Thursday, August 25, 2011

Louisa May Alcott: An American Idol Plays the Fame Game

In the mid-nineteenth century, Louisa May Alcott was a rock star. With the publication of Little Women in 1868, she became the idol of American girls, and one of the young nation’s major literary lights. In fact it was her runaway success with Little Women that led the publisher of humorist Mark Twain to suggest he try writing a book for boys. The result was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), followed shortly thereafter by The Prince and the Pauper and, ultimately, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885).

Mark Twain seemed to enjoy his celebrity. Louisa May Alcott emphatically did not. Harriet Reisen’s entrancing biography, Louisa May Alcott: The Woman Behind Little Women, makes clear that Alcott was highly uneasy with her newfound fame. Though Alcott in real life had the spunk we expect of the indelible character she based on herself—Little Women’s Jo March—she did not enjoy public attention. Her much-circulated photograph made her instantly recognizable; Reisen notes that “everywhere she went she was pursued by mobs of Jo-worshippers.” At a time when celebrity culture was a brand-new phenomenon, it would never have occurred to her to hire a handler to stave off unwanted intrusions. When fans made their way to the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts, expecting to be invited in for a cozy chat, Louisa’s love of amateur theatricals stood her in good stead. Reisen tells us that, “costumed in apron and cap, and armed with the feather duster prop she had handy by the door, she played her own maid. Opening the door a crack, she would shake the feather duster in the face of the would-be intruder, announce indignantly that Miss Alcott was not at home, and slam the door.”

I’m fascinated by this tidbit because fame is such an obvious component of today’s Hollywood. As every viewer of American Idol knows, careers are made by whipping up fan enthusiasm. For a Hollywood aspirant, it’s essential to have a publicity team that can generate the right kind of attention, and then protect the client when the buzz gets out of hand. But I’ve talked to many celebrities (Gwyneth Paltrow, for one) who sound slightly amazed that the pursuit of a serious acting career can lead one to suddenly become a paparazzi magnet.

The subjects of my two biographies, Roger Corman and Ron Howard, have had very mixed feelings about their own celebrity. Corman, in the words of a longtime associate, is “a very private person, who also has a tremendous ego, and loves publicity.” Though he lets no one get too close to the real Roger, he’s a master at attracting media attention. For years, with the help of a canny publicist, he’s been planting bogus items in the trades. I know, because I once personally invented some outrageous items, like the “fact” that Roger had just signed Orson Welles to star in a screen version of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man. (I chose this title as an English major in-joke, because this novel is absolutely unfilmable.) Today, on the strength of such Syfy hits as Sharktopus as well as Alex Stapleton’s new Corman’s World documentary, the press is beating a path to Roger’s door—and he knows exactly how to turn on the charm.

Ron Howard, a shy boy despite a show-biz childhood, chose to become a director partly to remove himself from the public eye. In the Happy Days period, he survived life as a teen idol. Today, no longer Opie or Richie, he thrives on being in charge, while mostly staying behind the scenes.


  1. Oh, my gosh, SHARKTOPUS was one of the worst things I have seen in a long time...well, about an hour of it before I fell asleep. It's nice to see Corman still at it, but I wish it were with better movies! Koetting's Corman book lists a bunch of New World titles that never surfaced. Were there many fabricated New World titles?

  2. Yup, it's disturbing to me to see Roger parodying himself and his earlier films. Though I have Koetting's book, I didn't study it for bogus titles. Do you mind listing a few? Roger was not above stocking his filmography with made-up movies, but also many of his films were released under a lot of different names. If you give me some specifics, I can probably use my contacts to check them out.

  3. I sure will, Beverly. I won't have time tonight, but will find time tomorrow assuredly.

  4. Guess that list kind of slipped through the cracks... ;)

    Okay, Sharktopus isn't great - but to quote my review of Dinoshark - which is practially the same movie again: "While the movie itself is not going to win any awards, it's just comforting to know that the King of Pop Cinema is still going strong in his 80's, whipping out goofy and disposable monster movies in the 21st century just like he has since 1954's Monster from the Ocean Floor."

    I loved your story of Louisa May Alcott - I'd never heard of her celebrity - or the annoyances it brought!

    As far as New World movies that never appeared -the blog Temple of Shlock produced some great ad slicks from back in the late 70's with tons of announced movies - several from New World - that were put out as nearing production in the trades, but never happened. Surely this is due more to the vagaries of production and less to out and out fabrication?

    1. Craig, I scanned the Temple of Schlock output (thanks!), but didn't spot the New World announced-but-never-produced titles to which you refer. But I'll add this: sometimes ad slicks were prepared for movies whose titles eventually got changed. And Roger was not above announcing in the trades all sorts of films we had no intention of making. Very few active projects completely fell through because of what you call "the vagaries of production." If Roger wanted to make a film, it got made!

  5. A link to the Temple of Schlock post in question:

    I'm fascinated by this subject - "what might have been..." I'd love to hear anything you know about any of them...

  6. Thanks! No time to comment on all of these, but some were definitely prestige projects that Roger (and Julie) hoped to make -- e.g. Dune, The Moviegoer (based on the Walker Percy novel), Love's Tender Fury, Robert E. Lee (Roger talked about doing that one for years). I never saw actual scripts for any of them, and I don't think they ever got past the wishful thinking phase. Julie honestly wanted to do Spiderman. I think the Cormans had the rights briefly, and I saw a treatment, but couldn't imagine how the film could be done with the kind of lame special effects that would be inevitable.