Commentary Magazine


Stars and Celebrities

Long before anyone saw it on film, it was a famous scene: the actor Rip Torn, without obvious provocation, attacking Norman Mailer with a hammer, taking him by surprise and, in the subsequent wrestle, getting his ear bitten by the startled writer, who was fighting back with whatever weapons the memory of former street brawls suggested.

The encounter came when Mailer thought he had finished principal photography on Maidstone, his latest home movie (it cost over a quarter of a million dollars), but it was recorded by D. A. Pennebaker, the cinéma-verité film-maker, who was serving as Mailer’s cinematographer. Without actually reviewing Maidstone, I want to use this, its final scene, as a point of departure for some thoughts it provoked in me about public performance—the art of it and the changing expectations all of us, actors and audience alike, now entertain for it.

Mailer is strongly committed to what, for want of a better term, we might call improvisatory movie-making. Toward the end of Maidstone, when he was under the misapprehension that it was all over, he called together his cast—many of them not professional actors but friends he had managed to enlist—and tried to explain what he thought they had all been doing during the several days they had spent on Gardiner’s Island, off Long Island, making the film’s climactic scenes. In essence, he told them—while Pennebaker’s cameras continued to run—that he sees filmmaking as analogous to a military operation. There is an objective, there are plans, but as the “army” begins to execute these plans, unexpected contingencies arise and new strategies must be invented, under pressure, to cope with the new developments. The objective—the film’s meaning—remains clear, but the means of achieving it necessarily change, and, in the end, the movie defines itself as the classic “existential hero” does, not through whatever ideal it may aspire to, but through the process of trying to attain to that ideal. Mailer’s point was similar to the point Harold Rosenberg has made in discussing Gide’s The Counterfeiters; the true novel of our time, said Rosenberg, “must be improvised out of events that take place independently of the intentions of the actors, and . . . it can have no ending any more than events do.”

This, precisely, was the point that Rip Torn failed to grasp. Maidstone is a fantasy in Mailer’s Presidential series and its purpose, other than as an episode in the continuing drama of Mailer’s own celebrity (of which more later), is to examine the conditions under which, in our highly volatile society, a famous artist (in this case a movie director played by Mailer and, except for his occupation, indistinguishable from Mailer in viewpoint) might become a serious candidate for President and how such a figure might, simply by virtue of being a celebrity, also be a candidate for assassination, only slightly increasing the risk when he formally enters politics. (Informally, as Mailer understands, any celebrity is in politics whether he likes it or not, just as political figures are in art—or at least show business—as we now define it, whether they like it or not.)

If, however, Mailer gave his “army” to understand that their “objective” was to create a situation in which he (or the character he was playing) might believably be killed, his army—for reasons not entirely clear in the film itself—never quite managed to storm that position. Though some violence did occur in the scene where, logically, the Mailer character should have been killed, it was not directed at Mailer. Still, given his belief in the existentially self-defining work of art, that was all right with Mailer. In effect, the people had spoken and, perhaps, given a sign—that in times so desperately out of joint only an out-of-joint personality could hope to survive in public life.

But it was not all right with Torn. He is, after all, something of a celebrity himself and actors of repute take on projects, even such unstructured ones as this, in expectation of getting at least one good scene they can call their own. Throughout Maidstone Torn can be observed skulking around the edges of other people’s scenes, but by the time he had confidently “wrapped” his film, Mailer had still not given Torn a fair chance to do his stuff, a chance to which, under all the laws and customs of his profession, he was entitled as the only “name” actor present. In fact, watching the film, the audience—conditioned to expect, no less than the stars themselves, star turns—is made dissatisfied by the under-utilization of Torn. Tantalized by glimpses of him, one keeps waiting to see Torn cut that demented energy of his loose, and the longer he is prevented from doing so, the more anxious one becomes. Thus, when he finally does take matters into his own hands, one feels, among other less exalted feelings, a certain sense of relief.

Probably it was the ham in Rip Torn that forced itself out in the end. Yet in speculating about what he did and why, some attention should also be paid to the theatrical traditionalist who abides vestigially in all actors and especially in one who has had his Share of anti-heroic roles of late, is probably sick of the fashion for irresolute movies, and who may very well instinctively sense that men like Mailer, with their sophisticated understanding of the new celebrity game (which derives from the comparatively simple star system but is so much more complex to manage), are driving actors to the sidelines of public attention, just as Torn is driven to the fringes of this film.

