We’re wishing on a star

Neither Fred Inglis’s scholarly study of celebrity nor Andrew Morton’s breathless unauthorised biogr

A Short History of Celebrity
Fred Inglis
Princeton University Press, 322pp, £20.95

Angelina: an Unauthorised Biography
Andrew Morton
St Martin's Press, 336pp, $26.99

Fred Inglis opens A Short History of Celebrity by asserting that "celebrity is everywhere acknowledged but never understood". This seems somewhat overstated; many understand it quite well, although doubtless many more never try. But scholars have been arguing for 30 years that celebrities act out our fantasies (both positive and negative) for us, dramatising our most urgent cultural questions, and often symbolically resolving our anxieties. Inglis's conception appears slightly more rigid: "The star is at the crux of the institutionalisation of envy which we call glamour." Perhaps - yet this seems reductive. Celebrities are not always envied. They can be admired, idealised, derided, patronised - but they must be recognised.

That's where we, the public, come in. And it is where Inglis's history begins, in 18th-century London, with Joshua Reynolds's celebrity portraits and the shift from "renown" (as merit) to celebrity (as public recognition). Inglis argues that the rise of the world city - London, Paris, New York - enabled the rise of celebrity. Fame was no longer restricted to the royal court, and the anonymity of city life began to produce figures who embodied prevailing values.

The author takes the reader on a whistle-stop tour of 300 years of cultural history by means of mini-biographies of representative figures - his own celebrity portraits - beginning with Reynolds and the theatre impresario David Garrick, George III and his dissipated son the Prince Regent, and Lord Byron. Thanks to Reynolds and Byron in particular, Inglis claims, the life of the artist itself became a work of art, a narrative for the public to read.

But, for Inglis, the story of celebrity is also that of the rise of the leisure class, which, with changes in ideas about feeling and sensibility, helped produce a society in thrall to spectacular celebrity. Thus Baron Hausmann invented a Paris designed for seeing and being seen in, while the Bon Marché department store was established to promote conspicuous consumption and aspirational purchasing. The growth of tourism, meanwhile, amplified the sense that all the world's a stage - but we're not the players, we're the audience.

The emergence of mass media in the early 20th century made celebrity a properly global phenomenon. Then came the golden era of Hollywood, which, for Inglis, is embodied by three male stars - John Wayne, James Stewart and Cary Grant - and one woman, Marilyn Monroe. As he approaches the present, his tone becomes increasingly dyspeptic. Writing about Sarah Bernhardt, he wisely warns: "That is one firm point in this book: stories about celebrity must and should grip us; fastidious distaste will not do; these people have things to tell us about the meaning of our lives."

But soon, writing about celebrities on the Côte d'Azur in the 1930s, the disapproving Marxist will not be silenced: "One can only turn away in disgust at what all this parading and photographing and crowding-round-to-get-a-glimpse-of-the-star does to people on either side of the camera." In fact, one can do many things besides turn away in disgust. So much for high-minded rejections of "fastidious distaste".

As the jeremiads against celebrity culture begin to mount, so do the inaccuracies. Mary Pickford did not star in The Perils of Pauline, as Inglis asserts several times (Pearl White did), and Cary Grant did not appear in It Happened One Night. Truisms start to creep in, compounding the factual errors. For example, Inglis repeats the well-worn canard that Ernest Hemingway told F Scott Fitzgerald that the
rich have more money than you and I (for the record, this self-serving story of Hemingway's was rebutted by his editor Max Perkins, who was there). Inglis thinks Monroe killed herself because she couldn't maintain a distinction between public and private - not only another canard, but a cliché, to boot.

Nor does it seem incidental that Bernhardt, Monroe and (bizarrely) Martha Gellhorn are the only women Inglis considers in detail. By the time he gets to Sex and the City, he can't even bother to get the title right, calling it "Sex in the City". "Revolting" celebrity magazines (aimed at women, of course) are "so much nauseating scum on the surface of the deep waters of popular sentiment". Naturally, Inglis detests reality television: "It is the unrehearsed but cooked-up nature of American Idol and Celebrity Big Brother which makes them reek." American Idol may be many things, but unrehearsed is not one of them.

Oddly, Inglis neglects one strand that might be thought indispensable to the story he tells: the decline of religious belief and its replacement by our secular faith in "screen goddesses", "icons" and "stars". The rise of rationalism and science undermined organised religion, but left the urge to worship intact. Like royalty, celebrity holds out the promise that the divine can be found within the human - and, at the same time, enables us to rediscover the human in the divinity we invented.

