Books: Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Five: In Bondage to Cyclops, 1945-1960 |
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Fame in the 20th Century, Chapter Five: In Bondage to Cyclops, 1945-1960

After World War II there were only two nations left that were still powerful, and only one of those was rich. America switched its huge production capacity from weapons to household appliances. Most of these appliances saved drudgery, so there could be no quarrel about their value. One of them, however, provided entertainment. It was the television set. At the touch of a button it produced a new kind of famous face.

Lucille Ball had been only a minor movie star. She wasn’t remote or mysterious enough to make people dream. But television favoured the familiar and the cosy. At the age of forty, Lucy became the first major star of the new medium because she was very funny and she made people feel comfortable: lots of people. Thirty-five million of them in America alone. She was part of the furniture, a delightful featherhead who didn’t challenge her audience to do anything except stop laughing. Off-screen, Lucille Ball was a clever businesswoman. With the help of her husband, Desi Arnaz, she turned her TV career into an empire. They recorded each episode on film in order to preserve it for future sales. In America, Lucy reruns went on for ever and the same thing happened in other countries as they opened up their television systems, until eventually Lucy was on-screen somewhere in the world every minute of the day always. Lucy became so powerful she bought a movie studio, RKO. This was fame on a new scale. It wasn’t employed, it did the employing. No movie star had power like that. When William Holden came on the show as a guest, the on-screen Lucy pretended to be in awe of him. The off-screen Lucy could have bought and sold him ten times.
Lucy was giving her fellow Americans a new kind of star they could live with, who lived with them. In the movies there had sometimes been sequences of films to exploit successful characters: Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy was the most famous example. The Lucy Show went beyond that. It was a serial. She lived her life on-screen while the audience lived theirs watching. When she had a baby it was written into the episode. But her mind was written out. American TV seemed to assume that the mass audience couldn’t take anything too complicated. They wanted it simple. They wanted it simple-minded. Enter, with his dental ivory flashing like the suddenly opened lid of one of his own highly polished pianos, Liberace.
Liberace left Lucy looking butch, but from the business angle he was just as hard-headed. Behind the coruscating cascade of notes he conjured from his keyboard was the background thump of an enormous cash register. In New York his TV show was on the air ten times a week. Millions of mothers out there wanted a son like him. Out of the ground came the cries of protest of classical composers as they spun in their graves. Liberace’s smile never missed a beat, because television had joined him to a previously neglected audience of untold millions of people for whom kitsch was a step up. He knew how to play the subtle stuff, but he put in flashy runs instead. He created sonic cut-glass chandeliers to astonish people used to single light-bulbs.
His other inspiration was to dress himself and the set to match his music. A candelabra dripped wax on to his concert grand. There were furs on the floors, tapestries on the walls, and rings on his fingers like baroque knuckledusters. When he was called a vulgarian he delivered one of the most famous lines of the century: ‘I cried all the way to the bank.’ In a TV studio, monumental bad taste could be achieved on a relatively small budget. The road to Las Vegas and the world was open. The future stretched ahead, glittering with sequins. It was a kind of majesty. When he swanned along in his ermine-trimmed cape, he had only one rival.
The Queen topped him, but only just. Elizabeth II was launched in the same year as Liberace’s first show, but in rather more dignified circumstances. Chosen by birth, she was going to be famous whatever she did. A lot, though, would depend on how she did it. The Coronation went off swimmingly, watched on television by the whole population of Britain, many of whom had bought a set just for the purpose. Later the colour newsreel was seen throughout the Commonwealth, but nothing could match that unique cocktail of grandeur and cosiness provided by squeezing the pageant into a box. Television had achieved its breakthrough in Britain in a dignified manner: intimate but not too intimate. A little corner of everyone’s living room had become Westminster Abbey for the afternoon.
Arriving at the summit of Everest at roughly the same time as the crown arrived on the Queen’s bare head, Edmund Hillary became the world’s most famous New Zealander since Rutherford split the atom. His companion, Sherpa Tensing, became the only world-famous Nepalese outside Nepal. It seemed as if brave men were knocking themselves out to please the Queen. Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes. Plenty of other athletes ran it faster later, but nobody else ran it that fast first. Continental countries didn’t have miles, so his feat meant nothing there. But the Americans had miles. A Briton had done it before an American, and television brought the nation the news. Whether the medium could be trusted not to diminish the stature of Her Majesty’s ministers was another question. Back in power for the last time near the end of a long and fruitful life, Sir Winston Churchill was persuaded to try out how he would go over on TV. Though he handled it quite well, Churchill decided that TV wasn’t for him.
