When stars were stars

I watched a dreadful movie last night, really dreadful.  But here’s the interesting thing:  even though it was a terrible movie, with a creepy plot, I didn’t turn it off and walk away.  Instead, I watched it from beginning to end.  Why?  Star power.

The movie was a Rock Hudson/Doris Day classic from 1961 called Lover Come Back.  Rock and Doris play feuding Madison Avenue ad executives.  Although billed as a romantic comedy (it is Rock and Doris, after all), Rock’s character can best be described as sociopathic.  In order to win clients, he’s willing to pour alcohol into people, pimp women, lie, cheat, steal, and manipulate.  As one of his lies, he pretends to Doris to be a naive scientist, and she falls in love with him.  When the truth is revealed — when she learns that Rock has lied to her and has confirmed the fact that, in his real identity, he’s a terrible human being — she still loves him.

If this was a modern movie, I would have walked out in the first half hour, with my husband calling after me, “You hate everything.”  I’m not sure I hate everything, but I definitely hate watching creepy, whiny, modern Hollywood actors play distasteful roles.  I have better things to do with my time.

Why, then, did I stick around for this movie?  Star power.  Rock Hudson is wonderful.  Even though I know he was gay and that the macho man thing was an act, what an act.  Every time he was on the screen, all I could think of was how gorgeous he was.  He epitomized tall, dark and handsome, with his towering height, perfect face, deep voice, and, despite all that manliness, a warm, puppy-dog charm.  He took a despicable character, and through the force of his own personality, made him lovable.

Doris Day was no slouch either.  She looks exactly like a beautiful petit four, with her platinum hair, blue eyes, pink cheeks and, most importantly of all, that radiant, sunny smile.  She spends a large part of the movie huffing and mincing, but it doesn’t matter.  Get her together with Rock, and after about five minutes, that husky voice relaxes, the radiant smile bursts out, and Rock smiles at her in return.  Sigh….

I can’t think of any modern actor who is so delightful to spend time with that I’d stick around for what is otherwise a boring movie.  There are some actors I like more than others, but if the movie is bad, they don’t have enough charm to hold me to my chair.  Take Anne Hathaway, for example.  She’s a very talented young woman, who can appear delightful, sing and even do splits.  When she’s in a good movie, I enjoy watching her.  But when she’s in a bad movie, one that sees her emoting and posing and baring her breasts . . . I am gone.  Despite her many talents, she is only as good as her roles.

The same is true for Meryl Streep.  For years, I’ve really thought that there must be something wrong with me, because I do not like Meryl Streep.  I readily concede that she’s hugely talented in a technical way as an actress, but I find her boring.  Once I’ve finished admiring how beautiful she imitates someone, such as Julia Child or Margaret Thatcher, there’s not usually that much left to enjoy.  She’s like a high-end, carefully scripted Rich Little or a not-very-funny Frank Caliendo.  It was such a relief, the other day, to read Steve Dowty’s post positing that Streep is, in fact, a very talented mimic who brings little warmth or charisma to a role.  She’s workmanlike, but no star:

Streep is perhaps the exemplar of the modern Hollywood theory of acting, which holds that the perfection of the craft lies in the total immersion of the actor in the character. This is “The Method,” which began to take over Hollywood in the late 40s, and really hit its stride when Marlon Brando burst onto the scene, alternately mumbling and screaming, in 1951. Since then actors have competed to become as invisible as possible, hiding behind accents, tics, quirks, foibles, or disabilities, or simply mimicking the voice and mannerisms of a real person.

[snip]

When Streep acts, no matter the role, every single word and gesture looks perfectly studied, considered, and prepared, as though she’s trying to give the story a manicure. She hasn’t the knack of convincing the audience that what they’re watching is actually happening. We can’t believe that what we’re seeing is real, and often it’s precisely because the excellence of the mimicry calls attention to the essential falsity of the situation.

By way of contrast, Jimmy Stewart never completely left himself out of his characters (which was okay, because we liked him).  He was always, in his voice and mannerisms, Jimmy Stewart, even when he was called George Bailey or Rance Stoddard or Elwood P. Dowd.  But Stewart had the ability to make any film seem like a hidden-camera documentary, capturing events as they happened. Even if the characters never rise much beyond the level of Archetype or Everyman (and here’s another interesting question: what’s wrong with that?), it’s the ability to achieve the impression of spontaneous action that made great actors of Stewart and others like Lionel Barrymore.

