Thursday, October 19, 2023

Who Is Gladys Glover?

I’m a big fan of old movies and have always enjoyed watching Jack Lemmon, so when I stumbled onto one of his films— in fact, his first as a lead actor—that I had never seen before, I got the popcorn ready to pop. It’s a George Cukor film from 1954 titled It Should Happen to You and the plot revolves around a young woman named Gladys Glover (played by Judy Holliday, who comes to New York to make a name for herself. The problem is she doesn’t have a particular talent or skill or interest— not a budding actress nor a writer nor a businesswoman. She simply wants to be famous. 


She spots a prominent billboard for rent on Columbus Circle and uses all her savings to rent it for a few months and simply display her name in big letters—GLADYS GLOVER. That’s it.

When another business that had hoped to rent that particular billboard tries to buy her out, she refuses. They finally settle on putting her name on six other billboards instead of that one.


One day, she goes to a department store to buy some towels embroidered with her name and when she tells the clerk her name, the clerk lights up in recognition (helped by one of the billboards being right outside the store window). “YOU’RE GLADYS GLOVER?!” she shouts in astonishment and suddenly, all the customers swarm around her asking for her autograph. They don't know who she is or why she's famous—they just want to be sprinkled with the fairy dust of being in the presence of fame.

And so she gets catapulted in the spotlight, invited to big events, showcased on television. Nobody knows why and nobody questions it— she’s just famous for being famous. Like her later incarnation Kim Kardashian. The Kardashian story as told by online Brittanica—"After graduating from high school in 1998, Kim Kardashian became a personal assistant to Paris Hilton, an American hotel heiress and socialite. Kardashian remained mostly unknown until early 2007, when a sex tape featuring her and her boyfriend, Ray J, leaked online. The attention helped the Kardashian family land a reality TV series." Isn't that a great message to send to our children? "Kids, make a sex tape, put it online and cross your fingers. You might get famous!"

The cult of celebrity is a long-time illness in American culture. And other cultures as well. Once technology was able to magnify the human-size proportions to screen-size in the movies, amplify our voices and music with microphones and sound systems, enlarge sports viewing with enormous stadiums and arenas, mortal human beings became larger than life and viewable and audible across geographic limitations. Pop culture and celebrity is a mere blip in human history, created by some archetypal urge to be in the presence of greatness blown to gigantic proportions and then crossing some line where greatness is no longer a requirement. Simply put your name up on lots of billboards or release sex tapes of you and your lover and that can be enough.


Think about it. There’s a hilarious scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount to a crowd of perhaps 50 people and those in the back are saying, “Eh? What did he say?” The invention of the microphone was absolutely connected to Hitler’s rise to power speaking at the Nuremberg Rallies and equally powerful in amplifying Martin Luther King’s words to the enormous crowds at the Lincoln Memorial. (I just now read that the first version of the speech was delivered at a high school gym in North Carolina. Would we have ever known that speech if that is where it ended?).


The lust for fame has been given yet another geometric boost with Social Media, where everyone is checking their number of likes and followers. In the TV Series “The Chair,” an older professor is told that his younger counterpart is more effective with her students because she has a few thousand followers in her Twitter account. He is aghast that popularity is the new standard for good teaching and comments, “Well, Jesus only had twelve followers. By your new standard, he was a total loser.”


I have no problem with people being famous because of their accomplishments— think Steph Curry, Trevor Noah, Anne Patchett, Esperanza Spalding, Barack and Michelle Obama and beyond. But I’m not their “fan.” Unlike “the Swifties,” I’m not a Curryite or Obaman. I might be briefly tongue-tied in their presence, but not for long. In fact, I’ve been in the presence of many I’ve admired—jazz musicians like Wynton Marsalis, Milt Jackson, Regina Carter, T.S. Monk, Bobby McFerrin—and had many delightful conversations. At an Orff Conference once, a group of music teachers discovered that the actor Ryan O’Neal was in the same hotel and I ended up with a group having drinks with him. I had recently seen him in the movie Barry Lyndon and was surprised by how short he was in real life. 


So what happens when a very human desire to be in the presence of the accomplished and famous skyrockets out of control to worshipping “the stars?” On one end, we give up our own autonomy and inner power to “the other,” create an identity based on the mass hallucination of investing a flawed human being with god-like status, become reduced to an infantile state of blind belief in a hero or heroine who often will betray us and disappoint with their addiction to heroin or alcohol or sexual abuse. At the other end, people who began just by loving basketball or music or acting get sucked into the dizzying vortex of fame and crumble under the weight of their fan’s projections onto their mere mortal frame. It’s not healthy for either the stars or the fans. 


I think of Elvis, dubbed “The King” and whisked away in limousines or helicopters after the conference to the penthouse apartment, pumped up with drugs to meet the demands of his schedule, reduced to relating to people who were screaming and crying and pawing the air to touch him. I remember visiting Graceland and buying an album of him jamming with friends in his living room and getting a glimpse into the Elvis he really wanted to be— just a guy who loved to play music hanging out with his friends.


In the movie, Gladys Glover finally realizes the emptiness of being famous. When will we?


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.