I picked up Fred Inglis’ A Short History of Celebrity at the library after recognizing the cover from seeing it in an advert in the London Review of Books. The premise is simple enough and pretty much all there in the title: celebrity is not a modern phenomenon — or at least it is only if you’re willing to take “modern” in the sense of the historical modern which means it’s part of a period that stretches roughly back to the French Revolution or, possibly for those of us who are generously minded in these things, a few decades earlier — say the middle of the 18th century at least. Celebrity encompasses fame, notoriety, scandal, recognition — all sorts of things that are totally recognizable to anyone living today who has even a passing acquaintance with Hollywood, Bollywood, the BAFTAs, the Oscars, a political election, or the internet.
So far, so good, and Inglis is an amusing and highly informed writer. He takes the stance of the ‘fusty but (accidentally) up-to-date old don’ — not a bad stance to take since it lets him deal in classics with as much ease as it does with recent tabloid publications. He zooms through the 18th and 19th centuries without much of a glitch; I don’t know if I agree with everything he says — if put to it, I’d probably say I think he could stand to do a bit more thinking about the differences and intersections between fame, notoriety, and celebrity as concepts. I think he conflates American and British or European culture a little too readily. But in general terms — yes, I’ll go along with what he says. Celebrities reflect something back to the culture or society from which they spring; there is a closely knit, reciprocal, sometimes damaging relationship that can prove to be entirely too hothouse for either one or both of the parties involved. Things can go to hell in a handbasket very quickly and public favor can be entirely fickle.
|Neither of these people are Jimmy Stewart.
But those are donuts.
Then he hits the 20th century and starts to talk about film and things all go a bit weird. When I really hit a rock and, to be honest with you, stopped reading with any attention, was when he tried to tell me that Jimmy Stewart was the star of It Happened One Night. Er. Not so much, my friends. Check himself out over there on the right. It isn’t her, either.
I must admit, this is a minor point — and yet, it kind of isn’t. When it comes in the middle of a major point in Inglis’ argument about the nature of stardom and celebrity and Jimmy Stewart is one of three American actors — actors, mind you, not performers, note the gender of the pronoun — he has chosen to represent his argument — it kind of is a big point. It makes me wonder if he has done his research properly; it isn’t as if Stewart doesn’t have plenty of big-name films in his back catalogue — or even plenty of romantic comedies, come to that: The Philadelphia Story comes zooming right to mind without much effort and that even involves Cary Grant, one of Inglis’ other picks.
When Inglis also talks about Cary Grant and discusses His Girl Friday at length without talking about the story’s back-history as both a stage play and a moderately successful film adaptation prior to the massively successful Russell/Grant vehicle that most people know — I start to wonder again. But when he simply misattributes a pretty important film — then I’m really unhappy. Not that I argue with his choice of Stewart as a seminal male performer in the history of American cinema; no, there I’m right with him. Absolutely fine choice. Grant, likewise; ditto John Wayne. No problems. But I wish I felt he’d done his homework.
As soon as he hit the 20th century — and film and TV in particular — Inglis’ whole argument started to feel facile and glib — Sunday supplement stuff decrying the lapses in cultural standards since “the good old days,” not the intellectual exploration he had promised.
So, yes, Mr. Inglis and I are done with each other. I thank him for the amusing half-dozen chapters or so but I think he should learn to love IMdb a little bit more.