Without a good script, Streep offers nothing worth sticking around for.  There is no there there.

John Nolte has latched onto the same problem with his suggestion that Hollywood can cure its woes and become a money-making machine again.  Aside from such obvious points as making movies people want to see, and telling stars to stop insulting their audiences, Nolte tells Hollywood to bring back the star:

You can trace most of Hollywood’s problems back to the death of the movie star. At first, the industry was thrilled with this development. No movie star meant no big payday, no ego, and none of the baggage too many stahs carry with them. The industry also found that, at least for a while, they could get away with this. Audiences were still packing theatres to see pre-packaged brands developed from high concepts, comic books, novels, and television shows. Sequels, remakes, and prequels were still sure-fire. Who needs to pay Tom Cruise $30 million to run around with CGI’d dinosaurs when just as many people will pay to see Jeff Goldblum do the same?

This was all well and good until the “brands” ran out. Now Hollywood is down to “The Green Lantern” and board games like “Battleship.”

Movie stars, on the other hand, are the most reliable brands out there. People come to see them and if you have enough of them and if you keep developing them, the inventory is limitless. From the 1920s straight through to right around 1990, if you built it with movie stars, audiences would come. Hollywood didn’t need to rely on “brands” because they built pictures around their stars.

Having been charmed by Rock, I’ve now told TiVo to look for his films.  No matter how bad they are, I’ll probably stick through to the end, just to see him.  After all, I do the same thing with films starring Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, Fred & Ginger, and myriad other class acts from the old days.  Watching all of them was sheer pleasure, no matter the usually foolish scripts.

 

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  1. 94Corvette says

    Last night my wife and I also watched ‘Lover Come Back’ – and it was fun to watch the acting – story was insipid but Tony Randall, Rock Hudson and especially Doris Day were great.  Bookworm, you are so correct. . . . we don’t have any ‘stars’ like we use to.  I think much of that has to to with our losing the sense of boundaries we used to have.  Stars may have had their faults, but the press didn’t parade them for us to see.  For Christmas my wife surprised me with a Jean Arthur collection from TCM, (knowing that next to her, Jean Arthur is the love of my life, followed closely by Audrey Hepburn). 

    What is amazing to me is to watch a great movie such as ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ and realize the timelessness of the script.  When Alice and Tony are sitting on the bench in the park, her monologue about being afraid is a classic.  The words ring so true, especially today. . .  “people are afraid of spending money, they are afraid of saving money. . .” but especially when she exposes her father’s dislike for those who use fear to take advantage of people.  Our politicians have perfected the art of making us fearful, we used to trust in the future, now they want us to trust in them to save us from that future.  Tony talks of biofuel being the key to our energy needs; amazing when you consider that it was 1939 that he was saying this.  

    TCM is a staple in our house and I have come to love the classics.  Tonight’s “Portrait of Jennie” was an amazing tale. . . and immediately following was “The Farmer’s Daughter” which again is timeless. 

        

         

  2. says

    I so agree. Just last night my 20 year old said that all the “old” (that might be the 1980s to her!) were always good. It’s sort of true because the actors were the reason we watched.

    And I’m glad to hear you say that about Meryl STreep. Her acting seems very artificial to me now.  There are much better, less lauded actors that I’d rather watch than her these days.

    We are HUGE Doris Day fans in this house! 

  3. says

    I don’t think they can create stars any more. The old studio bosses may have been marketing geniuses with an eye to what sells, but the degree of control–no, tyranny–they held over their stars’ behavior on and off stage would be impossible today.

  4. Caped Crusader says

    If you listen closely to the dialogue in these movies there are subtle references to Hudson being gay but they went right over our heads in the 1960’s era. In the movie where they sing Roly-Poly there is a scene where Hudson says he likes to collect recipes and he drinks with his little finger sticking out, etc. after Doris has been warned to look out for effeminate mannerisms by Tony Randall, I believe.

