Stars of the Moment
Burning Bright and Burning Briefly
Perhaps there is a very specific sort of stardom that reflects the zeitgeist, a spirit of the time which produces what the French call a 'star du moment'. In such stardom, an actor is so part of their moment that their stardom cannot be extracted from it. While actors like Paul Newman, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall can be removed from a moment and still retain their fame, many who are astonishingly well-known, influential and successful are famous so briefly that their stardom becomes a metonym of the times, a means by which a particular year or at best a decade can be summed up. Sometimes this will be evident commercially and on other occasions more antagonistically it is the difference between Farrah Fawcett, Phoebe Cates and Molly Ringwald, and Joe Dallesandro, Pierre Clementi and Juliet Berto. Farrah Fawcett's red swimsuit poster sold more copies than any in history 12 million. (Biography) But how many people are likely to have it on their walls now, as opposed to the poster of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, Al Pacino in Scarface or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver? To put the poster of Fawcett up in your bedroom would be to reflect a brief period in American history when Gerald Ford was trying to impose some dignity back into the US presidency after Watergate; reflecting the chaos rather than deflecting it after two attempted assassinations on his life. Evil Knievel, meanwhile, was doing his best for patriotism, dressed in a stars and stripes jumpsuit and breaking numerous bones after clearing thirteen London double-decker buses. Terrorism was fully evident in the Entebbe hijacking incident. Farrah Fawcett was part of this moment but she didn't transcend it and, in a different way, Molly Ringwald never moved beyond teen truculence during the Reagan years. Phoebe Cates might even be reduced to one moment in one film: when she exits a swimming pool in a red bikini in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Though our examples of momentary stardom have been women, which may be reflective of an objectification that denies longevity, there are male stars too who burn brightly very briefly indeed. Charlie Sheen was a huge star in Platoon and Wall Street but became a sign of the excessive times when his private life was exposed and his penchant for porn stars revealed: "Ginger Lynn Allen...was the first and probably best known of Sheen's porn-star girlfriends, a habit the actor has continued to this day with such successors as Bree Olson..." (Los Angeles Times) If Michael Douglas in Wall Street proposed greed was good, he was much bigger than Gordon Gecko. Sheen, whose character gets caught in the fast lane, never quite knew how to pull over. Douglas may reflect the late eighties and early nineties in a series of films where he plays men who are a little uptight, becoming trapped in sexual desire and occasionally are victims of violent and manipulative women (Fatal Attraction; Basic Instinct, Disclosure), but he was more than the specifics of a narrow image. He wasn't a star like Newman or Eastwood but he was too significant an actor to be reduced to brief celebrity.
Thus far we have talked about actors who are part of a very commercial industry but what about an indy equivalent of momentary fame? Few actors seem to reflect the late sixties and early seventies more than Pierre Clementi. He appeared in films by Bunuel, Bertolucci and Jancso, but never looked like he could be absorbed into arthouse aesthetics, appearing as if he came from a more mysterious and unpredictable place. While the lead actors in Bunuel's Belle de Jour (Deneuve), Bertolucci's The Conformist (Trintignant) and Jancso's La Pacifista (Vitti) feel at home in the respective directors' rigorous and often elegant form, Clementi looks like he has drifted in from a different type of cinema the rougher style of a Warhol or a Garrel. He was indeed in Philippe Garrel's work (Le lit de la vierge and La Cicatrice Interieure) and appeared in the latter with Nico, Garrel's long-term lover and also of course a Factory figure who knew Warhol well. Nico replaced Edie Sedgwick as a star after the latter proved troublesomely unreliable. Yet, "what was a bit ironic about having Nico replace Edie Sedgwick because Edie was lost in a narcotic haze was the fact that Nico was taking LSD." (Loner at the Ball)
This would seem very close to Clementi's world. Warhol could have absorbed Clementi without difficulty into his work but perhaps part of Clementi's fascination rested on the tension he gave to filmmakers who were halfway between the revolutionary and the reserved. Casting Deneuve in Belle de Jour opposite Jean Sorel as her husband and you have bourgeois chic, actors who appear elegant in clothes designed by Parisian couture. Speaking of Deneuve wearing Yves St Laurent in the film, Classiq magazine says "Catherine Deneuve has always evoked an eternal femininity through the timelessness of her classic looks and clothes and the designer played a great role in this from that moment on." But in casting Clementi as Deneuve's gangster lover, the film breaks with its elegant surface and creates a hallucinatory dissolution that leaves the viewer wondering what might be real; what might be the product of fantasy. While Sorel plays the sort of man a woman without means might fantasise into existence, a dull but rich prince charming, a woman already with the means might be more inclined to dream up a rebel without a dental plan.
