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Movies Cast A Spell In 'Show People'

In the 1990 showbiz send-up Soapdish, daytime-soap lifer Celeste Talbert (Sally Field) meets her secret daughter and stumbles through apologies for not raising her, finally sighing, "Hell, I'm not a genius, I'm just a working actress." It's honest, and for a moment, Laurie (Elisabeth Shue) softens. Celeste, sensing her moment, delivers a heart-wrenching speech...that Laurie recognizes from The Sun Also Sets: "It was the Thanksgiving show."

That shuts things down; Celeste has no defense, and anyway, they're due on set — the new episode is filming, and they're both in today's scene.

Film is a heck of a thing. Acting offers the illusion of spontaneity produced by the least spontaneous process imaginable. And the process of making them is so interesting that since the earliest days of Hollywood, we've seen stories about performance — all with a story beneath their story. Soapdish's finale drops from screwball to cruel (a transphobic big reveal that suggests much about what counted as comedy in 1990), but its gleefully heartless chaos shares the cynicism of Jean Harlow's Bombshell, nearly 60 years earlier. Both films think showbiz is rotten work full of rotten folk; still, you might as well.

We (the film-going audience) love being lied to. Can't get enough. We even compliment the movie experience by hunting for the real behind the constructed artifice — either by studying the artifice, or studying the architecture.

In Show People, professor and columnist Michael Newton waxes rhapsodic about a century of acting, with a special fondness for performances about performance. There's no urgent thesis; it's taken for granted how much we love movies. The essays here study actors one at a time — what they do, and what it says about us. (It's a dreamy sort of cinema love letter; Angelica Bastién's essay on James Marsden is another of this kind.) Newton's subjects include some obvious picks (Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplin) and some we could well do without (Woody Allen, Scarlett Johansson), but the best pieces split the difference between retrospective and confessional, exploring the love story of the cinema audience watching someone appeal to a deep truth by lying as hard as they can.

For Newton, actors are their own liminal experience — a life subsumed by the assumed lives they play in front of us, whether by offering everything or holding something back. Then there are actors whose offscreen paths were as fraught as their onscreen troubles. For some (say, Sidney Poitier) the institutional setbacks are obvious; for others, the context of their acting needs the story beneath the story.

And oh, do we love a good scoop. Film historian Karina Longworth has made an art of backstage antics in her podcast You Must Remember This, illuminating the ongoing tensions of film appreciation: how the personal informs the product; where one becomes the other; and where (or whether) to draw the line. In Seduction: Sex, Lies and Stardom in Howard Hughes's Hollywood, she presents the Golden Age through a telling lens — actresses said to have been pursued by Hughes, with "courtship" that allegedly involved spy networks and exclusive contracts for the many women he sought to control.

Even those who seem to have been spared the purported personal predation, Longworth writes, allegedly got caught on his whims. Longworth reports that Jane Russell's career stalled for years, that Hughes had her contract and didn't cast her in anything while he was trying to bring The Outlaw together; and that Hughes regularly lent out Harlow's contract for a tidy profit. It becomes hard to dismiss the specter of what women in Hollywood were up against; it seems a wonder they got any performing done at all. Watching Harlow in Bombshell, as her manager stops at nothing to lure her back to the fold, is a particularly meta business — "a Hollywood film that ostensibly reveals the horrible inner machinations of the Hollywood system while also shyly shoring up the viewer's fascination with, and devotion to, the products of that system."

Given the disparate architecture of these books (one more concerned with cinema as experience, the other with cinema as process), it's fascinating to read their dreamlike descriptions in parallel; the movies cast a spell on everyone. It's also worth noting the ways they're in conversation. Newton praises Ava Gardner's presence, and moments in The Killers when glamour became something more; in describing her private life comes the fond note, "She was coarse." Longworth also details Gardner's electricity in The Killers, but first comes the night Gardner alleges Hughes beat her. (Gardner, in her autobiography, said she responded with force, that MGM fixers had to intervene.) What 'coarse' means in a Golden Age (or contemporary) context, what it means to watch Gardner's onscreen edge now, how much of her frankness could itself have been an act in an industry trying to control her identity — it's cinema all the way down.

Each of these books is a fine addition to a film-studies library; beyond their own merits, they provoke questions that are well worth asking. I spent a few nights rewatching movies I hadn't seen in a while, simply because of the way Newton and Longworth write about those small beats we love without knowing how to quite explain, the ones that can get reframed with new, wider context when you think about them more.

That's the thing about movies. You can always see them again for the first time, because you watch them partly to know other people, and partly to know yourself.

Hollywood is one heck of a con. We love it anyway. We love it because it's a con. It's a job so good that con routinely fools itself; some of the most highly praised movies ever made are about making movies. (Or, you know, they're Soapdish.) Trends come and go; stars burn and then fade. In the age of the internet, ceaseless candidness in the face of public scrutiny has become its own layer of performance. We're all due on set, all the time, for our next scene. Stories are our favorite way to make sense of the world; those who can become stories become stars.

In Vanity Fair, Longworth once noted Meryl Streep's musings on aging while acting: "What becomes most important," Streep said, "is to be known." We know it's impossible. But it won't stop us from trying; that's what the movies are for.

Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.

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