Book review: “Gods Like Us” and the human need for fantasy

By Casey Campbell

From Ty Burr’s first prodding question in Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, you can tell his journey into the world of fame and stardom won’t be an easy one. “What are the stars really like?” he asks in the introduction, only to further point out that the question isn’t the subject of the book. Rather, the subject is why we ask that in the first place.

Throughout the twenty chapters (plus intro and postscript) Ty Burr takes on the daunting task of truly studying and analyzing the lives of those we would call stars. From the earliest days of moving pictures, to the modern incessant need to see how our favorite larger than life celebrities are fairing on the internet, Burr pulls nary a punch in his gargantuan study.

In the grand scheme of human, and to an extent American, history, movies haven’t been around for very long. Despite this, it feels like every single page packs itself with several to a dozen thoughtfully selected and important details that range from obscure details to abundantly important topic definers — like how the important female leads of past generations are largely forgotten outside of their own generation (which was the case, specifically for Norma Talmadge, on page 31) or that movie stardom can be traced in a similar way to music (Stravinsky performing The Rite of Spring to a rioting audience on page 157).

What can get lost in a study so rich with characters, names, and titles is the big picture. For the common movie watcher, or anyone not entranced by the art of movie making or the act of watching film, this book may read as a sub-400 page list of actors with general descriptions of their lives and actions. Largely, they won’t care, and why should they? The meatiest details, like following the very public downfall of Mel Gibson in 2006 with the DUI (which was made worse in 2010 with the release of the “Gibson Tapes”) was, again, very public (Burr, 317). One watching modern blockbusters will come for the stars they know and skim those they don’t. Nor do they need the reminding of something that happened so recently. It is with the whole history of celebrity that pieces like Gibson’s racist tirade fit so snugly into the whole of the story.

But, for the person who loves and lives film, this book is a necessity. Gods Like Us follows film history as much as it does the story of stardom. Burrs use of cinematic knowledge and the time capsule quality of his writing (as well as the colloquialism he utilizes when running off in descriptive tangents regarding the films or stars themselves) only help position this as one of the most impressive books of film study available—barring, of course, academic texts.

Each chapter tracks the course of a certain era of stars, or specific happenstance abundant among stars. Chapter 4 does the latter, for example, and is titled “Sodom: The Silent Star Scandals.” The chapter quite clearly continues the groundwork laid by previous chapters, while being its own succinct study on the other, darker side of stardom. It also begs the reader, though unspokenly, to position the facts of the chapter with the current state of stardom. It’s hard not to put the scandals of today up against those of the “distant” past.

James Murray, the lead in King Vidor’s The Crowd, had a career basically handed to him, where “starring roles presented themselves, yet the new star rapidly unraveled” (Burr, 77). Just eight years after starring in The Crowd, Murray drank himself into a watery grave, drowning in the Hudson River. There’s something about being seen by all, but known by none, that commonly forces these stars into lives of drinking and debauchery.

These kinds of details propell the text into something more that just a history of the subject. It allows for a throughline to be proposed and followed through. There is something more to stardom than what is vainly presented on screen or from the media. There is a stark, almost inhuman way in which these people must go about their lives. We, the fans and watchers, put these people — no, these “Gods,” on a pedestal of grand proportions. We see their giant forms on the silver screen and truly desire something from them, which explains the mad frenzy that arises when stars are seen in public.

From clothes tearing, to arm grabbing, the main crux of Burr’s book rears its head throughout. Why do we care so much about these people? Why do we need to photograph them, almost as a trophy for having simply seen them? His answer is reminiscent of the movies themselves: it’s all a fantasy. Not the notion of stardom, but what we get out of it. We like to imagine ourselves in these larger than life scenarios, and stars allow us to do it for two hours at a time, or whenever we open up our phones and check out who’s being rambunxious on Twitter or Instagram. We use these stars, and it’s a fairly one sided deal in our direction: they get the money, and we get the dreams.

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