Celebrity is the defining issue of late twentieth-century America. In recent years, much has been made and written of the rise of contemporary celebrity culture in the United States. Writers, thinkers, and pundits alike warn us of the danger of our societal obsession with celebrity, even as more and more Americans tune into Hard Copy and buy People magazine. Andy Warhol's cynical prediction that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes has virtually become a national rallying cry as television airwaves overflow with venues for every-one's opportunity to appear in the spotlight. The more that is written about fame, the less shocked we become. That's the way things are, we seem to say, so why not grab our moment in the sun?
Fame, of course, is nothing new. In his comprehensive volume The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History, Leo Braudy has traced man's desire for recognition and need for immortality back to Alexander the Great, noting: "In great part the history of fame is the history of the changing ways by which individuals have sought to bring themselves to the attention of others and, not incidentally, have thereby gained power over them." The desire to achieve recognition is both timeless and universal. What is particular to late twentieth-century America, however, is the democratization of fame and the resultant ubiquity of the celebrity—a person, as Daniel Boorstin so famously noted, "who is known for his well-knownness."
The origin of the unique phenomenon of twentieth-century celebrity may be found in the words of one of America's Founding Fathers, John Adams, who wrote, "The rewards … in this life are esteem and admiration of others—the punishments are neglect and contempt…. The desire of the esteem of others is as real a want of nature as hunger—and the neglect and contempt of the world as severe as a pain…. It is the principal end of the government to regulate this passion, which in its turn becomes the principal means of order and subordination in society, and alone commands effectual obedience to laws, since without it neither human reason, nor standing armies, would ever produce that great effect." Indeed, the evolution of celebrity as the Zeitgeist of the twentieth century is a direct result of democracy.
As Alexis De Tocqueville noted in the early 1830s, the equality implied by a democracy creates the need for new kinds of distinction. But there are problems inherent in this new social order, as Tocqueville wrote: "I confess that I believe democratic society to have much less to fear from boldness than from paltriness of aim. What frightens me most is the danger that … ambition may lose both its force and its greatness, that human passions may grow gentler and at the same time baser, with the result that the progress of the body social may become daily quieter and less aspiring." A prescription, it would seem, for twentieth-century celebrity. Indeed, some 150 years later, Daniel Boorstin would describe a celebrity thus: "His qualities—or rather his lack of qualities—illustrate our peculiar problems. He is neither good nor bad, great nor petty…. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness. He is morally neutral. The product of no conspiracy, of no group promoting vice or emptiness, he is made by honest, industrious men of high professional ethics doing their job, 'informing' us and educating us. He is made by all of us who willingly read about him, who like to see him on television, who buy recordings of his voice, and talk about him to our friends. His relation to morality and even to reality is highly ambiguous."
What Tocqueville foresaw and Boorstin confirmed in his empty definition of celebrity seems, however, to belie the fact that, as a nation, we have come to define success by celebrity. It is the singular goal to which our country aspires. But how and why has this hollow incarnation of fame become our benchmark of achievement?
The great experiment inaugurated by the signing of the Declaration of Independence proposed a classless society in which the only prerequisite for success was the desire and the will to succeed. In fact, however, though founded on a noble premise, America was and is a stratified society. Yet the myth of classlessness, of limitless opportunity open to anyone with ambition and desire, has been so pervasive that it has remained the unifying philosophy that drives society as a whole. In a world where dream and reality do not always mesh, a third entity must necessarily evolve, one which somehow links the two. That link—the nexus between a deeply stratified society and the myth of classlessness—is celebrity.
According to Braudy: "From the beginning, fame has required publicity." The evolution (or perhaps devolution) of fame into celebrity in the twentieth century was the direct result of inventions such as photography and telegraphy, which made it possible for words and images to be conveyed across a vast nation. Abraham Lincoln went so far as to credit his election to a photograph taken by Matthew Brady and widely dispersed throughout his campaign. Before the invention of photography, most Americans could have passed a president on the street and not known it. A mania for photography ensued and, during the nineteenth century, photograph galleries sprang up throughout the country to satisfy the public's increasing hunger for and fascination with these images. The ideal vehicle for the promulgation of democracy, photography was accessible to anyone, and thus it soon contributed to the erosion of visible boundaries of class, even as it proclaimed a new ideal for success—visual fame.
