'Gods Like Us' Analyzes Fame From On High
In Gods Like Us, film critic Ty Burr, the man behind many of the Boston Globe’s smooth and pointed movie reviews, delivers an entertaining survey of movie stardom.
Seeking to understand the history and phenomenon of stardom, Burr takes readers all the way from the late 1800s to present day; from the unnamed “stars” known only by their credits, such as “the Biograph Girl,” who went on to become Florence Lawrence, through the silent film era and Charlie Chaplin’s reign, and onto the Clark Gables, Humphrey Bogarts, Audrey Hepburns and Jimmy Stewarts of the times. Burr’s early work requires some discipline from the casual reader, who will no doubt be inundated with unfamiliar, yet instrumental, names. Burr is sensitive to the reader in these opening sections, often bridging the gap between old and new with descriptions like this one of Douglas Fairbanks, the first “King of Hollywood,” of whom he said that “all the subsequent ‘kings of Hollywood’… from Clark Gable to Jack Nicholson to George Clooney — are cut from cloth that Douglas Fairbanks tailored.”
Burr explores fun facts, such as Paul Newman’s decision to not sign with a studio immediately so he could explore a wide range of projects, and the starstruck relationship James Dean had with Marlon Brando, who is by far the most fascinating figure examined in the book. Burr also explores how star power, while enhancing box office grosses, could hinder the perception of an actor’s craft. Take, for example, Tom Cruise, who made a number of bold moves as an actor, such as accepting the challenge of starring alongside Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, and assuming a number of challenging roles in more artsy films like Interview With the Vampire and Magnolia, only to see his Oscar hopes dashed (he’s been nominated, but never won) in part because his image as a “star” contrasted with that of an “actor.” It’s not so much Cruise as it is the system that molded him, Burr claims. On the flip side, Meryl Streep’s image as an actress first enabled her to continually explore different roles without restraint, from innocent to sensual, loving to icy.
The book’s strength, its strenuous research and considerable attention to each era, however, also manifests itself as somewhat of an obstacle. Burr’s extensive work impressively captures the culture and businesses that evolved and shaped how stardom was implemented over the years, but in doing so it feels a bit rushed. We pay considerable attention to past and present superstars like Mary Pickford, Marlon Brando and Tom Cruise, but we want more of all of these, and more of the many other greats and fan favorites over the years. As a result, movie-lovers may feel a bit unsatisfied when their favorite stars are only lightly touched on. But in truth, these topics each deserve their own books, and Burr’s goal at the outset was to understand and evaluate the general phenomenon of stardom. With Burr's help, you may be able to analyze the rise (and fall?) of some of your favorite stars on your own. Grappling with a daunting topic, Gods Like Us is a worthwhile read for avid movie lovers, star crazed fans, and all those people who sneer at the tabloid covers wondering just why, exactly, our culture is so obsessed with the daily lives of our favorite stars.