BACK WHEN STARS WERE STARS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s getting close to the Academy Awards time. This year it’s near the end of March, but the buzz is on about the contenders. Who’ll win, who should win, who’s been snubbed, who’ll be wearing what, etcetera ad nauseam. This time of year used to be an exciting period for me. As a life long movie lover, the Oscars were a big deal.

Not any more. We haven’t seen any of the nominated films this year. and to be honest, I’m not even sure what movies are up for Academy Awards. Some of the movies probably never even made it to “real” movie houses. Some of them — maybe most of them? — were shown on television. Probably. But to be honest, I’m not sure.

Yet, therein lies the rub.

I grew up watching movies from the golden age. Almost all the legends were alive and working. I read fan magazines about John Wayne, Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and other iconic figures. Stuff about their home life and upcoming projects. Lux Radio Theater carried adaptations of film hits featuring the likes of Tyrone Power, Alan Ladd and Myrna Loy. Billboards featured Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Clark Gable.

New kids on the Hollywood block included Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Marlon Brando, Steve McQueen, and Paul Newman. Sid Caesar made fun of Brando’s method school mumbling on his “Show of Shows” skits. Grownups snickered at Brando, saying “his kind” would never replace greats like Ronald Coleman and Leslie Howard.

My parents refused to buy me the motorcycle jacket and cap Brando wore in “The Wild One”. That clothing was so cool. I desperately wanted to look cool. I copied John Wayne’s laconic walk and measured speech pattern. It made me feel 6-inches taller.

Movie stars really were larger than life. You also didn’t get to see stars very often. Guest appearances on radio and television were special events. There were no “lat night comedies” where every star shows up, even presidents and first ladies.

I recall watching an Oscar telecast. Maybe 1953? Hard to remember. The black and white images sparkled with shots of stars in the audience. Everywhere the camera turned, there were famous faces. It was wonderful to see “old” stars like Douglas Fairbanks, Jr, Lillian Gish and Mae West. There were the veterans like Robert Taylor, Stewart Granger, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Fredric March, just to name a few.

I used to get excited when they focused on the newer “hip” stars like  Newman, Dean, Brando, Poitier, James Garner, Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron. Even more excited when I saw closeups of Mamie Van Doren, Edie Williams, and Rhonda Fleming.

Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas did a song and dance act that stole the show. The applause was long and deafening. The smiles from Kirk and Burt could’ve lit a dozen cities. Bob Hope was funny — as usual — joking about being snubbed by the Oscars. It never occurred to me that someone other than Bob Hope could host the Academy Awards show.

Mom, my frequent movie date, smiled widely as she watched the stars. I think she was recalling her youth. I might’ve noticed a tinge of sadness but it was fleeting.

All those images are filed away in my sense memory as we head toward this year’s Oscars. I am unacquainted with recent stars. George Clooney, Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio who I actually do know are veterans.

Dare I mention that so many of the “new” celebrities look alike? My wife says it’s all about plastic surgery, that they use the same surgeons so they have the same noses and cheekbones. Even if they look alike, there are serious stars. Streep, Washington, Berry. The new old timers — Pacino and DeNiro, but they are our age and many are older. They aren’t getting big roles. Time keeps marching on. We oldies get left behind. To be fair, I don’t mind. I’m done with work, but the Hollywood crowd are always looking — hoping — for the next job. I suppose they can’t help it.

Rather than disparage the youngest group of stars, I will admit time has left me in the dust. I haven’t seen their work. For all I know, they are great, but I wouldn’t know because I have nothing on which to base an opinion.

How did this happen?



Categories: #Photography, Celebrities, Entertainment, film, Garry Armstrong, Hollywood, Movies

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62 replies

  1. Last night, we watched “A Man For All Seasons” for the time time in more than 50 years when it was in first run in theaters (’66). A wonderful film (with McCarthy allusions) that more than stands the test of time. A cast that includes Paul Schofield, Robert Shaw, Orson Welles, Wendy Hiller and Susannah (Be still my heart!) York.
    An epic film, a literate script, terrific acting and wonderful visuals. That’s an objective – not nostalgic take on a classic film – when stars and movies — were memorable.

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  2. Every Sunday in my youth found me at one of our three local movie houses. Sometimes I met a friend and other times I walked downtown and went by myself. Two movies, previews, cartoons and news for 25¢ admission, 10¢ for popcorn, 15¢ for fudge bar, and the welcome water fountain. Those were the days. 🙂 I knew all the stars. These days, if I see a name, I have to look it up, and I still don’t know who it is or what they’ve done. I think they would refer to me as a dinosaur. 🙂

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  3. I am in my 30s and I can barely keep up at the rapid change, at the rapid development and things moving faster than I can blink.
    What I really take from your reflective post is that time had a nice slow cadence to it earlier and now they are bright flashy images and the mind is unable to hold onto them. There seem to be a sea of changes in everything that I see, the new lingo, the new TV shows that end before they begin owing binge-watching (I am not on Netflix or any of those sites and my partner and I make it a point to watch one episode of some age old cartoons a day). Time seems to be moving faster, or may be we have slowed down.

