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Mon March 25, 2013
How And Why The Hollywood Star Machine Made 'Gods Like Us'
Originally published on Mon March 25, 2013 2:25 pm
As a film critic for The Boston Globe, Ty Burr has met a lot of movie stars and is often asked what they're really like. What he has realized is that often, the actor's image has little to do with their actual personality, but that's not what interests him; Burr is more curious about why we ask that question to begin with. Burr wants to know "why we respond to these people who we think are larger than life [and] that are — especially in the classic days — manufactured and all their irregularities sanded off and presented to us as some kind of perfection."
In his new book, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Fame, Burr looks at this relationship between movie stars and the public that loves them. The book is a history of the star-making machine, how the place of movie stars in our culture has evolved, and how the technology that creates celebrity has gradually changed the kinds of stars audiences want.
When movies were first starting out, for example, the shared, nationwide familiarity with an actor was a novel idea.
"Everybody, theoretically, on the planet was seeing these actors do their things at the same time," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "so that it wasn't just going to a movie theater and sharing your response with everybody in the theater. It was coming out of that theater and sharing your response with everybody in the culture, so that everybody started talking about Clark Gable at the same time — not just in New York, but everybody in the country."
Burr also makes the point that, in the early days of the star-making machine, the studios "owned these people, and they remolded them as they saw fit." The actors had to be young, beautiful and — importantly — single, and the studios would take sometimes extreme steps to see that these expectations were met.
"They would hire and contract young actors," he says, "change their names, give them lessons in deportment, fix their noses — if necessary, occasionally pay them to divorce their spouses."
On how studios, actors and audiences alike needed to adjust to the idea of screen acting
"In the early days, people really didn't understand what actors did in movies. There needed to be a paradigm shift. When you read early movie reviews or articles about what was going on in these early silent films, the verbs they use ... [to] talk about acting ... [are] 'shamming,' 'posing,' 'presenting.' There needed to be sort of almost a brain shift here to understand that what these people were doing was performative and, in fact, a different kind of acting. Because the camera gives every viewer the best seat in the house, it brought you closer to the actors and in a more intimate way, and the better actors understood that and dialed down their technique. So the best actors almost had to think, and it would be magnified on their face and magnified by the camera. So the studios and the men who ran them didn't promote the stars — didn't think they had to — but the audience started getting obsessed with these people because they were closer to them, and the people seemed more life-sized and more real than those faraway stage actors."
On Mickey Rooney, whose stardom Burr finds particularly interesting
"He's been through so many changes in his career and he's never gone away, and he's been up, he's been down, he's been forgotten, he's been lauded. ... Mickey Rooney, he's like the secret mascot of my book. He was making movies by the time he was 3. He had his own film series, silent film series when he was a little kid — the Mickey McGuire movies. By the mid-1930s he was the most popular actor in America. He was No. 1 on the box office list for about three or four years in the Andy Hardy movies, primarily, and the musicals he made with Judy Garland, and after World War II he ... was totally washed up. And then he keeps coming back and going away, and he wins a Tony and he wins an Emmy and he has a religious conversion. He is almost a fractal history of American movie stardom in one guy, and he is still here. He is in his mid-90s and he's still making movies, and I don't think he will ever die."
On how our understanding and treatment of movie stars has changed with the advent of the Internet
"Movie stars, as we understand in the classic [sense], movie stars are, in a way, on the wane. I don't think the main stream ... American film industry sells us stars the way they used to, and they don't sell movies with stars. They sell movies based on franchises: popular book franchises like Twilight or Harry Potter, on special effects, on comic book heroes. Those are what audiences pay to see. They don't necessarily go to see [a movie] because Tom Cruise ... or Ryan Gosling is in it. ... I think the whole culture has changed in the sense that we almost don't need classic movie stars in the way we used to because the Internet allows us to manufacture our own personas in many, many different ways. ... So what happens to the classic movie star in this scenario? They become lesser in value. They become mocked. The famous Tom Cruise-Oprah couch scene is still playing at a YouTube channel near you. I mean, it will be there forever. Twenty years ago it would have been fodder for a week of late-night jokes and forgotten, but now it's proof that we have a certain power over these people that used to have power over us."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Because my guest, Ty Burr, is a film critic for the Boston Globe, he's met a lot of movie stars and is often asked what they're really like. He says his new book, "Gods Like Us," on movie stardom and fame, isn't so much about what movie stars are really like, it's more about why we ask the question in the first place.
