What are movie stars for? These days, we expect them to display powers of transformation, a very different thing from acting, involving the donning of false noses and prosthetic chins, or a five-month spell in the wilderness without hair conditioner, so that critics can fall over themselves to pronounce the star “a chameleon” who has rendered themselves “unrecognisable” to all but the millions sitting in cinemas muttering mutinously, “Nicole Kidman’s false nose looks droopy.” Such self-uglification would have been anathema to the stars of the golden age. “To watch her is to achieve direct, cleansed perception of something which, like a flower or a fold of silk, is raptly, unassertively, and beautifully itself,” wrote Kenneth Tynan of Garbo, who regarded the impersonation of other people as running a poor second to the more pressing task of being herself.
Then there is Alfred Hitchcock’s way, which goes something like this. Take an actor who is a decorated war hero. Nothing too fancy: the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing 20 missions deep into Nazi Germany, say. Upon his return home, let him visit his parents and come back to the screen in something toasty like “It’s a Wonderful Life”; then, with public affection for this All-American hero at its warmest, cast him as a misanthrope, a peeping Tom and a necrophiliac. That is what Hitchcock did with James Stewart, in “Rope”, “Rear Window” and “Vertigo”, opening up a vein of agony that no one had seen before. This Jimmy Stewart talked murder, spied on neighbours and obsessed about fashioning new lovers in the image of old, dead ones. Such a wonderful life.
Nobody worked with stars better than Hitchcock. No director had a better feel for the electromagnetic hum they give off, how to use it to charge a plot, or flip the current into reverse. Starting in August, the British Film Institute is screening all 39 of Hitchcock’s films, from the early silents to post-war masterpieces such as “Notorious” and “North by Northwest”, made as the studio system was beginning to disintegrate. The stars began choosing their own roles, giving their image the slip, dabbling in self-deconstruction. Which is where Hitchcock came in, with his Dorian Gray instinct for counter-casting: divining a mirror-image of the face a star presents to the world, and asking them to play that.
He identified the note of post-war disillusion in Stewart. He allowed Ingrid Bergman to slip her halo as a drunk in “Notorious”. He salted the ethereal Grace Kelly with lubriciousness in “To Catch a Thief”. He found an edge of cruelty to Cary Grant, best known as a light comedian. In his Hitchcock films (“Suspicion”, “Notor-ious”, “North by Northwest”, “To Catch a Thief”) Grant gives off the hard glitter of a diamond. “I’ve always been afraid of women,” he confesses in “Notorious”, which is like Einstein saying that he’s always been ambivalent about equations.
Hitchcock still shot the stars handsomely. Kelly’s entrance in “Rear Window”, in a black-and-white beaded chiffon gown, is a special effect in its own right. But his urge to worship was matched by a pull towards desecration: you don’t get to run down a bespoke Cary Grant with a crop-duster plane in the middle of nowhere, for no discernible reason, without raising a few suspicions. Hitch “likes me a lot,” Grant told one of his co-stars, “but at the same time he detests me.” What gives these films their enduring punch is the echo between Hitchcock’s mixed feelings and the audience’s own. We envy these fabulous unicorns and want to be them, but we also resent the hold they have on us. When Hitchcock killed off Janet Leigh in “Psycho” after 20 minutes of screen time, it was an assault on her fame, as much as on her character.
We seem embarrassed by stardom now. The stars’ publicists pounce every time an interviewer asks a question unrelated to acting technique, or “process”. Whenever someone pointed out to Alexander Payne, during the Oscar run for “The Descendants”, that his star, George Clooney, was indeed a movie star—as opposed to a grizzled veteran of Strasberg and Stanislavski—Payne looked as if he had been punched in the kidneys. Tarantino used to know how to cast his films, but nothing in his recent work matches the scene in “Pulp Fiction” when Vincent and Butch stare each other down in the nightclub, for no other reason but that Bruce Willis and John Travolta appearing in the same shot mucks with all known laws of cinematic space-time.
The Coens are witty casters, loosing Jeff Bridges’ inner stoner in “The Big Lebowski”, and uncovering a pudding-bowled psychopath in Javier Bardem in “No Country for Old Men”—a slyly intuitive choice, right out of Hitchcock’s book. The lady-killers are always the ones you have to watch. Darren Aronofsky, too, has become a Prospero-like manipulator of star power. He saw the bruised pathos in Mickey Rourke for “The Wrestler” and enabled Natalie Portman’s self-mortifications in “Black Swan”, two trompe l’oeil turns shadowed with the back-story of the actors themselves—Rourke’s long spell in the wilderness, and Portman’s struggle to ditch her princess image. Both turned their bodies into battlegrounds.
That is how we like our stars today: fleshy and scarred, like pieces of meat. Norman Bates, you feel, would have approved. But then these days Bates would be up on the Oscar stage, thanking his mother.