Clementi's character's steel teeth show a man who didn't have his denticles filled with amalgams but whose mouth itself was an amalgam of metal. Here he is the type you wouldn't wish to introduce into polite society but this is Bunuel's exaggeration; Clementi never looked like he fitted into any society that would accept him as a member. When he turns up unannounced and unwelcome at Deneuve's abode, he makes himself at home knowing this wouldn't at all be his home. He takes a seat without Deneuve offering it to him and looks like he will help himself from a soda syphon before reacting with a mixture of disdain and dismay as he puts it down. He probably doesn't quite know how it works and probably wonders if it is the sort of thing he should be seen with in his hands. If Clementi stuck out like a sore thumb in bourgeois milieux, then he sticks in like one when we look back on the period that he so encapsulates.
When thinking of stars during this period we see concessions to the styles of the day without appearing like they are comfortable with them. When Eastwood in the early 70s grows his hair out it looks misshapen and hazardously at the mercy of a breeze; when Newman turned up for various interviews during this period his hair was an inch or two longer than during the 60s and made him look scruffy rather than trendy. Yet what can make someone a little out of their time can also make them much more generally pertinent. Even if actors are often iconographic over a brief period that signifies their charisma and charm, then it is how successfully an actor sustains that iconography or expands upon it that matters. Eastwood was The Man with No Name who also became Dirty Harry, and much of his career has been based on finding variations and modulations on these two figures, even if the former was a mid-sixties formulation and the latter an early-seventies one. If The Man with No Name hints at the international co-production so common in sixties film, Dirty Harry Callahan sums up a Nixonite entrenchment, a law and order nationalism. Yet Eastwood never became a caricature, finding in the western expansive possibilities in the following decades, in The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and Unforgiven. The cop films Tightrope, In The Line of Fire and Gran Torino could all have been Dirty Harry at a later stage of his life, even as Eastwood continued making less interesting Harry Callahan films like Sudden Impact through the decades. Eastwood may be iconic for having a cheroot in the corner of his mouth, three day-stubble and a poncho, and for pointing a 44 Magnum with a smirk, but Eastwood also knew how to open up these images so that he went beyond both immediate history and also character constriction, just as Sean Connery became much more than James Bond.
When talking of a star du moment, an actor can become iconographic without impacting the broader culture, like Clementi, but whose status is large enough partly through the range of directors he worked with. It wasn't as though Clementi was made by one director or within a very specific scene. By working with Spanish (Bunuel), Italian (Bertolucci, Pasolini, Visconti), French (Rivette), Portuguese (Monteiro), Brazilian (Rocha), Yugoslavian (Makavajev) and Hungarian (Jancso) filmmakers, Clementi had an international profile, however small. In contrast, Joe Dallesandro was very much shaped by a scene and if not quite one director, then at least one directorial vision: Paul Morrisey directed Flesh and Heat but it was under the auspices of Warhol's sensibility no matter how useless Morrisey claimed Warhol to be. Don't say "Warhol films" when you talk about my films! Are you so stupid, you talk to people like that? I have to live through this for fifty years. Everything I did, it's Warhol this, or he did them with me. Forget it. He was incompetent, anorexic, illiterate, autistic, Asperger's he never did a thing in his entire life." (Bright Lights Film Journal) Morrissey may have been the hands-on-talent, someone who turned the Warholian into the cinematically competent, but if Morrissey has so insistently to talk-down Warhol's direct involvement it is only because the master's sensibility was permeating. Dallesandro was part of that, someone who might have gone on to work for Malle, Borowczyk and Rivette, but whose micro-iconic status rested on the underground scene he was part of in the late sixties and early seventies. As stocky, compact and muscular as Clementi was tall, willowy and fragile, Dallesandro was 5 foot 6 to Clementi's 5 feet 11. Dallesandro was little Joe in Lou Reed's 'Walk on the Wild Side'. While Clementi could give off an air of disdain, Dallesandro seemed knotted and tight, someone who appeared in international films but never gave off a cultivated, international persona.
