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Review: Ty Burr's 'Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame'

Thompson on Hollywood By Maggie Lange | Thompson on Hollywood October 2, 2012 at 3:21PM

David Thomson, watch out! In the pithy new book "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame," Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr delivers thoughtfully epigrammatic descriptions of movie stars, actors, and celebrities.
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Marlon Brando and Grace Kelly, both subjects of Ty Burr's "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame"
Marlon Brando and Grace Kelly, both subjects of Ty Burr's "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame"

David Thomson, watch out! In the pithy new book "Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,"  Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr delivers thoughtfully epigrammatic descriptions of movie stars, actors, and celebrities.  He wittily traces the progression of these characters from the early days of film to their current incarnations on the internet, from the young Frank Sinatra, who "looked like a freshly hatched ostrich but his singing voice promised a slowly crested big-band orgasm," to Harrison Ford, who is able to "make grumpiness seem sexy."

Paul Newman

Burr moves from descriptions of what makes these celebrities attractive to movie fans and to analysis of these players' importance in cinema and popular culture.  Ford, for example, was "the first star 'brand' in a modern sense."  Because of the timing of such iconic roles as Indiana Jones, Ford was associated with tie-in products, toys, TV appearances--and a multitude of sequels.  

Burr does make the occasional confusing claim.  He calls Keanu Reeves an "oddly elegant space cadet of a leading man… Gregory Peck reincarnated as a dude."  Hmm?  And, not to nitpick all the actors he left out, I do feel that he could have had fun with James Franco.

Mostly though, Burr is on track. Fred Astaire is an "art deco swizzle stick," Paul Newman's vibe is "unpretentious cynicism," Judd Nelson reads like "a crude caricature of Brando by way of  Dean," Kristen Stewart is "grace wrapped in sullenness."  

"Gods Like Us" is most comfortable  at the start of film history. Burr makes it clear that he wants to guide us through the first generation of movie stars in order to explain more recent iterations.

Scarlett

He gushes over Mary Pickford, who with husband and United Artists founding partner Douglas Fairbanks comprised the earliest celebrity couple (the Brangelina precursor's mansion was called "Pickfair").

Burr reminds that female celebrities mattered more in the Silent Era, that in fact early cinema was actually geared towards women. "The cinema, as a mass projection of a secret inner life, mattered more to the half of the population without power," he writes, and goes on to carefully trace the path of gender dynamics.

Burr highlights the resonance of the first time things happened in cinema. "Gone with the Wind," for example, was the first instance of an adaptation or film that induced a country-wide guessing game for the casting of the central character -- Scarlett O'Hara.  This "cultural parlor game" showed up most recently in debates on the casting of Lisbeth Salander and Katniss Everdeen.


The critic connects multiple generations of stars, noting family resemblance and what makes them different and relevant for the latest incarnation: "Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks represent good men in an unkind world, but where the former responds with troubled decency the latter wields ease and bonhomie." Of the second generation Brandos, he anoints Pacino, DeNiro, and Voight.  

Sometimes you're not sure where Burr is going with his connections, as when he compares Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood, who are "on the surface, diametrically opposed star personas, yet both are irreducible" directors, actors, and personae.  In the chapter entitled "The Glamour Backlash," he gives a brilliant explanation of why 1978's "Animal House" found such audience love: it "fed into and articulated a growing frustration with the culture's overbearing political correctness." 

This article is related to: Books, Reviews, Critics, Reviews


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.