The Republican candidate for the Presidency of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower, didn’t really handle TV well at all, but it was decided on his behalf that he had no choice except to appear. His powers of speech were no more impressive than they had been during the war. Either he strained to remember or he woodenly recited from cue cards. Eisenhower beat the Democrats because he had previously beaten the Germans, not because he was a great TV performer. What TV could do for the man with the right knack for instant sincerity was shown by his running mate, Richard Nixon, who defended himself against charges of bribery with a speech calculated to touch the heart, after a reassuring squeeze of the knee. The family dog Checkers was referred to, as if to own such an animal was a guarantee of probity. Nixon’s oratory was like Liberace’s piano playing. It was like being buried under an avalanche of pork fat. Dogs watching at home howled their derision, but an alarmingly large number of people were convinced.
Alarm turned to desperation when Senator Joseph McCarthy exploited the new media opportunities to turn his House Committee on Un-American Activities into a witch-hunt. Solid citizens knew that the real answer to Communism was democracy and that anti-Communism was a patent medicine, but they were afraid to say so. McCarthy’s success scared America, and a scared America scared the world. McCarthy wasn’t just getting away with it, he was getting bigger. When he attacked famous people, his own fame increased.
It was modern America’s lowest moment. Accused of Leftist sympathies, Charlie Chaplin had no answer except that it was his constitutional right, and with McCarthy on the loose that wasn’t enough. Forty years before, Chaplin had come to America to breathe free air. Now he was leaving it for the same reason. For the media it was a bigger story than any of his recent movies. A great man had found America uninhabitable. Another great man who found America uninhabitable in this period was Paul Robeson. A prodigious multi-talent who had as good a title to the role of all-round genius as Chaplin, Robeson was a linguist and a star athlete as well as a great singing actor. If he couldn’t cure white Americans of racism, who could?
When he found that he couldn’t, Robeson decided that the Communist countries had something to teach America about democracy. The Communist countries were delighted to hear this and gave him a well-organized reception. In countries with closed borders whose leadership held the monopoly of fame, ordinary citizens weren’t encouraged to become famous without permission. But a visiting famous person lent prestige. His ears ringing with adulation, Robeson went back to America to discover that racist envy of his superior talents had been joined by McCarthyite condemnation of his Leftist inclinations. His passport was withdrawn. The great man was a prisoner in his own country. He reacted with some bitterness, as well he might have done.
It was easy to blame television for building McCarthy up. But it was also television that helped to bring him down. The TV journalist Ed Murrow did a programme on McCarthy that showed him for what he was — bluster, opportunism and petty larceny all wrapped up in one unlovely parcel. McCarty was finished from that night. People found the courage to challenge him in committee. The camera worked for his opponents as well as it had worked for him. The centre of the action had moved to television.
This was the last thing that Hollywood wanted to hear. With its audience eroded by television at home, Hollywood fought back in the world market with everything it could think of. Released in the same year as the Queen got crowned, The Robe was filmed in Cinemascope, the first of many wide-screen processes designed to give the public something that television couldn’t. Some of them were so wide that you couldn’t get out of the auditorium without getting into the movie. The Robe, though, had something else besides a screen and a script that went on forever. It had Richard Burton. Previously he had been Britain’s most famous new stage actor. His co-star Jean Simmons had been a famous British film actress. Before the war, they might have been in two minds about going to Hollywood. Now Hollywood came to them. Riding in the new, big, four-engined silver airliners, Hollywood executives roamed the world to poach talent while it was still forming.
When Hollywood, with all the majesty of its blockbuster movie The Pride and the Passion, invaded Spain in 1956 — the same year that the Russians invaded Hungary — Cary Grant, who had himself originated in Britain, took a remarkable Spanish hostage. She was an Italian Spaniard, Sophia Loren, who was already well known in Italy before the siren call of world stardom lured her away. Hollywood wanted her because it was still haunted by the belief that only a foreign woman was capable of guilt-free sexuality. A well-built, healthy girl, Sophia looked as if she might give out affection as naturally as she took in pasta. America’s own girls weren’t like that.
