Monday, January 02, 2012

The Star of the Show

(Quotes taken from Raymond Durgnat's "Pleading an Aesthetic Excuse" section in Films and Feelings, presented not as endorsement so much as food for thought.  More to follow on these topics, at some point.)

"In a sense the star is to the public as the sumptuous women of Tintoretto and Veronese were to the nouveau-riche of Renaissance Italy, or as the languorous favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites: in Edgar Morin's words, 'Movie glamour bears witness to the presence of the ideal at the heart of the real ... the archetypal beauty of the star acquires the hieratic quality of the mask. ... The star's ideal beauty reveals an ideal soul.'  Movie glamour is part of the artistic urge which tends, not towards the real, but towards the ideal.  It is the Platonism of l'homme moyen sensuel, for whom 'heaven' is more Garden of Eden than a cloudy realm of sexless angels."

"There are stars without superior beauty - Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler - for glamour is, perhaps, just one over-used facet of the life-force which stars assert as the classical Gods asserted (with Charlton Heston for Mars, Jerry Lewis for Dionysus ...).  Glamour without this streak of life-force can never make a star.  Of all Rank's charmschool girls only those who broke the mould made the grade - Diana Dors (by being brash, vulgar and working-class), Jean Simmons (by the glint of intensity, of Celtic feyness, in her well-balanced middle-class persona), Belinda Lee (after being liberated by an Italian love affair), and Honor Blackman (after donning black leather, high-boots, and topical fetishists' rig)."

"The physical and the psychological interweave: 'Invariably what made them stars' observes Arthur Mayer, 'was some physical attribute or personal mannerism' - he cites, 'John Bunny's jovial bulk, Mary Pickford's golden curls and sweet smile, Maurice Costello's urbanity, Clara Kimball Young's yearning eyes.'  We might add: Alan Ladd's deadpan, Bogart's paralysed upper lip and pebble voice, Veronica Lake's peekaboo wave - far from being just gimmicks, they are more even than iconographic emblems: fans take them as metaphors for personality traits, as lyrical assertions of character.  To see such traits as being, by the literary standards asserted by Henry James, psychologically crude, is only half the story.  The well-loved characters of Dickens and Conan Doyle, or for that matter of Fielding, Richardson and Racine, are no more complex; Dickens endowed his characters with 'catch phrases' corresponding to a visual medium's visual 'tags.'  And what makes an 'unrealistic' star seem, to an audience, realistic, is these feelings of theirs which his personality 'accommodates.'  They are his resonance in him."


"The intelligentsia's disdain of the star is motivated by the fact that the public's demands on a star's personality tend to limit the range of his performances.  (There are exceptions: T.S. Eliot was a Marie Lloyd fan, and her range was as narrow as Kim Novak's - or as Mr. Micawber's and Sherlock Holmes's.)  Second, intellectuals like to identify with creative artists, and current dogma has it that stars are witless things who do only what they're told by the director.  This content is often quite false: Lillian Gish contributed as much as any of her directors, Mae West and Burt Lancaster are famous for directing their directors.  In any case, the director works through his actors, just as a painter works through his paintings, and it is the work of art to which we should first respond.  An older tradition of film criticism talked about Bette Davis films (rather than Aldrich, Sherman, Rapper films); James Agate and La Revue du Cinema (the grandfather of Cahiers du Cinema) criticized in terms of stars as much as of directors; and it's a pity that such criticism in terms of stars has been left to the ladies of Films in Review, or degenerated into half-facetious cults by solemn intellectuals gigglingly off-duty.  (Which perhaps explains why slapstick is criticized in terms of stars - but not 'serious' films.)"

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