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  4. The recent passing of Sidney Poitier is another reminder of Hollywood’s faded luster.
    I almost automatically used to go to new movies if they included stars like Mr. Poitier. You knew you were going to see a good performance even if the movie wasn’t a four star classic.

    My youth was highlighted with those Saturday afternoon movie experiences that included a double feature, cartoons, shorts, newsreels and action packed, star filled “coming attractions” — all for just a dime. A little slice of heaven.

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  5. If you think of it Garry, even though actual primitive movies were being made in the late 1800s, we grew up with the real stars. They experienced movie making the same as we did, they experienced the technological advances happening during their careers and our youth. We feel connected to them because we accepted them into our lives. Now they are as old, or slightly older than we are. We feel the loss as they die because they almost represent family, of a sort. They were the heroes and heroines, and were instrumental in discovering and perfecting acting as we know it can be. They set the standards upon which modern movie making relied on.., all this without huge effects, or profanity, to fill non-productive minutes, just good acting and character development values, truly believable, real, people, very few superheroes. We left that to the comic books. The era belongs to us, both actors and fans!

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    • Do you think the current collection of stars have a similar effect on people now? I keep trying to connect to them, but mostly, I am not finding it easy. I think they are too young. They look more like my granddaughter than a peer. I’m also finding it hard to connect with movies about young love. We’re SO past young love and raising little kids and the issues of young people in general. It doesn’t mean I don’t find it interesting, in a grandparently way, but it’s hard to really connect. I think some of it is generational and the rest? Dull, generic scripts and subjects that have been done hundreds of times.

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      • I find most modern actors to be void of character, they’re all too pretty, or too handsome. We miss faces that are capable of having that “average-man-in-the-street” look(Spencer Tracy) that with exposure become beautiful as the plot unfolds. A look that forces you to dig deeper into that character’s soul. Pretty just lingers on the surface and does little else then distract from the story and drama.It’s tiring when every one looks the same. Sorry for the rant.

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        • Ben I watched an old B-movie the other night, “Five Came Back” (’39/RKO). You probably have seen this one a few times. A plane crashes in a remote jungle area with cannibals lurking in the distance.
          This is partially “The Flight of the Phoenix” theme. The patched up plane can take only 5 people back, leaving the others to the Hannibal Lecter crowd. The cast includes Chester Morris, Lucille Ball (on loan out from MGM), Kent Taylor, C. Aubrey Smith, Wendy Barrie, Ed Brophy and John Carradine. All of these people — the stars and the character actors have very memorable faces and breathe life into a well worn plot. They remade it in the 50’s – “Back To Eternity” – frame by frame the same flick – with the same director – John Farrow. But the cast included the likes of Anita Ekberg in the “Lucy” role. Now, I love looking at Anita who wears a sweater very nicely but she isn’t in Ms. Ball’s league as an actress.

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      • Marilyn, you are right about all these things. It is generational. Hollywood seems to have forgotten about their aging baby boomer generation.
        One little gem of a movie to be checked out: “Our Souls At Night”. This may have been a direct to cable release. It stars Robert Redford and Jane Fonda as two senior citizens trying to find a little love in their lives. It’s particularly bittersweet because the stars have worked together many times, dating back to their 20’s when they were young and gorgeous. Bruce Dern, one of our favorite cinema villains, is just another old codger in this flick.

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    • Ben, so well said and better than I could put it. Thanks, Bro!

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  6. Star Power is still hugely important in Filmmaking. Perhaps the most important thing of all actually. Stars carry the ball. You can have a great story, a brilliant Director, wonderful production etc. etc, But without Star Power few things fly, Director Sydney Pollack made 7 movies Starring Robert Redford because knew that even if the movie was lousy, people would go see it because of Redford. Need more proof?: Arnold Schwarzenegger was an horrific Actor in first several movies (he did improve, but he’ll never be Laurence Olivier). But he has Charisma/Star Power. More proof? Laurence Olivier. Despite Olivier’s legendary status as one of the greatest Shakespearean Actors of all wanted nothing more than to be a Movie Star. Did he succeed? Only partially. WHY? He lacked great Star Power.
    It seems unfair that complete ‘nobodys’ – with no experience, no study, and no Acting background or training can become huge Movie Stars making multi-millions of dollars. But it happens all the time.
    This was the great thing about the old Studios. They found created Stars. Why do Screen Testing if Star Power is not important? You either got it – or you don’t. Acting be damned.
    The Stars eventually revolted and broke away though, but not before dozens of Wonderful and Crafted films were made. Yup they made a pile of crap too. BUT they had Stars.