The book is a history of movie stardom and considers how the creation of stars has changed, how their place in our culture has changed, and how the technology that creates celebrity gradually changed the kinds of stars audiences wanted. Before joining the Boston Globe, Ty Burr wrote about movies for Entertainment Weekly.
Ty Burr, welcome to FRESH AIR. Since we're talking about movie stardom and modern fame, I want to start by saying your name sounds like the kind of name a movie studio might give to an actor with a name that sounded too ethnic, like - say like Tevye Bernstein might be Ty Burr, or, you know, something like that. So is that your birth name, Ty Burr?
TY BURR: Oh, you had to ask that. No, I have actually a long first, very WASPy first name that actually at one point was a last name because that's what WASPs do to torture their children, they give them all last names. I'm not going to share it with you. It's a number of syllables. But yeah, I've been called Ty since I was a kid, and you're right, it does sound like something they might have cooked up in the early '50s, and not that they would put me out there for beefcake, but you know, Ty - oh, who's the actor I'm thinking of, not Ty Hardin. Is it Ty Hardin?
GROSS: Ty Hardin, yeah. He was on one of those - like "Bronco" or something. I don't know.
BURR: He was a star who was manufactured and marketed in that time period. And yeah, Tyrone Power. It's not an uncommon name.
GROSS: Right, so do you feel a connection with stars who have changed their names or had their names changed for them by the studio?
BURR: I do sort of wonder what the identity politics of it is when a studio hands you a new name and says this is who you are. Roy Scherer, you are now Rock Hudson. You know, Marion Morrison, you are now John Wayne. Lucille LeSueur actually had her new name picked in a fan contest and Joan Crawford won out.
And you know, what does that do to you to take on that new name and the new, you know, persona that might go with it?
GROSS: What do you think that does to you? Because it is one of the questions you're trying to get at in your book.
BURR: Right, you know, one of the things that sort of obsessed me and got me to write this book is why we respond to these people who we think are larger life that are, especially in the classic days, you know, manufactured and all their irregularities sanded off and presented to us as some kind of perfection. And we think that if we can, you know, watch them enough, emulate them enough, write fan letters to them enough, we might become like them, or we might get something like they have.
And I think part of that goes into the naming of them. You know, Frances Gumm, maybe you're not going to go see a movie starring Frances Gumm, but when MGM renames her Judy Garland - a garland, it's a lovely thing. It's a necklace of flowers. You know, it gilds the lily, as it were, of this new creation and almost puts the factory stamp on it.
And, you know, it's interesting to see, in later years, especially when you got into the '60s, and today, there's almost a sort of pride in not changing your name. You know, if Mia Wasikowska had worked for MGM in the early '30s, she would not be Mia Wasikowska.
GROSS: Do you think that this has created a disconnect because we might want to become more like the stars, but the stars might feel like they're not like the person who they've been presented as being either?
BURR: Oh I think that definitely - especially in the factory years, I think there had to have been some confusion on the part of these young stars. Think about it, you know, you're Clark Gable, you're Joan Crawford, you're in your early '20s, you haven't really sort of figured out who you are. You know, in Clark Gable's case, he'd sort of been bumming around the country doing acting jobs and physical labor jobs.
And then he hits the movies and he's in 12 movies in his first year, and everybody's just going crazy over him. And he may not have known really who he was, and he actually befriended, made very good friends with the head of MGM publicity. His job was to create this person that we thought Clark Gable should be.
