WATCHING THEM BE by James Harvey


Star Presence on the Screen from Garbo to Balthazar
Email this review


A movie critic considers the mystery of star power.

Playwright and essayist Harvey (Emeritus, Film and Literature/SUNY, Stony Brook; Movie Love in the Fifties, 2001, etc.) takes his title from James Baldwin’s observation about movie stars: “One does not go to see them act; one goes to watch them be.” A star’s personality, the author contends, transcends particular performances to generate “enforced intimacy” with the viewer. “A screen star,” he writes, “generally appropriates her role rather than disappearing into it (as an ordinary actor might do).” Greta Garbo, for example, “offered something that approached sublimity,” which emerged even in the “dead weight” of a movie like Anna Karenina (1935). Ingrid Bergman shone like “a goddess” even when miscast, “because it’s her more than the character…that you respond to.” Beginning with stars of the 1930s and ’40s, Harvey analyzes performances by Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, John Wayne, Bergman and Charles Laughton. In a section on “realists,” he turns to Robert De Niro, notably his role as Noodles in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984); performances by Lily Tomlin and Ronee Blakley in Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975); and Pam Grier, the raunchy heroine of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997). Harvey also looks at directors such as Jean-Luc Godard, whose masterful close-ups celebrated star quality, and Carl Theodor Dreyer, “arguably the preeminent ‘religious’ filmmaker of our modern cinema time.” He cites Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), in which Maria Falconetti had an “overwhelming star turn” as Joan. “There is something religious about the movie experience,” the author writes, and he ends his film journey with a worshipful exegesis of Robert Bresson’s Balthazar (1966), in which the star is a donkey.

Harvey’s meticulously close reading of movies illuminatingly analyzes both the “controlling sensibility” of stars and the viewer’s process of “intense watching.”

Pub Date: July 8th, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-571-21197-5
Page count: 432pp
Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15th, 2014


NonfictionSEARCHING FOR JOHN FORD by Joseph McBride
by Joseph McBride
NonfictionMARLENE DIETRICH by Maria Riva
by Maria Riva
NonfictionTOTALLY, TENDERLY, TRAGICALLY by Phillip Lopate
by Phillip Lopate