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    • Here is where I sort of — not entirely — disagree. I think if you write a brilliant script, you CREATE stars. Paddy Chayefsky, for example — and by no means he alone. If you think about it, that is how stars are made these days. Unknown star in good movies and get their creds. Yes, the studios are gone and aren’t coming back.

      When that first Harry Potter movie came out, all those kids were completely unknown. Those movies MADE them.

      A great script can make a great actor — if that actor CAN act. It helps if they can act.

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      • Writing is the most important element in Film. That’s why many of the best are made from books. The Dialogue, Characters, and Plot are already realized. You have the foundation for a worthy Movie. Now you need to find a good Director and a the right Cast. BUT Star Power is still hugely important. Harry Potter worked because the Casting was brilliant – after a LONG search they got really good people for those Roles. There’s a new Batman movie coming out (did we need another?). Strangely it will the first Batman movie that doesn’t have a Huge Star in the Role – like Clooney, Keeton, Bale, Affleck, or Kilmer. He’s well known, but not of their stature. So it will be interesting to see if that works.
        The Studios found and created Stars. Rooney and Garland (and many others did not learn how to dance and sing on their own. Acting too. They were schooled. But if you don’t some appeal on the screen you won’t be around for long, no matter how good you are.

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        • We remember the best of the movies the studios released. I think we have all (happily) forgotten the junk they released. Most of it is best forgotten. Before TV and the breakup of the studios/theaters/star complex, they made thousands of movies a year, most of them completely unmemorable. We remember the good ones. Just as well. Garry pointed out that the serious stars usually worked a long time doing B-C-D movies before they became famous. There were a few times when one movie made a star, but a lot of the time, that man or woman had already done dozens of bad and mediocre films before finally making it onto the marquee.

          Now, of course, they spend so much more money to make a movie they are afraid to try anyone or anything new. They are afraid of original scripts or original ideas. That is a lot of what is wrong with movies. If it isn’t another superhero movie (and I am bored to death with the whole superhero genre), it’s nonetheless, the same-old same-old.

          My granddaughter says new movies are boring. She and her friends like old ones better. They also (are you ready?) listen to OUR music. Beatles especially. I’m not sure the people making movies have a grip on what anyone wants. Of course, old movies live on. There are more OLD movie channels than NEW movie channels — and maybe that’s why.

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          • I’m a big fan or re-watching the Classics. They are Re-watchable – that’s what makes them Classic – for me. Some of the new Action stuff is really well done, but much more is forgettable as you say. I was recently watching Trailers of several; upcoming Action Movies – nearly every one used the same formula – over and over. Not a hint of inspiration or anything that I felt would add something to me. Even with big Stars I wouldn’t watch them. Once they find a formula that makes money they start cranking them out.

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    • So well said! You are so right about the oft criticized studio system of Hollywood’s golden era. It was like going to college BEFORE getting a real job for the people now referred to as legends.
      People like Bette Davis made some real stinkeroos during her early years. But BD honed her craft and used her skills, ambition and drive to establish her rightful place as a legitimate star and actress.
      It’s well known that John Wayne spent almost a decade in B-movie purgatory before John Ford cast Duke in “Stagecoach” and a star was “born”.
      You EARNED your way to stardom in the old days.

      Hey, it was the same way in TV news.

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      • Yes it definitely translates to anyone in public eye Mr. Cronkite.
        “Davis”? Sadly, if a Studio figures your Star is fading they often tried to get rid of you. Many Actors don’t age well. We aren’t all Morgan Freemans. This is especially so with female Actors if it’s felt they looks and sex appeal are falling. Look what they tried to do to Stanwyck and Katherine Hepburn (whom I consider to be about the greatest Actress ever.) She didn’t let it happen though. Her Acting chops were off the chart and she fought her way back. This is not always possible though, and there’s a lot of bodies beside the road when the phone stops ringing. When you see somebody’s Star rising it’s pretty well a sure bet that somebody else is getting pushed out. It’s a ruthless trade and Box Office rules everything …

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        • Ms. Hepburn, in that memorable afternoon shared with me, lamented the agony and ecstasy of Hollywood fame. Hepburn recounted how she battled Hollywood suits from the beginning of her career but she refused to cave. It made her a pariah to some of the studio suits but she always held the reins and usually triumphed – especially after being labelled as “box office poison” during her 30’s tenure at RKO. Hepburn had the smarts and bought rights to books and plays that became film triumphs for her.
          “The Philadelphia Story” is a great example. Hepburn secured the rights to Phillip Barry’s memorable play. She did it on Broadway with Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin. Louis B. Mayer and MGM wanted the play for a Metro flick. They had to deal with Hepburn. The rest is history. Hepburn wanted Gable and Tracy as her movie co-stars. Mayer tried to stiff her with contract players but Hepburn shuffled the deck and “accepted” Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.

