Seeing Stars

Not all stars have star presence, and those with star presence don’t always become stars. It’s easier to quantify stardom—through box-office receipts, salary per picture, dressing-room size—than it is to qualify star presence. Richard Dyer, the British scholar who helped establish star studies roughly thirty years ago, helped pin down this elusive, almost ineffable term when he wrote, with bracing simplicity, in 1993, “Stars are things that shine brightly in the darkness.” But even the more useful, concrete descriptors of star presence that Dyer’s formulation points to—luminosity, transcendence—are themselves often vague concepts, always subjective and hard to define precisely. In Watching Them Be, his book on this slippery topic, James Harvey, who considers the big-screen mystique of John Wayne and Ingrid Bergman, among many others, acknowledges the difficulty of incisively expressing his awe for one film—and its unlikely star—in particular. Writing about Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), which he hails as “probably the greatest movie” he’s ever seen, and the mute, expressionless, saintly donkey of the title, Harvey confesses: “It’s always nice to pay a tribute to sublimity and then pass on. It’s more daunting to confront it. But that’s what I’ll try to do here—however incompletely.”

Resolutely committed to looking back, Harvey has devoted all three of his books to paying tribute. Published in 1987, his first book, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, celebrates the films of that genre released between 1929 and 1948. His second, 2001’s Movie Love in the Fifties, continues his golden-era-of-Hollywood reappraisal project, this time from the perspective of a firsthand witness. Watching Them Be is Harvey’s most expansive undertaking: The films he discusses span almost seventy years, from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s silent The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) to Quentin Tarantino’s voluble Jackie Brown (1997). He goes beyond US borders; in addition to the work of Dreyer and Bresson, Harvey considers that of other European auteurs such as Roberto Rossellini and Jean-Luc Godard, whose Masculin féminin (1966) illustrates the cover. But too often, Harvey, instead of “confronting” sublimity, loses sight of his target altogether. In a seeming overcompensation for not being able to articulate precisely what it is about, say, Marlene Dietrich or Robert De Niro in a particular vehicle that makes them seem so transfixing on-screen, he recapitulates plot and dialogue in exhausting detail. This incessant cataloguing of minutiae often diminishes, rather than enhances, the aura of the performer under discussion.

Breaking his study into three categories—“Icons,” “Realists,” and “Transcenders,” not especially helpful taxonomies—Harvey begins his book with a disquisition on Greta Garbo. The opening lines of this chapter—a dopey query followed by flaccid hyperbole—are not propitious: “So what was it about Garbo? In her time she evoked more widely felt and declared awe than any movie star ever has, before her or since.” In his summa of the actress once exalted as “the Divine,” Harvey discusses her performances in many of the nearly thirty films she did before famously retiring in 1941 at the age of thirty-five. But this comprehensive approach, so often weighed down by Harvey’s insistence on recounting who said what in the movie and when and why, rarely distills the actress’s lustrousness. And when he does step back to analyze what he’s spent so many paragraphs setting up, his insights can often be further enervating, as in this unfortunate tautology that surfaces in a discussion of the final scene of Rouben Mamoulian’s Queen Christina (1933): “That she leaves us behind is one of the things that makes it moving. Definitively Garboesque.”

Harvey’s thickets of words only remind the reader of the superior assessments of the actress that have endured for decades—primarily for their lapidary quality: Roland Barthes’s “The Face of Garbo” in Mythologies (1957) and Kenneth Tynan’s appreciation originally commissioned for Sight & Sound in 1954 and later collected in Profiles (1990). Harvey admiringly—and quickly—acknowledges these predecessors in his forty-nine-page Garbo chapter but can never hope to match their acumen. Barthes’s two-page essay, inspired by a revival of Queen Christina in Paris, sharply illuminates Garbo’s appeal with aperçus like this: “Garbo offered to one’s gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt.” In the opening paragraph of his six-page Garbo précis, Tynan adroitly deploys simile to anatomize her allure: “To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively and beautifully itself.” This kind of prose—rich and evocative, direct and economical—gives a concept as highly personal and gossamer as “star presence” the ballast it needs to seem meaningful, comprehensible.

Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975).
Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975).

Often Harvey’s book slips away from a specific focus on a performer’s aura to become an undisciplined compendium of close readings of movies that he really likes. As with the opening lines of the Garbo chapter, those that begin the one on Robert Altman’s Nashville—a superlative work that doesn’t need yet another tribute—don’t inspire much hope for fresh observations: “Nashville is a great American movie. It seemed like that when it first came out in 1975 (some compared its impact then to Citizen Kane’s) and feels the same for many of us even now, more than thirty-five years later. Our national life has changed a lot since then, God knows, but Robert Altman’s masterpiece goes on seeming revelatory.” Harvey announces his intention to concentrate primarily on two actresses in Nashville’s impeccable ensemble cast—Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley—with imprecision and redundancy: “They are extraordinary. And it doesn’t at all hurt, of course, that their film (the first for both) is, too.”

Despite that flat preamble, some of Harvey’s loveliest and most perceptive writing emerges from his discussion of Tomlin’s and Blakley’s performances in Altman’s movie. His appraisal of the morning-after scene between Tomlin’s character, Linnea, a mother of two deaf pubescent children and a church regular, and Keith Carradine’s womanizing folkie heartthrob Tom reveals his skill at seizing on a gesture or look and finding within it a key to the film’s deeper meaning: “In that last skirt-tucking gaze of hers at Tom on the phone—steady but impassive—she seems more hidden than ever. What it stands for, you suppose, is some private and final refusal of judgment. . . . There is, after all, something momentous—not too strong a word for it, I think—about Tomlin’s presence in this film, about Linnea’s privacy in a movie that is so much and so relentlessly about public performance, even public exposure.” A few pages later, he elegantly contrasts Linnea with Blakley’s Barbara Jean, the fragile, unstable country-music superstar, a juxtaposition that further illuminates one of the dominant themes in Nashville: “Where Tomlin’s Linnea suggests a strong private self attending closely to the outside world, Barbara Jean attends to nothing but private voices and is all public self.”

And yet even when Harvey is at his best, he has a habit of discussing performers in isolation, cut off from their eras and their own lives before or after a particular film; often Watching Them Be reads as the writer’s detailed screening notes shaped into essay form but lacking much historical context. Biographical detail is supplied arbitrarily: The bullet points of Garbo’s much-documented CV are dutifully, probably unnecessarily, recapped, but nothing is said of Blakley’s endeavors pre- or post-Nashville. This is an especially bizarre omission, since the fact that Altman’s film remains the pinnacle of Blakley’s career only adds to the poignancy of her performance—made even more indelible by the three songs the actress wrote and sings in Nashville—as the eventually assassinated Barbara Jean.

In fact, a kind of willful naïveté hangs over much of the book, manifested in Harvey’s refusal to acknowledge how much moviegoing, movies, and stardom have changed since the release, seventeen years ago, of Jackie Brown, the most recent film under consideration. In the preface, Harvey rhapsodizes, “Where else besides the movies do you get to see other persons so intimately, so pressingly, so largely even? Where else such intense and close, such sustained and searching looks as you have of these strangers on the screen, whoever they really are?” What Harvey never concedes is that the screen increasingly preferred is no wider than fifteen inches; several of the films he dilates on are available from the Criterion Collection on Hulu Plus, ready for immediate consumption on laptops.

Nowhere is this sense of retreat more glaring than when one considers the source of this volume’s title, James Baldwin’s book-length essay The Devil Finds Work (1976). “One does not go to see them act: one goes to watch them be,” Baldwin writes, referring to screen legends such as Bette Davis or Humphrey Bogart. Like Harvey’s work, Baldwin’s is partly a cine-memoir, but one that is always furiously engaged with—and often furious at—the culture on- and offscreen. Appropriating a quote from Baldwin’s fiery text to title this anodyne collection not only seems tone-deaf but also underscores how little is at stake in Harvey’s book, which is, in the end, no more than an archive of personal enthusiasms, a few of which are conveyed eloquently. He’s spent a lot of time in the dark—and seems to want to stay there.

Melissa Anderson writes about film for Artforum and the Village Voice.