This week, Fandor’s Spotlight is on…the spotlight.
From almost famous to nearly forgotten, from infamous to insignificant, the real actors and written characters in Fandor’s Spotlight on Chasing Fame are all, in one way or another, cogs in the celebrity machine. Here is a small but diverse selection of highlights from this week’s Spotlight that focus on the concept and the reality of fame, and the sometimes vast distance between them:
I Knew It Was You begins with a man on the street asking people if they recognize an actor in a photograph. While many immediately name his character (Fredo, from The Godfather and The Godfather II), few know his identity (the late actor John Cazale), or his legacy. This documentary, featuring anecdotes from Cazale’s co-stars (some of Hollywood’s most respected names) and footage from Cazale’s five Oscar-nominated films, attempts to resurrect this legacy, and provides a fitting tribute to an artist who died before his time and whose fame never nearly matched his talent.
For a distinctly Old-Hollywood take on the pleasures and pain of rising to fame, look no further than Academy-Award-Winner for Best Original Story A Star is Born. Perhaps ground zero for the “small town girl seduced by the bright lights of the big city” trope, the film follows Esther Blodgett (played by Janet Gaynor) as she struggles to succeed in show business despite the odds stacked against her. This role was reprised by Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand in later incarnations, but the original is a glittering technicolor triumph in its own right.
The Great White Way has historically been a place where dreams come true, but there can be a hidden cost to getting cast, especially for child actors. Life After Tomorrow gathers the testimony of dozens of women who, as young girls, played orphans (and the lead) in the musical Annie. The frank discussions of the toll taken on their family ties, health, education and self-esteem are eye-opening, to say the least. Some of these talking heads, like the now-famous Sarah Jessica Parker (who played Annie onstage from 1979-80), are instantly recognizable, but many of these actors faded into obscurity as adults, and have moved on to other walks of life. All in all, the film provides a startling and profound look behind the curtain of the mainstream musical theater machine.
By the time her erstwhile co-star Maximilian Schell approached her for a biopic documentary, Marlene Dietrich was eighty-two years old and living reclusively in Paris. She refused to appear on film, so instead, Schell pairs the audio recording of the acerbic, contradictory and fascinating once-starlet with historical images (some of which undermine Dietrich’s own narrative), film footage, and recreations of her living space. The result is a captivating and complex portrait of an icon that succeeds, in some ways, much more than a traditionally framed documentary might. Marlene will draw in die-hard fans and newcomers to her oeuvre alike, as it is an extraordinary account of an extraordinary life.
You don’t have to be famous to feel the (admittedly, seedier) effects of fame’s embrace, as shown by Clean, a dark dramedy about a Los Angeles limo driver whose brush with celebrity culture causes him to succumb to the undertow of his inner demons. Plenty of classic Hollywood sleaze abounds as our “hero”, Maynard Yates, tries and largely fails to pull his life together. From fleabag motels to manicured McMansions, this film is a trip through the underbelly of the fame machine that will leave anyone feeling lucky to avoid the spotlight’s murky shadows.
Plenty more musings and meditations on the nature of fame abound in the Spotlight on Chasing Fame, so give into the lure of the limelight! But be careful, because as this collection shows, fame isn’t always all that it’s made out to be.