And he would send him out on photo shoots, hunting and fishing and doing all sorts of manly things. And Clark Gable didn't do those things. But he started picking them up. He started - he started reverse engineering his own personality from the persona that the studios gave him.
GROSS: That must be very confusing. I want you to tell the story of kind of meeting Robin Williams.
BURR: Yeah, it's a story I tell in the introduction to the book. And it's a small story, but it resonates for me because it did put me in the shoes of somebody who was famous and make me think quite a bit about what it's like to go through every day just doing your stuff with people looking at you. And I was living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the time, and I came out one morning to go for a jog in the park.
And I'm doing my stretches, and a guy comes out of a building next door, and he's doing his stretches. And I look up at him and give him a nod, and he nods back. And, you know, as I say in the book, a bunch of things happened very quickly and invisibly. I realized he was Robin Williams. He realized I realized he was Robin Williams. And his face just shut down. His eyes went dead. I've never seen anything like it.
And it wasn't like I, you know, started jumping up and down and saying you're Robin Williams. Like any good New Yorker, I didn't say anything and let him go about his business. But I just felt that for a moment we'd had this actual human moment when I hadn't recognized who he was, and as soon as I recognized who he was, his persona got in the way and almost cut off any, you know, potential for any sort of interaction.
GROSS: And what did that say to you?
BURR: What it said to me is that these people who we have ennobled and enriched and who we celebrate and who we go, you know, to see do their thing, they carry around with them this other person, and that is the person we pay to see. And the real person, you know, the real human being, the life-size human being who's outside his apartment building stretching to go for a jog, is smaller and more real and may not have a lot to do with that person that looks out at us from magazine covers and that we see on the big screen.
And in fact the more I researched this, when I was writing the book, the more I began to sort of realize that a lot of the personas had very little to do with the people actually behind them. You know, obviously a famous case is Rock Hudson. But you know, somebody like Jimmy Cagney, who played, you know, rat bastards onscreen, he was one of the nicest guys in Hollywood.
Everybody loved him. He was just a really decent, decent man. But of course everywhere he went, people would come up to him saying, you know, say, you dirty rat, you killed my brother. And I, you know, I do feel a certain amount of sympathy. I mean imagine what it's like to go through your day and literally 20 times an hour people saying something to you, people reacting to the persona rather than the person.
GROSS: Now, you write about how in the very early days of movies, and I mean very early days when movies were, like, really short, short little things, there weren't stars. How far back are we going here?
BURR: Well, I mean if you consider that the movies were invented by a bunch of different people in the late 1880s, stars were not billed by name until about 1910. So you've got about 15 years there where the medium is really coming - taking its first baby steps but then becoming a commercial medium where people would go to nickelodeons and sit down and watch, you know, one-reelers or two-reelers, generally, you know, 10-minute or 20-minute films, 10 minutes in the early days.
And what you would see when you went to see these movies, you'd get the title of the film, and you'd the company that made it - Biograph, Edison, Kalem, whatever - and you would not get anything about the people in them.
GROSS: Why not?
BURR: There was - there's a variety of reasons and theories about it. One thing is that movie acting and movie actors were considered low class compared to stage acting, and if you were a stage actor, who maybe you needed to pick up some extra cash, you didn't really brag about going to work for the movies.
The studio heads, the men who ran the early studios, didn't want to make people into stars because they would ask for more money. But I think the more important thing was that in the early days, people really didn't understand what actors did in movies. There needed to be a paradigm shift.
When you read early movie reviews or articles about what was going on in these early silent films, the verbs they use are not - and they don't talk about acting. They talk about shamming, posing, presenting. There needed to be sort of almost a brain shift here to understand what these people were doing was performative, was - an in fact a different kind of acting, that because the camera gives every viewer the best seat in the house, brought you closer to the actors an in a more intimate way.
And the better actors understood that and dialed down their techniques so that they - you know, the best actors almost just had to think, and it would be magnified on their face and magnified by the camera. So the studios and the men who ran them did not promote the stars, didn't think they had to, but the audience started getting obsessed with these people because they were closer to them, and the people seemed more life-sized and more real than those faraway stage actors.
