My Deep Interest in Movie Stars

A great many of my op/eds — published in newspapers in the very red congressional district in which I ran for Congress in 2011-12 as the Democratic nominee — are challenges to that political majority to return to the better angels of their nature. I.e., to support in their political posture the good conservative values they expressed so eloquently in the talk-radio conversations I had with them in the 1990s, rather that aligning themselves with a political force that clearly works to advance the very opposite of those values.

Those challenges, I feel certain, make a lot of those on the other side of our political divide regard me as an enemy, with all the demonization that entails these days on the political right.

In an attempt to counter that, I sometimes intersperse those op/eds that deal with what divides us with another kind of message that might show some kinship between us. I call these my “common humanity” pieces. And I know that sometimes — e.g. with one I wrote about what makes high school reunions meaningful — they have some of that desired effect.

This is one of those pieces. It will be appearing in the newspapers near mid-April of 2024.


My Deep Interest in Movie Stars

My friends aren’t surprised that, when I was running for Congress, I read multiple biographies of great leaders like Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and FDR.

But they are surprised when they learn that I am deeply interested, too, in the lives of movie stars. And that, as a result, I’ve read biographies of people like Cary Grant, John Wayne, the two Hepburns (Katherine and Audrey), and a number of others.

They find it surprising that I – whom they see as a “serious intellectual” — have a kind of People Magazine interest in knowing more about the actors who play roles in movies that matter to me.

Why do I?

Surely, it starts with my love of movies. The love of those stories – made so impactful by its combining many forms of artistry (story-telling, cinematography, music …) – is part of my family culture. As a child, my mother — aspiring to be an actress – went regularly to the cinema to watch the silent films of those years. When I was a child, one of my favorite things to do with my mother was watching and discussing movies together.
But never have movies played so important a role in my life as in recent years.

For two reasons:

• My full-time focus on the ugly and dangerous developments in the real world has made me need regular breaks from that darkness. Movies provide other worlds;

• Having a DVR allows me to use movies like books, to be picked up and put down as the mood dictates.
The “magic” of the movies makes the movie stars magical as well – the magic being the special kinds of experience good movies give.

That more-than-mundane — “bigger-than-life” — quality is magnified still further by the movie stars having special qualities. They tend to be the most beautiful of human specimens – whether male (like Burt Lancaster) or female (like Maureen O’Hara) — and they usually have some special presence that radiates from them (like Denzel Washington).

The best performers convey some version of the “human” within them more powerfully than what most of the people we encounter in our actual world will show us.

(Except not really. They are actors, after all. Watching Maurice Chevalier, with all his joie de vie in (1959’s Best Picture) Gigi, I found myself curious about whether he was so cheerful in life. An online bio reported that he was subject to bouts of depression throughout his life.)

All these elements combine to make the movie star seem to be creatures beyond us mere mortals.
The way these stars seem somehow elevated to a higher status – while also living the lives their bios narrate — helps me grasp more fully some of the realities of the human condition that is the lot of us all.

A part of me has always felt – though I have always also known it was not so – that achievement and fame somehow elevate a human to a level above the common fate. (When I played “Authors” as a kid, I imagined that the people whose faces were on the cards – Sir Walter Scott, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, etc. – were somehow in a category apart from the human crowd.)

But of course that’s not true, as the lives of the movie stars so frequently bring home to me.
A great many of those lives are really painful. Nothing about their talent and beauty and fame and wealth exempts them from unhappy marriages, drug addictions, diseases… (Or tragedies with their children—like how the exquisitely beautiful Gene Tierney caught rubella while pregnant, with the result that her child was born with seriously disabling birth defects.)

All that may be obvious—but I have often been struck by how often one can be “struck by the obvious.”
And then there’s time. Our temporariness. Nothing brings that so clearly into focus as the movies.
In some ways, movies are timeless. They present these stars so vibrant and immediate, never changing. But when we watch a sequence of their films, we also see them swept along by the force of time – from youthful to changed by age.

(Watching John Wayne from Stagecoach (1936) to The Shootist (1976), – we witness how “the way of all flesh” carries even a national “icon” inexorably along.)

Such a display –right before our eyes – demonstrates time’s inexorable power more impactfully than what we can get from mere memory.

And then, at last, as their bios show, these “immortals” die.

So, of course, do all the other people made “immortal” by their famous achievements (like Bach, or Einstein, or Michaelangelo). But we don’t experience such people so vividly, for their achievements we take in at a remove from the people themselves.

Movie stars, by contrast, are themselves the vehicles of their achievement — standing before us in all their beauty, in dramas that engage our passions and capture forever their charisma. A “presence” forever present.

If “celebrities,” – seen in a People magazine way — with their sometimes messy lives, are at all like gods, they are like the Greek gods – who have all of humanity’s foibles, and differ from their worshippers only in being immortal.

But Hollywood’s gods live on only in their movies, while their lives reveal how inescapable are the challenges of being human.

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