Fame's Brief Candle

Article excerpt

What is this thing called "oomph?" Over the years publicists--particularly Hollywood publicists-have found special words for that special something that marks a star. Clara Bow was the "It" girl of the 1920s and another film actress, Ann Sheridan was, two decades later, that original lady with "oomph." Such terms attempt to label the indefinable, to give a name to a personal quality we can more easily recognize in the flesh than describe in the abstract.

That popular phrase "a star is born," used after some impressive overnight success, has always struck me as unlikely. Success doesn't make the star, the star makes success, and stars are not so much born as discovered. And in fairness, star quality is only one aspect of artistry. You can be a great artist without the hot distinguishing tattoo marks of stardom. John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier were both great actors, but only Olivier was a star. Nor do skill and technique count high in the star-search game. Take pop music--where stardom is all but democratically bestowed, as in American Idol--some would say that the singer Mel Torme had even more skill and technique than Sinatra, but no one would doubt which one was the star.

The critic Kenneth Tynan coined the phrase "high-definition performance" to describe a certain kind of performer. It was (if I got it right, although Tynan never spelled it out directly) something comparable to the daring of a high-wire walker without a net, a genius that Madison Avenue would describe as "a unique selling proposition." And it lit up like a Christmas tree in the tundra. It is not a guarantee of success. Not everyone wants their tundra illuminated by the odd Christmas tree. But star quality never hurt anyone--except occasionally the stars.

To me, the soprano Maria Callas was a star and the soprano Joan Sutherland was not--a comment that says as much about me as about either Callas or Sutherland. While I admired both about equally, I'm more likely now to listen to Sutherland's recordings than to Callas'.

What is star quality in dance? Certainly recognizing it is a personal, one-way transaction. It's almost like falling in love. I may find it in X, you may find it in Y, but if both of us, together with the vast majority find it in Z, then for the time being Z is a star. …