So they started writing letters to the studios and to this, you know, to the Biograph girl: Please, tell me your name. What's your name? I'll keep it a secret. You can tell me and I won't tell anybody else. That was the first big secret in the movies: What's your name?
GROSS: My guest is film critic Ty Burr, author of the new book "Gods Like Us," on movie stardom and modern fame. More after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ty Burr, a film critic for the Boston Globe and author of the new book "Gods Like Us" on movie stardom and modern fame. You credit Carl Laemmle, who founded Universal Studio, with creating the first movie star and with creating her before founding Universal Studio. She was such an enduring star that I've never heard of her.
GROSS: Her name is Florence Lawrence. Tell us something about her and how she became a star.
BURR: She's the first star. She's not the first great star.
GROSS: I like that distinction.
BURR: I mean she was the first person billed by name and promoted by name. That's the key thing. Carl Laemmle was a member of a group of film producers that were outside of the official studios that were sort of anointed by Edison and his colleagues. Those guys were known as the Trust. The other guys were known as the Independents, and they included Carl Laemmle, who went on to found Universal; Adolph Zukor, who went on to found Paramount; all the immigrant entrepreneurs who would go on to found the studios we will live with.
And Carl Laemmle ran a studio called Independent Moving Pictures, IMP, and its logo was a devil with a pitchfork, presumably aimed at Edison, and he was a bit of a prankster, and he also - a lot of the independents were able to read the tea leaves, and because they owned the nickelodeons they saw the audience reaction. They understood that audiences were responding to these people in a new and different way.
And so Florence Lawrence was at the Biograph Studio, working with D.W. Griffith, among other directors, and she was known as the Biograph Girl, and she was very, very popular among audiences. But Biograph being one of the high-bound trust studios did not promote her by name.
Laemmle poached her. Actually she'd been let go by Biograph for asking for more money. And he snapped her up and started promoting her by name. And then he put out a fake news story that she'd been run over by a trolley car. And then after that he put out another fake news story saying no, no, she's alive, she's still there.
And that first news story was put out by my rivals, which makes no sense, and not only is she alive, you can come see her at the train station in St. Louis on such-and-such a day. And that was the first movie star mob scene, because, you know, more people showed up than anybody was prepared for, especially Florence Lawrence, and they started, you know, swarming her and grabbing at her and tearing buttons off her jacket.
And nobody understood what was going on here. Why were these people so crazed about a moving picture actress?
GROSS: Have you seen any of her work from the early 1900s, and do you think she has what you would consider to be star power?
BURR: I have seen Florence Lawrence in movies. As I said, she made a lot of movies with D.W. Griffith, short films, and those have survived. And she is more of a 19th century creation than a 20th century creation. She's statuesque. She's attractive. She's got that sort of Gibson Girl hair. She usually played mothers and daughters in various melodramatic situations.
She doesn't have the spark, the charisma, the sort of instant jumping off the screen that a natural movie star as we think of them has. But she does have a certain personality that's different from a lot of the more wildly gesticulating actors who were coming from the stage had. She seems really part of the movies and the stories they told rather than coming from outside.
I understand why she didn't really last. Other stars and actors and actresses sort of surpassed her, chief among them being Mary Pickford, who was the first great movie star of the silent era and the first movie star as we understand the term.
GROSS: How long did it take after Carl Laemmle's success in making Florence Lawrence a star, with a mob scene at her personal appearance, before movie studios realized, oh, we could sell movies that way, we could sell movies on star power, making actors stars is actually a profitable idea?
BURR: It's amazing that it took them that long to figure it out, you know, 15 years, that we go to movies to see the people in them. But by the time Laemmle was promoting Florence Lawrence, other producers were figuring it out, and they were starting to put out lobby cards listing their stock companies.
