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Brian Linehan, circa 1982. Handout image.
Brian Linehan, circa 1982. Handout image.

Liam Lacey

Was Brian Linehan right to want a star system in Canada? Add to ...

“I ought to punch you right in the nose,” said Brian Linehan the first time I met him.

A celebrated broadcast interviewer from the seventies until his death in 2004, Linehan was not known for being confrontational. Widely admired for his deep-dish knowledge of the movies and loquacious interviewing style, he was often as famous as his celebrity guests, as the title of his biography, Starring Brian Linehan, suggests.

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His threat came in response to a question: Why would he want to be host of the Genies? At the time, I was young and thought everyone knew awards shows were a crock. The Oscars too often rewarded schmaltz over genius (Robert Altman, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock won consolation awards). In the seventies, serious artists such as George C. Scott, Marlon Brando and Woody Allen shunned the event. From another perspective, though, these events are the apotheosis of a celebrity- and movie-loving culture.

From Linehan’s point of view, it was an insult to even ask him such a question, after all his years of support for Canadian film artists and love of the movies. After more talk and many more coffees (no refills, fresh cups), he warmed up. Somehow, after the rough start, that half-hour interview stretched into six hours of movie talk.

Linehan continued to support Canadian talent even after his death in 2004, when his estate became the Brian Linehan Charitable Foundation, which trustee Michael Levine says promotes Linehan’s legacy as an interviewer and continues his “quest for a star system in Canada.”

Starting this week, in a co-venture with the Toronto International Film Festival and the National Screen Institute, the charity’s website is releasing about 50 of Linehan’s interviews online (www.brianlinehan.ca/video/). Only about five of the 33 subjects so far are Canadian (and two of those – Anne Murray and Burton Cummings – are musicians), but they’re an enjoyable flash from the past. The Linehan foundation has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in the last few years to Hot Docs, TIFF and various film and theatre programs to foster Canadian young talent.

It’s the phrase “star system” that I stumble on. In the basic sense, I suppose, it means a training system for work in movies. Yet the term is inextricably tied to the classic Hollywood studio factory model of the 1920s to 1940s, in which actors were often groomed, given new names and even fictitious backgrounds, then marketed more on glamour that talent. Hollywood was the American Dream in a hurry: One day you’re in a drug store in a clingy sweater, the next you’re an adored celebrity. It was part of the illusion machine, and as actors fought for more freedom from the 1940s on, the system collapsed.

In the wake of classic Hollywood, the American movies still often operate on a celebrity-focused studio system. As screenwriting sage William Goldman has pointed out, top stars routinely bring in their own writers to boost their roles and ruin good scripts. It’s not much of a model for anyone else. In the relatively tiny English-Canadian cinema niche (about 1 per cent of domestic box office) it makes more sense to support imaginative directors and versatile actors that bring strong stories to life – stars might emerge, but let’s not get it backward.

I don’t know if Brian Linehan believed there could be a glamorous, star-studded Canadian movie industry, though it’s been one of those questions that’s been circling around English-Canadian film for years: Where is our star system? I think we already know the answer. The pull of a superior gravity force has dragged it south. You want Canadian stars? Go to the multiplex: There’s Rachel McAdams in The Vow and Ryan Reynolds in Safe House, the No. 1 and 2 films at the North American box office.

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Follow on Twitter: @liamlacey

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