Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Oh My Stars, Fading Quickly, Quickly Fading

By Lars Trodson

There are now two Britney Spears crying on the Internet. One is the real one, who seems to have broken down in front of the ever-present paparazzi, and who can blame her? The other Britney, of course, is the YouTube phenom Chris Crocker, whose tearful plea to leave Britney alone is a sensation.

It may have been a generational thing, but I didn’t quite get the attraction of the Crocker video. But when I saw him interviewed on Jimmy Kimmel he was quite funny and together, and I had a little bit more appreciation of Crocker’s particular performance art. But still I thought it pretty slim stuff.

I am personally beginning to get queasy about the real Britney. There is no entertainment in her predicament, even though I have no idea how much of this she has courted or how much of it is due to the drastic and ugly tenor of celebrity watching that has bloomed in the past few years.

Either way it is a depressing sight. As someone who couldn’t hum or even name a Britney song I’m beginning to get nervous for her. The implorations of Chris Crocker to leave her alone have some heft, completely aside its appeal as a comic rant.

This may be the logical conclusion to a career that had no real personal direction. I can imagine Miss Spears was the product of a massive think-tank, which directed and created her every move, whether it was in song or dance or photographs. The same could be said for the old studio stars, but those folks came from the farm or from a rambunctious and ethnic Brooklyn, or the circus troupe, and they had inner lives before they were molded into movie icons. Britney Spears was molded before she had that inner gyroscope in place.

If I never cared really whether Britney Spears succeeded or not, I find myself in the position of not wanting her to crack up. I want her to be healthy, and perhaps if she can let go of the limelight for a while then maybe the limelight will also let go of her.

I think the first movie book I ever really paid attention to was named, simply, “The Stars”, by Richard Schickel, and I still have it. When I pulled it out not so long ago I was surprised to find how much it had informed my thinking about the movies and movie stars in general. It’s a beautifully written book, but its tone is one of deep and empathetic nostalgia, and I’ve never been able to shake it in the 30 years since I first read it.

“It is a regrettable fact of life that we here in America have produced few heroes,” begins an essay called “Five Heroes.” While I would disagree with the blandness of that statement, I think it is true that we often feel as though we have too few heroes to turn to at any given time. It certainly seems that way today. It must of course be disconcerting to all those little girls who dressed like Britney and followed her every move to find themselves, just a few years later, to see their hero reduced to fodder, while they themselves look at how their own lives are beginning to turn out.

The five heroes in Schickel’s book are Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and James Stewart. At the time the book was published, in 1962, the only one of those five still alive was Stewart. But all of them are gone now.

I’m not sure that any of them, any longer, have cultural resonance outside their position as iconic movie stars, but that was not the position they held when they were alive and helping the country through both a horrible economic depression and a brutal world war.

Schickel offers all of them polished portraits, and he allows the stars to even take themselves down a bit. He quotes Gable as saying: “You know, this King stuff is pure bullshit. I eat and sleep and go to the bathroom just like everyone else. There’s no special light that shines on me that makes me a star. I’m just a lucky slob from Ohio.” Such modesty seems almost -- in the age of almost aggressive self-promotion -- shall I say it? Heroic?

The last portrait is of Jimmy Stewart -- who as far as I know was never billed that way in the movies -- and at the end of the essay Schickel has this to say: “His best work may still lie ahead of him and that, somehow, is reassuring. There are precious few male stars of his generation left. He may well, in fact, be the last of the great men.” It wasn’t true that Stewart’s best work was ahead of him. He made overblown and super-saturated color comedies in the 1960s, and his career was essentially over by the 1970s. And he wasn’t the last of the great men (and women, think Meryl, think Jane, think Shirley -- not to mention Kate Winslet and Blanchette) in movies.

Schickel ends his book on notes that are both prophetic and wrong-headed. The last person he writes about is Elizabeth Taylor, and he calls that piece “The Last Star.” That of course is completely wrong. A magazine article published about Clint Eastwood right after “Unforgiven” came out (in 1993) had exactly that same headline for him. And I think we have some radiant stars today. Many in fact -- many of whom are waiting for good scripts.

On the last two pages of “The Stars”, there is a picture of a young Charlie Chaplin looking out at the sea, and another of James Mason, at the conclusion of 1954’s “A Star Is Born”, wading into the sea to commit suicide. Images both whimsical and sad.

“Perhaps the symbols are too obvious,” writes Schickel. Yes and no.

“There will be, doom-sayers to the contrary, at least another 50 years of stars. Individuals will dominate the screen as dictatorially as any in the past. They will attain those heights of celebrity which, in our democratic fashion, we so mightily deprecate and envy.”

These words came true. They are especially honest today.

And so are these: “But these stars will not be stars of the movies alone. They will exercise their talents (or, if they have none, their primal appeals) in a wide variety of media.” Unbelievably true. But then Schickel says that stars will go on to be “masters of their own fate and, with the studio system virtually destroyed, it will be less possible to fabricate a personality for a beautiful dope.”

We know this is no longer true. Personalities, from reality TV to shock-jock radio sidekicks, are fabricated all the time. But the point is that they come and go, and they come and go, and then they simply go.

Schickel quotes Buddy Adler (a film producer at 20th Century Fox, who made “From Here To Eternity”, among many others) who predicted correctly that Hollywood deals in illusion, but “when the Elizabeth Taylors and Marilyn Monroes start to think and want to live normal lives like everyone else, soon we won’t have anything left to sell.”

Neither Taylor nor Monroe ever lived anything remotely close to living a normal everyday life. It took another generation to achieve that de-evolution. And while it may be that the movie stars of today have precious little illusion to sell, that is hardly the point: we still want to buy. We still want movie stars, even if it is just to enjoy them purely for the fact that they are stars and offer us no illusion whatsoever.

But if they are to last? Well.

“There will, in the future, be fewer of them,” Schickel writes of movie stars in general, “But they will continue to exist.” Exist, yes, but what is their duration? We may have another 50 more years of stars, but will we have stars that last 50 years?

I don’t think so, but that is because the stars of today both trade in illusion while also engaging in the non-stop grist mill that keeps them before our eyes. You need a presence not only on the big screen, but the small screen, and the computer monitor, and the cell phone, and the CD and as the head of a clothing line. That’s why the burnout is so distressingly massive. They crawl around us all the time: the only illusion now is that they are ubiquitous.

The last line of the book is this: “We need them.” That’s what Schickel believes of us and the stars themselves. Yes. But, believing in that, if they are to survive there has to be a return of the elusive illusion.

So I say to Britney, and all the other quickly fading stars so gruesomely hanging on to the last shreds of fame and glamour, go home. Come back not when we are ready for you, but rather when you are ready for us. Then we’ll be happy to let you capture our hearts again as we want, and need, to do. Chris Crocker -- who is a shadow of the Britney who is just a shadow of herself -- will have long come and gone by then.