And so the years from 1910 to 1915, you see more and more and more stars being billed by name, promoted by name. And then in 1914, Mark Pickford had her first huge hit, which was "Tess of the Storm Country," and that was a just sensation. It was, you know, the "Titanic" of its day in terms of box office receipts. And people just fell in love with her.
And you also had the next year, 1915, Charlie Chaplin, the first eruption of Charlie Chaplain mania. So you had these two very, very, very powerful personages, personalities, one of them comic yet artistic, one of them sweet and girlish yet tough and very particular and specific. And people just really found in them something that they couldn't get from books, something they couldn't get from the stage.
And because these movies could be seen all over the world, we had global stars. And this was a completely new idea.
GROSS: So who was it, I mean who was it in the movie industry that decided you had to transform people into movie stars, you had to change their name, you had to dress up their biographies, lie a lot sometimes in order to really sell these people as stars? Like where does that begin?
BURR: I think of the early movie moguls, the most far-seeing was probably Adolph Zukor, who founded Paramount. He was the guy who recognized that Mary Pickford, who was sort of ping-ponging back and forth between the Broadway stage and one-reelers, that she could be somebody who had something special that he could promote and nuance and mold. And he was willing to pay her money for it, and a lot of money for it.
And one of the interesting things about Mary Pickford is that she was a great businesswoman. She was better at making contracts, almost, than making movies. If she was around today, she'd be running a movie studio. But really the first star factory that we - as we know it was MGM, which was actually late to the silent era.
It was a new studio founded toward the - in the early to mid-1920s. And Louis B. Mayer, the man running it, running the studio in California, he - under his aegis he created a classic vertical factory system. And one part of that system was the creation of a star machine in which they would hire and contract young actors, change their names, give them lessons in deportment, fix their noses if necessary, occasionally pay them to divorce their spouses.
That's what happened with Johnny Weissmuller when he became a sensation in "Tarzan." They paid off his wife to get a divorce.
BURR: Because he had such a rabid female following. If you see those early Tarzan movies, you know, here's this Olympic swimmer running around in a very skimpy loincloth, and it was kind of a powerful fantasy figure, you know, this jungle king who was going to carry you off and do, you know, wonderful, terrible things to you in the jungle.
And so his following, Weissmuller's following, was very, very female, and MGM wanted to, you know, promote him as a single guy because for him to be married would have, you know, killed the fantasy. So I don't know whether there were issues in the marriage to begin with, but apparently they paid off Mrs. Weissmuller to go away.
GROSS: I hope they paid her a lot of money.
GROSS: So you know, it's interesting, you're talking about how studios start to change the names and the biographies of stars. And some of the studio heads did that with their own stories and their own names. Weren't there some of the studio heads who had, like, more Jewish-sounding names, and they made the names sound, like, less ethnic and didn't really publicly talk about the fact that they were Jewish?
BURR: Well, Louis B. Mayer, you know, was the best Catholic, you know, a Jew could possibly be. He had a picture of Cardinal Spellman on his desk.
BURR: I don't think anybody actually changed their names, but - you know, and there have been very good books and histories, cultural histories written about the way the - you know, how the Jews invented Hollywood and in the process, you know, tried to erase their ethnicity because they didn't want to get in trouble with the overarching culture, which was not Jewish.
So yes, a lot of the moguls tread very, very carefully to one degree or another. I think the Warner Brothers were all very proud of who they were. Louis B. Mayer kind of tried to reinvent himself as a Methodist or something else. It depended on the individual. You know, Adolph Zukor was a businessman. He was - his ethnic identity, I sense, didn't mean a heck of a lot to him.
But they didn't remake themselves wholesale the way they did to their stars. And the stars were their property. The stars were their chattel. If you look at those contracts which, and starting in the '30s a number of stars started taking them to court to break some of those contracts because they were onerous. They owned these people, and they remolded them as they saw fit.
GROSS: Ty Burr will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Gods Like Us" on movie stardom and modern fame. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ty Burr, film critic for the Boston Globe and author of the new book "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame."
