Recently, I experienced a glamorous moviestar sighting at the airport. After getting off a very long flight (complete with a crying baby whose strangled, strobing caterwauls lasted about six hours), we all entered a long passageway into the airport. Suddenly, at the foot at the gate, a pair of handsome airport officials swooped in to help a tall blonde passenger with her luggage. As they offered no such help to anyone else, you could tell the woman was very special.
And she was. Turning around several times as she waked, chatting amiably with the offiicials and her own two pre-teen, lushly dark-blonde children, she walked along the breezeway with the breezy confidence of someone for whom life appeared only to have kissed and nuzzled.
Uma Thurman. And not as tall as I’d guessed but with a radiance that was impossible to miss. The radiance that comes not just from beauty but from some other place that has to do with the peculiar power of starriness. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Unlike the celebrities you might see on TMZ, she wore no dark shades, head downturned (which is a conspicuous gesture too, of course). On the contrary, face out, Uma Thurman seemed happy to see the whole world.
Growing up in Michigan, the chances of seeing a celebrity were pretty slim. As a result, when I first moved to New York more than 15 years ago, at the height of the indie movie zenith, seeing Harvey Keitel drinking coffee at Bubby’s in Tribeca, or getting elbowed in the face by a vaguely apologetic Parker Posey, was very exciting.
And I’m not ashamed to admit the kick of energy inside me when I see someone I also feel I know, in some way, from the page, the speakers, the screen. A few years ago, a friend of mine sat next to Russell Crowe at a sushi restaurant and said that, while having no particular attraction to him in the movies, she could barely breathe through the whole meal. She had never realized, she said, how powerful, nay dizzying, a presence he was.
It is now a truism that one of qualities of “star power” is the peculiar alchemy of extraordinariness and familiarity. We envision our stars as utterly special, exceptional creatures and yet we also love to believe they are just like us (though not worse than us–a new trend that has more to do with schadenfreude than stars wherein we love to see certain, perhaps less starry stars do pratfalls, fall out of their dresses, spill coffee on their children).
“Star studies” is a newish discipline in film theory that examines the complications of these dynamics–social, economic, aesthetic. My favorite is Richard Dyer, who wrote a famous piece on Lana Turner that I love. Unlike the reputation of academics, he writes from a place of genuine fascination and love, rigor and curiosity. To him, stars speak to the ruling contradictions of our lives–even seeming to make those contradictions disappear. He says, with regard to Turner, he speaks of her unique synthesis of seeming opposites: intensely glamorous sexuality paired with soda fountain ordinariness (indicated by her personal dramas of heartache, maternal woe, domestic horrors, bad men).
The question is, when we spot a star, a real STAR, if the moment matters to us (and I’m sure to many it does not), is it because we bring all the sheen and magic ourselves? Or is it something in them, or some of them? Is there something special, potent that certain “stars” just emanate? Something we want to touch, or just watch, for a moment.
The scholar Patrick Phillips writes:
Stars are the ‘magic figures,’ … the shamans capable of bringing about illusory solutions to real-life difficulties. [The star can offer] a fascinating synthesis of things the audience finds very difficult, if not impossible, to bring together in real life.
Watching them, their ease in the world (or so it seems), the way they can stride through the crowded airport terminal with such comfort in their own skin. We wish for such radiance, we want it. We think maybe we can almost touch it.
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On my return flight, I spotted another famous person, of a different stripe. Jonathan Franzen, an author about whom I have deeply ambivalent feelings that I won’t bother you with here (okay, maybe a little–just when I start to like the guy again, he does something like this, wherein Franzen says that, because Edith Wharton was not “pretty enough” to be a society girl like her heroines, she had to punish them in her books). But, in the customs line, he seemed very friendly and I admit I was a little giddy to see him in this way, not at a book festival or event but caught unawares, just living.
I also really, really wanted to see what he was reading but could not. (What might it have been? Perhaps another female-authored novel whose high quality is achieved thanks to the unprettiness of its author?).