Up above the world so high The age of gods and princes on the silver screen has passed, as we turn instead to fleeting celebrity and digital thrills.
Phil Hoad tells of how we conspired to kill the stars
The internet has accelerated the process of turning actors into so much meat for the celebrity mincer, intensifying the volume of gossip to the point where the gentlemanly consensual fantasy that underpinned studio stardom – that the persona an actor showed on screen was somehow “the truth” – has been yanked inside out. The real-life gonzo narratives created by the media often seem more important: “Lindsay Lohan” rings out far louder from the web than any of her films. Mark Borkowski, the PR veteran and author of The Fame Formula, compares it to another mass-communication revolution: the advent of radio in the 20s, when the sudden ability to hear people talking for themselves shattered the air of privilege surrounding the silent stars. That change entailed the creation of dedicated publicity departments by the studios, and a similar adjustment may be overdue in today’s digital world. “It’s nowhere near any sense of maturity at all,” Borkowski says. In the digitised world, the distance between stars and audience is shrinking faster than ever, and the foundations of fame are undergoing a tectonic shift. People want the personalised treatment: entertainment that is “one to one”, not the traditional “one to many” model of cinema, ultimately pushing to be the stars of their own narratives. They are enshrining their lives on Facebook and MySpace, creating avatars on World of Warcraft and Second Life, and are back in cinemas, leaning forward into the frame with the return of 3D. It is time for Me.plc, as Borkowski puts it; ultimately, it is us conspiring to kill the stars. A sense of unease is building within the film industry. “It ain’t like we ain’t trying,” says the Hollywood producer. “We’re trying to create aspirational heroes, ass-kickers. The Gladiator moments. People still want that, and we have to deliver, but they’re becoming more empowered to create something for themselves.” Borkowski says the stars can adjust to this seismic shift, if they take up the weapons of the new age – blogging, astroturfing (a PR campaign seeking to fake grassroots enthusiasm), communicating their persona at eye level. Such an effort could, he believes, be liberating: “You’re not dependent on whether your agent likes you or not. But without them, you have to have compelling content. You have to have a point of view.” In order to survive, the stars have to grasp this demotic drive, otherwise they may only exist in diminished form. But are they truly interested? Rock luminaries instinctively understand the power of intimacy – Kanye West is one who has caught the eye with his blogging – but there is something fundamentally aloof about Hollywood. Borkowski commends only a shrewd few who are adapting well: JJ Abrams and his canny faux-YouTube marketing (“I’m not sure he succeeds, but he gets the atmosphere right”); Juno director Jason Reitman for his sassy attitude, as demonstrated on his MySpace page (“He’ll suck the dick of the studio, but he’s not party to it”); Leonardo DiCaprio, for his political stance; and Bourne star Matt Damon, who according to Forbes is Hollywood’s best-value performer in terms of profit against his fees. Borkowski mentions Damon’s lobbying to get Paul Greengrass on board the Bourne franchise, a key decision in dragging the films towards the jittery aesthetics that later infiltrated the new-look Bond. But two of the subjects of Borkowski’s praise are not actors, and the other two were established names already. No matter what reality TV tells us, we can’t all be stars; the stars’ job is to recapture the high ground and remind us of the meaning of exceptional. They may have plenty of time to ponder this – until Hollywood restores compelling human narrative alongside spectacle in its priority list, in fact. Meanwhile, maybe Damon truly is the icon for the times: nondescript, utilitarian, fit for purpose. Perfect for a decade that has been defined by living under threat. The A-list might have to accept being harried, frowning, unshaven, out of focus for a while – at least until we start dreaming about the possibility of a better world, and of glamorous beings, again. Where we go, the stars must follow; that’s the secret Hollywood’s golden ones have been keeping all these years.