By being perceived within Warhol's orbit Dallesandro was just another of the stars who never became greater than their association with the Factory even if they would have careers beyond it. Like Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick, Gerard Malanga, Brigid Berlin and Viva, Dallesandro was famous for more than fifteen minutes but the singularity of that fame was not quite his own. Clementi could claim far more ownership over his. In the film that turned him into a star of sorts, Flesh, Dallesandro starts posing for an artist who wishes to draw him. He is model as narcissist who doesn't only give the impression that he wants to pose for the artist but also hustle a client. Warhol's world was always liminal and paradoxical: illustrating a disdain for capitalism and an obsession with money. It was as though Warhol sought a capitalism so individualistic that it wouldn't be the entrepreneurship of the small town businessman employing a modest number of staff but the hustler selling their wares in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Warhol could say that "being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art." (ArtNews) He also said, "I've decided something: Commercial things really do stink. As soon as it becomes commercial for a mass market it really stinks." (TheCultureConcept)
However, to bring these contradictory quotes together we need only think of someone who believes in commerce but not the commercial. The person selling their body or drugs on the street sells nothing beyond what is there; capitalism is the full commodification of commerce, turning life into a slick advert full of the production values Warhol so resisted. Watching Flesh one sees a film that is naked in form and content, the disrobed Dallesandro meeting a form that has little truck with narrative continuity and conventional cutting. The hard cut between Dallesandro posing for the artist and on the street hanging out with other hustlers abruptly tells us that if you've bought a ticket for the film then you don't get your money back just because there aren't smooth transitions no matter if Morrissey thought he was a vastly superior filmmaker to Warhol himself.
Dallesandro conveys well in his work for Warhol and Morrisey a man who wants to make a buck as a buck. As Reed says in Walk on the Wild Side, "Little Joe never once gave it away/Everybody had to pay and pay/A hustle here and a hustle there/New York City's the place." Dallesandro personifies the underground New York hustler but this makes him pertinent but not quite permanent, a man right for the moment but not the momentous. One can watch films like Flesh, Trash and Heat and feel a lack of sophistication which at the same time seems to have nothing to do with the naive. The films have a blas attitude and a can-do spirit that says if the dialogue is inaudible, the camera poorly focused or the cutting chaotic, then to notice such things is anally retentive. The work of bourgeois cinema is to turn us into consumers looking for polished product. Warhol etc. shows that polish here would be the polishing of a turd. Why bother?
By contrast, the brief stardom enjoyed by Molly Ringwald in the mid-eighties was capitalism at its most pronounced. These were films aimed at the teen market, with market the operative word, and the director John Hughes aware that a carefully composed soundtrack, utilising hits of the time, would bring in the music crowd as well. Pretty in Pink includes work by OMD, The Smiths, Susanne Vega, The Psychedelic Furs and Echo and the Bunnymen. Sixteen Candles offers Billy Idol, David Bowie, Spandau Ballet and Altered Images; heck, even Kajagoogoo. The Breakfast Club went easy on the hits but expected Simple 'Mind's Don't You Forget About Me' to do the heavy-lifting appearing at the beginning and the end of the film.
What does all this have to do with Molly Ringwald, one may wonder? She wasn't only for this short period a Hughes muse, she was also the acoustic equivalent of a clothes horse, attired in songs as other actresses had been dressed by Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel and Givenchy. It was part of a synergy principle, where the soundtrack would sell the film and the film would do wonders for the music. The Breakfast Club became a box office success on its release and 'Don't You Forget About Me' a number 1 hit in the US. If Ringwald is so associated with the mid-eighties she is also closely affiliated with the music that speaks for her through the films she appeared in. Would Ringwald have been a star if it weren't for the music that accompanied her? This needn't be a condemnation of Ringwald; more of the times where hit songs helped sell the star; even to make them. Imagine Tom Cruise without the scene where he dances to Bob Seger's 'Old Time Rock and Roll' in Risky Business, or without Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' in Top Gun. Actors since at least the mid-sixties have relied on non-diegetic popular music to augment their performances, creating feelings in the audience and through their characters by utilising songs that become as famous as the performance itself. Dustin Hoffman might be brilliant in The Graduate but it is a film hard to imagine without 'Mrs Robinson' and 'The Sound of Silence'; even Midnight Cowboy relies enormously on Nilsson. Yet Hoffman was an actor far beyond the requirements of musical augmentation; Ringwald seemed someone who was contained by them. (And whatever we think of Cruise, his career was not sustained by musical accompaniment; he is a proper star.)
