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The Frenzy of Renown

VANITY FAIR'S HOLLYWOOD; Edited by Graydon Carter and David Friend, With Text by Christopher Hitchens; Viking Studio: 32Opp., $60.00

December 10, 2000|RICHARD SCHICKEL | Richard Schickel is the author of "Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity." He reviews movies for Time magazine

This is a bulky book, hard to hold for very long on your lap. This will not be much of a handicap for the ordinary reader as opposed to the conscientious reviewer. You're not supposed to read it; you're supposed to skim it appreciatively, taking in its many stylish and well-reproduced photographs of movie stars past, present and (perhaps) future. As a gift book, with a price tag that shows you care enough to send the very best, "Vanity Fair's Hollywood" is a handsome object and a likely success with the crowd it most cares about, haute Hollywood. As Christmas approaches, one imagines executive assistants all over town, snapping it up, wrapping it up and dispatching it,via messengers stooped under the burden of such weighty largess, to their A-lists.

What they will receive is not so much a book as a glimpse into an alternate universe. Graydon Carter, the magazine editor, says in his foreword, "My favorite periods are the '30s, the '70s and right now. And also everything in between." Those two ga-ga faux naive sentences pretty well summarize the book's point of view. It's basically a huge fan magazine, as devoid of critical or historical sensibility as a bound volume of Modern Screen.

This universe is one where, as the saying goes, beauty knows no pain. Age, illness, death itself do not diminish it; the passing years and shifting public tastes do not stifle its primal power to enchant. The implication is that once stardom is achieved, it is immutable. In this mega-fiction, the has-beens are mainly glimpsed in group shots that look like class reunion pictures, with everyone looking pleased to have survived and glad the camera is far enough away so that the wrinkles don't show.

Here, even the messier figures always transcend their tragedies. In one of the chipper, vapid captions the usually cranky Christopher Hitchens has supplied for the book (Carter says they locked him in a hotel room with research material and a supply of Black Label, so what can you expect?), "the pills and the pathos" of Judy Garland's life are alluded to, but we are enjoined to remember her as "the queen of Hollywood evensong." Louise Brooks, shed from paradise for her nutsiness, has her revenge by becoming "a movie critic and essayist." As if a handful of pieces, published obscurely in her dotage--they're really a talking dog trick, a sappy blend of gossip and self-regard--constitutes a triumphant comeback.

Such upbeat mini-narratives are, of course, perfectly suited to the book's notion that celebrity is timeless and infrangible: Famous is famous: then, now, forever. So Denzel Washington stares across the page at David Niven, Laurence Olivier grimaces and Sigourney Weaver glares at us from the same spread. On and on these odd pairings proceed: Catherine Deneuve and Rudolph Valentino, Cameron Diaz and Al Jolson, Nicolas Cage and Mae West, Gary Cooper and Brad Pitt.

Detached from their historical moments, the stars are reduced to their purely glamorous essences. This becomes tiresome in a dose this large, especially because the book's refusal to grapple with the power of stardom more analytically is so resolute.

I suspect that something more than intellectual vacuity dictated the a- (perhaps anti-) historical arrangement of the book. Its jumbled layout has the advantage of disguising a large practical problem. The editors are drawing their material from two quite distinct publications. The original Vanity Fair was founded by the legendary editor, Frank Crowninshield, in 1914 and went out of business in 1936. The title was not revived until 1983. This means there is a gap of almost half a century in the magazine's run and, inevitably, a gap in sensibility between the two magazines.

It yawns in the prose reprinted here. The articles from the Crowninshield era are largely jazzy doodlings--famous authors like Carl Sandburg, D.H. Lawrence, Dorothy Parker, P.G. Wodehouse bending over to pick up their own celebrity's small change. With the exception of a shrewd analysis of Garbo by Clare Boothe Luce, which correctly predicts that the star's solipsism will eventually undo her, time has flattened their fizz.

Curiously, this writing is much less sober and reflective than that early era's photography. The studious reader will have to do a good deal of back and forth thumbing to see what Edward Steichen, the early Vanity Fair's dominant photographer, was up to, but it's worth the effort. His black-and-white portraits tend to be tightly framed, generally unpropped (a notable exception is his shot of Walt Disney, posed with Mickey Mouse heads looming over him). His celebrities are always well-dressed, formally fit, and they smile or brood in manners appropriate to their images. Mainly, though, his work imparts dignity to his subjects.

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