All except one. Marilyn Monroe was Hollywood’s home-based international ballistic sex bomb. Her impact was purely sensual. Nothing else was going on. Her every wiggle and pout seemed designed to attract men. The impact was doubled by her air of innocence, as if she might not quite realize what this instinctive mating display might lead to. The foreign women looked as if they were thinking about sex. Monroe looked as if it was something that might easily happen to her while she was thinking about something else. To call her vulnerable was a nice way of saying that she acted dumb. The studio made sure she had plenty of cleverly crafted dumb things to say. When she was asked what she slept in, she said, ‘Chanel No. 5.’ It was highly unlikely that she was the author of the line. The press quoted it as if it was hers because once she had said it, it was. Marketed like a new brand of warm, squishy merchandise off screen as well as on, Monroe was bigger as news than she was as art.
She did her best to make her private life a good story. Her marriage to the baseball hero Joe DiMaggio would have been made in heaven if God was a press agent. His masculinity, her femininity. His toughness, her tenderness. The story got better still when the marriage fell apart. One of the reasons it did so was media pressure, but the media didn’t let up. Even bigger news than Monroe making it was Monroe blowing it, because the audience got a chance to cluck knowingly. The girl who had found success was in search of herself. She needed protection.
Her next protector was Arthur Miller, America’s most prestigious playwright. Encouraged by Miller, Monroe started taking herself seriously as an actress. Actually there was no reason why she should ever have taken herself any other way except seriously. When not paralysed by fear she could play a part as if she was it, revealing all her vulnerability to the camera without seeming to be conscious of its presence, her whole attention on the other actors, helping to make them look natural too. Laurence Olivier, for example, may have hated every minute of working with her, but he never acted better on-screen than when starring opposite her in The Prince and the Showgirl. Though she was never the comic genius that some of her more perverse admirers claimed, talent wasn’t what she was short of.
It was self-esteem. Not even Miller could help her find that. She was hell to live with and hell to work with, and that became the Monroe story even while she was at her most angelic on screen. In Some Like it Hot she looked like the happiest girl in the world. Even feminists who deplored her image of fluttering helplessness were unable to gainsay her air of joy as he banged out her theme tune, ‘Running Wild’, to a sleeping car full of all-female orchestra members, two of whom were Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag. There was a fascinating discrepancy between her on-screen radiance and her off-screen desperation. The girl with everything couldn’t get it together. It was a story that suited everybody. People could enjoy watching her and then nod their heads wisely afterwards. Where would it all end? Only in America, said people abroad, pleased to be in on the story. In Hollywood they were in two minds. She might not be good for the movie she was in, which doubled its budget while the director waited for her to come out of her dressing room — or out of her coma. But she was good for the movies. Television couldn’t give you Marilyn Monroe. From any angle, she wasn’t Lucy.
Other countries tried to grow their own Marilyn Monroes, with varying success. France had the best try in the enticing form of Brigitte Bardot. Bardot looked even more provocative than Monroe and she also looked as if she knew what she was provoking. She drove older men mad by pouting at them, while giving young men what they weren’t ready to appreciate. Her only drawback in the world fame stakes was that she pouted mainly in French. In broken English she could barely purse her lips, but at least that made it harder for the Americans to steal her.
Speaking French was the strongest weapon France had going for it in its diehard determination to protect itself from the ravages of American cultural imperialism. Britain’s answer to Marilyn Monroe was Diana Dors and she was a sex bomb without a fuse, because Marilyn Monroe spoke English too, but on a bigger budget. Diana Dors made a few movies in Hollywood, but there wasn’t room for her. She was stuck in England, where the movies she made reached no further than the British Empire, which was shrinking fast. TV was booming and British movies were up against it. There was no money to waste on frivolity. Diana Dors gave the game away. Men might be fooled by her uncomplicated busty exuberance, but any woman needed only one look to know that she was up half the night helping to sew her own costumes.