Even if that reading imputes too much to Torn’s sociological intelligence, he must still be given credit, at least, for keen theatrical professionalism, for understanding the dramatic imperative to prevent the movie from just sputtering out, as Mailer was apparently willing to let it do, by simply rationalizing his method and explaining how the very lack of a strong conclusion validated that method. Torn clearly sensed that Maidstone needed what he was prepared to supply: a highly dramatic resolution, a big finish. And so, indeed, he insists in justifying his action to Mailer after the wrestling match is concluded, and the director and the actor—with, of course, Pennebaker’s camera still running—continue their argument verbally. One is aware, by this point, that Torn has been right all along. The scene does not “work” within the sketchy fictional framework Mailer has long since demolished (as Torn should probably have realized); yet it does provide the film with an ending and perhaps even with its chief rationale for existence. And Mailer now seems to agree that Maidstone needed this scene as much as Torn’s aching ego did.

But when Torn picked up his hammer and started flailing away at an entirely astonished Mailer, I had the feeling that he was taking up the cudgels not only for himself but for his profession as well. He was a man in revolt against the definition of himself as a mere extension—a sort of unconscious plaything—of the auteur, who may talk about the freedom of the actors to improvise solutions to the problems encountered on the way to the objective he has defined for them, but who actually provides the sole organizing principle of the work himself—and usually much later in the cutting room when the actors have moved on to other concerns. This total surrender of self to director is growing in movie work, where, increasingly, directors improvise as they go along, or withhold knowledge of a script’s resolution from their actors, or force them to repeat and repeat a scene (as John Cassavetes does) until they lose their bearings and begin to behave with unscripted craziness. As a result, the situation that had previously pertained, in which there were several power centers in the creation of a movie and the leading actor certainly commanded one of them, is replaced by a kind of centralization of power, an exclusive concentration of it into the mind and will of the director.

The point deserves some expansion: until very recently each film in which a particular star might appear was properly seen—if not by him, then by his fans—as but a single event in a much larger drama, namely, the star’s career. He came to each new enterprise trailing behind him (and often tripping over) the wisps of former parts, and we were pleased or displeased in the degree that, in his new role, he fulfilled our unspoken expectations. If, in addition, he provided some small variation on his basic personal theme, some new characterological wrinkle (such as, for example, the self-parody that began to creep into John Wayne’s performances long before it fully bloomed in True Grit), then we counted ourselves twice-blessed.

It might even be said hyperbolically that the movie star fulfilled some of the functions of the hero in classic drama. We grasped that his fate was predetermined, as though by the gods, in that he was limited by the very workings of genetics in the roles he might undertake; Wayne could not, for example, essay drawing-room comedy while Cary Grant (or Humphrey Bogart, for that matter) did not sit comfortably in a Western saddle. Moreover, we felt that, if the gods did not actually descend onto the stage at the end of the star’s life to decree his fate, it was nevertheless, often as not, an inexorable one. Some actors, like Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart, proved to be durable human types with extremely long careers. Others were momentary phenomena, whose vogue passed quickly. Still others were tragically flawed, like Marilyn Monroe, and were unable to deal successfully either with the peaks or the valleys of their careers and ended up drunks or suicides or the most pathetic kind of has-beens—doing small parts on TV situation comedies or working in the soaps. It is not for nothing that one of the most enduring themes in our popular culture has been the one which was archetypically stated in A Star Is Born .

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Recently, however, things have begun to change. Show business, which used to be rigged in favor of the star, is now largely rigged against him. This is not to say that many who are serious (or at least sober) about their work do not find the new arrangement more congenial. Nor it is to imply that all the reasons for the change in emphasis are socio-psychological. Economics has a great deal to do with the matter. Star salaries rose to such impossible heights in the last decade or so that few if any of the names billed above the title could any longer perform the economic function they once did, which was to guarantee box-office success for any project they appeared in. Then, too, with fewer big features being produced, fewer stars are presently needed. It has become almost impossible for young actors to work in three or four films a year—as was the case when studios would put young people under term contracts and build them into valuable properties by the simple process of repeatedly exposing them to the public gaze.