That is to say, a celebrity is a normal person who has been labelled special so that we can go in search of normality - which is then named pathology. Celebrity is a very elaborate mode of cognitive dissonance that exalts the ordinary and normalises the extraordinary. This idea
in turn enables - or demands - "revelations": hence the phenomenon of the celebrity biography. I don't share Inglis's contempt for all modern celebrity culture, but it cannot be said that most celebrity biographies add much to the world's store of knowledge.

Andrew Morton's Angelina: an Unauthorised Biography - which has not found a publisher in the UK - cannot be said to add anything.
Anyone unfamiliar with the basic facts of Angelina Jolie's life - a person hard to imagine - will discover them in these pages, but it would be cheaper, faster and more enlightening to go to Wikipedia. In lieu of new information, Morton takes one anecdote by a babysitter who cared briefly for the infant Angelina during her parents' ugly separation and believes that she was emotionally neglected as a baby.

Morton makes this speculation the primal scene, the alpha and omega, of Jolie's psyche, authoritatively quoting many psychologists
on abandonment. Unfortunately, none of them has ever met Jolie. No matter: her professed fondness for sadomasochism, her history of self-harming and her past drug use are all examples "of a girl attempting to connect with herself, to dull the primal pain of abandonment". This kind of psychological determinism is handy for a biographer of the Morton kind, who either doesn't want to think hard, or isn't able to.
If she doesn't do things because she was abandoned, Jolie does them because she's a Gemini: "The vivid contrasts at the heart of her Gemini character were now apparent, Angie the first to acknowledge this duality. 'I like to collect knives but I also collect first-edition books.'" This admission seems more revealing than Jolie intended, or than Morton realised.

A more intelligent observer might see not contradiction, but consistency in her statement: what remains constant is her acquisitiveness. Jolie is nothing if not a collector - of knives and first editions, but of children and men as well. Morton does a great deal of mind-reading, the staple of "unauthorised" biographers: "She believed that this change of emotional pace completed her as a human being in some way." He also informs us that Jolie wanted a tattoo and "began jonesing about it to [a] tattoo artist". Pardon the pedantry, but the phrase is "jonesing for" - one cannot jones about something any more than one can crave about it. But Morton doesn't seem to care much for words. He tells us that one couple "owned real estate at Dysfunction Junction", a coinage he admires so much he uses it twice, and informs us that Jolie was "didactic in her film choice, [and] equally compartmentalised in her personal life".

At times, Morton almost stops writing altogether. He tells us that when Jolie met Brad Pitt they talked about "family, life and the whole damn thing". When she was with Billy Bob Thornton one night, the couple were "sitting outside amid the lush shrubbery talking and whatever until the early hours". On the evidence of that dismissive "and whatever", Morton doesn't care what they were doing any more than the rest of us - at least not enough to finish writing the sentence and whatever. Why bother completing thoughts, or using words correctly, if a publisher will pay you a hefty advance for gesturing vaguely towards meaning?

The sudden attempts to be cerebral are just ludicrous. When an incident is described as Jolie's "version of Brecht's Caucasian Chalk Circle", one might predict that this mention of a play about a woman who steals a baby from its natural mother would feature in the context of the film star's notorious adoptions. But no: Morton has dragged Brecht into the unedifying story of Jolie's fling with Mick Jagger.

Without an obvious end to his story in sight, Morton falls back on soothsaying. Unconvinced that her relationship with Pitt will last, he hints that Jolie will soon make a play for Johnny Depp. But before we get carried away, a word of caution: "Astrologically, though, there is little connection between Depp's and Jolie's charts; there is much more between Brad's and Angie's." That's a relief.

Although astrology has nothing to teach us about Angelina Jolie as a person, it probably can teach us something about her as a phenomenon. Astrology, after all, is the belief that the stars define us. Reportedly, Jolie's is the celestial body most women submitting to plastic surgery today hope to attain. And no wonder, for she embodies all of our contemporary ideas about power and women. Angelina Jolie doesn't break stereotypical moulds, she brings them to life: devoted mother and husband-stealing whore, angel(ina) and vampire. And, like all celebrities, her power reinforces the idea that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves - that we are underlings.

Sarah Churchwell is the author of "The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe" (Granta Books, £18.99) and is currently working on a book about F Scott Fitzgerald and celebrity

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut