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Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame

Another excellent film theory/criticism/social commentary worth seeking out for this week’s Hollywood Review (I will be reintegrating the title back in, but I think for the safety of my fingers this will be the regular name).  Author Ty Burr has painstakingly traced the development of the “persona” – the perceived personality of a celebrity – from the foundations of moviemaking to today, and has made it consistently readable.  If you’ve believed that stars are created in a vacuüm, you’d be wrong, as Burr asserts that stars like Tom Cruise and Julia Roberts have personas going all the way back to Norma Talmadge and Rudolph Valentino.  Filled with compelling theories and grand analysis, if you’re interested in going deeper into the “star-making” machine, nab a copy of Gods Like Us.

Why do we love celebrities so much, identify with them, and love to see them fail?  As Ty Burr explains in his book, it’s all due to Hollywood’s creation of recognizable personas bound up in the cultural Schadenfreude that is film.  Burr’s thesis never swerves from detailing the lives, or the created lives, of the Hollywood élite straight from its origins, and emphasizes how little (and equally how far) we’ve come from where Hollywood started out.  We’ve always been told that movie-stars have a certain glamour and power that us plebs will only be able to emulate materially.   Burr has a lyrical style of detailing the changes in persona throughout the decades, and establishes that the actors we love today are simply remaking the personas of stars from the past, and the whole goal is to get audiences to love them.  Early silent stars like Norma Talmadge and Colleen Moore all work within the melodramatic formula with the intent of telling women, “we’re just like you!”  Furthermore, their melodramatic plots were meant to show women you could emulate their style, but only if you bought exactly what they told you to.  As Burr charts the changes in celebrity, the eye towards money always glistens in the distance.

On its surface, Gods Like Us works as a historical journey through the world of celebrity, starting in 1910 with America’s first “star,” Florence Lawrence.  Burr sadly shows how stars can quickly rise, and fall, with the tide of audience love.  Audiences today have absolutely no clue who Lawrence is anymore, despite her being iconic to audiences of the early 1900s, but who knows if we’ll be saying the same thing about Meryl Streep in fifty years.  Stardom is fleeting, and Burr brings that blindingly into focus in the a casual way that doesn’t make you feel depressed.  Burr also never passes judgement on the celebrities and their actions, even when their actions go against their persona.  Tom Cruise continually gets name-dropped in Burr’s book for being able to reinvent himself, but also be a chameleon.  Burr expertly describes Cruise as an actor of “maximum charisma with minimum depth,” and I wonder if you can say that about all celebrities?

Readers expecting an in-depth analysis about the creation of celebrities, in terms of a particular stars origins, or how Hollywood would disseminate information (or in some cases hide it), you won’t find that here.  Burr has a very particular thesis that he explores concisely.  I never felt the book wandered off-track, or included unnecessary things (although he does include looks at the Beatles and television, but never veer too far away from Hollywood as a movie industry).  As the book heads into current day, we see how the advent of reality television and, yes, even homemade pornography, has contributed to the belief that anyone can be a star; stars are no longer special and identifiable because they’ve become a dime a dozen.  It does make for an overall heavy-handed message but it’s presented in a smart and informative way.  Gods Like Us is worth the read if you’ve ever wondered why we don’t have immortal stars like we used to.

Interested in purchasing today’s book?

 Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame

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Kristen Lopez View All

A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.

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