Film Critic Ty Burr in Hanover Monday To Discuss the Allure of Fame

Friday, November 30, 2012
Some years ago, while living in New York City, Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr, author of the recently released book Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (Pantheon), had an unexpected encounter with a movie star. Emerging from his apartment building to go for a morning run, Burr writes in the introduction to the book, he saw another man leaving the building next door at the same time. As both men began to do warm-up stretches next to each other, Burr did what any civil person would do: he nodded and smiled to acknowledge the other runner’s presence.

The man nodded and smiled back, and as he did so Burr realized that the other runner was Robin Williams. In that split second, Burr also realized that Williams knew he’d been recognized. And in an instant the nature of the transaction changed entirely.

What had been a casual, normal exchange between two city dwellers was now an awkward negotiation in the mechanics of modern fame. Williams’ gaze shuttered, as if a blind had been drawn, and his eyes, Burr writes, looked “empty.” It was nothing personal, there was no hostility, but it was the demeanor Williams had adopted to fend off the kind of intrusions, or worse, that can happen in a culture as obsessed with stars and instant notoriety as this one is.

Burr, who is also a Dartmouth graduate, will be at the Howe Library in Hanover at 7 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 3, to talk about Gods Like Us for the Cine-Salon series run by film historian Bruce Posner, who lives in Plainfield. Burr will show film clips and speak about the history and nature of film stardom, the beautiful illusions and tragic delusions it gave rise to, and the lives it destroyed.

Asked whether he thought the effect on American society of a now-inescapable celebrity culture is corrosive, Burr, interviewed by phone from his home outside Boston, said, emphatically, “Yes.”

When the fictional Norma Desmond says to the (real) director Cecil B. DeMille at the end of Sunset Boulevard , “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up,” it was 1950, and Hollywood was king; in 2012, the phrase might be rephrased as “Youtube, I’m ready for my close-up” and the star-makers are no longer just producers, directors and critics but YouTube, Twitter, Hulu, Tumblr, Kickstarter and a multitude of blogs.

“There are now so many different points of dissemination,” Burr said, describing the churning maw of the American entertainment-industrial complex that demands to be fed by the hour, the minute, the second.

“There are infinite internet outlets and tweets that need to be tweeted and gossip sites that need to be fed,” he said. “It’s a funhouse mirror we look into and see ourselves reflected in various entertaining and shocking ways. For a large percentage of the audience it’s reality and I do think it’s corrosive, and we do live in a culture of narcissism. I worry about that; I think it has gotten out of control.”

You could call Hollywood, as some have, the dream factory or you could call it, as Burr does in Gods Like Us, “the gorgeous lie.” The book looks at it all, from the silents to the talkies, from the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930s to the rebellion of the 1960s that coincided with the dissolution of the big movie studios, and right on through to the present day and the wide range of entertainments available. Icons like Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson are considered at length for what they achieved as artists and entertainers, but also for their struggle to grapple with fame, as the line between the private and the public increasingly blurred.

Burr grew up outside Boston, “a trolley ride away from the downtown movie theaters,” he said, where Casablanca and other Hollywood classics from the so-called Golden Age of the 1930s played regularly. He began watching movies seriously when he was a teenager. “Growing up in the polyester 1970s,” he said, “what’s interesting is that ... you were against everything your parents stood for, except for the movies.” Your parents liked Bogart, and so did you. “Bogart was what was cool,” Burr said.

At Dartmouth, Burr studied film and ran the Film Society for a year, graduating in 1980 with a major in theater and a minor in film. He recalled seeing a parade of exuberant frat brothers in full throat marching toward the college after a screening at the Nugget of Animal House , which was written by Dartmouth grad Chris Miller and based on the raucous goings-on at the fraternities in the early 1960s. He worked at HBO and was a critic for the magazine Entertainment Weekly before moving to the Globe in 2002, and has also written a book, The Best Old Movies For Families.

Burr began to think about writing Gods Like Us when he realized that although thousands of books have been written about film, relatively few described the history of stardom from the birth of the film business in the late 1890s and early 1900s to the present day.