So in doing research for your book, who were some of the movie stars whose stardom you found especially interesting? And I'm talking about people from the past, from past decades. Interesting because either you thought their stardom was really enduring or because you couldn't quite comprehend what people saw in them.
BURR: One of the stars I ended up - to me he's almost the ultimate star, ultimate in the term of that he's been through so many changes in his career and he's never gone away, and he's been up, he's been down, he's been forgotten, he's been lauded, is Mickey Rooney. Mickey Rooney, he's like the secret mascot of my book. He was making movies by the time he was like three. He had his own film series, silent film series when he was a little kid, the Mickey McGuire movies. By the mid-1930s he was the most popular actor in America. He was number one on the box office list for about three or four years in the Andy Hardy movies, primarily, and the musicals he made with Judy Garland, and after World War II he couldn't get arrested, was totally washed up. And then he keeps coming back and going away, and he wins a Tony and he wins an Emmy and he has a religious conversion. I mean he's just, he's almost like a fractal history of American movie stardom in one guy, and he is still here. He's like in his mid-90s and he's still making movies, and I don't think he will ever die.
GROSS: Can I say, I've never really understood what made Mickey Rooney such a star.
BURR: I'll tell you what made Mickey Rooney such a star. He is uncontainable. If you see his early roles, he has a more extreme and more weird energy than anybody else in the room. He's almost got like this...
GROSS: You mean like the Andy Hardy movies?
BURR: Yeah. Even the Andy Hardy movies, which we think of as this wholesome American corn, you know, beloved by Louis B. Mayer, and they are. But within them Mickey Rooney is bouncing off the walls. I direct you to a Paramount release from the early '30s, the Paramount's Picture of version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with a very, very young Olivia D. Havilland, a bunch of - Jimmy Cagney as Bottom, with the donkeys head, and Mickey Rooney as Puck, and he must've been about 11 years old, 10 years old, and he is the most baroque gonzo Puck you will ever see. He has an energy that's just when he lets it out is really remarkable to see.
GROSS: You know, you write about how stardom changed through the decades. And when you get to the '80s and '90s, you talk about how it was the agents that really drove the movie deals. What did that mean in terms of stardom and the value of stardom?
BURR: Well, what happens, you know, in the '50s and '60s and '70s is that the movie studios themselves start dying off and other aspects of the industry rushed to take their place, and in the '80s and '90s you did get the rise of powerful agencies - CAA, ICM, William Morris. They didn't make the movies. They didn't produce them. The studios still did that. But they packaged them and they enabled them and they made them possible. And they would go to a studio and say, look, I've got to Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise and a script and a director and they're all our clients, but here you are. It's a package. And yeah, if you end up with "Rain Man," great. It's a good movie. Often, more often than not, you ended up with a movie that, where the parts didn't really make sense but because they - all the people in it were clients of a particular agency, that's the deal that got done. And my feeling about a lot of the movies of the '80s and early '90s was that they were, they're deal movies where really the work of art that everybody was concentrating on was getting the deal done, and after that the movie itself was sort of secondary.
GROSS: How do you think stardom has changed from like the days the movie studios kind of manufacturing the image of the stars to now when it seems to me fewer people go to the movies, literally to the movie theaters. You know, a lot of people watch movies at home, whether it's on their computer screen or, you know, a small television or a really large screen. I'm sure a lot of people are watching on their, you know, iPads and other devices, which is an even smaller screen than their computer screen. And so the sense of, you know, like larger-than-life and these people living in these like movie palaces, that's really kind of long gone. Because even most movie screens - if you go to the movie theaters - a lot of the movie theaters I go to, the screens really aren't very large anymore.
BURR: Right. Movie stars, as we understand them, the classic movie stars are, in a way, on the wane. I don't think the mainstream film industry - the mainstream American film industry sells us stars the way they used to, and they don't sell movies with stars. They sell movies based on franchises, you know, popular book franchises like "Twilight" and "Harry Potter," on special effects, on comic book heroes. Those are what audiences pay to see. They don't necessarily go to see it because Tom Cruise is in it or because Ryan Gosling is in it.