It wasn't that Ringwald couldn't express a churn of emotions when necessary. In Pretty in Pink there is a scene where she confronts Andrew McCarthy, asking him to tell her the truth about why he hasn't been in contact. He makes various excuses and she insists that he isn't being honest; that he is ashamed to be seen with someone who isn't from the same wealthy social background. But the big kiss at the end comes with the accompaniment of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. It is as though certain actors cannot not only be removed from their specific socio-historical context, but become associated so completely with a soundtrack that their voice is buried beneath it. Ringwald could at least be associated with several songs across no less than three films but there are others, like Jennifer Beals in (Flashdance) or Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing), who we remember for only one role and with music that immediately plays in our head when we think of it: 'What a Feeling' for Beals; 'Time of my Life' for Grey. Patrick Swayze, Grey's co-star, never became an enormous success like his The Outsiders colleague Tom Cruise but he was far from a one-hit-wonder; Ghost made almost two and half times the amount of money at the box office: according to The Numbers, Dirty Dancing made $213,893,795; Ghost $517,600,000. Demi Moore, Swayze, a pottery wheel and 'Unchained Melody' helped make the film a fortune and Swayze's two biggest successes seem closely associated with musical accompaniment. After his death, the Guardian listed all the actors' movies and how well they did at the box office; it was quite a decent haul that included Point Break, To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, and Red Dawn, but if one were to look for iconic parts then it is Dirty Dancing and Ghost, with the music augmenting them, that made him a star.
We shouldn't forget that most actors benefit not a little from the soundtrack that accompanies their actions. We have noted the importance of Simon and Garfunkel and Nilsson for Hoffman, and that Bob Seger and Berlin helped Cruise's career along. Even so great and long-lasting an icon as Eastwood had Ennio Morricone's music non-diegetically behind him in the spaghetti westerns. Eastwood's iconic status can however distinguish itself from even so assertive a composer as Morricone, while with a star of the moment we have found that isn't usually the case. Part of the conjuring up of a moment in time is that the culture works intensively upon it and music contributes enormously to this process, even if it may contain a paradox. 'Unchained Melody' after all is a song from the fifties sung in Ghost by The Righteous Brothers, who released it in 1965. It cannot hook us into a moment without potentially releasing other moments as well yet that is one of the achievements of a certain type of momentary celebrity: the ability to attract towards the zeitgeist times that are not exclusive to it.
This often happens with music in film where there is a sort of inverted detournement, a term offered by Guy Debord to describe how works can be altered and defaced, given a new context, and especially for radically political ends. A famous example is Duchamp's moustache on the Mona Lisa; more contemporaneous examples closer to the politically radical would be the Sex Pistols' use of the Union Jack with the Queen's face on it, her eyes covered with the words 'God Save the Queen', and her mouth gagged by the words The Sex Pistols. No less outrageously, we have the Vietcong soldier in the process of getting shot dead against a backdrop of the Coca-Cola logo.
These would be examples of radical detournement and we will say a little more about its proper use, in the radical example of the star of the moment, shortly. But its reverse form is usually conservative, a means of co-opting the past into a present that tames both periods all the better to offer consumable products. It creates an echo of the past rather than a reimagining or reenactment of it, and one saw this most clearly in the Levi 501 adverts from the mid-to-late eighties, with songs by Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, BB King and others used to flog jeans. It created a star of the moment in Nick Kamen, who went on to have a singing career. But this was a good example of stardom backed up by musical accompaniment. Kamen was no more than a competent singer but his black hair, his bronzed body and his white boxer shorts in a minute-long advert to 'I Heard it on the Grapevine' couldn't be bettered; though it could be half-heartedly extended. Any musical career relying on Kamen's voice could only remind everyone how he may have looked like an angel in the advert, but the devil came round to collect when it was revealed that his voice inevitably paled next to Gaye's. It is the ultimate example of a moment captured and contained using a conservative detournement. Marvin Gaye's 1971 song 'What's Going On? 'was deemed so political that exec Berry Gordy was reluctant to release it, fearing it would alienate more conservative listeners. "He thought Gaye was committing career suicide singing about picket lines and brutality. Gordy refused to release the record. Gaye refused to record anything else, going on strike." (Financial Times) Fourteen years later, a year after Gaye's death, there Gaye was used for pure commerce, with a more ostensibly benign song.