Not many people know or care about the artistic development of, say, the director John Ford, but they do care about the great star that Ford made out of an obscure actor named Marion Morrison, who took the film name John Wayne.

Love him or hate him, for good and for ill, Wayne represented for millions around the world the quintessential American cowboy, the man of action of the American West, an image that filtered into the world in ways that had consequences for the image of American power and politics in the post-war period. Stars and fame matter to the culture at large: They tell us who and where we are, says Burr.

Burr was intrigued to learn, he said, that in the nascent stages of the film business, the movie makers “didn’t know what they had on their hands.” The studio heads were businessmen who saw that the novelty of the short reels pulled people into the nickelodeons, but they didn’t yet apprehend the reach they could have. The early companies, like the Edison Company, thought, not in terms of acting, stars, drama or art, but in such practical terms as, how many actual inches and feet were in a reel of film, he said.

“The cultural response caught everybody off guard,” Burr said. And it was initially a mystery to the early producers who wondered, he added, “Why are (people) worshipping these shadow plays?”

It took directors like D.W. Griffith, and 1920s silent film stars like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and, above all, Charlie Chaplin, to show that film could be both entertainment and art. And their worldwide celebrity also demonstrated the global impact of stardom as well as its darker, more sordid aspects. The 1920s were an era that remind Burr very much of our own in the way fame mutated quickly into scandal, and in the public’s ravenous appetite for both. One generation’s star can become, very quickly, the next generation’s, to use the cruel phrase, has-been.

“We do forget previous generations’ approach to culture and celebrity, we do forget that there was a very, very vibrant tabloid culture that existed,” Burr said. He pointed to the marriage, in 1926, of a 51-year-old New York millionaire and a 15-year-old girl named improbably (or aptly), Peaches. “They were on the front pages of the tabloids for months and months and months and everybody knew who they were and they’re forgotten today,” Burr said.

You want forgotten? Take the woman with whom Burr starts his consideration of fame: Florence Lawrence.


A stately woman with a Roman profile, Lawrence was the first Hollywood actor, in the 1910s, to be marketed both as a “star” and a commodity. She was the so-called Biograph Girl (named after the film studio), the “Girl of a Thousand Faces” and at one personal appearance in St. Louis, Burr writes, hundreds of her admirers converged on the train station to welcome her. The adulation turned quickly into a siege, with fans tearing at her clothing and hat. Lawrence fainted and her party beat a hasty retreat. Today no one but film historians remember her name.

Which brings Burr to another aspect of his consideration of the perils of stardom, and that is the audience itself: an ardent but also fickle and often cruel lover. The gossip magazines nourish our obsession with celebrity. Stars! They’re Just Like Us! See Bradley Cooper cruising the produce aisle at Whole Foods, see Madonna riding the subway, trying in vain to look inconspicuous.

“We feel reassured that they’re like us and we’re like them,” Burr said. “But it’s a double-edged sword. We worship them and resent them. ... The audience thinks that stardom is a gift and we give it to them and they should be thankful and grateful. We don’t understand why they don’t appreciate what they’ve got. Part of the discussion is, how dare they? They’ve got all this money: why aren’t they happy?”

The dizzying pace of change in modern internet culture has also made it difficult for studios, filmmakers and stars to adjust, Burr said: “They have to stay on top of that bubble that’s always turning. But I do think that we still do need traditional movie stars, those glamorous figures ... that we like to look at, and who please us.”

It’s not just the stars that we need, he added, but the experience of movie-going in a theater, even with the advent of home entertainment on an increasingly sophisticated scale. “We still need to see entertainment as a group, as a mass,” he said. And although, he said, “it’s hard to predict what’s going to last, we still respond to movie stars. We like to have that consensus as a culture that this person is exciting and interesting.”

The crucial distinction now, he said, is that people can do for themselves what “we used to go to the stars to see being done.” We’re in a period of the “theater of the self,” he said, and how that plays out and what it means for society as a whole remains to be seen.

Ty Burr will be at the Howe Library on Monday, Dec. 3 to talk about “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame.” The talk begins at 7 p.m. and is free-of-charge to the public.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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