The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries witnessed an avalanche of inventions that would transform America from a rural country of provincial enclaves to a more unified nation of urban centers. The rapid growth of mass media technologies spawned increasing numbers of national publications eager to make news. And make it they did—searching out stories that might not have been recognized as newsworthy a decade before. As Richard Schickel writes in Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity : "The pace of life was quickening, the flow of information beginning to speed up while mobility both geographic and social was stepping up as well. People began to need familiar figures they could carry about as they moved out and moved up, a sort of portable community as it were, containing representations of good values, interesting traits, a certain amount of within-bounds attractiveness, glamour, even deviltry." Thus the stage was set for the invention of the motion picture.
The birth of celebrity is, of course, most closely tied to the motion picture industry, and its embrace by a public eager to be entertained. Paying a penny, or later a nickel, audiences from cities to small towns could gather in a darkened movie theatre, an intimate setting in which they could escape the reality of their daily lives and become part of a fantasy. But how was this different from live theatre?
In part, movie houses existed all over America, and so hundreds of thousands of people had the opportunity to see the same actor or actress perform. Furthermore, films were churned out at a phenomenal rate, thus moviegoers could enjoy a particular performer in a dozen or more pictures a year. This engendered a new kind of identification with performers—a sense of knowing them. Additionally, Schickel cites the influence of a cinematic innovation by director D. W. Griffith: the close-up, which had "the effect of isolating the actor in the sequence, separating him or her from the rest of the ensemble for close individual scrutiny by the audience. To some immeasurable degree, attention is directed away from the role being played, the overall story being told. It is focused instead on the reality of the individual playing the part." The intimacy, immediacy, and constancy of movies all fostered an environment ripe for celebrity.
Audiences clamored to know more about their favorite actors and actresses, and a new kind of public personality was born—one whose success was not measured by birth, wealth, heroism, intelligence, or achievement. The fledgling movie studios quickly grasped the power of these audiences to make or break them, and they responded by putting together a publicity machine that would keep the public inundated with information about their favorite performers. From studio publicists to gossip columnists, the movie industry was unafraid to promote itself and its product, even if it meant making private lives totally public. But the effect was electrifying. Almost overnight, fame had ceased to be sole property of the moneyed elite. Movie stars, America believed, might be young, beautiful, even rich, but otherwise they were no different from you or me. In Hollywood, where most of the movie studios were run by Jewish immigrants, where new stars were discovered at soda fountains, where it didn't matter where you came from or what your father did, anyone could become rich or famous. This new fame carried with it the most basic American promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It proved the system worked. Whatever the reality might be of the daily lives of Americans, Hollywood celebrities proved that, with a little luck, good timing, and a modicum of talent, anyone could become somebody.
The Hollywood celebrity factory churned out stars from the very beginning. In silent pictures, Gloria Swanson, Rudolph Valentino, and Greta Garbo captured America's imagination. But when sound came to pictures, many silent stars faded into obscurity, betrayed by squeaky voices, stutters, or Brooklyn accents. In their place were new stars, and more of them, now that they could talk. During the Golden Age of Hollywood, the most famous were the handsome leading men such as Robert Taylor, Gary Cooper, and Cary Grant, and beautiful leading ladies such as Vivien Leigh, Ava Gardner, and Elizabeth Taylor. But Hollywood had room for more than beauty—there were dancers such as Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, singers such as Judy Garland and Bing Crosby, funny men such as Bob Hope and Danny Kaye, villains such as Edward G. Robinson, horror stars such as Boris Karloff, starlets such as Betty Grable, cowboys such as Gene Autry. The beauty of celebrity was that it seemed to have no boundaries. You could create your own niche. As Braudy wrote: "Fame had ceased to be the possession of particular individuals or classes and had become instead a potential attribute of every human being that needed only to be brought out in the open for all to applaud its presence."