Running short of heroic stature, Britain looked for it in the past. Only now, ten years too late, did the British war hero emerge in his full mythical glory. The film was The Dam Busters and the ace bomber pilot was Wing Commander Guy Gibson, DSO, DFC, GDE — Grimly Determined Expression. During the war the real Guy Gibson had been as famous as a bomber pilot was allowed to get at a time when all the other bomber pilots were expected to die unsung. He had his moment of glory, but it faded away along with 50,000 dead aircrew including him. For Gibson to become a national hero the war had to be already won and his countrymen had to be in search of a winner. Guy Gibson was reborn as Richard Todd, an adept at the basic feature of the British post-war movie, the hero’s man-to-man communication with the chaps. Thrilling to the marrow his briefing room full of uniformed actors, Todd/Gibson’s man-to-man communication skills were closely modelled on Laurence Olivier’s tally-ho oratorical cadenzas in Henry V, but with the poetry taken out and the upper lip restored to a decent stiffness. Backed up by a couple of real Lancaster bombers and some patently unreal bursting dams, the trick worked. Guy Gibson didn’t just become a national figurehead, he became Richard Todd, and Richard Todd got stuck with being Guy Gibson.
The same thing happened to the most famous Battle of Britain fighter pilot. In the heyday of the Few, Douglas Bader won what headlines he was allowed to have because he was fighting the double challenge of the Luftwaffe and his missing legs. Now he found a third challenge: Kenneth More’s energetic acting as the hero displayed his skill at man-to-man communication with the chaps. More suffered, as always, from his delusion that the expression ‘Ha-ha!’ would convey spontaneous high spirits. Nevertheless he managed to encapsulate without too much embarrassment the post-war British war movie’s almost religious belief that the national gift for understatement could be celebrated without running the risk of overstatement. So Douglas Bader didn’t just become a national figurehead, he became Kenneth More, and Kenneth More became stuck with being Douglas Bader.
Driven back on themselves by Hollywood’s international dominance, British films were looking very local. It was against long odds that they produced their one unarguable great star, recognizable in every country where English was spoken without an American accent: Alec Guinness. He could be anybody. He could do anything. Unremarkable of feature, remarkable for the plasticity of his personality, he was a truly protean actor. With him as the star, the Ealing comedies gave the British film industry the only period of real self-confidence that it was ever to enjoy. But Guinness couldn’t undo the facts of economics. Finally Hollywood conquered even him, although he made it look as though he had conquered Hollywood. Everyone in the British Empire that was now turning into the British Commonwealth assumed that Alec Guinness was the star of Bridge on the River Kwai. But he wasn’t. William Holden had top billing. Lucille Ball’s guest was Alec Guinness’s host. Britain’s most famous film star won his world fame in an American movie, as a supporting actor to an all-American star.
The most famous film director in the world was British, but he had moved to Hollywood before the war and made his name as an international Englishman with his own empire. His name was Alfred Hitchcock, and apart from that of Cecil B. De Mille it was the only director’s name that the general public could recognize. Along with his name, Hitchcock promoted his physical shape as a logo. He made brief personal appearances in all his films. He made his leading ladies famous just by choosing them. He liked to think that he created them, although in the case of his most famous leading lady he had to admit that she had a lot going for her to start with.
Grace Kelly finally and forever cured Hollywood of its inferiority complex about European sophistication. Born with a whole silver dinner service in her mouth, she had class to burn. From Rear Window and the other movies in the choice handful she starred in for Hitchcock, the steel billionaire’s darling daughter emerged as an ice-cool WASP princess with fires raging beneath. Grace Kelly seemed to have taken to acting as a not entirely unboring alternative to just standing around being worshipped while her income discreetly piled up somewhere in the background. She sent a sexual message on handmade paper. The message reached men all over the world.
The millions of us that she jilted were bound to admit that Prince Rainier of Monaco had what it took to win the prize. Spreads in the photo magazines drove home the point that even Hollywood stardom was small-time compared to being a proper European-style princess. In fact Monaco was only a petite principality. It needed her to help fill its own casino and the world’s imagination. For her, being Princess Grace was a role she could grow old in. It was the perfect conquest, in which the conquered embraces the conqueror. But it would never have happened without her fame, and only Hollywood fame was powerful enough to work the trick. Though it was a love match — what man wasn’t in love with Grace Kelly? — it didn’t hurt Rainier’s little amusement park of a principality to acquire a big draw. Her patrician manners were just a bonus. Except in those countries whose borders were lined with barbed wire, the world was turning into a celebrity playground. Enter the American playboy.
His name was Hugh M. Hefner and he leaped to fame as the Editor of Playboy magazine, a publication dedicated to the principle that the libido of the ordinary American male should be set free. To help further this end, Hefner filled his magazine with mammiferous American females. His budget was so low that he could scarcely afford to airbrush the razor nicks off the nudes, but the enterprise took off when one of the women stretched across the slick layout turned out to be the woman the American male had already drooled over in the movies when she had scarcely anything on.
It was Marilyn Monroe, and this time she had nothing on at all. Hefner became a publishing tycoon overnight. But he wasn’t just a publisher. He was a philosopher. At his Playboy Mansion in Chicago he lived between dusk and dawn, in conditions which would have looked like a Roman orgy if it had been restaged by Walt Disney with a popcorn concession in the solarium. Hefner gave hedonism mass-market appeal by sanitizing it. He promoted self-indulgence as a form of self-discipline, like body-building. Poised elegantly in the midst of the action, Hefner pronounced on the Playboy attitude to existence. Sound equipment was waiting to capture every gritty inflection, cameras lurked to immortalize the merest flexing of his thoughtfully clenched jaw.
The Playboy philosophy drew further power from jazz, co-opting en masse its supposedly cool heroes. In reality, most of the jazz greats led haunted lives. Billie Holiday was famous as the sad, lyrical voice guaranteed never to sound like Doris Day. But Billie Holiday’s lasting fame depended, as she did, on the drugs to which she eventually succumbed. Charlie Parker succumbed to drugs from the beginning. His fame was established when he played a key role in turning jazz from a joyful music anyone could follow into a teasing, tortured brain-puzzle you had to be hip to understand. His fame was sealed when he died of drugs. Early death was taken as a mark of seriousness, proof that the innovator had been a chosen one. Miles Davis avoided early death, but always looked disdainful enough to suggest that it might a better place to go to. For the public he was the new Louis Armstrong, the jazz man they had heard of. But he sounded nothing like the old one. He hated the audience and often faced away from it when playing. He was cool, he was hip, he was in another world — the one where the famous people lived.
Fame was becoming a separate country, spread all over the world, inhabited thinly only by those known by everybody but who knew only each other. King Farouk of Egypt was a useless potentate in the old style. A globular monument to self-indulgence, he had the standard appetites for nightclub food and the kind of women who pretended that they couldn’t run faster than he could. Pre-war he might have pursued these scholarly interests in relative privacy. Now his dubious achievements were reported from day to day. He was all lit up and it took a lot of electricity.
Aly Khan was like his father the Aga Khan all over again, but the old Aga had been famous only for racehorses and an annual salary of his own weight in diamonds. Aly was famous for marrying Rita Hayworth. He was famous for succeeding with a lot of other women who were married to other men. He travelled between love affairs in a succession of fast cars. ‘They call me a wop and a nigger,’ he said, ‘and I fuck  their wives.’
Fast cars were part of the playboy pattern. Motor-racing had always attracted aristocrats with time on their hands. Now the gentlemen were outstripped for glamour by the players. Juan Manuel Fangio was a dirt-track racer from Argentina who emerged as a nerveless, enigmatic hero, five times Formula One champion of the world. Women unimpressed by their husbands’ driving said, ‘Who do you think you are, Fangio?’
In Britain they said, ‘Who do you think you are, Stirling Moss?’ He was a brilliant driver, he was handsome and he wowed the girls all over the world, getting out there and giving them one for Britain. He was patriotic, but really he lived in two countries. One of them was fame country and it was everywhere. They knew his name in places where they couldn’t pronounce it. Stairleen Mawse. Whichever way you said it, his name spelt speed, a flashing smile, a hairy wrist engulfing a heavy gold watch.
