Fame and the famous are put in perspective in this insightful and often entertaining take on celebrity.
Given the author’s scholarly credentials—Marcus (Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, 2007, etc.) is a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University and a founding editor of the book review website Public Books—some readers may expect an erudite work that drains the fun and color from a take on fame. Though there are instances of overly academic language—e.g., “defiant celebrities speak to a paradoxically social investment in fantasies of anti-social autarky”—for the most part, the author’s heavily researched observations (notes and bibliography total more than 75 pages) both divert and provoke. Fleshing out her basic point that fame results from a confluence of the public, media, and celebrities, Marcus follows Marilyn Monroe taking her fight with Twentieth Century Fox to her fans as well as news stories of fans stampeding and endangering the public at an early Elvis Presley concert in Vancouver. The linchpin of the author’s study is French stage actress Sarah Bernhardt, a master of self-promotion. To the shelves of works about Bernhardt, Marcus brings a singular take—richly illustrated throughout by reproduced drawings, paintings, and photographs—that fascinates as it explains her concepts of celebrity. She also makes it clear that the idea of fandom existed long before the E! network, People, and other media thrived on it. Marcus effectively breaks down her broad topic into considerations of intimacy, sensation, imitation, and other elements she sees as components of her subject. In one of the book’s most impressive discussions, the author defines what some consider undefinable: She suggests that star quality can be defined not as some vague interior quality but rather something concrete that results from “arresting facial expressions, vocal acrobatics, and extravagant, riveting body movements.”
Marcus ably shows why and how celebrities are not like you and me.