The Last Hero
You know what this is about
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, the various studios controlled their movie stars with an iron grip, managing their public persona in addition to the performances they rendered to the screen. It’s hard to believe the level of control they had.
In 1935, Loretta Young became pregnant by Clark Gable (who was married). She knew that if she told her employer, 20th Century Fox, they would tell her to have an abortion. And fire her if she refused. That was how it was done.
Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were appointed “friends” by MGM to keep track of their behaviors and report back.
Jean Harlow, the original blonde bombshell, had it in her MGM contract that she was forbidden from marrying, because it wouldn’t have meshed with her image as a sex symbol.
Of course we can all see the cruelty of this system and I don’t think anyone longs for the old studio system in Hollywood. The question is… why did old Hollywood so meticulously monitor their stars to keep their foibles private? Yes, to continue earning money.
But why would flaws in an actor, a mere reader of lines, a paid performer, cause the film industry to lose money?
Because that’s not what a movie star is. A movie star is a hero. And loathe though we may be to admit it, they’re the only ones we’ve got.
The major ties that bind us as a society have fallen, one by one. So often, we can’t find a single thing to talk to each other about without devolving into arguments, name-calling, and proclamations about what should be done with “people like you.”
Don’t talk about religion. Definitely don’t talk about politics. Don’t talk about your upbringing and how you were raised to behave. That’s exclusionary. That’s privileged. It might even be racist.
But you could always talk about movies. Iron Man. Avatar. Casting our memory a little farther back, you could talk about Alien and the bravery of Ripley. You could talk about Glory and the redemptive greatness of Private Trip.
In those stories, we could talk about morality and honor, and who we wanted to be as human beings. We had the safe buffer of the fictional story and the magnetic presence of the actors who brought the stories to life.
We could gush over Denzel Washington about what a good actor he is, and also what a good man. We could imagine that these actors genuinely were the characters they played—the ones who made us feel like we too could be heroes.
And that’s why it hurts so much when they fall.
Big stumbles, like the horror of Bill Cosby, and small stumbles, like Mark Ruffalo’s petty meanness on Twitter, all feel like the crumbling of an edifice, one we thought would stand forever.
Many of us spent as much or more of our adolescence with our televisions than we did with our actual families. And we told ourselves stories about who these actors were. We believed that they would like us if they ever met us. That they’d be our friends. Because they were kind and fun in ways that our peers were not.
But then Twitter came out and we heard all about what so many people in Hollywood truly think about the regular folks who buy tickets to their movies. And from there, everything started going downhill. People stopped buying movie tickets at the same rate (except for kids movies and action sequels). People stopped admiring actors. And people stopped watching the Oscars.
Because we saw all too clearly these are not people to be admired. With few exceptions, it is a mistake to admire a movie star, even one who came up in decades past.
That is a sad realization because, as a collective civilization… what else is there?