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Richard Zanuck

On a Changing Hollywood, Star Quality and the Dark Side of Celebrity Worship

March 22, 1998|Steve Proffitt | Steve Proffitt, a contributing editor to Opinion, is Director of the JSM+ New Media Lab. He interviewed Richard Zanuck from the producer's offices in Los Angeles

Motion-picture fans are set to celebrate their annual high mass of star worship, as the Academy Awards are handed out Monday night. The most fervent among them have already taken their places outside the Shrine Auditorium. A select few will gain entrance to the temple, while the rest gather in groups around television sets to engage in a ritualistic review of their screen heroes.

There's certainly nothing new about celebrity worship. It's as old as human society, reaching back to the brave hunter who thrilled his tribe with inspiring tales of man victorious over fearsome beast. Yet, in the space of the last generation, the public's attitude toward today's most celebrated celebrities has changed. Rather than being deified, today's movie stars are just as likely to be defiled. They become subjects of gossip journalism and are trespassed upon by anything-for-a-shot paparazzi, all working to slake the public's seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity dirt.

Not so long ago, the men who ran Hollywood simply wouldn't let such things happen. But when the studio system, with its obsessive control over its contract players, collapsed in the 1960s, control over media access to the stars evaporated as well. Some blame escalating star salaries--and egos--for the frenzy to bring the stars back down to Earth. Others see it as simply a natural result of the explosion of media outlets.

Many in Hollywood have been around long enough to remember those old days, when stars were truly that--celestial bodies that shined brighter than the rest of us. But none has had a better view of the then-and-now than Richard Zanuck, son of Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck and himself a veteran producer. Zanuck grew up among classic movie stars, and ran 20th Century Fox while still in his 20s. He and his partner David Brown went on to produce films like "Jaws" and "The Sting"; later, Zanuck teamed with his wife, Lili, on the Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy." Still active at 63, his latest film, "Deep Impact," about an asteroid that threatens to destroy the Earth, is set to be released in May. In a conversation from his Los Angeles office, he talked about the nature of celebrity, the public shift in attitudes about movie stars and the effect that's had on the business of making motion pictures.


Question: What is the basis for our interest in celebrities, particularly movie stars? What is it about us that makes us want to worship others?

Answer: I think we simply all like to project ourselves into somebody else--somebody who is better-looking, richer, smarter. It's comforting. It's escapism, and that, of course, is what the movies are supposed to be all about. Ultimately, I think it's just part of human nature to pretend.

Q: Thinking back to your youth, and your father's time, what were the ingredients that the moguls looked for to determine if someone had "star quality?"

A: Star quality is one of the most difficult things to describe. It emanates from the person, and he may not even understand it himself. It's a quality that separates the star from the rest of us. When someone who possesses this quality walks into a room, everyone else responds automatically, though no one can really define what they're responding to. So in that sense, it's very elusive--it's a persona, a perception.

Q: But how did people like your father identify people as having the potential for being stars--how did they spot star quality?

A: The idea of discovering a potential star at Schwab's drug store is a little exaggerated, but the moguls did look for people with star quality. Usually though, they came through the normal process--they'd get an agent, send a photo to the studio, audition for a part or take a screen test. The common denominator--and this holds true today--is that they had to be able to act. You may have a wonderful aura around you, but that doesn't mean you can act. A lot of athletes have star quality, but they just can't perform in front of a camera. So no matter how good-looking you are, no matter what kind of presence you have, you still have to be able to be a convincing performer to become a star. Think of Marilyn Monroe. She had the beauty, and she certainly had the sex appeal, but she also had a unique personality, which she used to great advantage in her acting.

Q: Still, there have been many actors who weren't especially attractive in a physical sense, and yet they could rivet audiences simply because they were so interesting--I'm thinking of someone like Humphrey Bogart.

A: That's the elusive quality which is so hard to define. It's a projection of confidence, and it's something that didn't always translate into everyday life. Edward G. Robinson was not an attractive man, nor was he a large man, but on screen he projected a great strength and toughness. In fact, in real life he was a very mild, gentle person.

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