Sunday, July 27, 2014

Richard Schickel's "The Stars"

By Lars Trodson

Writer's note: I didn't notice this at the time of publication of this article, but the late Lauren Bacall was not included in the list of stars that Schickel wrote about in the book review that follows. It does not seem to me that this is an egregious omission, because her fame, as considerable as it may be, is based primarily on her associations rather than her accomplishments (at least in film). She first appeared in the glorious Hollywood of the 1940s, and she was married to a man, Humphrey Bogart, some consider the greatest of all movie stars. But when "The Stars" was published in 1962, Bacall had already receded from the limelight. She was, even in her heyday, very rarely the focus of the films she appeared in. She was third-billed in 1953's "How To Marry A Millionaire," and by the time she was 50 she was appearing in matronly roles (the widow in John Wayne's final film "The Shootist.") 

The fact is she could pack a wallop when she needed to. She was beautiful, sexy, smart, and she certainly made the 1940s glitter. We're so bereft of women that hold more than one of those qualities in films today that, even though she made her first cultural impact 70 years ago, her legacy is a hard one to meet. Who today could hold her own with someone like Bogart?

"The curious thing about Richard Schickel’s coffeetable book, “The Stars,” is how rueful its tone is; the prose is thick with a kind of melancholy nostalgia for a glittering past that was, at the time the book was published in 1962, not quite yet past at all.

"In a sense, Elizabeth Taylor is a reversion to the super-romantic stars of the silent screen, deliberately out of touch with common mortality," Schickel writes in his portrait of Taylor (who was, incredibly, just 30 years old when the book came out). "If that is true, then there will never be another movie star like her, for the system that produced them and, in its dying hours, produced Elizabeth Taylor, is now gone forever."

I'm not sure this is completely true: We have had a continuing if steadily diminishing stream of movie stars from subsequent generations: Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence and, if they get the scripts, Shailene Woodley and Lupita Nyong'o.

By using the word "system," Schickel was specifically referencing the studio system, but what we can see more clearly today is that it isn't only the system that vanished, but rather the America that either produced ( and welcomed) these extraordinary individuals.

"The Stars" (which was designed by the noted graphic artist Allen Hurlburt) is a nearly perfect book. Schickel’s precise take on all the stars he does feature (there are some strange omissions) are wondrous little gems. His judgments are sound; he very rarely makes a wrong statement about why a particular star had lasting appeal, or why others came and went quickly. Even when he makes a grand statement he is spot on. 

“He may very well be the last of the great men,” Schickel wrote about James Stewart. Odd, because Stewart’s career was very much alive when Schickel wrote that, as was almost all of Stewart’s contemporaries, such as John Wayne and James Cagney and others, but it turned out to be undeniably true.

The book spans about 50 years — from the Keystone Cops to Marilyn Monroe (1912-1962), from silent handmade shorts to international color epics filmed in Panavision and VistaVision. Some of the stars he writes about have now completely faded into footnote, but anyone interested in film history will get a complete education by reading Schickel's angle on the western stoicism of Richard S. Hart or the emerging modern flash of a Tom Mix. The films of these two stars are not even available on Netflix or Amazon Prime, but it's important to know who created the template for three generations of western film characters, whether that later character emerged as Roy Rogers or Clint Eastwood.

Rudolph Valentino, as an example, was once so famous that his last name became shorthand for "ladies man." He had, however, just a short, brief, tumultuous career. Here's what Schickel writes (Valentino was still relevant to this history of the movies in 1962):

"It may be, after all these years, that we should readmit Rudolph Valentino to the human race. He was a man inordinately ill-served by everyone — the public, the press, the people who marketed and created his films, himself. His chief crime, in which all these forces participated, was against the standard American concept of manhood. He was too graceful and too beautiful — that was clear — but worse than that, he seemed weak."

On the brittleness of Gloria Swanson: "She was something new to movie stars, ruthless, arrogant, willful and therefore a challenge to every male who thought he was man enough to tame the tiger, a being for every little kitten to try to emulate. No one really loved the lady, but nearly everyone was awed by her."

On the alcoholic collapse of John Barrymore: "Within a few years, despite the best efforts of friends to find him work, Barrymore, who by this time had to have his lines written on slates and held before him out of camera range, could find no work but as this parody person. The most notable thing about his screen presence at the time was the distance in his eyes, which never seemed focused on anything... looking far beyond the work at hand, perhaps back at the triumphant and profligate past, perhaps searching for a clue to this wretched present..."

On the elusive appeal of Joan Crawford: "Joan Crawford is a star because she says she is and because she has, through the years, insisted on the point so repeatedly and so firmly that the studios and the audience in general have finally conceded the point."

In his sketch on the Marx Brothers, Schickel illuminates the difference how American performers and the audience reacted to the rich in the 1930s, and how we react to the upper class today: "Between them, the Marx Brothers represented all the great American comedy styles. Together they transcended all style to answer a felt national need — the utter denigration of upper-class values, values which were widely believed to have caused all the troubles of the decade in which the Marx Brothers achieved their greatest popularity." We don't denigrate the upper class today; we slobber at their feet, we buy their stories even as we smirk at them, but the rich don't care. They laugh at our gullibility.

On the intelligence of Katharine Hepburn: "She knows she is haughty, aloof, shy. She also knows that she only needs a man of strength and worldliness to tame her shyness and free her spirit from the cage of the self and the inhibitions of society. The drama of a Hepburn film, generally speaking, is the drama of the change from Katharine to Kate..."

On the magnitude of Orson Welles: "Welles is a star, not because of any single part he played, but because he was a total movie maker who stamped his personality on entire films, because he insisted on using a medium of group creation as a means for a uniquely individual expression... "

On Rita Hayworth: "She had been the greatest girl of them all, a living summary of all our sexy, dreamy ideals."

On the limitations of Charlton Heston: "At first, everyone thought that Charlton Heston was underacting... Then came the string of spectacles in super-duper scope, "The Greatest Show On Earth," "The Ten Commandments," "The Big Country," "Ben-Hur," "El Cid," and all of a sudden it began occurring to people that Heston was acting with all the passion at his command..."

Schickel's book is broken up into neat categories: The Prototypes (Mack Sennett, William S. Hart, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks); The Twenties; The Comedians; The Thirties; Five Heroes (Cooper, Bogart, Gable, Tracy and Stewart) up through The Fifties.

By the time he got to that decade, Schickel was already looking back. His vision of the future seemed meager and bleak. In The Fifties, the first two stars he writes about, Alan Ladd and Kim Novak, are called "The Somnambulists." This was not a compliment. William Holden is called "The Hero as operator." There's something cynical about that. So is what he called Burt Lancaster: "The hero as executive." Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly are profiled, and he rightfully titles the chapter on Marilyn Monroe as, simply, "Marilyn." But by the time the book came out, she was already gone.

"But she did not do badly," Schickel wrote of her. "She learned that 'sexuality is only attractive when it's natural and spontaneous' and somehow she was able to give us a vision of sex and pleasure that was honest, funny but unsniggering. In the end, she and her admirers and advisors sought to wrap the respectable cloak of art around her presence... Perhaps her best epitaph is a line from Auden's memorial poem to Yeats: "You were silly like us; your gift survived it all." Still true more than 50 years later.

By the end, Schickel even seems a little worn down by his own approach. His portrait of Jack Lemmon (one of the New Breed), an Academy Award-winner by then and an international star, is slightly dismissive, but he does get one thing right. Schickel highlights a famous scene in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," during which Lemmon has to shuffle around the executives that want to use his apartment for extramarital affairs. He needs the apartment back because he has a cold: "Armed with an appointment pad, a Rolodex, a telephone and all the cliches of polite business usage, he begins to elicit their cooperation in his changed plans. The scene is a vicious parody of the manners and morals of the business community by a man who loathes its ways and yet must live with them. His cruel dilemma is explored and exploited in a scene that is one of the small gems of recent years." Just watch that scene and see how apt Schickel is in his description. (It's available on Netflix.)

