Tuesday, January 18, 2005

A piece about celebrity ...

In Richard Dyer’s book, _Stars_ (London: British Film Institute, 1988), he presents the notion of the celebrity and notes that film actors performa as characters; Dyer suggests that one can distinguish between a star’s “total image” and a character he or she plays on the screen. (88) In an earlier discussion, Dyer notes the manufactured nature of the star-image itself. He explains:

"Stars are, like characters in stories, representations of people. Thus they relate to ideas about what people are (or are supposed to be) like. However, unlike characters in stories, stars are also real people. . . . Because stars have an existence in the world independent of their screen/'fiction' appearances, it is possible to believe . . . that as people they are more real than characters in stories. This means that they serve to disguise the fact that they are just as much produced images, constructed personalities as 'characters' are." (20)

While agreeing that “characters are not real people, that they are an effect of the text constructions,” it should be noted that star figures are nonetheless constructed as well. (89) Dyer discusses the notion of the film star, where he or she performs a particular character in the context of a fiction. Dyer’s model of the celebrity may be useful when discussing popular musicstars, although the latter case may prove to be more complex.

It is true that celebrities exist in popular music as they do in cinema, and that a celebrity is constructed by various factors including the music one performs, also not unlike a cinema star. There are notable cases in which musicians perform in specific character: Bowie became Ziggy Stardust in 1973; Marilyn Manson seems to follow in Ziggy’s footsteps; the band Kiss take on individual personas and characteristics apart from their “actual” identities. What is interesting in the case of popular music are those musicians who choose to perform a “fiction” without stepping out of his or her star-image. In other words, a performer does not always enter a character: James Taylor is James Taylor in concert, no matter what song he is singing. Note that the audience is only privilege to a particular image of James Taylor—not the actual person—but neither does he enter into a particular character in the same way that a film actor does.

Dyer’s analysis of Jane Fonda illuminates the manufactured quality of celebrity which, in the case of Fonda, may be based partly on fact. Dyer suggests that her star image revolves around her connection to her father, sex and political radicalism. From her father Henry, Jane carries connotations of left-wing liberalism and a strong sense of Americanness. This national sensibility is reinforced by her physical likeness to her father, her upbringing on a farm, her attendance at a top women’s college and her film portrayals of college icons such as student, cheerleader and majorette. Her film characters inform her star-image, and her star-image informs her characters.

This kind of slippage between star-image and character occurs in a particularly pronounced manner in the case of Frank Sinatra. Keir Keightley, in his doctoral dissertation on Sinatra [“Frank Sinatra, Hi-Fi, and Formations of Adult Culture: Gender, Technology, and Celebrity, 1948-62” (Doctoral Dissertation, Concordia University, 1996)], discusses the singer’s role as Barry Sloan in the 1955 film, Young at Heart. Keightley states,

"Note the slippage between Sinatra and the character he plays in the film: … it is noteworthy that 'Frankie' (as much as the character he is playing) is here seen as “tormented,” experiencing “misery,” and “wearing a chip on his shoulder,” ideas which were commonly associated with Sinatra’s star-image at this time." (204)

Sinatra is an interesting case since he is both a musician and a film actor, conflating the notions of star-image and character.

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