Paths to Stardom:

February 14, 2015
Michael Keaton as Riggan in 'Birdman' (2014)
Michael Keaton as Riggan in 'Birdman' (2014)

Birdman, the new film by Alejandro González Inárritu, tells us everything we need to know about the ever-changing path to stardom. Riggan, played by Michael Keaton, is an actor who has become famous for playing a comic book superhero, but craves the prestige and ‘authenticity’ conferred by the Broadway stage. In the twilight of his career he is producing and starring in a play based on a story by Raymond Carver, an author known for his gritty naturalism. As the film unfolds, Riggan’s cherished beliefs about the ‘truth’ of the actor’s profession will be overturned.

Riggan begins with an old-fashioned, romantic view of his calling: only the actor who has succeeded in the theatre can call himself a star. His days as Birdman mean he is constantly being recognised in public, but he considers this a false acclaim that masks his deeper abilities and ambitions. Birdman has brought him fame, but he craves credibility.

What he will find is that credibility and authenticity are no longer valued in a world in which the instant notoriety conferred by social media is the new trigger for stardom. He will achieve this exalted state – “going viral” – by accident, not design.

The very idea of stardom – that one is seen and admired by countless people – is an obsession of the modern era. In ancient times a person’s role in life would be assigned at birth and few would escape these bonds. With liberal democracy came the possibility of self-advancement, but magical thinking still applies. To become a star represents a miraculous release from one’s destiny that owes nothing to Protestant virtues of thriftiness and hard labour, and everything to innate talent. We admire those who have made that escape and imagine ourselves in their shoes.

The ambiguous condition of stardom dates back at least as far as the London stage of the 18th century. Figures such as David Garrick and Sarah Siddons established a cult following that was unknown in a previous era when audiences came to see the play not the player.

The actors of the so-called Age of Sensibility introduced a new realism to their art, allowing viewers to savour the quality of a performance in which the role was inflected by the personality of the performer. Each of these stars was identified with a key character, Mrs. Siddons being known for her interpretation of Lady MacBeth, Garrick for Richard III, Edmund Kean for Hamlet. In the years that followed, popular singers would come to be known, in the same way, for one or two favourite songs.

For decades stardom was confined to the theatre. The figures celebrated by Thomas Carlyle in his book, On Heroes and Hero-Worship’ (1841), were Divinity, Prophet, Poet, Priest, Man of Letters and King. Those celebrated in the Victorian-era press were mainly politicians, soldiers, business leaders and inventors.

This changed with the arrival of the movies, when the studios realised that audiences were flocking to see particular actors. The movie star was born in the period from 1915-20, and their names on a poster, or up in lights, soon became more important than the subject of any film.

The stars became the focus of intense popular interest, with their private lives being no less a source of fascination than their screen personas. Whereas public interest had previously been devoted to men (and a few women) associated with positive, productive occupations, the movie stars were icons of consumption – both in their box office appeal to an eager, paying public and in the wealth and extravagance of their life-styles.

The movie stars began as unapproachable idols but would soon become figures of fantasy identification. In his book, Stardom (1970), the critic, Alexander Walker, refers to them as “the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.” The catalyst that transformed the stars into mere mortals was the coming of sound. The moment actors began to talk to an audience in the late 1920s, their God-like aura was dispelled.

When the stars came down to earth the door was thrown open to everyday aspirations. It became an abiding myth that anyone can be a star, given the right combination of talent, looks and luck. Stardom was viewed as an inherently democratic state: an impression reinforced by rags-to-riches movies such as The Jazz Singer (1927), the very first of the talkies; or A Star is Born (1937; remade in 1954 and 1976).

The same holds true for popular singers, some of whom began as unknowns in small towns and ended as household names. Elvis Presley is probably the best example, but music has been one of the surest paths to stardom since the 1950s, with the rise of rock and roll. It has found stars on the streets of working-class neighbourhoods in Detroit and Liverpool, and in the many musical genres that have given poor black Americans their shot at the big time, from blues and soul to rap music and hip-hop.

Each of these grabs at stardom has been made possible by technological innovations. The coming of sound in the movies may have forged a new bond between actor and audience, but the opportunities afforded by radio, television, LPs, and now the Internet, have propelled a succession of new ‘stars’ in front of a mass audience, until it is almost impossible to say whether a performer creates the audience or vice versa. Stars may answer to the “needs, drives and dreams” of society, but a successful performer will generate fans, disciples and imitators, perhaps an entire movement.

YouTube has created a channel for would-be stars to reach a global audience with an instantaneity that was previously unimaginable. In the virtual world the barriers between stars and audience are dissolving, with the current crop of YouTube teen favourites drawing on their own lives to address viewers who share the same experiences and concerns. It’s easier than ever for fans to imagine themselves as stars, because the stars are more ordinary, more accessible than ever before.

It begs the question, though, what happens to this identification when both stars and admirers grow older?

There are people who have never gotten over their infatuation with Elvis or Bob Dylan, but one wonders how many of the YouTube stars will still command an audience when they hit middle-age. Presumably the most talented will go on to careers in television and film. Some may bring their audiences with them as they mature, but even in a completely wired world people’s tastes and attitudes alter over time as the demands of career and family press hard. It may be possible nowadays to take the DIY route to stardom, but impossible to sustain the momentum without the assistance of the corporate entertainment machine.

Along with the idea that anyone can be a star, the other abiding belief about this condition is that stardom inevitably leads to unhappiness and tragedy. We all know the stories of stars undone by their own success and popularity. There is no reason to believe the body count will diminish in the age of the Internet.

If stardom is more of a consumer phenomenon today than ever before, with the proliferation of reality TV shows and talent quests, it may also be more subject to the whims of fashion. In other words, we may see a faster turnover of stars, a greater disposability of talent. While the route to stardom is shorter, the speed of public consumption is accelerating. Soon we may have to stop and reassess the minimum requirements for stardom. How long must one spend in the public eye? How big an audience must one command? As more and more people become ‘stars’ perhaps the condition will become so debased we’ll find ourselves looking, once again, for unapproachable idols.

Published in the Australian Financial Review, January, 2015