“Hello, Hog-eye”

Cecil B DeMille, Billy Wilder, and Gloria Swanson on the set of Sunset Blvd.

Cecil B DeMille, Billy Wilder, and Gloria Swanson on the set of Sunset Blvd.

As recurrent characters in the movies, movie actors give a run for the money—but only figuratively speaking—to comic-book heroes on screen. The audience is fascinated by Stars. Action Star Kirk Lazarus is forced to become the soldier he portrays on screen in Tropic Thunder and franchise superhero Riggan ironically must confront Broadway in his underwear to be taken seriously in Birdman.

OK, sometimes it is not a pretty picture and the movie star character just doesn’t catch fire. In Paddy Chayefsky’s esoteric screenplay, The Goddess, for example, title character Emily Ann Faulkner is one gorgeous train wreck. She’d have to be: Emily Ann is modeled on the screen’s quintessential tragic sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe. Yet as portrayed on screen by a Broadway actress with considerable acting chops, even a Marilyn Monroe clone doesn’t have that explosive charge. Why is that? It is an insightful characterization, but the audience doesn’t feel that connection between movie star and movie-star character that they feel when silent-screen-goddess Gloria Swanson walks down her Sunset Blvd mansion staircase and Norma Desmond breaks through the fourth wall.

A Star Is Born, an enduring Hollywood story, first starred Janet Gaynor and then, in the most recent version, Barbra Streisand. Iconic child star Judy Garland’s performance drives the classic George Cukor musical version. On screen, Garland’s drunken husband slaps her face on stage on the night she wins the Academy Award.  Upon release of the movie, Garland’s Oscar snub in her comeback performance is as legendary.  

 Why? And why yet another version of A Star is Born? (Bradley Cooper is preparing to direct a new version with Lady Gaga.) Obviously, celebrity and glamor remain two predatory high-voltage charges and their mimetic casting proves combustible.

There appears to be a special place on screen and in box office for the movie goddess played on screen by a bona fide Superstar. Another classic Hollywood tale, The Bad and the Beautiful, flaunted sex, glamour, alcoholism, and backstabbing to win 5 Academy Awards. When not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, leading-lady Lana Turner philosophized that her Hollywood sex goddess stature meant the studio didn’t promote her as an actress. Smoldering throughout the film, she explodes in one of Tinseltown’s greatest driving scenes: costumed in glamorous white with luxurious fur trim, Georgia Lorrison breaks down hysterically at the wheel of her car on the night Georgia both loses the love of her life to another woman—and a cheap bit player at that—and wins the Best Actress Oscar.

Turner acknowledged that this scene was shot solo (in one day in a special-effects car chassis) weeks after the movie wrapped. As such, it demanded that she draw on her biographical experiences in Hollywood—and it shows. The audience is introduced to movie star Georgia in the film, but already knew movie-goddess Lana Turner. Turner was the Sweater Girl, the blonde bombshell in white short shorts and turban from The Postman Always Rings Twice. Today, Turner’s casting impact has increased with time. In retrospect we can also factor in her Schwab’s Pharmacy legend; eight marriages/seven husbands—one twice, including Tarzan; her Ross Hunter movie comeback; her TV comeback; Harold Robbins; and the Johnny Stompanato murder trial. Now no one can take his or her eyes off screen-goddess Lana Turner losing control of her car and her life…I mean screen-goddess Georgia Lorrison, losing complete control.

The morphing of acting into seduction-and-glamour into professionalism in an Art that is also Big Business is complicated, perhaps even contradictory, and thus compelling to watch. Hollywood is the Dream Factory town with tract houses from Architectural Digest and driveways straight to Hell. The superstar depiction of goddesses both glorifies and chastises movie stars whom the audience sees as egomaniacal, driven, and tragic by profession as well as amoral, insatiable, and unattainable by publicity. Celebrity, evidently fun to dream about, is even more fun to watch gone awry. Thus audiences feel envious of the famous as well as feeling vindicated for not being famous because just as the vampire must forfeit the sun to live forever, the movie goddess must forfeit her private life in order to attain and enjoy every excess life can offer―in public. And the stars portraying these movie-goddess characters so viscerally, not only represent this paradox to us, they live it for us.  

Come on, you get what I’m saying; this isn’t our first time at the rodeo.