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Shadows count when bathed in the spotlight

Here's a concept you don't think about much anymore: mystique.

But because it's Oscar time, it seemed appropriate to remind folks that mystique was the essence of stardom at one time: that alluring quality of effortless aloofness and unstudied mystery that defined the divas and leading men of old. Think Greta Garbo, Cary Grant, Kim Novak and so on. However contrived or calculated the creation of their personas, something authentic arguably shone through and contributed to their popularity and their enduring boxoffice appeal. Today, who's got it? Ever fewer, though Clint Eastwood in my book is still a shoo-in.

The trick is not easy to pull off. Stars have to contend with an increasingly pushy promotional machinery as well as the tell-all tabloid culture that has been dumped on (or demanded by?) the public, pretty much reducing mystique to the waste bin of history.

So what do we have now? Countless celebs checking into rehab facilities, driving under the influence, punching out paparazzi, commoditizing their babies or cooling their high heels in the caboose. And not just Britney, Lindsay and Paris.

One PR veteran put it to me this way: "Like decorum, (mystique) is a virtue or a gift that no one seems to care much about and that not many folks know how to cultivate — or make pay off for themselves."

One can only hope that an ingenue (that too a word rarely appropriate today) as talented as best actress nominee Ellen Page can remain unscathed by, though obviously not untouched by, the almost certain onslaught of fame, fortune and feckless attention that lies in wait for her. (Note to the star of "Juno": Emulate Miley not Britney.)

As a general rule, foreigners who make it onto the Oscar stage — think this time Marion Cotillard, Julie Christie and Cate Blanchett as well as Canadian Page — have a somewhat easier time of it because they have a home far away to go to, their accents put them in a class apart, and they typically betray a hint of bemused detachment about the entire Hollywood hullabaloo.

Blanchett dishes out her interviews with such care and works so regularly that she doesn't have much time to be tripped up. Cotillard, heretofore an unknown in America, can for now simply wrap herself in the exotic mantle of the real-life icon she plays in "La Vie en Rose." (Judging from the success of the movie, the Piaf mystique is still strong, and not just in France.) Christie still radiates the '60s aura that enveloped her after "Darling" and has aged gracefully, onscreen and off. (Mystique and Botox do not mix well, at least not yet.)

I'm focusing on the women here because it has become much harder for female thespians to avoid or to adroitly maneuver under the spotlight that is turned upon them than it is for their male counterparts. (Tommy Lee Jones or Daniel Day-Lewis on the cover of In Touch? I don't think so.)

Not that publicity is anathema to today's stars; they just don't always know, or can control, when enough is enough.

"Rationing one's availability to the media and the masses is an important minor art — as well, naturally, as staying out of big trouble," is how the PR vet put it.

There's another challenge for today's stars that Garbo, Grant et al. never concerned themselves with. Many today are bent on promulgating their politics or pushing their pet causes, so much so that their public personas risk becoming controversial or simply irksome. Others inadvertently let their prejudices or their personal shortcomings slip out, rattling their bankability. (When's the last time Mel Gibson toplined a movie?)

In that respect, Brangelina manages better than most: They remain interesting even though overexposed, so that it's hard to begrudge them their own category of mystique. I mean, who else has ever publicly said that they make way too much money for what they do and promptly given swathes of it to this and that cause?
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