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"Everybody Loves Somebody": The A&E "Rat Pack" Biographies

From: Biography
Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2000
pp. 160-175 | 10.1353/bio.1999.0004

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Biography 23.1 (2000) 160-175


The growth of photography and the motion picture industry in the twentieth century has been coterminous with the cult of the celebrity personality. When specific actors and actresses suddenly became valuable, sought-after property, when the ticket-selling faces took on names, then the star system was born. Or as Kenneth Anger puts it, "Cinemaland was cursed in its cradle by that fateful chimera, the 'Star'" (28). The cult of celebrity experienced such rapid and prodigious expansion that by the middle years of the current century audiences were accustomed to being persuaded that they had special and privileged access to the off-screen, day-to-day lives of the "stars." In certain circumstances, fans found themselves encouraged by studio publicity mechanisms to attempt to erode the boundaries separating the individual ego from the personality of the celebrity, thereby allowing the fan to identify completely with the blessed life of the star. Writer Jay McInerney claims that it's an indication of a collapsed value system when the "great chain of being" seems to be defined by our distance from these empty luminaries -- or our connection to them, however vague -- and when the highest rung on the social order is occupied by these people, who are "essentially not anything" ("Questions").

For some, the celebrity is a mirror, a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself (Durgnat 137-38). For others, the celebrity is a direct or indirect projection of the needs, drives, and dreams of American society (Walker xi). As Richard Dyer point out, "stars have a privileged position in the definition of social roles and types, and this must have real consequences in terms of how people believe they can and should behave" (8). This privileged position is maintained in a variety of different ways. Primarily, it's maintained by the public relations industry that grows up alongside any successful celebrity. This industry allows us to amass, without any conscious effort on our part, a tremendous wealth of details concerning every aspect of the star's life and lifestyle -- from biographical accounts of childhood by close friends or family members, to photographic archives recording various hair styles and the history of outfits worn on various occasions, to graphic accounts of emotional intimacies and sexual preferences. It's also maintained by techniques like the close-up, a device that Bela Balazs describes as appearing to reveal "the hidden mainsprings of a life which we thought we already knew so well" (185), and by such mechanisms as the cinema or television celebrity "biopic."

Critics have often observed how celebrity personalities are "constructed" by the entertainment industry. This "personality construction" is so intrinsic to the "star system," so taken for granted by film and television audiences, that it's sometimes very difficult to understand how far it goes, where it begins, and when -- if ever -- it ends. These constructions, which include notions about what "makes" a star, and how people "become" stars, are so deeply entrenched in the ideology of western culture that they may perhaps be better described as myths.

"Touched with Magic"

One of these myths is the belief that stars become stars because they are "touched with magic" in the form of "great talent," "a rare personality," "an instantaneous connection with the public," "an overabundance of charismatic on-screen charm," or "the ability to make you care" (Wilkerson and Borie 181). Another myth is the idea that stars get "discovered," as in the old story of the accidentally-spotted soda-fountain girl who was quickly elevated to stardom -- a myth that, according to Daniel Boorstin, "soon took its place alongside the log-cabin-to-White-House legend as a leitmotif of American democratic folklore" (162). Other celebrity myths include the "star plucked out of nowhere who becomes difficult and uncooperative," the "big star who's declined into obscurity," the "star who sacrificed everything on the altar of ambition," and the overarching myth of "Hollywood as destroyer."

These myths, of course, all change and develop over time. It was once widely believed, for example, that the role and the performance in a film revealed something about the star'...

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