A Star Is Born? Try Manufactured, a New Book Argues

By Sharon Marcus

The legendary actress, international superstar and shrewd self-promoter Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) was the “godmother of modern celebrity culture,” and is the central figure of this inventive, stimulating book by the Columbia professor Sharon Marcus. Bernhardt used the media to publicize her sexual daring and make even her flaws iconic. When she was caricatured as “skeleton Sara,” she flaunted her fashionable thinness and extravagant costumes. Her nasal voice, sinuous movements and angular poses made her recognizable and electrifying even to audiences who did not know French. Reporters were fascinated with rumors of her exotic menagerie, the satin-lined coffin in her bedroom, her ride in a hot-air balloon, her adventurous world tours. Henry James called her “the muse of the newspaper.” Even amputation added to her allure. After her leg was removed in 1915, Bernhardt kept on performing, “prone, on a litter”; the Shubert press office suggested a “Post-Amputation Tour” and it sold out across the country. The Divine Sarah was the most famous amputee since Captain Ahab.

By highlighting Bernhardt’s agency and stamina, Marcus aims to overturn the elite intellectual position that the media is largely responsible for creating celebrities who are mere commodities; she wants to challenge the perception that 21st-century celebrity is “synonymous with an empty renown that has no basis in merit or achievement.” Gender plays a role in this disdain; in the mid-19th century, when most celebrities were male, the term was “strongly associated with merit.” Now that female stardom is accepted, bias is displaced to the gender of the fans: “The more feminized the fan base, the less seriously the press takes the star.” Nonetheless, she argues, “celebrity culture is a drama involving three equally powerful groups: media producers, members of the public and celebrities themselves.”

Moreover, fans, as she richly documents, have always set out their own standards and judgments. Marcus looks at scrapbooks, playbills, diaries recording dramatic performances, and fan mail that combines “adoration with assessment.” Long before cinema, fans compared and rated the performances of touring stars. Great actors had signature roles, such as Phèdre and Camille for Bernhardt, which enabled the evaluation of technique. A Bernhardt could be compared to historical figures, like Rachel Félix; stars sometimes alternated leading roles in a well-known play.

It seems indisputable that Bernhardt anticipated many of the strategies of celebrity self-promotion, and Marcus is a brilliant theorist and analyst of theater history. But equating celebrity with the stage actor, and generalizing about public influence from the memorabilia of 19th-century devotees, can’t account for the contemporary cultural situation. The drama of celebrity goes far beyond the dwindling niche market of theater.

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