But even if none of these factors had come into play, and even if the movies had not been economically reduced by television, I think it likely that the institution of stardom would have undergone the radical alteration we have been witnessing. To begin with, it must be remembered that stars were created and existed in a highly stylized world, that of the sound stage and the backlot, and although Hollywood prided itself on its ability to reproduce reality in those confines, the fact is that it never really did. The best Western or suburban or smalltown or New York street (to name the most common permanent backlot installations) were never more than good generalizations. They lacked the feel of actuality. They lacked specificity. They looked like everywhere and nowhere. We applauded the miracle of how close they came to natural and architectural truth, all the while picking up, out of the corner of our eye, as it were, comforting reminders that it was all a clever, pleasing fake: and, of course, a perfect setting for stars who were, like the sets themselves, generalizations from types, so much like us in all the unimportant ways that we were carried, all unknowing and uncaring, over the line into fantasy when they suddenly became un-typically brave or witty or romantically apt.

Thus the beginning of the decline of the star system coincides with Hollywood’s abandonment of the backlot and the sound stage to television. Today one of the competitive edges the movies have over television is their ability not only to go out into our own streets for background but into any street, no matter how exotic or inaccessible, anywhere in the world. The fact that it is technologically now possible to pack cast, crew, and all the equipment they need into a Cinemobile Systems bus makes it easier and cheaper to borrow reality as a stage than to reproduce or simulate it. And so it is that for ten or fifteen years now most of the best films have been shot plein air or on location.

But notice: the stars don’t really fit here. Watching an essentially unreal figure like Kirk Douglas move around a New Jersey Italian neighborhood (The Brotherhood) or watching him drive on a Los Angeles freeway (The Arrangement), we are jarred by the inappropriateness. He belonged to a backlot world and he now seems right only when set into a period as remote from living reality as his own star personality is—in something like There Was a Crooked Man, an exotic Western rendered even more exotic by its curious setting (a prison in the middle of a desert). For what we really want in the new, totally real settings are anonymous faces, somewhat familiar-looking but not excessively so. Against such backgrounds the faces of movie stars stick out like a sore thumb: what, we wonder, are they doing there?

Another reason why the star system is likely to continue its decline is that, as with every other cultural commodity, so with the stars—our attention-span is shorter than ever. Thus we now see show-business phenomena like Elliott Gould who has gone from discovery to stardom to decline in eighteen months—an entire career compressed into a wink of history’s eye.

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But far more damaging to the institution of stardom than the working of movie economics, technological change, and the shortening of the public’s attention span, is the effect of democratization. Metaphorically, of course, movie stars have always rubbed shoulders with celebrities from other fields in the gossip columns, but it was not until television in general, and the talk shows in particular, began to force them into closer, often accidental, intimacy with figures of greater substantiality and substance, figures so often superior to them socially and intellectually if not in physical beauty, that the stars began to suffer by comparison. The fact is that movie stars, until recently, existed in, depended on, remoteness to achieve their hold upon us. The task of their press agents was, largely, to protect them from intrusion, and on those rare occasions when they were placed on public exhibition, to make sure it was a controlled situation—a premiere, for example, or the kind of large event (a war-bond rally, for instance) where distance lent enchantment.

In his pioneering chapter on celebrity in The Power Elite, C. Wright Mills quoted Gustave Le Bon to the effect that “From the moment prestige is called in question it ceases to be prestige. The gods and men who have kept their prestige for long have never tolerated discussion. For the crowd to admire, it must be kept at a distance.” It follows that a discussion program on television, a medium the prime power of which is to reduce distance, is the worst possible place for a star to show himself—unless he happens to be uncommonly intelligent, aware of how the power of the medium works and how to disarm it. (A common ploy, used by veteran and especially prestigious stars, is to insist on being isolated with the host, as Fred Astaire, for example, did when an entire Dick Cavett show was devoted to him.)

But most stars, though they have insatiable egos, also have a sort of innocence about them, which is why when they are belatedly politicized they usually talk and behave like such idiots. Most of them have no understanding of the nature of the enterprise in which they are engaged, often naively clinging to the notion that they are just actors, stoutly insisting that their obligation to the public ends with performing roles, and not noticing that actors who are only role players are almost never stars—unless of course they are English and knighted. Many of them search all their lives for “different” parts, complaining bitterly about type-casting, never comprehending that for a star—each of whose roles is only a single episode in the larger drama of his entire career—gross novelty is likely to be disastrous. Who needs a hero turning suddenly into a villain in the middle of the play?

