Juliet Dunlop: Dead Hollywood stars shine bright

Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Juliet Dunlop. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IS IT just me, or is there something inescapably poignant about the song Hooray for Hollywood? Perhaps it is the forced jollity of the number, along with the now dated lyrics.

It is about a place that never existed; a dream factory that shut down long ago – where “a young mechanic” can no longer “be a panic”. Yet along with That’s Entertainment and Another Op’nin’, Another Show, Hooray for Hollywood has become an Oscar night staple.

Year after year, the organisers wheel out the big, emotional guns, in an effort to remind us all that however grim the world may seem, Hollywood is still Hollywood. It’s a trip down the yellow brick road, to a land far, far away where men were men, women were women and movie stars were gods and goddesses.

Which is all lovely and nice, apart from the fact that there are no real movie stars any more. The Academy may like to hark back to another time, but it hands out the prizes to actors who act – not the ones who play themselves. Bruce Willis anyone? If you are in doubt, just look at the number of Oscars Daniel Day-Lewis has racked up. This week he collected his third gold-plated statuette. To call him a “method actor” doesn’t quite do him justice. As legend would have it, he becomes the characters he plays – teaching himself Czech, learning how to build a canoe and famously spending the entire time in a wheelchair while filming My Left Foot. In Lincoln, he is Lincoln. It is an incredible trick, and one which makes other “method actors” look somehow phoney – even Brando.

If, on the other hand, John Wayne, Cary Grant or Clark Gable had played Abe Lincoln, they’d still have been John Wayne, Cary Grant and Clark Gable. Familiarity is a curse, but it’s also what makes stars, stars. The studio system stopped churning them out a long time ago – then they simply died out – but our attachment endures. They may no longer be making movies or collecting prizes, but they’re still box-office gold and still coining it in.

Just look at the never-ending line up of famous dead people advertisers keep bringing back to life. Technology has made it possible, and so the same stars the Oscars celebrate every year, are now routinely re-animated.

Over the years computer-assisted trickery has seen Fred Astaire dance with a Dirt Devil hoover, Steve McQueen at the wheel of a Ford and Marilyn Monroe dab her bosom with Chanel No 5. This week Audrey Hepburn became the latest Hollywood great to be brought back to life. Except poor, lovely, gamine Audrey is advertising a chocolate bar. “Why have cotton when you can have silk” as Galaxy puts it. In other words, why have Jennifer Aniston – who incidentally plays the same character over and over again but is merely famous – when you can have a bona fide star like Audrey Hepburn?

Hepburn is allowed to play herself because she is still a star even now, and her sons – who control her estate – authorised the use of her image. This week they said she would be “proud” of her new role and that she “often spoke about her love of chocolate and how it lifted her spirit”. One imagines the fee they received was also chunky and deliciously moreish.

In fact, dead stars are so bankable Forbes keeps a top-earning dead stars rich list. Last year, Elizabeth Taylor, albeit after the sale of her jewellery, earned $210 million (£138m); Monroe, who died in 1962, made a more modest $10m; and Steve McQueen banked $8m. Hollywood royalty indeed. Yet, however hard one may try, 50 years from now, the thought of a re-animated Daniel Day-Lewis starring in a commercial seems unlikely.

No, not even an advert for hand-carved canoes. He’s just not familiar enough. There is no defining image – no John Wayne walk or Cary Grant delivery.

He’s a chameleon; an actor who dazzles only when he feels like it.

And as for the Oscars? Well, that’s it all over for another year. Tinseltown has twinkled and the curtain has fallen on another show. That’s entertainment.