If Kamen might seem the ultimate example of commodified culture as the spirit of the nanosecond, then someone like Clementi is of course very much the opposite. He was imprisoned in 1971 and "was forced to spend 16 months in jail following trumped-up drug possession charges but most believe that his incarceration was due to his radical leftist political leanings" (Cinebeats) It would make sense that someone like Clementi would be jailed for one thing even if the issue was elsewhere: it fits with a general notion that he was never cast in films because he was a good actor but that he was a representative figure. By casting Clementi, a director wasn't getting a technically brilliant performance where the actor became absorbed into a character, where the professional skills of a John Hurt (as The Elephant Man), Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot) or Ben Kingsley (as Gandhi) is so completely engaged with the role that the actor as persona disappears. It is this persona that is vital to Clementi's cinematic appeal. We do not expect him to be at one with the part unless that part reflects an aspect of Clementi's persona beyond the film. Whether in a small role in The Conformist or a large part in La Pacifista, playing the criminal in Belle de Jour or the nude archer in La Cicatrice Interieure, Clementi brings a tension to each role that we might describe as 'milieuesque': a performance that comes into film but out of another environment. When Nic Roeg cast Mick Jagger in Performance and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth he sought a collision between the world of film and the world of music. Godard by casting philosophers Brice Perain in Vivre sa vie and Francis Jeanson in La chinoise are less conspicuous examples.
But they all bring to film an aspect that can call into question the solidity of the diegetic. Charlton Heston in Soylent Green is a very different thing from Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth because whatever extra-cinematic persona Heston may have had it was very much secondary to the one he has in film; Bowie's music existence was much more prominent than his cinematic one. Yet of course while Bowie and even Jagger were playing characters, Perain and Jeanson were more or less playing themselves. This is the most common form of the milieuesque and we see it for example in Annie Hall (Marshal McLuhan) Black and White (Mike Tyson) and Reds (Henry Miller, Rebecca West). Yet sometimes a director seeks to create within the body of the story a fictional person, a persona that is more present than the role. It is always an aspect of a star who is enormously famous even within film: does Marilyn Monroe play Sugar 'Kane' in Some Like it Hot or is her fame so great that not for a minute do we ignore the idea that this is Marlyn Monroe? When Chaplin plays a harassed Jew during the Nazi years in The Great Dictator, are we not watching Chaplin more than a person persecuted?
However, this wouldn't be the milieuesque, since the film doesn't want to throw us outside cinema but to make us all the more aware of its capacity to self-generate stars that transcend the form within the form. They are axiomitic figures if we mean by this that they contain a self-evidentiality that becomes their own justification. As Michel Mourlet once said: "Charlton Heston is an axiom....The pent-up violence expressed by the sombre phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle's profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase." (Mubi) Mourlet's hyperbole has a point: that no matter the direction or the story there will always be Heston, towering over the material and that is partly what makes a star a star they are axiomatically brilliant as actors who may be great exemplars of their craft are not. John Hurt is not an axiom; nor is Ben Kingsley. But there probably isn't as great a Heston performance as Hurt's in The Elephant Man and Kingsley's in Gandhi. They do not define cinema; Heston, like Monroe, John Wayne, Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant and Clint Eastwood do. To become an axiom is a become cinematic superstar; someone who defines the very form they are in. By this reckoning, Bowie might be axiomatic with music but not to film and hence the milieuesque. In turn, Clementi, as a star of the moment, however extended and fascinating his film contribution happened to be, could never be seen as an axiom. It is this that makes him both so intriguing and also ephemeral.