  5. says

    I often make it a priority to listen to voice actors in a show to see if I can recognize them. Usually I can, though sometimes I cannot. Some voice actors have very clear signatures, others can produce modulation changes of pitch which can convert their gender even. Some people look for anime with their favorite voice actors, when otherwise they wouldn’t watch the show at all. Even though the characters are different, the personality and majestic force of the actor itself, remains constant. Noto still has the kind, soft, and deliberative sound. Norio on the other hand, has a deep voice well suitable for villains or masculine leaders. The voice actor of Code Geass, the protagonist, also has a deep and interesting voice, perfect for the villain or anti-hero. They also play comedic roles, but in those roles their voice quality doesn’t change, but instead becomes ridiculously funny when a male deep voice tries to play a homosexual using effiminate gestures. An obvious joke, as they could easily have gone for a bishounen voice and look instead.

    Btw, if you haven’t seen much anime, then you can’t be said to hate everything, Book. You haven’t even seen half of everything.

     Ideas have been floating around for awhile, like biofuels. Either an inventor makes it have commercial success, like Edison, or people try and fail. Tesla was attempting to use AC circuits, which were pretty complicated and unnecessary cost for small towns that weren’t going to use much electricity to begin with. Edison’s DC circuits were much more profitable instead. Even our electronics use DC power, converted from AC, because it’s much more simple, and much easier to “fix”. Of course once demand for electricity went up, AC infrastructure in the form of all those power lines, were then in demand and could be supplied given the infusion of capital. The point is, the Left has a survey of many ideas over the centuries, and when something looks to be close to success, they infiltrate and march through the institution: taking it over like they did feminism and the catholic church in part or in whole. Biofuels were no different.

     The strong points of a Japanese visual novel are the excellent personalities brought to the screen by the voice actors and the excellent scenario writing made by Original Creators. Unlike a committee of Hollywood writers, there’s a lot more room for individualism and creative talent to show itself. That’s pretty sad when you understand the differences between American and Japanese culture, but it’s also true. The Japanese have a rigid mono culture, while America values diversity, yet creatively, the Japanese have Hollywood beat 9 thousand times out of every 10 thousand.

     Illusion when made too perfect, no longer starts to fool people. People seek illusion because it’s a substitute for a reality they cannot achieve, but they still want that reality, thus they are turned off if the illusion is too perfect. They want something visceral or real, to back up their belief that such could be achieved, by others if not themselves. Hollywood, with its inability to do true tragedy, pride, evil, or sad dramatic endings, is due to a simple fact: the Left tolerates nothing but perfection. In a creative sense, that might as well be suicide. A creation is never perfect, thus artists that do not tolerate imperfection, will produce no finished works at all. While I don’t know what acting method the Japanese use, it is quite clear that such is very effective. I believe it is similar to the Jet Li philosophy of making illusion real, by putting in extremely high amounts of hard work and dedication. Thus even if Jet Li isn’t a kung fu master that defeated many in deathmatch duels *Yuanjing*, at least he has approximate life experiences in order to form a base that can be used to produce that illusion. A perfect illusion, does not need anything in reality to form it.

     

  6. says

    One of the most disgusting and ugly things about Hollywood is how they don’t just produce illusion for people’s entertainment. Many individuals produce illusionary entertainment, such as magicians. What is wrong with Hollywood right now is that what they show is 180 degrees from the truth. Take 24 for example. The chief star or actor in it, has views 180 degrees opposite that of the personality he plays. 180 degrees. How then does he act in the job? By sublimating his own personality. But isn’t that like brainwashing or identity death? And that’s what Hollywood trains people to do, to like, and to see. And they get paid to do that even. That’s a dangerous cult, and this cult has the Leftist Alliance’s support, the democrat party’s support, as well as their own bank accounts supporting their propaganda.

     There’s a fine line between making stuff up for fun and deceiving people. Hollywood long ago crossed that line. They became so good at it, they fooled themselves. The cultural idea that actors are drug addicted and whores, may or may not have originally been true. But Hollywood made it true because that’s what they believed was “GOOD” and “Beautiful”. What you see as beautiful, Hollywood sees as ugly. What Hollywood sees as beautiful, you all see as ugly and disgusting. Doesn’t anyone realize that this difference is far more wide an expanse than political differences or even ethical differences? 

