The Flatlining of American Style by matthew c. hoffman
“A real star never stops.” ~Mae West
“Our stars today are photographed pushing baby strollers, appearing in public with uncombed hair, arriving at airports wearing leggings and sneakers. As a general rule, they feel their stardom should hinge on talent rather than on who they are as people or on how they present themselves in their off hours. The women I’ve profiled were almost exact opposites of today’s stars… none of these women would ever have considered leaving the house without being perfectly turned out. For them, lunch at Romanoff’s was like walking onto a movie set. They didn’t do it just because the studios expected them to dress and act like stars at all times. It was part and parcel of who they were or who they had become. ” ~ Annette Tapert, The Power of Glamour
Part of the attraction of Screen Deco is the desire to reach back in time and see what high style was all about. The lack of style and sophistication in the movies over the decades corresponds to the reality of what’s happening in society at large. In today’s real world there is a demise of glamour. Standards of fashion, for instance, are set by pop culture, and these are low standards. They are low even when not compared to anything that has come before. Men “dress up” in t-shirts, half-pants and sandals. Add a ball cap and put a beer can in his hand and you have the Modern Man. Teenagers, meanwhile, aspire to the party girl look and the class-less lifestyle that entails. This is not to say that we should all keep a tux in our closet and wear Adrian gowns to brunch. But there’s more to it than just articles of clothing. The demise parallels a general decline in behavior and mentality. Anything goes now. People just don’t care what they look like or what they do because there is no self-awareness. High style is about how you conduct yourself– a sense of decorum– which has eroded and fallen by the wayside.
Movie glamour– the specific glamour of the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s– was always elevated and sometimes unreal… but not completely out of reach. There once were screen goddesses who walked amongst us. Today we don’t have those models– images that inspire us to be more than what we are now. We can never hope to have a Hollywood portrait photographer take our photo in soft-focus lighting for our driver’s license mug shot, but we can at least alter our perceptions of what is good taste. Pop culture has a funny, misplaced notion of what defines success now. The more screwed up you are the more popular you become. Our TV screens are littered with reality shows because people seek empty vessels. Viewers can then fill these empty personalities with their own aspirations. The mentality is that they are like us–“regular people”– because of their issues and problems. So if a reality star can have a TV show, then why can’t we?
This is the difference between then and now. Our culture creates a swamp of cynicism that diffuses our dreams and brings people down. Since we don’t believe in those heroic myths anymore, we look to the ordinary, the commonplace, and the dysfunctional to guide us– and to vacuous personalities to inspire or entertain us. Real style is gone from today’s movie scene, but for one night New Hollywood will become conscious of what’s come before and make an effort to mimic the past on Academy Award night. But these are only copies like cheap costume jewelry. It’s all artifice… artificial actors… in a new digital industry where movies aren’t even on film. There are few ties between the present and the past. There is no more greatness in the Kodak Theatre than there was in The Artist, a film which superficially copied the past without approximating greatness itself.
The other day a patron at the library, a 30-something soccer mom, expressed interest in Screen Deco and said she would “tell her mom about the series.” The perception is that only old(er) people would appreciate it. Though I’m grateful she would tell others, part of me wanted to ask, “Why can’t you bring your teenage daughter (or son) instead?” Why can’t the daughter take time out from “Gossip Girl” or “One Tree Hill” for, yes, truer models of style and sophistication– ones she can aspire to like a Myrna Loy? The power of glamour, as I define it in Screen Deco, is that the images projected are eternal, relevant, and still with us today. The “dead actors” are the ones at the local cineplex.
To understand what glamour is one need not look further than to actresses like Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, and Kay Francis. They had magic, mystery, and allure. The great stars that I admire carried a dignity to the end like a Frances Drake, for example. (Granted, even film buffs have a hard time remembering Frances Drake.) But she retired gracefully from the screen and remained a star within. She did not live to become a sideshow in the tabloids like Elizabeth Taylor and so many others who are now forced to endure the microscopic scrutiny of the modern-day media machine. The studio system is no longer here to protect them.
In 2012, we no longer have those models of sophistication to aspire to. If the only movies they make today star 20-year-olds plucked off the CW network, then that becomes the (homogeneous) norm and how young people define a movie star. But since I’d rather have the old world charm and dignified bearing of a John Barrymore in Grand Hotel, it becomes essential for the Park Ridge Public Library’s Classic Film Series to preserve our hallowed past and make people see and understand what they are missing. Most young people don’t even know what a good movie is because they’ve been polluted by all this ephemera of pop culture. But for this season, the Classic Film Series is preserving the definition of movie style.
A terrific book I highly recommend to everyone about the subject is The Power of Glamour (The Women Who Defined the Magic of Stardom) by Annette Tapert (1998). I single out this book because the author listed some of the most influential actresses in the development of American sophistication on the silver screen. You understand what a real star is when you read The Power of Glamour.