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Monday, November 5, 2007

Mingling With the Commoners, Part 1 (originally published 6/99)

Whatever your opinion of Julia Roberts's acting ability, it's hard to deny that she knows how to play the role of a movie star. That's exactly what she's doing in her latest film, "Notting Hill," which is currently playing at your local multiplex. The plot device of a movie star mingling with the common folk, and even sharing an occasional romantic interlude with one of them, has been a popular one with movie audiences since the silent film era. If you're curious to see how earlier films have portrayed movie stars' encounters with mere mortals, look for these titles on home video.

"In Person" (1935). One of the ironies of movie stars' lives is that they spend the first part of their lives desperately seeking publicity and fame and the rest of their lives avoiding it. Carol Corliss (Ginger Rogers) has reached the pinnacle of movie stardom only to discover that she can't bear the constant adulation of her adoring fans. She seeks relief by disguising herself in public, but even so she is nearing a breakdown by the time she meets Emory Muir (George Brent). Emory is just an average guy who, not recognizing Carol, sees only a woman at the end of her rope and offers her refuge at a mountain cabin. When her true identity is revealed, he is unimpressed. Inevitably, a romance blossoms.

"Go West, Young Man" (1936). The immortal Mae West plays the part of Mavis Arden, "the talk of the talkies," who is on a promotional tour, making personal appearances at theaters showing her latest film, "Drifting Lady." Largely out of boredom, she makes a play for a good-looking small town fellow played by Randolph Scott. This distresses not only his girlfriend, but also Mavis's agent, who doesn't want her to marry, and a local politician, who has a romantic interest in Mavis himself. This film does not represent West at her best because by this time the censors had cracked down on her rather firmly. Consequently, West's customary spicy dialogue, heavily laced with double entendre and biting satire, is considerably toned down. Even so, she remains a trenchantly entertaining screen presence.

"Sunset Boulevard" (1950). The universally acknowledged masterpiece among movies of this type is this unforgettable dissection of Hollywood's dark side by writer-director Billy Wilder and writer-producer Charles Brackett. Former silent film star Gloria Swanson, in the role of a lifetime, brilliantly portrays Norma Desmond, who was herself a silent star. Norma, however, has fallen on hard times. Forgotten by the public, and by the industry she helped create, she sits in her decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard and compulsively plots a comeback that will never happen. She latches onto Joe Gillis (William Holden), a young, down-and-out screenwriter, hiring him to rewrite her script for "Salome," the project that is to be the vehicle for her comeback. Eventually their relationship moves to another level as Joe becomes not so much Norma's lover as her gigolo. As her emotional dependence on him grows, Norma becomes increasingly jealous and possessive. By the time Joe realizes what he's gotten himself into, it's too late.

"Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?" (1957). The title character, played by Tony Randall, is a junior advertising executive whose future rests on whether he can head off his agency's impending loss of the lucrative Stay-Put lipstick account. Seeing the glamorous movie star Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield) on television, Rock has a brainstorm. If he can persuade her to endorse the product, the account will be saved, and he can finally get his key to the executive washroom. He goes to Rita's apartment to make his pitch just as she has broken up with her bodybuilder boyfriend. To make the boyfriend jealous, Rita pretends to be madly attracted to Rock, and to curry her favor he plays along. Soon, however, the charade gets out of hand. The supposed affair between Rita and Rock becomes tabloid fodder nationwide. Eventually, of course, it all goes to Rock's head. Writer-director Frank Tashlin took the opportunity to get in a few jabs at the new medium of television by hilariously lampooning the medium's Achilles heel - the silly commercials.

These are only a few of the many films depicting movie stars interacting with "civilians." Next week we'll take a look at more examples, including the film that is believed by some to be the best movie musical ever made.

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