Aristotle Onassis spelt self-made man in Greek. He had built his fortune as a war profiteer renting out rusty cargo ships flying dubious flags. But nobody cared about how he had made his money because he was so spectacular about the way he spent it. He was a shady character who loved the limelight. He drew famous people into his orbit by offering hospitality too lavish to resist. Winston Churchill had saved civilization. Onassis had only hustled a few billion fast drachmas. But Churchill came to stay on Onassis’s yacht. The genuine lustre of his distinguished acquaintances fed the spurious glow of Ari’s own fame. The question of whether fame was deserved or not was ceasing to matter.
Eva Peron came to fame as the wife of the most famous man in Argentina, Juan Peron, whose neo-Fascist regime was found so congenial by Nazi war criminals that they settled down there and leaned Spanish. On the international scene Evita’s fame exceeded her husband’s. The press didn’t care that the money for her couture clothes had been earned by the sweat of the peasants she claimed to represent. What counted were her vitality, her glamour, and her easily told story as a woman of the people who had risen to world conquest. Evita toured Europe and laid them in the aisles. Onassis later gallantly revealed that he and Evita seduced each other within minutes of their first meeting. Mutual fame was better than an introduction: it was a sort of pre-established intimacy.
The international fame show recruited stars even if they didn’t want to join. Especially if. Albert Schweitzer said goodbye to civilization and buried himself in the African jungle to run a leper colony at about the time that T. E. Lawrence was trying on his first Arab head-dress. Now Schweitzer was like the man who had built the better mousetrap. The world beat a path to his door. Schweitzer had built a better leper colony. That was the assumption, because that was the best story. There was plenty of learned opinion to say that Schweitzer’s methods were out-of-date and that his colony was the place to catch leprosy for anyone who didn’t have it already. But Schweitzer’s fame as the man who gave up worldly success to be a saint was too big to kill. Schweitzer spelt self-denial.
The story was about the world knowing who you were even if only an expert could understand what you did. Picasso loved being that famous. Pundits serious about painting might carp about his weakness for publicity, but his supporters had an answer. He was the genius, so his paintings were automatically serious. He was also serious about money. Fame increased his market and put up his prices. Every American multi-millionaire had to have his Picasso, even if it was only a piece of pottery. Soon Picasso was a multi-millionaire too. If he had any trouble reconciling this with his pro-Communist opinions, living in the South of France allayed the pangs. Picasso had always claimed the great artist’s right to live by his own rules. In occupied Paris during the war he had dined at the best black market restaurants while the Gestapo were rounding up some of his friends. Now he treated art like a business while the world media treated everything he touched as art. Hardly anyone could tell a real Picasso from a fake, but it didn’t matter because the real Picasso was Picasso himself.
Picasso wouldn’t go to Spain while Franco still lived, and Hemingway wasn’t allowed to return because Franco hadn’t forgotten what he’d written during the Spanish Civil War. But in 1959 the ban was lifted and Hemingway was back there to watch the bulls bite the dust. Or else he was out in the Gulf Stream killing fish. Or else he was in Africa killing animals again. Hemingway was always killing something. He called it an appetite for life. Hemingway lived in Key West, and in Cuba, and in all the world’s best hotels, always talking about the good wine and the good food and the good season. But he no longer wrote good books, although the Nobel Prize followed one of his worst, The Old Man and the Sea. He was an immortal while he was still alive. It no longer mattered what he wrote. He was just the Great Writer, the way Picasso was the Great Artist. Fame was a way of being that left doing far behind.
This was the time when Sinatra came back. After the war his career as both a singer and actor had taken a dive that could have been the end of him. His role as Angelo Maggio in From Here to Eternity put him back on top as an actor. Sinatra’s acting left the professionals looking wooden. This had to be the man himself, thin as a reed but indestructible as gristle. Sinatra doubled the impact of his comeback with a series of record albums that exploited the new 33 1/3 rpm long-playing format. They gave lonely would-be lovers everywhere a whole evening in the company of someone who seemed to share their solitude.
But beyond his renewed success as an actor and singer, there was his entirely new eminence as an international icon who was just Sinatra. His life took over as the main part of the story. Sinatra showed up all over the place with beautiful women, to some of whom he was married. He wouldn’t talk to the press about any of them. When the press got nosy he got heavy. Swinging-lover stories made headlines.
