David Thomson, watch out! In the pithy new book “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr delivers thoughtfully epigrammatic descriptions of movie stars, actors, and celebrities. He wittily traces the progression of these characters from the early days of film to their current incarnations on the internet, from the young Frank Sinatra, who “looked like a freshly hatched ostrich but his singing voice promised a slowly crested big-band orgasm,” to Harrison Ford, who is able to “make grumpiness seem sexy.”
Burr moves from descriptions of what makes these celebrities attractive to movie fans and to analysis of these players’ importance in cinema and popular culture. Ford, for example, was “the first star ‘brand’ in a modern sense.” Because of the timing of such iconic roles as Indiana Jones, Ford was associated with tie-in products, toys, TV appearances–and a multitude of sequels.
Burr does make the occasional confusing claim. He calls Keanu Reeves an “oddly elegant space cadet of a leading man… Gregory Peck reincarnated as a dude.” Hmm? And, not to nitpick all the actors he left out, I do feel that he could have had fun with James Franco.
Mostly though, Burr is on track. Fred Astaire is an “art deco swizzle stick,” Paul Newman’s vibe is “unpretentious cynicism,” Judd Nelson reads like “a crude caricature of Brando by way of Dean,” Kristen Stewart is “grace wrapped in sullenness.”
“Gods Like Us” is most comfortable at the start of film history. Burr makes it clear that he wants to guide us through the first generation of movie stars in order to explain more recent iterations.
He gushes over Mary Pickford, who with husband and United Artists founding partner Douglas Fairbanks comprised the earliest celebrity couple (the Brangelina precursor’s mansion was called “Pickfair”).
Burr reminds that female celebrities mattered more in the Silent Era, that in fact early cinema was actually geared towards women. “The cinema, as a mass projection of a secret inner life, mattered more to the half of the population without power,” he writes, and goes on to carefully trace the path of gender dynamics.
Burr highlights the resonance of the first time things happened in cinema. “Gone with the Wind,” for example, was the first instance of an adaptation or film that induced a country-wide guessing game for the casting of the central character — Scarlett O’Hara. This “cultural parlor game” showed up most recently in debates on the casting of Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen.
The critic connects multiple generations of stars, noting family resemblance and what makes them different and relevant for the latest incarnation: “Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks represent good men in an unkind world, but where the former responds with troubled decency the latter wields ease and bonhomie.” Of the second generation Brandos, he anoints Pacino, DeNiro, and Voight.
Sometimes you’re not sure where Burr is going with his connections, as when he compares Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, who are “on the surface, diametrically opposed star personas, yet both are irreducible” directors, actors, and personae. In the chapter entitled “The Glamour Backlash,” he gives a brilliant explanation of why 1978’s “Animal House” found such audience love: it “fed into and articulated a growing frustration with the culture’s overbearing political correctness.”
Towards the middle of the book, after the 1970s, the organization falls a bit off the map, making the themes difficult to follow. Nonetheless, “Gods Like Us” soars when it meditates on individual stars and their personae (John Hughes, Tom Cruise, Meg Ryan).
Tom Cruise, particularly, inspires brilliant analysis. “He’s the star who exists most completely in the nanosecond of filmed presence,” writes Burr. That is why while his performance in “Top Gun” is “as thin as the movie’s poster, it is exactly what is called for, since weighty dramatics would have dragged the thing down.”
When it comes to fame in relation to the Internet or reality TV, Burr like the rest of us seems lost and overwhelmed. Snooki’s lack of authenticity and lack of self-introspection, he suggests, make her the perfect reality star. As for the Internet: “This is where the flow of fame’s history in the last century has been leading, where the waters fan out into a delta of infinite tributaries leading to a vast, undifferentiated sea of celebrity.”
In “Gods Like Us,” old Hollywood glows. Burr gives more energy and exuberance to the silents and the Golden Era. Thus the first half of the book shines and the second half drags. But the whole book is worth guzzling for the golden nuggets on movie stars and celebrity sprinkled throughout.