John Travolta, Just As Fever Struck—Celebrities on The Brink of Fame
A Paris exhibition features photographs of Travolta, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, and others—just before their careers went stellar.
Thanks to the accessibility of photography, “everybody is a celebrity,” stated Susan Sontag in her essay America, Seen Through Photographs, Darkly. “No moment is more important than any other moment; no person is more interesting than any other person.”
In the era of the selfie, this seems irrefutable: everyone simply expects that they, and their reality, are worth looking at. And yet? Little powers our curiosity quite like actual celebrity imagery. The pull of the famous person is still, somehow, unrivalled.
The photography exhibition Déjà Stars (January 23 to March 23)—on view at the Crous Cultural Center in Paris’s Saint-Germain Des Prés neighborhood—spotlights the attraction of celebrity. With a greatest hits of recognizable personae, all captured in the mid- to late-20th century by one unfamiliar French photographer Marcel Thomas, it revisits and reinforces the mythology of iconic performers.
The name of the exhibition, Déjà Stars (Already Stars), tries to underline the prescience of Thomas’s eye: he photographed people on the brink of stardom, their charisma already manifest, but they were not as reputed as they were to be.
If anyone took 30,000-odd portraits of performers, it’s inevitable that some would make it big; still, the expo does genuinely provide a glimpse of “before.” The images allow us not only to peek at figures prior to becoming capital-C Celebrities, but also to a culture in which celebrity had a different import and allure.
There’s Harrison Ford, in round ‘80s-era glasses. John Travolta in a turtleneck sweater and his real head of hair. There are three shots of Dustin Hoffman, one in which he’s wearing baseball cap that says “SALESMAN” in all caps. A young and goateed Robert De Niro. A youthful Jean Seberg in a beret, as gamine as anyone could be.
Audrey Hepburn is effortlessly chic, topped with a fur cap, breezing along some boulevard. Sylvester Stallone is pimped out in an enormous fur jacket. Jack Nicholson, in a white suit, smoking a cigarette, is seen loping through the street with swagger. David Bowie sports a trench coat. Mickey Rourke is in a zipped-up leather jacket, long before he himself looked wholly made out of cowhide.
There are three shots of Marlon Brando, one of which sees him bleached blond. A frosted-looking Kim Basinger has big hair. A fresh-faced Sigourney Weaver wears an enormous belt and a secretary blouse. Meryl Streep, squinting in the sun, is positioned in front of the Bulgari boutique.
Gregory Peck, debonair in gray suit, is about to step into a car. There are multiple shots dedicated to Elvis in uniform. A snapshot of young Woody Allen features a lady taller than he on his arm.
Americans and international stars are only one part of the exhibition—there are plenty of French stars, whose celebrity never translated across the Atlantic, or elsewhere. (Singer Johnny Hallyday is France’s token long-term washed-up celebrity; here, he’s a young gun in a bathrobe.) Nonetheless, people would readily recognize a baby-faced Serge Gainsbourg, or a bearded Gérard Depardieu many decades before he fled to Russia for fiscal refuge, or the slightly smug mug of Jean-Paul Belmondo.
Marcel Thomas—nicknamed “le photographe à la moustache” by Simone Signoret, aka the mustachioed photographer—remains unknown to the general public, but is deemed “the first paparazzo” in this expo.
Born in 1909 in the Lorraine region, Thomas initially toiled as a steelworker. After WWII, he moved to Paris, where he worked in a confection shop. He began photographing celebrities in 1947, waiting patiently at the exits of theaters, music halls, swanky restaurants, and other such soirée spots.
He sought out images, but with politesse: he asked permission, and embodied a paparazzo only in the sense of explicitly seeking celebrity subjects with spontaneity and immediacy.
A journalist friend initially tipped him off to celebrity whereabouts, and eventually Thomas became such a regular presence at high-end hotels that he befriended its porters and valets, who would give him key information. All of his photographs were taken in Paris; he didn’t travel.
In 1983, Thomas met Gérard Gagnepain, an editor and graphic designer. They both loved the opera singer Maria Callas and flamenco dancer Carmen Amaya—both were featured in Thomas’s portfolio, notably a 1955 shot of Callas outside Le Meurice, who was swanning around with American socialite Elsa Maxwell.
Though Thomas and Gagnepain knew little of each others’ personal lives, Thomas left him the rights to his colossal oeuvre of some 30,000 images, from vintage prints to unseen negatives.
Gagnepain describes Thomas as an amateur photographer, and his images as “très artisanale”—he developed them not at some great studio, but at the FNAC (a multi-purpose emporium vaguely like a Best Buy, for lack of a better equivalent). Indeed, looking at the images, this wasn’t someone who stared into anyone’s soul; these are in-between moments in public places. But the sheer volume of Thomas’s images attests to an obvious passion.
The images function as a kind of capsule, and they feel dated in a good way: aesthetically (some are small and scallop-edged, all are black-and-white) as well as symbolically (no one is startled on their way out of Duane Reade). One marvels at them the way one does at seeing images of one’s own family album: the sharp sense of the uncanny, of seeing someone clearly familiar yet differing from present perception. The time machine quality has a certain magic.
The over-decorated staging of the exhibition, however, is quite cringe-y. There’s a shabby red carpet, a low-lit jazz club, a celebrity dressing room, a movie theater, ending with a rockabilly diner scene, all to imbue the sense of “showbiz!”
It’s a shame, because nothing zaps the glamour of celebrity more than trying to cheaply emulate it for plebs. The images fight with the trappings of faux glitz, instead of being allowed to simply speak for themselves. What could more acutely take you out of the past and into today’s tawdry self-indulgence?