  7. Dagwood says

    I think there are a few actors who can carry a film or portray a character without misdirecting our attention from the story to the artist.  Gary Oldman gets it right imo, as sometimes does Daniel-Day Lewis.  But there are very few these days.  Agree completely that CGI is maybe the biggest reason for the decline of decent films and great actors.
     
     

  8. Charles Martel says

    I always thought Doris Day was underrated as an actress. She was certainly a damned good singer.
     
    Hudson was OK by me, too. There was just enough Vaseline smeared over the surface of his personality that the mind’s eye could see him playing un-Rock Hudson-like roles plausibly. His 1966 movie “Seconds” was one I accidentally encountered during a bout of insomnia. I came away from thinking, “Wow, that was Rock Hudson in an offbeat sci-fi, altered reality, what-if, semi-horror flick?” I always liked him a lot after that.
     

  9. Libby says

    I think a big part of it is that most stars today don’t really appear to be adults; they lack maturity. It’s all  boyish men and  girlish women. Can you imagine trying to cast a movie like “The Philadelphia Story”, “Notorious”, or “Rear Window”? George Clooney doesn’t hold a candle to the masculinity of Cary Grant, and Anne Hathaway is an adolescent compared to real women like Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly.

  10. Zhombre says

    A very talented mimic who brings little warmth or real charisma to a role?  Hmmmm … I think Obama is our first Method President. I’ve asserted his ‘gift’ is for mimicry – appearing to be what he needs to be to advance himself.  

  11. jj says

    It’s a very different time, very different dynamic at work today – as Kali points out.  The guys who ran the studios prior to the sixties were, despite all the absurd stories you hear today, very good at what they did, and mostly what they did was people.  They were smart enough to pick the people around them, and it was those people who found the “stars.”  They were not perfect of course, and the part that isn’t really remembered is that for every future star discovered walking down the sidewalk, or having a tuna sandwich at the drugstore, there were 500 misses.  They got a screen test, they got an audition, they got a shot – but behind every Lana Turner there were a whole lot of those tests to which the reaction was “oy.”  Those who were discovered and succeeded were a pretty miniscule minority, and they were a success because they actually had something to offer, and they were able to – in Hollywood parlance – “come through the camera.”  (Or they had an unstoppable talent.  Fred Astaire was not “big,” and he did not project through the camera – but he was Fred Astaire.  His feet did.)
     
    Once past the initial screening and testing, the system took over.  That’s the part that no longer exists.  The studios were factories, and their product was people.  Stars.  They handled presentation from top to bottom: hair, make-up, clothes, lifestyle – all of it.  Up-and-comers on the star track were placed in vehicles selected specifically to allow them to shine, and make the most of whatever they did best.  They were slotted into the life that had been selected for them to represent, and that was the life they pretty much lived.  The publicity machine went to work on them, their casual exposure was not casual at all but was very deliberately orchestrated, all the non-publicity, accidental photographs taken at restaurants, etc. were not in the least accidental, those photographers were owned by the studios.  And so Archie Leach becomes Cary Grant, and lives Cary Grant’s life – but it was a creation.  (And as he himself once observed: “every man would like to be Cary Grant.  I’d like to be Cary Grant!”)  Marion  Michael Morrison becomes John Wayne, and starts living John Wayne’s life.  (Though in his case – as in others – Jimmy Stewart comes to mind – that really was his life.  It was more a matter of going along with the way they were anyway than creating something from whole cloth.)
     
    The films themselves were structured very differently, too.  The directors were also studio guys.  Today you look at a guy like Michael Curtiz, who was an Academy Award winning, heavy-duty director, and he – like every other director on the lot – would crank out half a dozen movies a year.  How did they find time to do that?  Simple: when they were assigned to a film and handed a script, it was a script that no director today would accept.  It specified everything: every shot, how many cameras, the location of each shot, the complete blocking (exactly where everybody in a scene would stand, which side would face the camera), the exact camera angle for every shot, the precise lighting for every shot, and how long the shot should take.  When all the shots were done, the editors took the film – no input from directors on editing, thanks, we got editors for that – and went and looked in their mailbox at the studio to find their next project.  (The one time Curtiz did go off script, because everybody hated the script, was an adaptation of a not-very-successful play called Everybody Goes to Rick’s.  He and a couple of other guys basically wrote the next day’s pages every night, doing it as they went along. Curtiz caught hell – and was fined – for daring to do that.   It was considered to be a B movie while it was being made, and had been intended as a vehicle for Ronald Reagan and Anne Sheridan, though they were substituted out, because Reagan had been injured, so his frequent co-star Sheridan was moved to something else.  After shooting finished, it went through a dozen more titles before the studio finally settled on Casablanca.)
     