It is this strange, even self-destructive, insistence on an attenuated self-definition that gets them into trouble. They like to think they are just ordinary people, despite their wealth and their isolation (no true star travels without a herd of flunkies, their function being to condition the psychic air around him to the temperature he finds most comfortable). But naturally, when they descend to less rarefied atmospheres where breathe variety headliners, real working actors, major and minor politicians, and authors plugging their latest books, the situation becomes quite different. Plunged on a talk show into a set of conditions he does not control—that is, into a reality that has been defined by someone else, someone who has his own fish to fry and can’t be bothered with protecting him—the star is often left gasping pitifully for breath.

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To put the matter bluntly, it requires a more supple and intelligent awareness of self and world than the average movie star possesses to manage the modern celebrity game successfully—and manage it Norman Mailer has, as well as anyone and better than most. For it is, of course, in the business of defining reality to suit himself that Mailer is most a genius. The drama he has constructed revolves around the question of just how great a writer he is. Will he finally produce the great novel he has publicly and repeatedly announced as his goal? Or will he, instead, redefine the novel to suit his talents, as he has come very close to doing with his brilliant ventures into journalism? Might he actually write his novel on film or through one of his candidacies for public office? Will he succeed in imposing upon all of us a truly lively awareness that in our time the great literary form is autobiography, chapters of which are to be written in all the different media, and the ending and meaning of which remain unknown to the author himself?

It should in sum be clear, then, that we are: (a) in a period where intelligence of Mailer’s order is necessary to survive within the celebrity system; that (b) the line between fiction and journalism is being blurred not only by the presentation of imaginary toads (the stars) in real—much too real—gardens, but by the cinéma-verité directors who increasingly deal not with reality as they discover it but as they restructure it (a good example being those movies about rock concerts that are set up primarily so that movies can be made of them); that (c) stars—and other actors too—are and will increasingly be subjected to experiences such as Rip Torn suffered in Maidstone, namely, engagements in films that deny them that sense of dramatic closure which they require both for their own instinctual satisfaction and for the creation—and re-creation—of an image that will resonate satisfactorily with the audience, stimulating a desire for replication in future films.

I doubt that there is much the star or the would-be star can do about this situation. For the director, as Truffaut once said, “is the only one to carry the whole film in his head.” As such, he is always potentially the great creative hero of our culture and the middlebrow audience is bound to see those who work for him as mere extensions of his artistic will. Moreover, the more intellectually sophisticated directors, whether they be professionals like Godard or talented amateurs like Mailer, share a desire to make movies that have at least the look of being “advanced forms of art” in which, according to Harold Rosenberg, “the indeterminacy of the act” is an underlying principle. They must therefore deny to the star those actions from which, in the past, he (and the audience) derived—often falsely, of course—the feeling that it was the star who controlled events. They thus deny to the star his traditional melodramatic ability to achieve heroic stature simply by resolving conflicts, and thereby walling off the work of art from the ravages of ordinary experience and of ordinary time.

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I am not, I discover, entirely happy with those “advanced forms” that stress “the indeterminacy of the act,” and as I think about it I am grateful to Rip Torn for acting upon his primitive and no doubt irrational distrust of Mailer’s rather too comfortable embrace of indeterminacy as a principle, for doing his violent damnedest not to let Maidstone be just another happening. If there is any hope to be derived from the movie, it is in Mailer’s acceptance of Torn’s contribution as the climax of his work.

Without it, at any rate, we would have been denied contemplation of a most delicious irony. This is that by asserting his rights as a public person, Torn yanked Mailer right out of his public persona . For in the argument they have in the aftermath of the assault Mailer ceases, for the moment, to play the role of the avant-garde film artist and multi-media celebrity, and becomes, instead, what any of us would likely be in the circumstances—an aggrieved parent. What is truly unforgivable, he says, is that Torn assaulted him “in front of the children.” And as glimpses of their frightened faces attest, Mailer was right to be angry on this score. In fact, one has never seen Mailer more appealing in public than he is here as a middle-class family man trying to protect his brood from the ugly realities of adult existence. And so, in a further ironic twist, Torn accidentally enhances the writer’s celebrity, providing one of those off-guard snapshots of the famous that have traditionally enlivened mass-magazine profiles and which have the effect not of diminishing the celebrity in size but of humanizing him for the audience.

As usual, then, Mailer has provided us with material that forces us to contemplate a matter of major significance in the realities of our time, even though—in still another ironic twist—he required on this occasion the assistance of an actor giving vent to an old-fashioned, un-chic, and entirely hammy instinct. Lovely. I haven’t wanted to think so much about a single movie scene in years.

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