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May 27, 2008

Who wants to be a movie star?

For many years, as long as I can remember, I've mused about how actors seem to fall into two categories: the few who really are different from the rest of us (they have talent) and the great majority who have nothing special to offer but were, for one reason or another, anointed and thereafter pointed at fame and fortune.

In the former category — real actors — I'd put Cate Blanchett (her stunning turn as Bob Dylan [above] in "I'm Not There" ought to silence any doubters — if there were any remaining), Tommy Lee Jones, Russell Crowe, Sean Connery, Ian Holm, Michael Caine, Robert DeNiro and Naomi Watts.

Among the latter group (civilians who somehow found themselves on magazine covers and whatnot, fleeing from paparazzi) you'd find Mel Gibson, Ashton Kutcher, Alec Baldwin, Leonardo diCaprio, Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Kevin Spacey, John Cusack, Brad Pitt, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner and Julia Roberts, among countless others.

What brought these musings from vague thoughts into words was Rob Walker's entry on Calvert DeForest in the 2007 edition of his annual compendium, "Where Were You?"

Excerpts follow.

    Calvert DeForest

    ... Larry "Bud" Melman [below] had died.... Melman was absolutely critical to my experience with Letterman, and my experience with Letterman is critical to my life. I believe I was maybe 13 when I first saw the Letterman show, and however old I was, I am certain that it was the show's second week on the air. I was just blown away by it, I thought it was one of the funniest things ever. And Melman, doing bizarre "Toast on a Stick" spots and the like, was a key reason. I assumed he was not a professional performer, but now I'm not sure. The somewhat imprecise obit says: "Mr. DeForest's late-blossoming television career began with a New York University student film project called 'King of the Zs,' by future Letterman writers Stephen Winer and Karl Tiedemann, who brought him along when they joined the Late Night staff. At the time, Mr. DeForest was working as a file clerk at a drug rehabilitation center. He was picked up by a black limousine, given his stage name, and became the first image of 'Late Night With David Letterman,' before the opening credits on the debut episode."

    I would like a better explanation of how he ended up in the student film. Was he an aspiring performer, or what? Because to me, one of the great insights of what Letterman did was turn non-professional performers into stars. Whether it was his writers, or stage hands, or merchants in the neighborhood, anybody could become a successful Late Night... regular. And in a way, every time a stage hand did a bit, it made a mockery of the entire process of show business. Or so it seems to me. Even Letterman's habit of getting people to host his show without any prior experience in such things, or without any warning (he's done this before) lines up, I think, with my theory that his show has always been a critique of shows like his.


Just so.

In a similar vein, newspapers and TV create news where none really exists simply because they have to fill space.

Something has to be the main headline even if nothing of significance happened, and thus "important" stories are brought into existence and given their gravitas — whether or not they really possess any — by dint of placement above the fold.

Sentence first, verdict afterwards, you might say.

Well, maybe you wouldn't — but I would.

Go ask Alice, she'll tell you how it is.

May 27, 2008 at 02:01 PM | Permalink


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Russell Crowe most definitely belongs in the first category. Aside from the aforementioned "The Insider", witness "A Beautiful Mind", "Cinderella Man", and his recent turn as psychopathic killer Ben Wade in "3:10 To Yuma".

Posted by: Layne | May 28, 2008 2:40:14 AM

Oh, Jeez. I swear. That Russell Crowe movie I was referring to is "The Insider", not "The Outsiders". My intense Tom Cruise dislike must've jammed my brains and stuck his stoopid movie in there. Sorry.

Posted by: Flautist | May 27, 2008 11:44:24 PM

I tend to agree with your actors vs movie stars lists. However, in the latter category, I'm not so sure about Russell Crowe. His personal-life behavior has occasionally made him appear to be a colossal a**hole, but he gave at least one performance -- the role of Jeffrey Wigand in the tobacco industry expose film, The Outsider(s?) -- that I found absolutely phenomenal. He got my total respect with that; he's got real chops. And I've seen him in moments of brilliance in other films, too. I'd put the highly underrated Sam Rockwell in the former category, and possibly Ed Norton. Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley go in the first slot, and Anthony Hopkins, and, of course, posthumously, Olivier, who gave as many wretched movie performances as brilliant ones and who(m?) Pauline Kael described as the "wittiest of all actors". She was right. (Of the old, old-timers in that category I'd also throw Frederick March & Michael Redgrave.) Oh, there are so many. You could go on & on with all that.

(I don't waste time hating anybody, but, God, I do not like Tom Cruise. I'm glad you put him in the bottom list. Bleah.)

Posted by: Flautist | May 27, 2008 11:39:21 PM

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