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  7. I’ve seen four of the ten Best Picture nominees, all on streaming channels like Netflix and Apple+. Unfortunately, I may have to watch them again because they were almost immediately forgettable, although I did like “Don’t Look Up” for its satirical parody of politics in America today.

    I used to love going to the movies and watching them in a dark theater on the big screen, but that was in the Before Days. It’s been more than two years since I last went to a movie theater and I may never go again.

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    • I think it was at least a year before the pandemic when we last went to a real movie and that was to see “Casablanca” in a movie — for the first time. it was so much better that way than it had been on TV — and yet we haven’t gone back. Part of it is the cost. For that money, you can buy the movie twice and eat all the snacks you want without paying ridiculous prices. We also saw “Don’t Look Up” and it was funny. I haven’t seen the list, so I don’t know if we saw any others on it, but to show you how far we have drifted, we didn’t care enough to check.

      i think we have lost interest in most new films. The subjects aren’t interesting. Mostly they are variations of movies that have been done many times before or the subject is something that maybe (MAYBE) might have been interesting 30 or 40 years ago, but isn’t of much interest now.

      Time has caught up with me — and Garry. But we really enjoyed Prime’s “Reacher.” Lots of violence. Very satisfying.

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    • Thanks, Fandango. I also loved going to the movies. I began at age 4 – in 1946 – with “The Best Years of our Lives”. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
      Unfortunately, the film landscape has changed and we are the poorer despite the state of the art technology. Bigger is not always better.

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  8. I have not seen any of the nominees either. I think many of the movies were on cable/satellite channels. Times have changed. I do not have any premium channels. I have Amazon Prime so I can see a lot of movies for free anyway.
    The last movie I saw in the theater was the CGI version of Lion King, pre-pandemic. John wanted to see it. His English was not good at the time, but he had seen the animated version in Spanish and knew the story. The main selling point was Beyonce as the voice of one of the characters. I wish I had taken him to more movies. He wanted to see the live-action version of Alladin, probably because the lead was cute, I don’t know for sure. It looks like our time to go to the theater has passed.

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    • Even when it’s something we know we’d like (usually because it’s a Turner Classic rerun), spending all that money for a movie we could buy for less than $10 seems a pointless luxury. Especially because it will be on TV in a couple of weeks, if it isn’t already showing on some cable network. And of course, those streaming stations are making many of the movies themselves.

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    • Rich, I used to look forward to new films with great anticipation. I regularly perused the old Variety for its news about movies in production. It was like reading the old sports magazines with their predictions about the upcoming baseball season.

      All that anticipation and excitement is gone with daily saturation on the internet about rumored movies being green-lighted. Often this info is blatantly inaccurate.

      The magic in movie making and going to theaters is gone — with the wind of change.

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      • Many features rely in special effects that were not available in the Golden Age of movies. Even the animated movies are Computer Generated. I would rather watch Casablanca again than a lot of the current movies.

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        • Rich, I’m with you here. Rick and his pals are better than any of the contemporary movie folks who usually are just riffing Rick and the gang, right down to their mannerisms.
          Here’s looking at you, kid.

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  9. Ten movies nominated for Best Picture? When did it get to be that many in one category?! More than likely, I’ll read about the winners online. Hard to root for anyone when you have no idea who they are.

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  10. I don’t know if I can’t keep up or have lost interest in keeping up. I rarely recognize the names or the faces – so many careers seem so fleeting.

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    • For me, it’s both. I was never as passionate about movies as Garry was, but I had favorite stars and I like some types of stories better than others. Now, though, I feel like I’m watching children perform. And Garry’s right. They really all look like they are “designed” from the same cookie cutter. Personally, I think the whole plastic surgery has gone way out of control. Old-time stars weren’t all perfect. Kate Hepburn didn’t look like Audrey — and no one looked like John Wayne or Spencer Tracy. They were unique.

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      • Juliet Prowse’s name came up for me last week. I loved her. She had such a unique face and her ability to dance was near perfection. In my mind, I see her face. Beautiful but different from everyone else. Maybe the sameness is why no one stands out to me.

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      • Marilyn, you think they’ll try a new version of “Inherit The Wind”? Carnac sees Nicholas Cage and Gary Busey reprising Tracy and March. Ridiculous? Just wait.

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    • Maggie, I used to think it was me getting stuck in a time warp. It just isn’t the same and that’s a shame.

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