Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr's provocative new book Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame (Pantheon) traces the evolution of screen idols from Florence Lawrence (the Biograph Girl of 1909 — remember?) to Snooki. But he himself had a rough introduction to the celebrity world.
"In my early days at Entertainment Weekly," Burr recalls, "I got pushed into an interview with Lauren Bacall when she was promoting the 30th anniversary of Casablanca — she's not even in it, but she was the only one surviving who had any connection. I was unprepared, and she does not tolerate unprepared people, and she was real nasty."
Burr bears no grudges — he describes Bacall in his book as "[at 19] in possession of the assurance it had taken Bogart four decades to gather." Instead he ponders what makes stars like Bacall into the divinities of the title.
"I was a teenage movie geek into Gable, Lombard, and the Marx Brothers when I was a kid," he says about the origins of his project, which argues that new technology, from the talkies to YouTube, redefines celebrity. "I covered movies for EW and the Globe. I wanted to know who these stars are and why we respond to them. Then in the '90s I hand-coded the first EW webpage and got into the digital revolution."
That experience gave him an insight into how increased media intimacy drags stars further down to the level of the fans, and elevates fans into the realm of celebrity. "The audience now has the power to manufacture their own personas and broadcast them," he says, "while movie stars get pulled off their thrones."
And his own attitude towards celebrities these days? "They are professionals," he says. "They want to sell their film; you want to get a story. Sometimes you have a genuine conversation. I remember hanging out with Keira Knightley after Atonement and she was, I felt, pretty unguarded."
TY BURR :: Barnes & Noble Bookstore, 660 Beacon St, Boston :: October 15 :: 7 pm :: free :: bu.bncollege.com
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