Sinatra showed up in nightclubs with other men of Italian extraction who had never sung a note, even to a grand jury. When the press got nosy his bodyguards got heavy. Sinatra-hobnobs-with-the-Mob stories made more headlines. Sinatra just didn’t seem to care about keeping his image smooth at the edges. He was too impatient to fool around with public relations — unless that was a public relations story too. He could have been the biggest star in Hollywood, but he didn’t care much about that either. They had to get his performance on take one. He wasn’t patient enough to stick around for take two. Except when he sang, he wouldn’t dance for more than four bars to anyone else’s tune. He wasn’t interested in being someone else. He was himself. He was his own man. That was the message he sent to the world, as far as his voice could reach: that it wasn’t what your did, it was how you did it. It was the way you were, or, if you weren’t him, the way you wished you were: hip with a flip lip, no sweat, think sad but say it funny, getting the girl without trying.
The new Hollywood film star who really cared about acting was Marlon Brando. His initial impact made all previous film stars, even the most realistic ones like Sinatra, look as if they had been just saying their lines. Brando conveyed what was behind the lines. He conveyed emotion, whole complexes of emotions, bottomless wells of psychic disturbance. It was called the sub-text, and you knew that for Brando it meant more than the words because you couldn’t always understand the words. Brando spoke English as if it were a foreign language he had acquired by sleep-teaching from a gramophone record running at the wrong speed. It only added to his appeal for alienated youth everywhere, because it sounded like the surly voice of social rebellion coming out of a classically beautiful face that you couldn’t take your eyes off anyway, even if you didn’t have to keep watching his lips to hear what he was saying. Brando’s mumble was something only the movies could handle. Television wouldn’t have stood for it. People would have kept adjusting the set.
Brando was a wild one off-screen as well. Every publicity still the studio got Brando to do cost them a week of persuasion. But the movie moguls stopped being angry when they discovered that Brando’s reluctance to be publicized resulted in more publicity than they could ever have planned. The harder he rebelled, the easier they found it to market the rebellion. Feeling manipulated, he brooded darkly. His frustration was compounded by his lack of control over the movies he made. He could turn them down, but he couldn’t set them up. No actor was that powerful. He had to play those big straight starring roles: Napoleon in Desiree (spit-curl on forehead), Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (hat on back of head). He proved that he could play them better than a brooding outcast might be expected to do. But a brooding outcast he always remained. Whatever he was up to on screen, the real drama was Brando versus Hollywood, Brando versus America, Brando versus the world.
The conflict was within. He was having a private crisis in public. He was more than a movie star, he was modern man. Modern men everywhere were influenced by him, some of them to their detriment. Far away in Tokyo, Japan’s most famous writer, Yukio Mishima, had himself photographed as The Wild One, with a few slight changes to the wardrobe. Where Brando had worn, boots, cap, jeans, T-shirt and a leather jacket, Mishima, with traditional Japanese minimalism, reduced the costume to boots, cap and a daringly cut bikini.
Though he kept his clothes on, James Dean was a stronger challenger for Brando’s crown as a champion rebel. In only his second major screen appearance, in Rebel Without a Cause, he was such a brooding outcast he made Brando look like Danny Kaye. Dean took being young and inarticulate to new lengths. He took so long to get anything said that older people grew older still waiting for him to spit it out. There was a feminine quality to him which suggested that he had acquired some of his initial training as an actor by dressing up in his mom’s clothes when she wasn’t home. Actually Dean had started off in television with the capacity to deliver the line as written just like an ordinary actor. But Dean was an extraordinary actor and Hollywood knew it. He was given the mixed-up kid roles because the teenagers in the drive-ins in their father’s cars wanted to see one of their own kind who dared to defy all those pettifogging grown-up conventional inhibitions such as bringing the car home instead of driving it off a cliff.
Somebody decided that Dean was the ideal person to give teenagers advice on safe driving. He filmed a public service announcement for television advising young people about the desirability of a sensible attitude on the road. Actually Dean’s qualifications to talk about road safety were the same as a lemming’s to talk about cliff-walking. If he had confined his speed mania to the racetrack he might have stayed in one piece. But he drove the same way on the public highway. Mistaking himself for an irresistible force, he went in search of an immovable object, terminating his film career just at the moment when his movies were making their impact on the worshipping young. The car crash stopped his body but his fame kept on going, free to fly into an unencumbered future while lonely young people pinned his picture to the wall, their own angel.