The milieuesque also returns us to detournement, which from a certain perspective can be seen as an intrusion. When we see Carlos Latuff's Coca-Cola advert with the South Vietnamese brigadier general Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing the Vietcong's Nguyen Van Lem foregrounded, this is history intruding on advertising: one world imposing itself on another to make a political statement about America's need to develop a society of commerce no matter the price to human life. In 2003, Outlook magazine offered the headline, "Dying For McDonald's In Iraq, adding "In London, recently, an investor's conference entitled 'Doing Business in Iraq: Kickstarting the Private Sector' was agog with reports that McDonald's, among other corporations, may begin selling BigMacs and fries in Iraq by next year..." Here, the corporate and the militaristic that Latuff shows as ostensibly disjunctive worlds are working in close conjunction. Latuff's image is a provocation but that doesn't mean it isn't true. It just means that we usually wouldn't believe that these worlds would collide, and certainly no advertiser or corporation would be inclined to bring them together. Latuff's image is disjunctive not because such worlds don't conjoin, but because they wouldn't come together in advertising. Equally, when Andy Warhol insisted on painting Coca-Cola bottles or Campbell's soup cans he was appropriating advertising for the purposes of aesthetics: an inversion of Latuff's work but still an example of the milieuesque, and also a reverse detournement. A Coca-Cola advert we may say is axiomatic: it is a perfect fit between commerce and advertising. Warhol's soup cans or Latuff's image of the execution against Coca-Cola's logo are disjunctive as the worlds are not automatically associated.
When Clementi appears in Belle de jour, he is metonymically at odds with the milieu, both as a character within the story and a presence within the film. Deneuve can be dressed by Yves St Laurent without irony; Clementi in designer clothes registers a clash. He may dress in a long black leather coat that doesn't look like it comes cheap, or in a pair of boots that suggests money spent, but the style is chaotic. The tie he wears is a little bedraggled, like his long shirt collars, and his purple socks a dandyish touch showing that he is well aware of the clothes he puts on but doesn't take them too seriously. While Jean Sorel as Deneuve's husband dresses in an impeccable white polo neck or a neatly-fitting suit with a white shirt and red tie that indicates whatever he wears fits entirely with his self-perception and bourgeois expectation, Clementi looks like he has a contempt for the wealth he displays. He must reflect it in the haphazard way he dresses, no matter the quality of the cloth. Obviously, Clementi is playing in the film a gangster but when we look at other late sixties criminals like James Fox's figure in Performance, or Alain Delon's hitman in Le Samourai, they are impeccably dressed, every tailored inch fitting perfectly. They don't imply a hippy ethos meeting a bourgeois milieu. Even in La Pacifista, Miklos Jancso's film about radicals in late sixties Italy, Clementi clashes sartorially with Monica Vitti, the wealthy journalist covering student politics. Vitti may appear more casually attired than we are used to seeing her in Antonioni films of the early sixties, but it looks as though she has just changed fashion designers rather than eschewed fashion design altogether. Whether wearing a pair of beige flares, braless with a thin cotton blouse, or leather trousers with a white, heavily collared open blouse and a thigh-length black velvet coat, Vitti seems like she has moved with the times but hasn't decreased her clothing allowance. Clementi may have raided a thrift shop: dressed throughout in a pair of purple flares, sandals, a stretched sleeveless T-shirt and a scuffed velvet blazer. He gives to the film its authenticity as Vitti lends it her glamour; once again as in Belle de jour two worlds collide as Clementi intrudes on a bourgeois woman's world, and again seems, in filmic terms, milieuesque.
It is Clementi's capacity to be a star of the moment on his own terms that gives to the work a value that offers a strong presence without overt commodification. A star of the moment like Ringwald indicates no presence beyond the films she is in and the augmentation the music provides. You cannot extricate Ringwald from the world of the films and find another world that she imposed upon the cinematic one, and this seems to be the case also with numerous other stars of the moment, from Farrah Fawcett to Jennifer Beals. In this sense, perhaps the female equivalent to Clementi would be Juliet Berto, an actress who appeared in work by Godard, Rivette, Losey, Doillon and Tanner, and was also latterly a director herself, who died young at the age of 42. Initially involved in a radical student group alongside Anne Wiazemsky, Berto more than Wiazemsky or any actress of the period captured an insouciant sense of youthful disdain, a feeling that revolution is a necessary next step and at the same time a provocative piece of image-making. Who can forget Berto in La Chinoise, sitting behind a barricade of Mao's little red books and holding a toy machine gun, her face covered in red paint? If the society of the spectacle needed to be undermined, if it required a certain type of human face to counter the opiate effect of mass culture, then Berto might well have been it. While Bardot, Deneuve and even Moreau represented a France that could continue happily through its thirty glorious years, Berto was a truculent interruption, a woman barely twenty when she appeared in Godard's film, who would go on to appear in Weekend, Two or Three Things I Know About Her and La Gai Savoir, playing in the latter less a character than a mouthpiece, but whose views may have been her own as much as Godard's. Was she cast simply as someone who could remember complicated lines that are close to speeches, or was she expressing beliefs that coincided with her own thinking?
