Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Two Movies Make me Ponder the Nature of Showbiz Stardom: The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and Fame (1980)

On Sunday and Monday I watched the 3 hour marathon that is the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld.  I taped this one off TCM a few days ago as I knew it co-starred William Powell and Myrna Loy, and I was pretty keen to see more of both now that I'm out of Thin Man films.  I was also actually very curious about the historical figure Florenz Ziegfeld who brought into being the Ziegfeld Follies and pioneered much of the modern showmanship of American big theater and the now lost art of "glorifying the American girl".

Top that off with some famously complicated technical numbers, and what wasn't there to want to see?

Well,again, the movie is three hours.

That doesn't mean it doesn't cruise along at a good clip, but, you know, block off three hours of your life for an absolutely stunning visual treat, the kind they quit making around the late 1950's.

One of the great lost commodities of the early 20th Century, a phrase that probably rings familiar but you aren't sure why, is Ziegfeld Girl.  Lifting his idea from Paris revues, Florenz Ziegfeld filled his shows with dozens of young women to dance and sing in a fashion that would be imitated in Hollywood musicals for years in huge chorus productions that, today, I suppose, is mostly associated with Busby Berkeley films.

What's amazing is how many names were once Ziegfeld girls, including Barbara Stanwyck, Norma Shearer, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford, Louise Brooks and countless more.

The movie spanned Ziegfeld's adult life, from carnival barker at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair to his death in the early 1930's.  The movie bills itself as tracking the "romances" of Ziegfeld, and it does, at that, politely skirting around any shenanigans.  Less politely poking fun at is mismanagement of money.  Powell is actually pretty great, and if you've got the time to kill, it's not a bad way to spend your time.

Then this evening, mostly because I'd never seen it, I watched the 1980 movie, Fame.  Directed by Alan Parker, who formerly mopey high school kids will recall directed Pink Floyd: The Wall, the movie follows a few representative kids through the trials and tribulations of high school at a New York academy for the performing arts.

The film was shot during a curious era where "realism", especially of urban decay, wasn't shied away from, and parts of New York circa 1979 were in pretty dire straights. More, the film didn't cast just the startlingly beautiful people, and the kids don't look overdone or made over.  Even our leads wouldn't book a second audition for the typical CW show.

That realism trickles into a very non-Dobie Gillis-ish look at the lives of young people and the way the real world can manhandle them.  At some point, the movie becomes a maudlin exercise in throwing random tough things to happen to high school kids, but for the most part it treats the young characters like aspiring adults with actual ambition, slowly realizing that a life in the performing arts is going to be a rough, rough road.

If you were alive between 1980-83, it was sort of hard to avoid the catchy theme song to the movie, sung by Irene Cara, who would go on to sing "What a Feeling" and a few other 1980's pop hits and who plays a major role in the film.

In addition, I'd guess this movie helped launch midnight showings of Rocky Horror Picture Show across the US as there's actually quite the extended sequence highlighting the shenanigans that I suspect was news to most movie goers at the time.

Perhaps taking a page from the successful Broadway show, A Chorus Line, though, the movie works in vignettes, but rather than turning in on the characters as they audition, we get four years of hopes and dreams and characters paying for their choices in various ways that, I am sure at the time, didn't have the same ring of melodrama it carried for me now.

If its worth a mention here, its because one of the leads in the movie is Maureen Teefy, who would also play Lucy Lane in the 1984 movie, Supergirl.  I kept thinking "she looks familiar, but why?"  Well, there you go.

Both films, curiously, focused on the risks and rewards of show business, a topic I've been considering a lot lately.  Something about watching yet another season of show business awards go by with their eternal focus on youth, selling to the younger crowd, and the insistence on placing new products out market in the form of fresh young faces, it often seems, rather than looking inward to see what else is possible to market.

The Ziegfeld story follows something resembling his biography and his eternal struggle to stay ahead and on top through ingenuity, charm and giving the people what they want.  Meanwhile, Fame promises nothing to its stars beyond the point of graduation, and doesn't attempt to suggest that a lifetime of stardom actually awaits any of them - and maybe that's okay.  That's not the narrative we sell kids these days in the promise of plucked from obscurity to overnight stardom that reality TV and singing contest shows provide.  And we don't dwell too much on what it means when you're the season 3 winner and it's now season 8, and who were you again?

That's not to mention the short shelf life of any rock star and the decades that follow when, at the ripe old age of 32 or so, you're over the hill and it's time to reinvent yourself.  Thanks to documentary style TV, articles in People, and other headlines, we're pretty familiar with the pattern of fame and fortune and eventual obscurity that even those who manage to make a mark eventually succumb to.  And I'm not saying it's not worth it, but I often wonder what that must look like to realize you're not going to be rock star, movie star, whatever... anymore.  I assume you have a whole lot of afternoons watching TV before you move on and figure out how to pay the bills.

Ziegfeld, who had been a top producer in his day and had huge hits and practically created aspects of American culture from whole cloth is now mostly forgotten.  The theaters he built are gone, even if new buildings carry his name.  Of course, all names and history eventually goes, but we chase the ephemeral idea of immortality, but maybe what we're really doing is making a moment in time when enough people say our names, just for that one moment.

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