Fame is a Fleeting Thing
Except among make-up historians who see him as the “Father of Movie Make-up,” Cecil Holland has been forgotten. Which is sad and unfair, but it isn’t surprising. A lot of people who were once famous have been forgotten. Let me give you a list of people who signed the hat and you guess what they all have in common:
Did you guess or do you give up?
They were all nominated for a Best Actor or Best Actress Oscar in the first decade of the Academy Awards. Granted, there wasn’t quite the hoopla and ballyhoo about the Oscars back then as there is now, but in their time, they were all household names and wildly famous.
Want to try another list of hat signers? This one may be easier:
Ready for the answer?
They all won acting Oscars in the first 10 years of the Academy Awards. (Although in the case of Brady, it wasn’t an Oscar statuette, it was a plaque. This distinguished a supporting award from a lead award. Sheez. Hollywood.)
The prosaic point being that fame can evaporate faster than water in the Mojave. In fact, it almost always does. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo shone a klieg light on how utterly forgotten film pioneer Georges Melies was less than 20 years after making hundreds of ground-breaking films. And that’s normal, although there are rare exceptions. The eternal fame of a Gable or a Crawford can be traced to the fact that people still avidly watch their films because their personas — against all odds— still resonate with movie watchers. The fame of a Chaplin or a Pickford is more interesting. People know of them as historical characters, just like George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, not necessarily because they sit down and enjoy the pictures they made.
But for most of those who autographed The Hollywood Hat, fame had an expiration date. When the movies went from silent to talkies, lots of big-time careers crashed. Sometimes it was because of their thick foreign or regional accents. Sometimes it was because the early recording equipment distorted voices by making them sound an octave or two higher. And, sometimes it was because their style of acting, perfectly appropriate for the silent era, seemed overwrought, florid, and, to be blunt, too clunky for talkies. Dialogue totally undercut their mojo.
It doesn’t have to be something as catastrophic as a technical revolution to send a career off the tracks. There comes a time in most stars’ careers when the public is tired of them, when what they have to offer no longer matches current manias, tastes and styles. When that happens, some, like Garbo or Shearer, retire and never look back. For all the others, it must have been quite painful when we, the public, muscled them aside and just moved on. Darwinism works in pop culture the same way it works elsewhere.
The Hollywood Hat sprang to life in an era when all of this drama was first transpiring. I’ve lived in Los Angeles for years now, and when I drive around town, I see the studios, large and small, that are still standing and I see the 1920′s Spanish-style mansions on the winding roads of the hills and canyons, and often think, what was it like back then, when all this was fresh and new and happening for the first time? Why can’t Woody Allen do Midnight in Hollywood and send a chauffeured Duesenberg to take me back 75 or 85 years?
After reading about all of the roller coaster lives of the hundreds of people who signed the hat and how they, like Cecil Holland, serendipitously came to participate in the creation of an entire industry and art form, it certainly seems like it was more exciting back then.
If I could meet Cecil Holland, the first thing I’d say to him is “thanks for creating the hat, Cecil. It’s been quite an education.” And, then I’d let him do the rest of the talking.
Read more about The Hollywood Hat:
It was always the silly season in Hollywood for WAMPAS Baby Stars or just plain starlets, like Joan Marsh, shown here adorned here with necklaces, bracelet and ring hand-painted on by Cecil.