I said earlier the book was nearly perfect. Nearly, because there is no Steve McQueen, who by 1962 was a huge star, or Sidney Poitier (a grievous oversight in 1962). No Paul Newman. There is Sophia Loren (still happily with us, as is another profile, Shirley MacLaine). And I'd like to say, most cordially to Mr. Schickel, a fond "fuck you" for not including Robert Mitchum. I mean, honestly. (There are 106 stars profiled in this book, including one group, The Keystone Kops.)

The oddest thing is that so much time has passed since the publication of "The Stars" and so many of the people profiled in the book are really gone, is that its tone may have finally caught up with it. Almost every young star highlighted has now died, never mind the stars from the silent era or the 1940s. Taylor, Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn, Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson — all gone, some of them for some time now. Even the child stars of the 1930s — Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney — recently passed away of old, old age.

And even though he was writing with nostalgia, Schickel was also claiming the durability of their careers and what they created. The stars in the book came from all over the world — Sweden, France, England, Germany — but they converged to create a single institution: the American film industry. American film was the sum of these diverse parts, and, what is certainly true, is that watching a movie made between 1912 and 1962, one would get a clear indication of American life: how we spoke, dressed, lived — where we lived, what we drove. Watching a movie today betrays almost nothing distinctly American, perhaps we have indeed melted into a place with no cohesive identity.

Schickel also assumes that "acting" — creating a persona on-screen — would continue to be the key to success, and that increased media scrutiny would force actors to become better at their craft. He was following the Brando model. This is, after all, a book about movie stars, all of whom could act, to one degree or another.

"[W]ith the studio system virtually destroyed, it will be less possible to fabricate a personality for a beautiful dope. Tastes being what they are these days, stars may even have to do more acting, in the conventional meaning of the term, than they ever did," Schickel wrote.

This seemed true, for a while. The stars of the late 60s and 70s — Hoffman, Pacino, Dunawaye, Jane Fonda, DeNiro, Jill Clayburgh — all strove for more realism, a kind of naturalness that Spencer Tracy was so famous for. It is not an accident that these actors replaced those manufactured stars of limited range — Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, Troy Donohue — that directly preceded them.

But even their influence didn't last long. The golden age of the late 1960s and early 1970s effectively ended with the release of "Jaws" in 1975. Nothing has been the same since. Even that patron saint of gritty New York, Martin Scorsese, has settled into a late period of baroque fantasy, of "Hugo" and "Shutter Island" and even "The Wolf Of Wall Street," a film that was one of the most forced of his career. Spielberg, who presumably could make any kind of movie he wants, has been trapped in a "bigger, bigger, bigger" mode for decades. Their movies have no fixed point of origin, even their America seems unfamiliar.

Schickel held out some hope, however, for the institution of movie star:

"There will be, doomsayers to the contrary, at least another fifty 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. But these stars will not be the stars of movies alone. They will exercise their talents (or, if they have none, their primal appeals) in a wide variety of media. They will, as never before, be the master's of their own fate..."

He was right about that. The wide variety of media he spoke about — Twitter, Instagram, and the rest — are all part of how stars market themselves. But social media has also destroyed the sense of illusion that was so important to the first generations of movie stars. In that way, he was right when he quoted the producer Buddy Adler, who predicted that when when stars no longer wanted "to live normal lives like everyone else... we won't have any illusions left to sell." This is a prediction of the Kardashians, the Hiltons, the Lohans and the Palins. These people don't even pretend to be interesting. The only difference between them and their audience is the financial gulf that divides them (and we don't as I said earlier, make fun of them the way the Marx Brothers would have). These people are also temporary diversions. There is nothing essential about them, and they have definitely not created anything that is meant to last. They are exclusively of the now.

Because of that, the last line of Schickel's book is not quite the grace note of hope that he intended. "We need them," is the line and he said it not only of all the stars that he wrote about, but of those stars not yet created. He felt they were, and would be, an essential part of our cultural life. But there is a third reading that he couldn't have intended, but fits with the melancholy tone of his book, and is true for those of us who still love the movies and their history.

I read the last line as "We need them" — meaning those durable, beautiful stars of the past that he wrote so perceptively, and tragically, about in "The Stars."

Lars Trodson is the author of two novels, "Eagles Fly Alone" ( and "Tide Turning." (