At one moment in La Gai Savoir she says "and it's up to me to turn the weapon against the enemy", yet there is no gun in her hand and her body language is languid as she half lies on the floor, propping herself up with one arm. It suggests the revolution will be made by young bones and if the sit-in was a popular mode of protest during the student movement of '68 then it needed bones young enough and flexible enough to sit on the floor for hours on end. It also implies an inelegant elasticity that Berto reflects well and that the more formal Deneuve would have been unlikely to capture. When Piccoli, with her husband looking on, throws mud at Deneuve while she is tied to a tree dressed in her nightgown, in Belle de Jour, the contrast between the black mud against the white gown and Deneuve's impeccable beauty is pronounced. Throw that mud at Berto and she would likely have spat back a few insults, saying that slinging mud can take the form of words as well as deeds. She was also never impeccable, even playing the dainty mistress in Monsieur Klein she looked like she was morally sullied by associating with the title character. Any dress sense she conveyed was secondary to a sort of collaborative clothing, as though the couture was acquired by suspect means during the war years. It is a quiet and secondary performance, with Berto bird-thin and fretful looking, especially in a scene where she is at the theatre with Klein and they are watching an anti-semitic performance. It is an interesting role for Berto, because so much of what the '68 movement was reacting against was the glorious years sitting on top of collaboration. Bertram Gordon says that "in 1968 Stanley Hoffmann, turning his attention again to the war years, 'noted that passions had cooled sufficiently for discussion of Vichy without reopening the wounds that the events of 1940- 44 inflicted on French self-confidence and national consciousness.'" ('The "Vichy Syndrome" Problem in History') But 68 was also an opportunity to reassess France's involvement with the Nazis for political capital. Aro Velmet says, "The Vichy connection was partially of [Daniel] Cohn-Bendit's own creation. The sentence that propelled him to fame - "Now there's an answer worthy of Hitler's youth minister" - colored his entire career as a leader of the student revolt May." ('40 Years is Enough: Myth and Memory in French Commemorations of May 1968') Cohn-Bendit was one the most important figures in May '68, leading the student protests at Nanterre; he also worked with Godard in the late sixties, and Berto and Cohn-Bendit appeared together in an 80s film Un amour a Paris. The gap between Berto in 1968 insouciently appearing in Godard's Le Gai savoir and in 1976 modestly taking a small role in Losey's might seem the work of two very different figures and from a certain point of view they are, despite what we might see as the political consistency in both.
Her roles in Godard's work of this period might appear much more political than her roles in Rivette films afterwards: Out 1: Spectre (and the full version Out 1: Noli Me Tangere) and Celine and Julie Go Boating. In both directors' films, though, she seems to take for granted that bourgeois life is a joke that ought not to be offered at her expense. In Out 1: Spectre, in one scene she is briefly alone in a businessman's groundfloor apartment and after a short while disappears with some letters that she steals while he is out of the room. In her hippy flares and with her long, lank hair, Berto looks like she lives for the moment and that the future is no more than a brief scheme to get what she wants. She plays a casual swindler who lives without much compunction but represents wonderfully an approach to life that needn't be held by conventional values. She is the female equivalent of Clementi, someone who represents her time much better than actors who were stars transcending the period. Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon are French icons, actors who cover decades in cinema and sum up an aspect of French chic far beyond the late sixties, even if they were also huge stars of the decade. Berto and Clementi nevertheless much more successfully convey the moment and thus in the best sense of the term, are 'stars du moment'.
In this case, perhaps Ringwald, Cates and especially Beals are stars of the moment in the worst sense. With Beals not only was the performance in Flashdance enormously reliant on the song ('What a Feeling') that became a hit but she was indeed less than the sum of her part. As Imdb notes, Marine Jahan was Jennifer Beals' body double for the dancing scenes. Jahan was kept hidden from the press because the filmmakers did not want to ruin the illusion. Alex's leap through the air in the audition scene was done by gymnast Sharon Shapiro and the break-dancing was done by Crazy Legs. Here we have the MTV aesthetic of the time not only using music to pump up the diegetic content, but also the editing techniques of the music video carving up a performance. While in Singing in the Rain we get to see Gene Kelly move through screen space in long takes as we watch the elegance of his movement, in Flashdance, the film is life by a thousand cuts: the performance brought into being by the editor's scissors and also the cinematographer's low-lighting that meant in certain moments you couldn't see Beals' face. Director Adrian Lyne's background was in commercials and the purpose to his style lay in impact rather than integrity seeing in a film the selling of an image over the observation of behaviour. But then this is often what we might claim for the commodification in a star of the moment; that they are merely part of the entertainment industry, a cog in the machine of commerce rather than an organic being the film wishes to extract for the specifics of their properties. Berto and Clementi look like their own selves are absorbed into the work; Ringwald, Beals and others appear as though they are momentarily useful to a system that uses them as a means to commercial ends.
