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Deanna Durbin Movie Star: Private Individual vs. Public Persona

Deanna Durbin moviesDeanna Durbin assesses her own movie stardom: Private individual vs. public persona

[See previous post: “Deanna Durbin: Less-Than-Rosy Hollywood Memories.”] While researching Deanna Durbin for this article, what impressed me the most – besides her beatific singing voice – was her clear-headed appraisal of her own popularity, and by extension, of fame in general. Much to her credit, she apparently never believed her own publicity. In fact, Durbin's is probably the most incisive, bluntly honest assessment of the appeal of any celebrity who, like her, at an early age became associated with a public persona – from Betty Bronson and Jackie Coogan in the '20s, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney in the '30s, Margaret O'Brien and Jane Powell in the '40s, and Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee in the '50s to Macauley Culkin, Daniel Radcliffe, Zac Efron, Kristen Stewart, Miley Cyrus, and Taylor Lautner in the last two decades.

As illustrations of the sort of publicity enveloping Deanna Durbin in her heyday, here are a couple of brief excerpts from Durbin profiles – which, apart from tabloid “reports,” really aren't that different from the p.r. inanities disseminated today under the guise of “entertainment news”:

Excerpt One: “When she first rises in the morning she takes a shower bath. The shower must be warm to begin with, although she finishes off with cool water. She admits a fondness for ping-pong and plays it frequently. She has a set at her own home.

“Deanna is indeed a remarkable girl, and yet she is not much different from many of the average wholesome American girls of her age.”

Excerpt Two: “And she is not without faults that are quite usual in a girl her age. She had the habit of biting her nails and after much effort on the part of her mother she was finally able to cure this unpleasant habit by frequent manicures.”

Deanna Durbin vs. public image: Also applicable to adult actors

Deanna Durbin's appraisal of the constraints of fame would apply to adult stars as well; those who have been pigeonholed into specific public roles, whether as “tough guys” or “funny guys” or “grand dames” or “sweethearts” – from the likes of Bob Hope, Doris Day, Lucille Ball, and Julie Andrews to Clint Eastwood, Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, and Meryl Streep.

After all, despite decades of celebrity p.r. bullshit, multitudes of fans the world over still refuse to see the – often gargantuan – chasm separating their favorite celebrities' media-engendered public personas from the flesh-and-blood individuals behind them. They'd rather believe that in private their idols – be they movie stars or religious leaders, rappers or politicians – are just like their movie, stage, concert, television, and/or red-carpet, podium, or talk-show characterizations.

In the realm of movie stardom, what Deanna Durbin says below could just as easily have been voiced by Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson in regard to Bella Swan and Edward Cullen, or Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in regard to Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. Or Helen Mirren, who really isn't – or behaves like – the Queen of England (the queen never looked like this), much like Jennifer Aniston is not the character she played in Friends, and Tom Cruise is not nor has ever been Jerry Maguire, Top Gun's Maverick, or Mission: Impossible's Ethan Hunt. John Wayne only fought wars on movie sets; he was no fearless cowboy, either; he was an actor obeying the commands of his director.

Also, bear in mind while reading the paragraphs below that unlike youthful 21st-century performers such as Daniel Radcliffe, Kristen Stewart, and Robert Pattinson, who had the opportunity to make their own (daring) professional choices in between Harry Potter and Twilight assignments – e.g., Radcliffe in Equus on Broadway, Stewart in On the Road, Pattinson in Bel Ami – Deanna Durbin and most others like her during Hollywood's so-called “Golden Age” were tied down to long-term contracts that prevented them from taking other jobs without their studios' consent.

The Deanna Durbin public persona: 'Sweet Monster'

“I was a typical 13-year-old American girl,” Deanna Durbin recalled to David Shipman in 1983. “The character I was forced into had little or nothing in common with myself – or with other youth of my generation, for that matter. I could never believe that my contemporaries were my fans. They may have been impressed with my 'success,' but my fans were the parents, many of whom could not cope with their own youngsters. They sort of adopted me as their 'perfect' daughter.”

Durbin also made sure everyone knew she had no affinity for the “concocted Durbin personality [which …] never had any similarity to me, not even coincidentally.”

There's more. In 1967, film historian Anthony Slide wrote an article about Deanna Durbin's career for Films in Review, which he later sent her. After a while, he received a reply from Durbin, in which she wrote, in part, the following:

“I never had any feeling of identity with the 'Deanna Durbin' born from my early pictures and from a mixture of press agents, publicity and fan worship, so you realize that I find it impossible and useless to go into an examination of 'historical' data about her. …

“As I often wonder … I cannot see why, after so many years, it still matters to write about Durbin. I know that years ago my life was everybody's business and that the concoction of screen image and publicity created a sweet monster, which the real person I was had a lot of trouble to fight and to overcome eventually. The fact that even today with the world's terrifying problems people are still interested in synthetic old Durbin of the thirties only shows what escape from reality I must have meant.

“I may still have some good physical resemblance with the 'Deanna Durbin' your article is about, but this living self has no authority to comment on the biographical data of a past that never was my own.”

[“Deanna Durbin Movie Star: Private Individual vs. Public Persona” continues on the next page. See link below.]

Deanna Durbin publicity photo: Universal Pictures.

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Continue Reading: Deanna Durbin: 'The Last Rose of Summer'

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2 Comments to Deanna Durbin Movie Star: Private Individual vs. Public Persona

  1. Jay Raskin

    Its amazing that she talks of “a past the was never my own.”
    Although, I have a degree in filmmaking and have watched thousands of Hollywood films, I just discovered her and her films this week (March, 2016) and I was fascinated.
    Why did she reject her occupation that she was so brilliant at so totally?

  2. David

    This has been a fascinating series of articles. I look forward to reading the final post. Thank you for the excerpt from Ms. Durbin's letter to Anthony Slide.