'What are movie stars for? These days, we expect them to display acting prowess, 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, just so that critics can fall over themselves to pronounce the star “a chameleon” who has “transformed”, or “immersed” themselves, rendering themselves “unrecognizable” to all but the millions of cinemagoers sat in theatres thinking mutinously to themselves: “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 — call them “non Garbos” — of secondary importance when set beside the more pressing task of being herself.
Then there is the Alfred Hitchcock approach, which goes something like this. Take a decorated war hero. Nothing too fancy: the Distinguished Flying Cross for 20 successful bombing missions deep into Nazi Germany, say. Upon his return to US soil, give him leave to visit his parents before making his comeback on screen in something toasty and warm like It’s A Wonderful Life; then, the glow of the public affection for this All-American hero at its warmest, cast him as a Nietzsche-quoting misanthrope, a peeping tom and a necrophiliac. That, at least, is what Hitchcock did with James Stewart, in Rope (1948), Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), opening up a vein of agony in the folksy Stewart that no-one had seen before. This Jimmy Stewart talked murder, spied on neighbours and sought obsessively to fashion new lovers in the image of old, dead ones. Yeah, such a wonderful life.
Nobody worked with stars better than Hitchcock. No director had a better feel for electromagnetic hum they give off, how harness it to juice up a plot, or flip the current into reverse. The BFI is screening an entire season of Hitchcock’s films, from the early silents to his great Hollywood masterpieces of the forties and fifties — Notorious, Rear Window, Vertigo, North by Northwest — made as the studio system was beginning to disintegrate. Loosed from their status as contract players, the stars began choosing their own roles, giving their image the slip, dabbling in self-deconstruction. Which is where Hitchcock came in, with his supple casting instincts, or more particularly his Dorian-Grey-like knack for counter-casting — divining within a performer a mirror-image of the face they present to the world and then 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 lubricousness in To Catch a Thief. He found an edge of coolness, even cruelty, to Cary Grant, best known for his gifts of comedy and bejeweled playboy image. In his films with Hitchcock — Suspicion, Notorious, North By Northwest, To Catch a Thief — Grant gives off the hard, multi-faceted glitter of a diamond. “I’ve always been afraid of women,” he confesses in Notorious, which is a bit like Einstein saying that he’s always felt ambivalent about slide rules. Other directors may have shot them more beautifully, as Josef Sternberg did Marlene Dietrich, although Hitch was hardly a slouch in that department either: Grace Kelly’s entrance in Rear Window, wearing a black-and-white beaded chiffon gown practically counts as a special effect in its own right.
But in his case the urge towards worship was marked by an equally strong urge 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 confided to one of his costars on To Catch a Thief, “but at the same time he detests me.” What still gives these films their punch, today, is that the close resemblance between the ambivalence Hitchcock displayed towards his stars, and the mixture of longing and resentment stirred in the hearts of the audience towards these fabulous unicorns. We envy them and want to be them. But we also hate the hurt this causes and 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 her character. The effect was as astonishing as all such liberations: a world without stars? Whoever heard of such a thing?
We seem embarrassed by stardom now. Or at least: the stars’ publicists are, pouncing every time a journalist brings up a question that isn’t related to acting technique, or “process.” Whenever someone pointed out to Alexander Payne, during the Oscar run for The Descendants last year, that his star, George Clooney, was indeed a movie star — as opposed to a grizzled veteran of Strasberg and Stanislavski — Payne looked as if someone had punched him in the kidneys. Tarantino used to know how to cast his films, but nothing in his recent work matches the moment in Pulp Fiction when Bruce Willis and John Travolta stare each other down in the boxing club, like dogs bristling on the street, for no other reason but that Bruce Wills and John Travolta appearing in the same shot mucks up 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 for No Country For Old Men — a remarkably intuitive piece of casting, right out of Hitchcock’s playbook. The lady-killers are always the ones you have to watch. Darren Aronofsky, too, has turned into a Prospero-like manipulator of star power. He saw the bruised pathos in Mickey Rourke, in The Wrestler; and he facilitated to Natalie’s Portman’s fleshy self-mortifications in Black Swan, both trompe l’oiel performances shadowed with the back-story of the actors themselves, Rourke’s long spell in the Hollywood wilderness, and Portman’s struggle to ditch her princess image. Both turned their bodies into battlegrounds.
That is how we like our actors these days: fleshy and scarred, like pieces of meat. Norman Bates, you can’t help but feel, would have approved. But then these days Norman Bates would be on up on Oscar stage, thanking his mother.'