage: Intensity of talent and awesome fashion sense

In one telling scene early in the film, Rose tells her manager that she needs a break because she “can’t dredge up the sincerity anymore.” She’s falling apart because a) the sheer intensity of her talent is exhausting and b) the incredible effort of putting on the public self both onstage and off is breaking her down. But the machinery of fame is already in motion and cannot be stopped. Her manager tells her they have $3 million in concert dates lined up that simply cannot be canceled because “this is a business, like Chevrolet or Sarah Lee.” Her “real” self and needs have become irrelevant to her stardom and are pushed to the margins for the sake of profit. Though her hard-drinking dood time party girl lifestyle fits perfectly with her public persona, it is also a reflection of her increasing loss of control and loss of her sense of self. Essentially, fame is a trap in which she must constantly perform “The Rose” persona in order to keep the machinery rolling. Though she still has her talent, she had to sacrifice her authentic self in order to be famous.

She is near her breaking point when she meets limo driver Huston Dyer and the two begin a relationship. He becomes her only tie to her real self, as he loves her for who she “really” is, not for the star persona the rest of the world adores. He’s not a part of the machinery of Hollywood and, unlike everyone else in her life, has no personal investment in her image. The narrative depiction of their relationship and its demise is a bit clunky…he leaves her when he discovers that she previously had an intimate relationship with another woman. This really makes very little sense because he was certainly aware of her promiscuous past (a story of her having sex with the entire football team in high school barely phases him) and aware that it was always a part of her larger image as “The Rose.” Dyer leaving Rose over a lesbian relationship seemed a bit forced and really just a chance for the filmmaker to titillate the audience and then punish a woman for stepping outside heterosexual boundaries. But back to the topic at hand…

Why they break up isn’t really important, it’s more that with his departure goes her last connection to her “real” self and to someone who cares about her, not just her image. More crucially, it turns out that the former lesbian lover has resurfaced because Rose’s manager, Rudge, sought her out and brought her back. In other words, Rudge was trying to break up Rose and Dyer because she wanted to take time off from performing to be with Dyer. Rudge knows you can’t stop the fame machine, so he instead removes the thing that was gumming up the works: namely, Rose’s relationship with Dyer. Fame has given her a lot, but also ultimately robs her of what really matters: love. (Look, I never said it wasn’t schmaltzy).

Cut off from her real self by Dyer’s departure and still unable to cope with the constant need to perform her star image, Rose quickly descends back into alcohol and, eventually, hard drugs. She is alone again, no one cares about her beyond getting her on the stage to make more money. She returns to her hometown for a big show, but going home just underscores how alone she actually is. She shoots heroin and does manage to put on the persona for one song, illustrating that despite all the damage, there is still some underlying talent that remains. But then she launches into a speech in which she all but begs the audience to love her, but realizes the cheers of the crowd are a poor substitute for what she has lost. She starts to falter and says “where is everybody going?” (because everyone always leaves her!) and collapses and dies. She had a core of real talent that launched her towards stardom, but the constant need to perform the facade of “The Rose” left her unable to know her real self and unable to form any real relationships. That’s the ultimate fame damage.

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 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.

Shattering the Image: Tiger Woods and Star Scandal

19 05 2010

Perhaps the most important element of understanding stardom as a cultural phenomenon is the idea that stars are made up of, as Richard Dyer says in Heavenly Bodies, “everything that is publicly available about them.” Our knowledge of stars comes is based on their on-screen/public performances (whatever that may be or how tied to talent such performances are) AND all extra-textual moments that occur outside of these “official” public performances as an actor, singer, etc. The extratextual includes public appearances specifically tied to their public performances (such as a star being interviewed on a late night talk show as a means to promote his or her newest film) but, more importantly, glimpses into the star’s private and everyday life. As audiences, we put these textual and extratextual moments together in order to arrive at the overall image of that star.

These extratextual glimpses are “freely” given in the aforementioned publicity moments in order to support a certain perception of the star image and to promote his/her latest project. They retain a certain sense of “truth” because they come from the star, but are always a part of a larger constructed image controlled by various media and celebrity producers. Enter the gossip media and their preoccupation with revealing the “truth” behind this constructed façade. If the audience is preoccupied with discovering who the star “really” is through these glimpses of their private lives, the tabloids promise to deliver this by (purportedly) going around the publicists, managers, studios, and other industry producers who carefully construct a coherent public and private star image. In so doing, they add an important extratextual layer that seems outside of any producer control, when it actually often serves to reinforce a carefully crafted image. Anne Petersen usefully points out that “gossip matters not because it’s true, or because people even necessarily believe it, but because its suggestions become permanently affixed to the star image. And gossip especially sticks when it seems to complement a pre-existing star image.”

Gossip can be a way to confirm what we know (or think we know) about a star based on the textual and more controlled extratextual images. Consider how closely Angelina Jolie’s image is tied to a sexy bad girl self that is constantly reinforced by the gossip media. Despite some attention to her charity works and her role as a mother to her children, the core of her image, I argue, is rooted in this bad girl/sexy siren persona that is reinforced in her films (like the upcoming action flick Salt) as well as in the gossip media, particularly in the ongoing coverage of the “love triangle” between Jolie, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in which Jolie is still portrayed as a man-stealing hussy. Jolie’s existing star image was, and is, central to the scandalous nature of her initial relationship with Pitt as well as the ongoing coverage of it. Even when her public performances go against this, such as her role in A Mighty Heart, she can’t shake this overarching image. The fact that those movies don’t do particularly well at the box office speaks to the power of the off-screen image to influence audiences’ perception of her on-screen performances.

