We misunderstand Tom Cruise at our peril. We have recast him, in the movie of our minds, as a couch-jumping, Scientology-pumping, Katie-Holmes-kidnapping buffoon, a living symbol of the rot of celebrity.
But once we saw him differently.
After the plainspoken, usually plain-looking, sensitive heroes of 1970s films (think Dustin Hoffman), Cruise was, according to Ty Burr’s wide-ranging new book “Gods Like Us,” the ideal emblem of the triumphalist 1980s, devoted as they were to “catering to adolescence, a yearning for uncomplicated heroism, the rebirth of glamour, and, most of all, the return of confidence expressed as graceful, aggressive entitlement.” Cruise, we might understand, was undervalued as an actor because of his omnipresence as a star, and the seamlessness of his presentation. Being Tom Cruise was simply a matter of being. Why reward him for what came so naturally?
Then Cruise jumped the couch, and the wheels began to come off his carefully curated star presentation. The Tom Cruise we now know — just like Mel Gibson, or Lindsay Lohan, or Frank Sinatra, for that matter — is substantially less appealing than the flawless movie star we once admired. And yet, Cruise’s meltdown reveals once again that, as Burr argues, the stars are not who we think they are — and never have been. John Wayne never went to war. Stardom is a construct agreed to by everyone except, sometimes, the star themselves, subject to change through generations as we change.
In “Gods Like Us,’’ Boston Globe film critic Burr presents a fresh take on the medium’s history, eschewing the standard roll call of moguls and filmmakers, preferring to understand the triumph of Hollywood as a carefully orchestrated harnessing of the ferocious power of celebrity.
The book proceeds chronologically, beginning with the now-forgotten Florence Lawrence, whose celebrity at the start of the 20th century was strategically promoted through fake tabloid reports of her death, on to the more sophisticated star system of MGM, and beyond. In Burr’s telling, for most of film history we went to the movies to see the stars, and we expected them to remain the same from picture to picture. We yearned for familiarity not surprise. Americans leaned on their favorite stars, their presence on the screen a shining example to be modeled and imitated.
Audiences voraciously consumed images of the stars onscreen and carefully guided stories of their personal lives, which were expected to mirror their personae, with potentially dire repercussions if they strayed. Burr is superb on the duality of audiences’ relationship to the stars who fed their inner lives. We loved them but chafed at how we worshipped them. “On an even deeper level,” Burr notes, “we also burned with resentment at the stars’ presumption to set themselves up as gods when our egos told us we were the ones deserving of attention.” The stars were our stand-ins under the proscenium arch of the dream life, living out our fantasies, recreating our triumphs and our tragedies, reflecting a shinier, sharper version of ourselves back at us.
The narrative of stardom shifts, in Burr’s estimation, when Marlon Brando swaggers onstage as Stanley Kowalski. “The studio’s job was to fit new performers into old archetypes, and if the fit was off, it was the actor who got trimmed.” Brando, first and foremost himself, revises that model by refusing to shave down the jagged edges of his persona. “Brando was the fork in the road, the line in the sand,” Burr says. “Through him, the counterculture.”
After Brando, Burr opens the door of celebrity wider, making room for rock stars like Elvis Presley, television icons like Lucille Ball, athletes like Muhammad Ali, and even porn stars. All of these figures are undoubtedly celebrities, but their inclusion, venturing so far from that original model of larger-than-life figures glimpsed in the dark, raises questions Burr is not fully prepared to answer. If Elvis is here, then why not Bing Crosby, or Billie Holiday? If Ali is a god, then why not Babe Ruth?
Burr, writing for a wide audience, is sometimes leery of venturing too far into the thickets of movie arcana. In his zest to keep the reader from wandering off, he occasionally talks down to us, sure we could not possibly be familiar with the subject at hand. He often seeks to translate the past into present terms, telling us that Johnny Depp is the inheritor of Douglas Fairbanks’s trademark winking style, or that “[i]n language your daughters might understand, [Colleen] Moore took Lindsay Lohan and turned her into Anne Hathaway.”
But these are minor quibbles.
“We have drifted far from movie stars by now,” Burr argues, near the end of this capacious and thought-provoking book, taking a breath before venturing boldly in the direction of Lonelygirl15 and “Jersey Shore,” “but that’s the point: so has the culture.” If “Gods Like Us” flies off into realms never dreamt of by Louis B. Mayer, it has an explanation readily at hand for ending on what might otherwise feel like an extended tangent. The dream life is not quite what it once was, battered by a rejuvenated FX-driven blockbuster model that no longer requires the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Julia Roberts to sell tickets, and an Internet culture whose devotion to self-promotion and self-idealization (hello, Facebook feed!) renders the complex psychic substitution of the stars for ourselves partially unnecessary. We can afford to ridicule Tom Cruise because we no longer depend on him as we once did. So maybe now that we understand that Cruise, too, is a performer, and not just an idea, can we respect his accomplishments, and those of all the other movie stars we naively assumed to simply be playing themselves, that much more?
Saul Austerlitz is the author of “Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.”