Journal logo

Fame in the Twentieth Century

What I’ve Learned from Movie-Loving Facebook Groups

By Rachel RobbinsPublished 2 months ago 5 min read
Marilyn Monroe

Back in the old days (the 1990s) the TV critic and author, Clive James, wrote a documentary series and book about the phenomenon of Fame.

His key thesis was that the fame of the 20th century was bigger and brighter than fame had ever been before. He linked this to the emergence of media which could broadcast globally but with the intimacy of a close-up.

He writes:

“But in the twentieth century, fame turned into something different. Suddenly there was more of it. Just when scientific progress was supposed to be ridding the world of myths and ghosts, famous people became larger than life.”

The twentieth century brought us *Stardom*. We had celebrity. We had film and studios and gossip and tabloids. We had a whole machinery dedicated to the charisma and talent of others.

“As the century progressed, people who became famous for what they did got more famous just for being famous.” – Clive James

Charlie Chaplin - one of the biggest stars of the early 20th century - still recognisable today

Understanding stardom and that level of fame is not just about studying the films of film stars. Richard Dyer writes:

The star phenomenon consists of everything that is publicly available about stars. A film star’s image is not just his or her films, but the promotion of those films and of the start through pin-ups, public appearances, studio hand-outs and so on, as well as interviews, biographies and coverage in the press of the star’s doings and ‘private’ life.

Anna May Wong - talented actress, fame lingers around her image

Star images have histories, and those histories outlive the star’s own lifetimes.

And today, social media keeps those histories, myths and legends alive. I know this because I belong to several movie-loving Facebook groups. They are my people. I join these groups because they are full of experts on periods of movie-making history, movie genres and movie stars. I can go there and find recommendations for films and books about film.

They are also great places to share my own writing on film. I’ve found an audience there for my writing on Merle Oberon, Dorothy Dandridge, Anna May Wong and Faith Domergue.

But I’ve also learned some things about the phenomenon of fame.

Richard Dyer writes:

a star’s image is also what people say or write about him or her, as critics or commentators

And we are all critics and commentators now. I have found out how fame waxes and wanes for some. And for others, I have seen how old feuds, myths and legends are kept alive.

Here’s a quick run-down of the way fame and image persist for 20th century icons into the 21st century in movie-loving Facebook groups.

Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Seven Year Itch

Marilyn Monroe

The beginning of this month was Marilyn’s birthday (1st June 1926). The Facebook groups had a flurry of pictures of her from across her short career, as the brunette Norma Jean to the white blonde of her final days. All pictures were greeted with comments filled with the broken heart emoji 💔.

Not everyone agrees on her talent as a dramatic actress or sassy comedienne. But all agree she was an ‘angel taken too soon’.

Films continue to be made about Marilyn Monroe. Her legend has outlasted her short life. And the legend is of fragility and vulnerability.

Jane Russell on the set of The Outlaw

Jane Russell

Post a picture of Russell and someone will always mention the bra that Howard Hughes invented for The Outlaw. And someone else will say she never wore it. No-one mentions her acting.

Publicity stll of Kim Novak

Kim Novak.

A post of Kim Novak and someone will mention how beautiful she was and why did she have to mess it up with plastic surgery.

No-one mentions her acting. She is 91.

Barbara Stanwyck in a publicity still from Ball of Fire

Barbara Stanwyck

This post will be all about her acting. Well, may be her legs, but mainly about the acting. Stanwyck is an actor. She is described as versatile, driven, convincing. And most importantly, classy.

Bette Davis as Jezebel

Bette Davis

Here is a woman who splits the crowd. People love to hate her. Others hate loving her. Her eyes are bewitching, or witchy. She can either act, or over-act. She is either a strong woman, or a bitch. There is a Facebook group dedicated to telling the truth about Bette Davis. And that truth is – they really don’t like her.

Nobody denies she was outstanding in Jezebel. But the disagreement is whether being a bitch came naturally to her, or whether she had a natural acting talent.

Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce

Joan Crawford

And here comes another one. The responses to a Joan Crawford post all pivot on whether people believe her daughter’s exposé in Mommy Dearest or not. There is a group that specifically bans discussion of Mommie Dearest and won’t even allow the word Christina to be mentioned. For that group Joan Crawford is all about the image of glamour and strength.

Jane Fonda in Barbarella

Jane Fonda

Post a picture of Jane Fonda at your own risk. Most people will give it a like and scroll on. But there will be at least one angry emoji reaction and tirade about ‘Hanoi Jane’ in the comments.

Lilly Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda in the bloomin' fantastic Nine to Five

I mentioned Fonda last because she is still alive and being judged for actions carried out in 1972 and for which she has apologised on a number of occasions. But that’s not how fame works. It is a sticky, existence of half-truths and gossip, but also potentially of vast privilege and wealth.

The nature of fame is evolving. It is both closer to us, as we can access all areas via social media. And further away, as inequality deepens and separates. But it still relies on manipulating an audience through images, gossip and rumour, tempting us in to have opinions on people we never meet.

What I’ve really learned is that I don’t want to be famous. And certainly don’t want to be famous for being famous. I don’t want people I don’t know judging me on my parenting skills, or things I said decades ago. I don’t want my ageing to be seen as anything other than a natural process I’m lucky enough to be living through.

But here’s the thing, I still find fame fascinating. I still find the famous fascinating. I still find the stories that we tell about the famous fascinating.

All of these women pictured here were employed to tell stories. But often they became the story. And the stories that were told about them, influenced how we receive the stories that they were being paid to tell in the first place. Movie making is myth making. It is about layers upon layers of stories. It is about deception and truth-telling so that we mix up the two.

I find that both delicious and unappetising.

I’ll leave it to Clive James who concluded:

Those who are famous have their importance only to the extent that they help give meaning to the lives of those who aren’t. Ordinary life isn’t just the hardest kind to lead, it’s the best and the famous people we like the most seem to tell us that, by their way of staying human as if there were a fallible, frail human behind the glory – which there always is.

Do I need to caption this image? Just in case - Elvis Presley

If you've enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my writing on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing, you can do so by a regular pledge or leaving a one-time tip. Thank you.

social mediapop culturecelebrities

About the Creator

Rachel Robbins

Writer-Performer based in the North of England. A joyous, flawed mess.

Please read my stories and enjoy. And if you can, please leave a tip. Money raised will be used towards funding a one-woman story-telling, comedy show.

Enjoyed the story?
Support the Creator.

Subscribe for free to receive all their stories in your feed. You could also pledge your support or give them a one-off tip, letting them know you appreciate their work.

Subscribe For FreePledge Your Support

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights

Comments (1)

  • Rick Henry Christopher 2 months ago

    Excellent, excellent article rachel. You always go above and beyond. I really like a photo of Jane fonda. She is one of my favorite actresses it is too bad that that annoyaging thing still follows her because she's being mischaracterized for what she did back in 1972. You are correct about half-truths and actually outright lies. Jane Fonda is a good person. She does not deserve this treatment that some give her.

Rachel RobbinsWritten by Rachel Robbins

Find us on social media

Miscellaneous links

  • Explore
  • Contact
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
  • Support

© 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.