Good Girl? I think not.

But there also seems to be an important branch of celebrity gossip, perhaps more clearly categorized as celebrity scandal, that rests upon the contrast between star image and “truth.” Instead of rumors confirming what audiences want to believe about the stars based on their public personas, the biggest scandals seem to arise from private life rumors that shatter the carefully constructed star image, particularly squeaky clean images. It’s a battle over the definition of “authenticity” in the star image and who, ultimately, controls it. Who is the “real” star? The one we see presented textually and extratextually and under the control of the celebrity producers? Or the one revealed by the gossip media? Or the one pieced together by audiences? This inherent battle for control is breeding ground for scandal.

Lull and Hinerman suggest the star scandal is a unique type of scandal that erupts when the “private behavior of a public persona enters the public arena under circumstances that are outside of the star’s control.” I discussed, briefly, how this sort of moment of contrast played a role in the recent Sandra Bullock/Jesse James scandal because of Bullock’s role as America’s Sweetheart. But it is even more apparent in scandal surrounding Tiger Woods that dominated the gossip media back in the fall and just won’t go away.

Caveat: I’m not a sports fan, and my knowledge of Tiger Woods is entirely extratextual and largely based on the most recent discussion of his image post-scandal. I recommend David L. Andrew’s piece on Tiger on FlowTV for a more through reading of Tiger’s image. I’m going to focus here on using Tiger and the scandal as an example of this moment of contrast that feeds gossip scandal.

In order to qualify as a scandal, the behavior revealed through the media has to go against the dominant social or moral code. Certainly a star’s sexual escapades or drug addiction, whether it fits with their image or not, has the potential to turn into scandal, and gossip tabloids and blogs are filled with salacious details about the private lives of stars as a way to both build up and break down the glamorous façade of stardom. But there seems to be some difference between the everyday gossip (even if about sexual lives or drug abuse or other particularly potentially morally objectionable behavior) and the “big” scandal that grips the gossip media for weeks, if not months.

For example, it seems hardly a day goes by that Lindsay Lohan and her allegedly drug fueled antics are not mentioned on gossip blogs like Perez or TMZ. Though the first revelations of her alleged drug abuse, stints in rehab, and court appearances were more of a “big” scandal (probably based on the contrast of good girl Disney star gone wrong), now it’s just part of the everyday gossip landscape. Lindsay, and celebrities (who are mostly female) like her, keep the gossip engine moving. They give audiences something new, but something that reinforces what we already knew about her. At this point, this gossip about her is simply the background chatter of the gossip media, not really even a scandal.

The heart of the Tiger Woods scandal rested on the revelation of a “double life.” You didn’t need to be a golf fan to know Tiger, the most famous (and well paid) athlete in the world, as a public figure. Setting aside (for the moment) the notion that his public image was itself highly constructed, the revelation of Tiger’s multiple mistresses and other raunchy behavior completely shattered the “good” Tiger image supported by his athletic achievements and numerous endorsement deals, all of which presented him as accomplished but fairly banal and safe.

"Good" Tiger as Professional Athlete

Tiger rarely appeared in gossip media, and then usually around positive stories like his marriage to Elin Nordegren or the birth of their children. But that is precisely what gave the scandal such traction. I don’t think there was any evidence, prior to the Thanksgiving car crash that started this whole mess, indicating Tiger led a double life or that audiences would even want to believe that he was like all those other celebrities whose public images masked the truth that the rich and famous are also debased and immoral (in other words, NOT AT ALL “just like us,” right?).

"Good" Tiger in an extratextual moment

A range of media sources, and not just strictly celebrity gossip oriented media, gleefully trotted out this binary of the inner and authentic Tiger-as-bad-boy as the “real” Tiger that was carefully hidden by his well managed public image. Even better, for the media, the scandal just kept coming as more mistresses surfaced and the details got more and more salacious, further challenging dominant moral codes. This loss of control over the Tiger’s image was central to this turning into such a major scandal because it intensified the moral violation. Not only had he offended our moral sensibilities by allegedly having multiple affairs, he did so while having the public image of the squeaky clean star athlete. That is scandal at its most fundamental.

The extratextual emergence of "Bad" Tiger

More extratextual evidence of Bad Tiger

Tiger’s subsequent attempts to move past the scandal have generally been focused on his return to golf. That is, to his public performance as an athlete. The few press conference “apologies” aside, he’s not really using the extratextual media (and certainly not the gossip media) as a vehicle to reframe his image. Unlike celebrities who hit the apology circuit in an attempt to reframe their images by appealing to their private selves (People magazine is usually the go-to for this sort of image maintenance, just ask Miley Cyrus or Jesse James ) This may be the wisest move, as it affords him greater control over his image and works to remind audiences of the talent that is at the core of his stardom anyway.

But the reality of star scandals is that they never really go away. They may diminish in intensity, as already the fickle public has moving on to a new scandal du jour and the media frenzy around Tiger has died down somewhat. But this scandal will always remain tied to his overall star image. Interestingly, Nike, one of the few sponsors who didn’t flee from Woods in wake of the allegations, used this in Tiger’s first post-scandal ad, but in a way that speaks to a sense that Tiger is repentant and has “learned” from his mistakes. This is an interesting attempt to recuperate the “scandal” Tiger back into the image in a way that allows him to move forward as a talented golfer (and remain a profitable spokesperson for Nike).

He’s back playing the sport that made him famous, and can use this public performance to rebuild his image. But it will never be quite the same because it will forever be marked by this public revelation of contrast and the ensuing scandal because stars are never simply public performers.