hitch your wagon

by Megan Abbott

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.

*                      *                     *

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?).

15 Comments to “hitch your wagon”

  1. That Lana Turner piece might be famous, but I’ve never read it – I’ll go off and remedy the situation in a minute.

  2. ha! famous to the 57 people who do “star studies” worldwide, i mean (it’s one of the articles,so far as I can tell, that launched the field)–and famous to me because I love Lana Turner!

  3. Loved that she was happy (Uma, I mean) and Lana’s life was a bit of a train wreck as I understand it. And Franzen’s comment about Wharton was just strange.

  4. My recent sightings include Woody Allen and Mr. Big.

  5. Great piece, Megan. I’ve gone through Turner and Thurman stages (Uma being at the center of a fake magazine story hailing my untrue early days as a plastic surgeon — Lana just being Lana). Growing up in Michigan myself, the only stars I ever remember seeing were at the Robert Altman Film Festival in Ann Arbor, and these weren’t movie stars, but people like Altman himself and Alan Rudolph and Pauline Kael. (Sniff of disappointment.) As a movie-mad 18 year-old, I had to go to Cannes in 1976 to see my first real stars. Sleeping on the dank beach was worth it when I could blend into the red carpet crowds at night, unwashed, sand in my hair, to view an undoubtedly fragrant Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, Dennis Hopper. Walking the Rue de Croisette during the day, above the wide beach, I remember spotting Shelley Winters in her bathing suit, surrounded by reporters as she flopped in the sun. Stopping at a bench to survey the sea and the topless, disappointed that it was Shelley Winters and not Catherine Deneuve down there, Telly Savalas came to stand in front of me, providing shade as he chatted with a friend – actually parting with a sly “Who loves ya?”. Late one night, shuffling along in front of the cafes, I stopped to forlornly glance into a window. Sylvia Kristel (Emmanuelle) was seated at a table full of serious old men — producers, agents, I imagined. She looked through the glass at me, smiled, shrugged her bare, bored shoulders. I imagined going back to her hotel with her (now that I think about it, I wrote a short story a few years later about that very such occurrence — during a college class on Nabokov and autobiography). In the story, and in life on that night, all I really wanted at that point was a shower.

    Thanks for making me remember these silly bits of my life. I don’t think I’ve seen a movie star since that trip. No, I did see Christopher Lloyd at the Missoula airport a few years ago. There is no mistaking that man. Montana is full of movie stars (Andie MacDowell lived in a house down the street for a few years), you just never see them.

  6. Never seen a “star”. Closest I’ve been are:
    1- David Maraniss spoke at a WI Library Assoc. conference and I went up to thank him for speaking.
    2- I saw the Univ of WI football coach drive by in his Corvette.
    3- A few other author types.

  7. Another lovely post. What I’ve noticed about stars is that it’s all about context. I’ve been on film sets where I didn’t notice the boldface names for several minutes because, like everyone else, they were working. Conversely, if you recognize someone when they don’t expect it they can be thrown. I was in New York and spotted someone vaguely familiar walking toward me. It took me a minute to realize it was your close personal friend Jonathan Franzen. By then he was staring at me, trying to figure out who the guy eyeballing him was.

  8. Back when I lived in New York my boss was also the president of his co-op board. He asked me if I wanted to earn extra money taking minutes at their meetings. Aside from the cash, his selling point was that Richard Gere was on the board. How could I say no?

    I spent the first meeting scribbling notes and casting glances toward the handsomest man I’d ever been in the same room with. He had that Uma-esque bearing and his corner of the table seemed to have been lit by George Hurrell. It was heaven.

    Three meetings later I quit. Listening to wealthy Manhattanites complain and gossip about their neighbors for four hours then taking a 30 minute cab ride back to Queens was not worth the extra money. The worst part? Richard Gere’s charisma had worn off. By my last meeting he was just another guy with hot water problems.

  9. But…but…if Franzen was to read a book by one a those frumpy women geniuses, how would that further celebrate the mediocre slushpiler, I mean transcendent genius of our time, that is *Jonathan*Franzen*? Could TIME be…wrong? Next you’ll be suggesting William Vollmann is self-indulgent or that Stephen King is derivative and prolix…you wacky Uma-spotters!

  10. “The radiance that comes not just from beauty but from some other place that has to do with the peculiar power of starriness.” So true! I’ve met a bunch of celebs (all those years in NYC!) and they often have this inexplicable thing that you’ve described so well! I’ve heard rumors that a lot of these folks practice magic, which I definitely would be inclined to believe given this strange aura that surrounds so many of them. I’ve also seen it in super-rich people who aren’t famous. Although on a more practical level I will say that most very rich people have amazing skin, which is probably a factor too!

  11. I used to see Andie McDowell a fair amount because she used to live not far from my parents. Most of my encounters with “stars” have been of the rock star variety, and I’m usually struck by how puny they are.

    The most recent star I’ve seen out in the world is when I went to see The Lincoln Lawyer here in Missoula opening night and realized the cowboy hat in the seat next to me belonged to the guy seated one seat over . . . and that guy was James Lee Burke.

  12. Chris–you are so right! Sting was sitting in front me at the movies once and was a little slip of a thing!

  13. I just remembered one. Aerosmith showed up at a gun show in Phoenix when I lived there. Whatshisface Tyler walked by with an over-sized bodyguard. There was a buzz – literal and figurative – in the hall as word spread that they were there.

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