I think there are stars who still have drawing power. You know, I think Will Smith can still bring people to a movie. Maybe not as reliably as he did 10 years ago. But I think the whole culture has changed in the sense that we almost don't need classic movie stars the way we used to because the Internet allows us to become - to manufacture our own personas in many, many different ways. We can be a different person on Twitter, on our Facebook page, in Second Life, on, you know, our Pinterest page. We can manufacture as many personas for ourselves as we want, which we used to really need movie stars to do. I mean back in the classic days, audiences - women would go to see Bette Davis movies to see what Bette Davis was going to get away with this time, and sort of see what maybe envelopes they could push in their own behavior. We don't need to do that anymore. We can sort of play around with that ourselves.
GROSS: So what happens to the classic movie star in this scenario? They become lesser in value and they become mocked. You know, the famous Tom Cruise-Oprah couch scene is still playing at a YouTube channel near you. I mean it will be there forever. Twenty years ago it would have been fodder for a week of late-night jokes and forgotten, but now it's proof that we have a certain power over these people that used to have power over us.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Ty Burr. He is a film critic for the Boston Globe and author of the new book "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame."
Let's take a short break. Then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This Is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Ty Burr. He's a film critic for the Boston Globe and author of the new book "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame."
So something that confuses me about celebrity. You know, when I go to the supermarket and I'm seeing the tabloids at the checkout line, like Jennifer Aniston is still on the cover so much of the time. And like I have to say, I can't - I can't comprehend why. It's not like - how many years has it been since "Friends"? And how often is she in a hit movie? What is that fame, what is that interest still based on?
BURR: Don't you understand? That's her movie now. That's where her narrative is. You know, it almost helps to think of each star as a narrative, as an idea, and their movies are and their other entertainment is where they act that idea of who they are out. And we, you know, Jennifer Aniston built up a persona - consciously or not - on "Friends" and then after "Friends" in the gossip sphere with all of her various melodramas. And again, this has nothing to do with who Jennifer Aniston may actually be, but I'm talking about her public persona. And as she's made fewer and fewer movies, that narrative just hops over to the gossip sphere and the tabloid magazines and that's where the people who are fans of her - or fans of that narrative - that's where they follow that narrative, that's where that show is. That's where the Jennifer Aniston show is now. It's not on TV. It's not on the movie screen. It's over in this other form of entertainment that, again, probably doesn't have a lot to do with actual day to day reality.
GROSS: So you're a film critic and you've been a film critic since when?
BURR: Well, I've been working for the Globe covering first run films for - since 2002. I've been covering film and video and all sorts of media for 30 years.
GROSS: And you recently had to review "Lethal Weapon 4."
GROSS: And I thought what, was it like for you...
BURR: No. Not "Lethal Weapon 4." You're talking about "Die Hard 5"?
GROSS: Oh, I'm sorry. It's "Die Hard 5." What am I thinking?
GROSS: No, it was "Die Hard 5." "A Good Way to Die Hard." Yes. Right. I'm sorry. I get my franchises confused. Yeah.
BURR: Oh - that was a bad day to go to the movies. Yeah.
BURR: We're just about ready for another "Lethal Weapon" - if anybody stand to watch Mel Gibson on a movie screen, which is a whole 'nother story.
GROSS: But you know, I skimmed your review. You didn't like the movie and it was like, you know, did you feel like what am I doing here? Like why this movie made? What am I doing here?
BURR: I actually did at one point think: What am I doing here? And I should have put this in the review, because I actually quickly realized that this movie was not made for American audiences.
GROSS: Oh really?
BURR: It's set in Russia. It's made for a global audience. And I actually think you're going to see more of that where, you know, I'm surprised that movie even got a theatrical release in America. Of course it would. It's part of a beloved franchise and its stars, you know, a star who still has some pull. But it's set in Russia. There's a scene in Chernobyl. Don't get me started.
