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The Strange Power Of Celebrity

From Chaplin and Brando, to the Kardashians, a fresh take on the strange and ferocious power of celebrity.

Kris Jenner, left, with Sofia Vergara, center, and Kim Kardashian during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner headlined by late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday, April 28, 2012 in Washington. (AP)

Kris Jenner, left, with Sofia Vergara, center, and Kim Kardashian during the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner headlined by late-night comic Jimmy Kimmel, Saturday, April 28, 2012 in Washington. (AP)

Here’s an information age conundrum:  the more media and info-means we get, the more we stare at celebrities.  Polar ice cap melting?  What’s up with Lindsay Lohan?  Wildfires in the West?  How’s Tom Cruise?  The movies made our biggest modern celebs.  Icons.  But it goes all the way back.  Gods and goddesses.

Archetypes.  We still almost worship.  We find our identities in their poses.  And now, with Facebook and You Tube and Twitter, we’re all little celebs in our own minds.

This hour, On Point:  Movie maven Ty Burr on the strange and ferocious power of celebrity.

-Tom Ashbrook


Ty Burr, film critic for the Boston Globe, and author of the new book Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame. He’s also author of the 50 Movie Starter Kit.

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Times “Any Hollywood history can describe a star’s X factor. But not many film historians can see the whole equation as Ty Burr does in “Gods Like Us,” his lively and provocative chronicle of the genesis of movie stars and the metamorphosis of movie stardom. He offers original thinking about the audience factor.”

Wall Street Journal “Montesquieu accused the ancient Greek philosopher Xenophanes of implying that if triangles had gods, they would be triangular. A later wit remarked, “Yes, but they would also have one more side than ordinary triangles.” The 20th century’s deification of movie stars depended on the public’s idea that they were just like everyone else, only taller and more beautiful.”

Boston Globe “We misunderstand Tom Cruise at our peril. We have recast him, in the movie of our minds, as a couch-jumping, Scientology-pumping, Katie-Holmes-kidnapping buffoon, a living symbol of the rot of celebrity.”


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  • http://twitter.com/TweeterSmart b smart

    humans are a group animal thus those groups tend to need “leaders.” whereas in the past it could have been a war leader or shaman type figure, in modern times that place at the head of the group is occupied by those we see on screens and sport fields.

  • Joseph_Wisconsin

     Chaplin was a brilliant silent film actor and film maker.  Brando was was a brilliant actor.  Just what is it that the  Kardashians do?  Is famous for being famous a modern invention?

  • jefe68

    Putting the Kardashians in the same sentence as Chaplin and Brando is absurd. What do these vacant people (Kardashians) do?

    Brando and Chaplin became famous due to talent.

  • Pointpanic

    yet another example of ‘public” radio selling out to corporate commercialism. the poqwer of “celebrity’ is all about marketing not mythology. THis is not the WBUR I came to know and love in the 70s when they rightly claimed to have “everything but commercials”.Is this another example of ‘independent journalism” touted in the fundraiser?

  • http://www.facebook.com/leonard.bast.90 Leonard Bast

    I guess I’m the exception to Tom’s assertion that we’re all held captive by celebrities and stars and that we cling to them with breathless determination. I have no idea who any of those women in the picture are or what they do. They look like they’re made of plastic. Is that the source of their fame?

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

      You’re not the only exception.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    You just put the Greek pantheon in the same class as the Kardashians.  My advice to you?  Don’t go anywhere that lightning can hit you.  Of course, the Furies will pursue you relentlessly, and no temple will offer you refuge.

    Please!  The weakness of a person’s mind can be determined by it’s interest in these vapid people.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    The ancient heroes wanted to make a name for themselves by achieving great deeds.  Name one thing that any Kardashian has done.

    • J__o__h__n

      I’d love to see the reality show where she cleans the Augean stables.

      • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

         She shovels it, all right.

  • http://twitter.com/acousticrules Mark Eisenman

    Celebrity? Have you seen Woody Allen’s “To Rome With Love”? It is a comment on the cult of celebrity. With Roberto Benigni’s character explicably famous for NO reason! Then just as suddenly, he is released from the trap of celebrity and his life can finally return to normal, which he now appreciates like never before.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    In an interview with Charlie Rose, Peter Jackson said that he didn’t choose someone like Tom Cruise for the role of Aragorn precisely because he wanted the audience to see the character, not all the private life of the famous star.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Narrative is necessary.  That’s how we understand the world.  Celebrities aren’t necessary.  They’re an example of cultural rot.

    I see people with actual talent as worthy of respect for that, but many celebrities display no talent whatsoever.

  • J__o__h__n

    No one mentioned William Shatner yet.

    • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp


  • Onpointuser

    I have been fascinated by this topic for many years. The fact that we do elevate celebrities to a pedestal, is in my opinion more of a a telling statement of who we are and the devolution of the human mind. 

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Take the interview on this program with Viggo Mortensen.  He’s a good person who knows better than to see celebrity as meaningful.  He also has great talent in acting and in other fields.  His characters have depth without having to be a schlemiel.  Or think about Jodie Foster.  There’s another person with a lot of talent, with a brain, and with personal–rather than plastic–beauty.  She plays strong and interesting women.

    In comparison to those examples, the three in the picture above should run from the stage and cry in shame.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Watch True Grit and The Searchers, and you’ll see John Wayne showing his acting talent.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    Speak for yourself, Ty Burr.  Many of us have no such need.

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    In contrast to the Cardassians who with the Dominion came close to destroying the Federation.

  • Onpointuser

    I have been fascinated by celebrity worship for a long time.  In my opinion the fact that we elevate celebrities to a pedestal, is in effect a statement on the devolution of the humanity and the human mind.

  • Onpointuser

    Here’s a question. I would be interested on feedback. Could this whole phenomena explain the “god-like” worship of Ronald Reagan?

    • SamEw

      Basically every President has a fair number of people who worship them. It’s part of what comes with being one of the most powerful people in the world. You could have easily written the same question and plugged in any number of presidents. FWIW I’m pretty sure there weren’t celebrations around the globe the night Reagan was elected.

  • doug

    This is nothing new.   Marilyn Monroe, anyone?

  • manuke1953

    Celebrity endorsements are nothing new but in Japan celebs do things they would be embarrassed by at home. Check out


  • christophertwood

    How can the writer of this lead possibly use the names Chaplin and Brando in the same sentence as this trash. The movie greats actually offered talent in a variety of roles in front of and behind the camera. The vacuous Kardashian media whores create nothing other than envy from pin-headed TMZ watchers.

  • Regular_Listener

    This guy has a new angle on the culture of celebrity?  I don’t mean to insult him; he certainly is a knowledgable commentator.  But I didn’t really hear anything new. 

    There was one Australian how did a long, acerbic, multi-episode television show on the subject that I liked.  Was it Robert Hughes? 

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