Jesus Christ — The Superstars! Buffalo Bill & Little Missie
What is it about superstars? Why do they so fascinate us?
I thought about that as millions mourned publicly for Whitney Houston last month, as I read Tim Riley’s John Lennon biography, and again after finishing Larry McMurtry’s The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster 2005).
Annie Oakley and Bill Cody were among the first real American celebrities, those people — mostly actors, musicians, athletes or media professionals — who become stupendously successful. McMurtry notes that we don’t remember any of the other big names from that period when live shows about the West were as popular as stadium concerts today. Pawnee Bill, Ned Buntline, Doc Carver, Johnny Baker and Lillian Smith were all renowned performers of their day. But we remember the Colonel and Little Missie. They were superstars.
And as such, McMurtry makes an equally good case that Oakley and Cody were also among the first to get swept up in the frenzy of celebrity, something they didn’t understand and ultimately weren’t able to control. In their wake, few have.
His wry, common-sense style is perfect for this kind of interpretive historical story-telling as he traces the arc of Oakley and Cody’s triumphs and tragedies, always questioning what made them so darned popular.
“Superstars cannot exactly create themselves, no matter how skilled – the public cannot be manipulated vis-à-vis superstars only up to a point. The public must, at some point, develop a genuine love for the performer – a love that grows as long as the performer lasts,” he muses. “When great stars die, thousands mourn and mourn genuinely. Exactly how this chemistry works, no one quite understands – but some deep identification is made or superstardom doesn’t happen.”
In Cody’s case, at least part of it was that he actually was a scout in the 1870s, a man of the frontier, as well as an entertainer. But Oakley, on the other hand, was just a performer who dressed in buckskins and was a damned good shot.
Luck and circumstance certainly have something to do with it. Cody’s life as a frontiersman overlapped with his performing career. His Wild West Show idea was prescient, and though he never got to see his dreams materialize, he was a film visionary as well.
He was almost certainly the first artist to go viral. His iconic image, first immortalized in dime novels, books, and on posters, sitting on a horse in buckskins looking out at the endless prairie, is still as recognizable today as it was around the turn of the twentieth century. Everybody saw his image somewhere. We all know Buffalo Bill.
McMurtry wonders aloud why Robert Duvall, an extraordinary actor who, for all his skills, isn’t a superstar, while John Wayne, hardly in the class of Duvall as an actor, was. “The sonofabitch just looks like a man,” McMurtry quotes director John Ford about Wayne. McMurtry ponders that it might be something in the way superstars move. Was it because Oakley would give a little back kick when she did well or would visibly pout when she missed that made the audience love her? Was it because Buffalo Bill looked as good on a horse as Wayne did when he sauntered, his walk slightly tilted, into a movie saloon?
In the end, like the rest of us, McMurtry has more questions than answers about superstardom, and he seems to be as bemused as the rest of us about it all, but the book is quite enjoyable. Perhaps in this case, the quest will have to be enough.