It makes no sense. It's all about the action, as these movies are. But the "Die Hards" were always a little smarter and more clever than the usual run of these things. This one's not. I just realized at a certain point, and there were other critics who pointed this out as well, it's not made for us. It is made for a global action audience that really doesn't need any subtleties whatsoever. That would just sort of gunk up the show.
GROSS: Do you feel like movies are becoming less important in the lives of Americans?
BURR: I do think it's not a great time for movies. I do think we're in a period of transition for the movie, as we've known it, and maybe it's changing and disappearing. I'm not really sure. I think you're seeing a split in the kind of movies that are being made where the mainstream movies, the ones that come to the multiplexes, they're getting bigger and more bloated and more baroque and more, you know...
GROSS: More like video games.
BURR: More like video - well, they have to come with 3D, and now they're coming with faster frame rates, like "The Hobbit." And they've got to be pre-sold on action figures or popular books. And you know, I think it was Martin Scorsese who said that we're all going to be watching holograms in 20 years and he may be right. You know, they've got to do something to - the theater owners have to do something to bring people out of their living rooms, and so the movies are just getting bigger and noisier and bigger and noisier. Opposed to that, you still have a stream of independent filmmaking that's playing primarily in the art houses, but it's also spilling over into streaming and on-demand. And you also have - digital technology has enabled anybody to make a film now. It used to be the province of the studios 50 years ago. Now anybody who's got a video camera, anybody who's got a cell phone and a YouTube account can make a film and have it seen globally in an afternoon. And that, of course, expands the number of potential movies being made. It expands the number of bad potential movies being made. But it also expands the number of good and interesting and novel and challenging films being made. And are those going to pop up in the theaters? Some of them are. But they're also increasingly popping up in all the other delivery platforms. So I think what we're seeing is a fragmenting, a fragmenting of the classic movie experience. And I do worry that 20 years from now most people will think of a movie as the thing you go downtown and put on the holographic helmet on, and that's a movie. And that "Godfather" thing that was made 50 years ago, that's like looking at a book from the 19th century.
GROSS: What's the best film you've seen so far this year?
BURR: Whew. This is probably going to shock you, but it really - I really enjoyed it and I'm still thinking about it is this Harmony Korine movie called "Spring Breakers"...
GROSS: Haven't seen it.
BURR: Which looks like it's another party hearty movie like "Superbad," about idiot college students, you know, drinking themselves into a coma and isn't that fun? Ha. Ha. Ha. It's actually a very subversive take on that. And it stars a bunch of Disney TV queens like Ashley - Vanessa Hudgins and Selena Gomez doing things that their Disney keepers would be horrified to see them do. It feels like a - this is going to sound terribly pretentious - but it does seem like a Jean-Luc Godard movie set in St. Petersburg during spring break.
GROSS: And I just, not all of it works and it's going to, it's not a movie for everybody, but I found it fascinating because it just mixed so many things in it and put it out there for you to think about and chew on. And I certainly think that a teenager who goes to it thinking that it's going to be a "Superbad" kind of movie, they're going to come out with their head completely scrambled. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Ty Burr, thank you so much for talking with us.
BURR: Thank you for having me on.
GROSS: Ty Burr is a film critic for the Boston Globe and author of the new book "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.
We were sorry to read that the pianist Bebo Valdes, one of the greatest Cuban musicians of his generation, died Friday at the age of 94. Several of us at FRESH AIR are big fans of his music, including me. We often play his recordings on our show. Valdes died in Stockholm, where he lived since leaving Cuba in 1960. His story helped inspired the recent animated film "Chico and Rita," which featured his music. Valdes' son, Chucho Valdes, is also a well-known pianist. Here's Bebo Valdez, recorded in 2003.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: That's Bebo Valdes. Coming up, we listen back to a 1988 interview with the influential Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. He died last week at the age of 82. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.