It was the Valentino option: frozen in motion before the lustre could tarnish. Some wag called his early death a good career move. But really it put him beyond a film career. He joined, on a permanent contract, a bigger production, the one in which an international cast of famous faces was up there all the time. He was the one who stayed young.
The young got their own music with Bill Haley and the Comets. Bill Haley wasn’t young himself if you looked closely, but the audience was dancing too hard to keep him in focus. After decades on the road, Bill Haley was stunned to have suddenly got so far. His fame was abrupt and limited. There was no way to develop it. All he could do was rock around the clock again. The way was open for someone who actually looked the way the music made you feel: young, sexy, exciting, rebellious, dangerous enough to scare your mother yet strangely disturb her friends.
Elvis Presley came out of the South like an answer to a record executive’s dream. He was a white black man. Elvis sounded no more comprehensible than Marlon Brando singing in the bath, but he had a face sculpted by Michelangelo crocked on moonshine and every move he made said sex. In his first few TV appearances he put all the moves in. Appalled at the prospect of America’s youth being corrupted by Elvis’s swivelling hips, the television executives panicked. By Elvis’s tenth appearance they were shooting him strictly from the waist up.
Crosby and Sinatra had been hampered in their global reach by the dependence of their songs on the English language. Presley’s universally incomprehensible slur went through language barriers like a silent movie. His records were released anywhere in the world where there were young people ready to love someone their parents hated. But Elvis wanted the parents too, or rather his manager did. Colonel Tom Parker’s qualifications for running a big business were no more substantial than his military rank. He was a nickel-and-dime merchant whose idea of a smart move was to put an inflated price on the programmes sold at Elvis concerts. He knew nothing about the outside world and never allowed Elvis to go on tour outside America. But Colonel Parker did think big about maximising the boy’s home market. When Elvis&rsqursquo;s draft number came up, the teenage rebel went into the army without a murmur. He proved to be a model soldier, and his hitch of duty in Germany was a worldwide media sensation. A teenage idol was serving his country. He was a rebel with a cause. Elvis was practically part of US foreign policy, proof that if the Russians tried anything in Europe they wouldn’t just be facing rockets, they would be up against rock singers as well.
Having proved himself a solid citizen, Elvis came home to find that he had increased his young audience while winning over their parents. His movie career boomed too. The Colonel helped him pick the scripts. They might not have been the most brilliant movies in the world, but they were highly marketable because when Elvis had done enough talking he sang. It was all part of a plan for merchandising a product. If Colonel Parker had sent Elvis on tour abroad, the results would have been even more lucrative. But they were lucrative enough — revenue far beyond Elvis’s capacity to spend, no matter what he ate, drank, wore, drove, married or injected. There had never been anything like the Elvis experience — in astrophysical terms he was a singularity — and there was no telling where it would lead. Music and movies had made a Memphis bumpkin into a planetary presence as inescapable as carbon dioxide. Those forced to admit through clenched teeth that the boy could have been worse sighed with relief that there was no such thing as world television.
But domestic television was already having the effect of turning everyone who appeared on it into a performer. Vice President Nixon had become a household name like Lucy and Liberace. Russia’s own front man, Nikita Khrushchev, had a big hit on television when he came to visit America. He had Mrs Khrushchev looming nearby to help him express his low opinion of Hollywood glamour. Khrushchev was a man who knew that if he was going to bang his fist on the table to emphasize a point, he had better keep banging it until the camera got the shot. But Nixon came out on top in the famous Kitchen Debate in Moscow, when he went up against Khrushchev mano a mano, in a knock-down, drag-out contest in man-to-man communication. It was a double act like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis or Abbott and Costello. Nobody remembered who said what. They only remembered that Nixon was starting to look like President Eisenhower’s natural successor.

On screen, politics and show business were merging. Behind the scenes they had merged. Men with career management as a career, men who dreamed dreams beyond the ken of Colonel Tom Parker, were already working on a fascinating proposition. If Nixon was Presidential material, what could be done by, what could be done with, a man with the right war record, the right wife, the right voice — the right face?