With the invention of television, the pervasiveness and power of celebrity grew. By bringing billions of images into America's homes, thousands of new faces to be "known," celebrity achieved a new intimacy. And with the decline of the studio system, movie stars began to seem more and more like "regular people." If the stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood had been America's "royalty," now no such pretensions existed. From the mumbling Marlon Brando to the toothy Tom Cruise, the stars of the new Hollywood seemed to expand the promise of celebrity to include everyone.
Celebrity, of course, did not remain the sole property of Hollywood. During the Roaring Twenties, Americans experienced a period of prosperity unlike any that had existed in the nation's 150-year history. With new wealth and new leisure time, Americans not only flocked to the movies, they went to baseball games and boxing matches, and there they found new heroes. Babe Ruth became an icon whose extraordinary popularity would pave the way for such future superstars as Joe DiMaggio and Michael Jordan. During the 1920s, however, Ruth's popularity would be rivaled by only one other man, a hero from a new field—aviation. When Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, he was hailed as a national savior. America's hunger for celebrity seemed unquenchable as each new star seemed a new fulfillment of a country's promise, of the American Dream.
The history of the twentieth century is the history of the growing influence of celebrity. No area of American society has remained untouched. The entertainment industry is no longer confined to Hollywood. Sports, music, art, literature, and even politics have embraced the celebrity ethos in order to succeed. It has been said that if Franklin Delano Roosevelt—a man in a wheelchair—were to run for president today, he would not be elected. We live in a society bounded and defined by the power of images, by the rules of celebrity. Dwight D. Eisenhower hired former matinee idol Robert Montgomery to be his consultant on television and media presentations. John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic, won the presidency because he looked like a movie star and he knew how to use the media, unlike Richard Nixon, who dripped with sweat and seemed uncomfortable on camera. Ronald Reagan, a former actor with little political ability, used his extensive media savvy to become a two-term president. Today, a politician cannot even be considered a presidential hopeful unless he has what it takes to be a celebrity. Visual appearance and the ability to manipulate the press are essential to becoming our chief of state, political knowledge and leadership come second.
Yet the more pervasive celebrity has become, the more it is decried, particularly by celebrities themselves, who claim that they have been stripped of their privacy. As Braudy describes this paradox: "Fame is desired because it is the ultimate justification, yet it is hated because it brings with it unwanted focus as well, depersonalizing as much as individualizing." The greater the need for audience approval, the more powerful the audience—and thus the media—has become. With the death of Princess Diana, an outcry for privacy was heard from the celebrity community and blame was cast on the media, even as hundreds of thousands of people poured into London to pay tribute to the "People's Princess" and millions mourned her death on television around the globe. Celebrity's snare is subtle—even as the public itself vilifies the press, it craves more. And even as celebrities seek to put limits on their responsibilities to their audience, they are, in fact, public servants.
By the late twentieth century, celebrity has become so ubiquitous that visibility has become a goal in itself. Tocqueville's prediction has come true. Americans no longer seem to aspire to greatness. They aspire to be seen. John Lahr wrote: "The famous, who make a myth of accomplishment, become pseudo-events, turning the public gaze from the real to the ideal…. Fame is America's Faustian bargain: a passport to the good life which trivializes human endeavor." But despite the deleterious effects of celebrity, it continues to define the American social order. After all, as Mae West once said, "It is better to be looked over than overlooked."
Boorstin, Daniel. The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. New York, Vantage Books, 1987.
Brownstein, Ronald. The Power and the Glitter: The Hollywood-Washington Connection. New York, Pantheon Books, 1990.
De Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. J. P. Mayer, editor.New York, Harper Perennial, 1988.
Gabler, Neal. Walter Winchell: Gossip, Power, and the Culture of Celebrity. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Gamson, Joshua. Claims to Fame: Celebrity in Contemporary America. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1994.
Lahr, John. "Notes on Fame." Harper's. January 1978, 77-80.
Schickel, Richard. Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity. Garden City, Doubleday, 1985.