What’s the value of stardom? What are its uses and purposes? Who uses it and how? I ask myself these questions because I’ve spent all week watching old Barbara Stanwyck movies and new YouTube celebrities, and my brain has developed a cramp.
The new kids first. “Next Level” is a movie that features young teenage celebrities playing young teenagers who want to be celebrities; if you squint the wrong way, it functions as a closed loop of modern pop-culture narcissism. A production of The Loft Entertainment, whose website positions the company as “the ultimate matchmaker between brands and celebrities,” “Next Level” hits theaters and (mostly) video on demand on Sept. 6.
The stars are kids you’ve never heard of but your children certainly have: Lead actress Lauren Orlando has over 4 million followers on Instagram and 1.5 million on YouTube; supporting player Chloe Lukasiak has over 10 million combined followers on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook; and the movie’s teen himbo, Hayden Summerall, has nearly 4 million adolescent girls panting after him on Instagram and YouTube.
Not only are they and social media celebrities like them major stars to anyone under the age of 13, they’re the only stars. A common experience: Rolling Stone movie critic David Fear recently tweeted about playing the A-to-Z game on a family vacation, category “famous people,” and while he and his wife named actors, athletes, and artists, his kids exclusively reeled off YouTube celebs and social media influencers. (“Didn’t recognize a single name,” he added. “I have met the Generation Gap.”)
Let me clarify right here that “Next Level” is an absolutely terrible movie. The plot is actively heinous: a “Mean Girls” ripoff unfolding at a creative arts summer camp that prioritizes competition, “winning,” and bubble-headed pop-diva banality. (Sample dialogue: ”I gotta go — time to have fun and be the best!”)
More to the point, the film’s stars just aren’t . . . stars. They can’t act, they have no charisma — they don’t pop, at least not on this kind of screen. Go to Lauren Orlando’s Instagram account or YouTube channel, by contrast, and you’ll find a pleasantly average young woman who has learned to comfortably play a version of herself to an audience of peers — and seriously monetize it in the process.
The YouTube kids aren’t actors, in other words, and it’s a mistake to think otherwise. If anything, they’re analogous to the teen idols of the 1950s, kids from your neighborhood who danced on Dick Clark or Corny Collins and who, if they were lucky, rose to the level of a genial no-talent like Fabian.
Kids whose gift was to be themselves, in other words, whose skill set was building a persona from the ostensible reality of their lives. For a generation raised to see themselves in selfies, that persona now serves as a mirror (often literally, if you’ve clicked on any of the endless Youtube videos offering make-up tips). It’s disturbing only when you consider how thin and vain are the values being projected, and how narrow they are to any experience beyond that of being an ambitious and attractive teenage boy or girl.
What did ambitious and attractive boys and girls do a century or so ago? They went to Hollywood, and here’s where Barbara Stanwyck comes in. The Criterion Channel — a streaming subscription life-raft of classic and world cinema — is currently running a festival of 11 Stanwyck movies from the pre-Code era, that marvelous early-1930s period in which the “production code” of proper moral onscreen behavior had been formulated but all the studios chose to ignore it. By 1934, all movies had to get a “seal of approval” and that was that, but before then pre-Code films were racy and raw, full of shared beds, unpunished deeds, and references to drug use and alternate sexualities.
And Stanwyck was the pre-Code queen. “Ladies of Leisure” — made in 1930, when the actress was all of 23 — was the film that broke her through as a star, and it’s a seedy little melodrama about a “party girl” (*cough*) who models for, and falls in love with, a rich-kid painter (Ralph Graves). The plot turns are soapy, but Stanwyck is luminous; it’s one of her most nakedly emotional performances, and she glows with tears throughout. (And there’s a showdown with the painter’s wealthy but empathetic mother that’s a killer.)
Other Stanwyck films in the Criterion festival are tougher, notably “Night Nurse,” a delightfully hard-bitten 1931 Warner Bros. drama featuring a young Clark Gable at his most mesmerizingly brutish, and the infamous “Baby Face” (1933), in which Stanwyck’s Lily Powers sleeps her way up to the top of a major corporation floor by literal floor. John Wayne can be glimpsed as a beardless youth of an office boy, and there’s an outrageous Nietzschean empowerment speech (“You have power over men — but you must use men to get the things you want! Exploit yourself!”) that the Production Code censors cut and which had to wait for a 2004 restoration to be seen.
The common link in most of these movies is Stanwyck’s characters, young working-class women wanting a better life and often paying the price for it. Those stories mirrored the reality of many of the women who paid to see them in theaters, and they mirrored Stanwyck’s life, to a point. She was born Ruby Stevens in Brooklyn, to a mother who died when she was 4 and a father who took off two weeks later. She made it through a series of foster homes and odd jobs, quit school at 14, and was dancing in the Ziegfeld Follies at 16, two years older than Lauren Orlando was (and two years younger than Chloe Lukasiak) when they made “Next Level.”
The difference is not just that Stanwyck could act and they can’t (at least not yet). It’s that she was functioning, had to function, as an adult in a harsh adult world, while the YouTube stars are essentially prolonging their childhood by playing dress-up in their backyards for an audience of millions. Stanwyck wanted to become famous in order to gain security and to put food on the table; the social media kids want to be stars because they’ve been told it’s their all-American pop-culture birthright and that if you aren’t online you may not even exist.
Still, maybe that’s too easy. The fact is that online fame, like early Hollywood fame, is now seen by a generation of young people as a potential ticket out of nowhere. “Jawline,” a stand-out documentary at Sundance now airing on Hulu, follows a handful of 16-year-old boys, many from hardscrabble backgrounds, as they vie to be the next “It Guy” of social media. Director Liza Mandelup shows us the carefree surfaces visible on Instagram and YouTube and the anxious, sometimes hand-to-mouth reality beneath, and she implies the gap between the two is both immense and the source of a cultural sickness, one abetted by the many companies run by grown-ups that prey on and exploit the kids’ yearning for fame.
In other words, the children of YouTube may not be as far from Ruby Stevens as one might think. But how many of them have the drive, the smarts, the chutzpah — and the talent — to turn into a Barbara Stanwyck? More disturbingly, how many of their fans want them to? Stanwyck had a career that stretched on into the 1980s; she reinvented herself time and again. The new kids will be over as soon as they get too old and the adolescent hordes find someone new to follow. Have you heard of the VSCO Girls? Google it. Your children probably already have.