    It wasn’t a different world – it was a different universe.  You made the movie the studio bosses wanted you to make.  You made it with the cast they sent you.  You made it on the schedule they specified.  Everything, as Kali notes, was controlled, and the machinery was geared to the creation of stars, because they translated to money.  But there was nothing accidental or serendipitous about who became a star.  If it looked like you were going to work out in the tests, you made a bunch of B movies before you found yourself in the A’s, and you did a few of them in company before you were expected to be the horse, carry the film, and be the guy (or girl) who had the job of drawing the audience to see you.  By the time that responsibility landed on your head, you’d been groomed and trained, and Sam Goldwyn or Jack Warner already knew you’d work out.  It was an arduous training process, and there were no accidental stars: they learned what they were doing, did it a lot, proved themselves, and earned it.
     
    Of course they were in a different league than what we have today – how could they not be?

  12. Ron19 says

    A couple weeks ago we watched Wag the Dog with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman.  A few days later I was thinking about John Wayne.  When you went to a John Wayne movie, you saw John Wayne; if you didn’t like the John Wayne persona, you didn’t go to the movie.  Even in The Wake of the Red Witch, as a bad guy, he was still recognizable as the young Duke. 

    What led to thinking of him was watching Dustin Hoffman as Stan the Producer in Wag the Dog.  You saw Stan, not Dustin Hoffman.  Same in The Rainman with Raymond vs. Tom Cruise the actor.  You watched “Ratzo” Rizo in Midnight Cowboy.  Three characters in Tootsie.  Marathon Man.  In “Who is Harry Kellerman …” it was worth staying awake for the first half, so that you could enjoy Georgie Soloway in the second half.  Benjamin in The Graduate. 

    When I saw The Rose, I suddenly didn’t like Bette Midler, and it took a long time understand why.  It turned out Bette did Rose so well, I strongly didn’t like the character Rose, and my dislike transferred to Bette Midler.  I like her again. 

    Why do you like modern American sailors?  Why do we guys like to stand around and watch construction sites, or watch trains go by?  Why does my wife like to watch ice skating on TV?  Because we are naturally attracted to excellence. 

    Would you rather drive a Corvette or a Yugo?  I’m not a Corvette kind of guy, but my son and I went to the National Corvette Weekend while my daughter had a special luncheon for her bridesmaids who had just flown in from around the country; she wanted the best of her best friends.  There were thousands of Corvettes at the Corvette museum in two parking lots.  I had to park in the third area, with all the rest of the nobody cars.  There were literally thousands of Corvettes there.  I normally don’t think about or desire Corvettes, but did see three that I would ever consider buying, because they were really beautiful in their own right. 

    A few years ago, there was the biggest low budget movie ever made in New Zealand, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy.  The editing was excellent, because I didn’t notice it. 

    A few months ago we watched Woodstock.  It wasn’t as great as it was when I was 20.  However, I did notice the editing.  Normally when that happens, it’s because there was some noticeably bad editing.  In Woodstock, the editing was so good, that it jumped out at me.  I made a point of watching for the editor in the credits.  It turned out that Martin Scorsese was one of the editor supervisors.  Excellence in action.  The movie was mostly directed in the editing room, not in the fields at Woodstock. Back to Dustin and the Duke.  Dustin becomes the character; the character becomes John Wayne.  They both did their acting with excellence.

  13. Ron19 says

    How do you split a comment into more than one paragraph here?

    [This is a common problem, and I don't know the answer. If I have the time, I can go in and fix the paragraph breaks, as I did here. Does anyone know how to keep paragraph breaks? -- Bookworm]

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