But then, and in conclusion, this partly rests on where the director is coming from, their generosity towards, or their stringent need to control, the film they are making. It is interesting that Rivette worked not only with Berto but also Clementi and Dallesandro too, seeking in these stars of the moment the milieux in which they were in and trying to see how they might fit into his world. It wasn't quite as haphazard as it might look next to the overt manipulation of Flashdance, Pretty in Pink and others. Adrian Martin says, "Berto...looked back on her collaborations with the director and asserted that, while her initial intention was to defy and subvert this "old man" who had evidently cast her as a "Godardian actress" in Out 1, she eventually grasped that "the portrait was right-on, he had won". Bulle Ogier "has often testified that what at first seemed like very open, free and democratic processes of improvisation and collaboration on the sets of the films were often underpinned by Rivette's stealthy manipulation of the psychologies and proclivities of all involved..." (filmcritic) Yet it is clear in such a claim that Rivette wanted to work out of the individuals he cast rather than imposing upon them an image that suited his needs. Can we imagine that Beals, Michael Nouri and other cast members in Flashdance were observed closely by Lyne before seeing what sort of film he could make out of their given characters?
A star of the moment may inevitably be a temporary thing, someone who for whatever reason lacks the longevity for stardom, but we can see that it can take two very different forms: the celebrity that allows an actor to drift into film and bring with them a milieu they can call their own, and others who are utilised by the work as little more than a body or a face that can be shaped according to commercial demands. Often this will have little to do with talent Swayze for example was a very accomplished dancer and needn't have been cut into montage pieces in Dirty Dancing, while Clementi might have been someone whose range was limited to the persona he projected based on the individual he was. Our claim is only to say that Clementi could bring into the film world a quality that was somehow outside of it and an aspect of himself, not unlike Bowie when cast in The Man Who Fell to Earth and who appeared in film occasionally thereafter. It is a quality an entirely commercial industry may not be willing to tolerate unless that persona comes with a celebrity already attached. The difference between Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan and Madonna in Shanghai Surprise might be instructive. In the former, we sense a burgeoning star that director Susan Seidelman can access for an insouciance that has a hint of Berto in Rivette's work Seidelman acknowledged the importance of Rivette's Celine and Julie Got Boating, with Leigh Clark noting, "Seidelman has spoken about the influence of Jaques Rivette's Celine and Julie Go Boating on Desperately Seeking Susan, which she also noticed in Leora Barish's screenplay. The pair pay homage to Rivette throughout the film, most notably with the identity switch, the Magic Club and in the sequence where Roberta initially follows Susan in the same quasi-farcical way that Julie (Dominique Labourier) trails Celine (Juliet Berto)." (Little White Lies)
Clark also says that "Madonna was a huge star in 1985, and the role she plays in Desperately Seeking Susan is not too far 'removed from the persona she adopted throughout the decade", but we might wonder if that image wasn't transformed over the next few years and became much more refined and polished, losing the post-punk look of the first couple of years and a punkishness Desperately Susan accesses. After all, Madonna wouldn't have quite yet been the superstar she was to become by the time the film was released. "...it wasn't until her eighth single 'Into The Groove' that she struck gold." (OfficialCharts) This was the single from Desperately Seeking Susan. By the time of Shanghai Surprise little more than a year later she was a superstar, an entirely commodified product as we see filmmakers (and Madonna herself in various photoshoots) trying to turn her into a future Garbo or Dietrich, rather than accessing once again the young woman who was wandering the streets of New York, finding herself in the film as she was finding herself in a career that would mean soon enough she was no longer herself. A potential star of the moment had become an icon, and whatever that meant to music, it didn't mean much to cinema, feeling an awful lot like axiomatic overreach.
© Tony McKibbin