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How Do Below-the-Liners Get a Star on the Walk of Fame

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Earning a spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame has become a valued, if somewhat clichéd, sign of achieving enormous success in the entertainment industry. Millions of tourists from around the world come to find the names of their favorite stars on the alternately glittering and grimy streets of Tinseltown.Yet while these visitors are able to find the names of actors, directors and other above-the-line celebrities among the more than 2,000 stars in existence, they’ll find only a handful of names of below-the-line talent that have been awarded such recognition: cinematographers Haskell Wexler, Hal Mohr, Ray Rennahan, J. Peverell Marley, Leon Shamroy and Conrad L. Hall, in addition to a few others such as visual effects wizard Dennis Muren. Considering the countless hard-working and talented below-the-line workers who are, and have been, involved in making actors and directors shine, the question must be asked: Why are below-the-liners so overlooked and seemingly forgotten?“To tell you the truth, [crew members] aren’t known widely by the public. The Walk really is there to honor Hollywood celebrities and community achievers, because it’s a tourist attraction,” said Johnny Grant, the longtime “honorary mayor” of Hollywood. “If tourists don’t know the people, it makes it harder to qualify them.”Grant explained that in order to qualify for a star, a person must have stellar professional achievements, a career longevity of at least five years, and a record of charitable works for the community. They can be nominated by family, friends, studios or fan clubs, and rather than singling out film and TV crew members for rejection, he noted that “quite a few” above-the-line talents are passed over each year as well.“Each application works for two years, and some people apply for 10 years before finally making it. It can depend who they’re up against in a given year, not to mention that we award about 20 stars in total a year across five different entertainment categories,” said Grant. “We try to include a couple of young performers each year to keep the Walk vital to the new generations. But it’s a shame that even a lot of people with stars who are crucial to film history, like D.W. Griffith and David O. Selznick, are not recognized by people anymore.”The Walk of Fame was created in 1958 by Southern California artist Oliver Weissmuller, who was hired by the city to give Hollywood a “face lift” during an earlier down cycle in the city. The original Walk had 2,500 blank stars, and 1,558 of them were awarded during the first sixteen months, as the Walk sought to honor the forefathers of its five entertainment categories: the film industry, television industry, recording industry, broadcast radio industry, and live theater. Gene Autry is the only person to receive stars in all five categories.“Very clearly, as one of the key influences in how entertainment is delivered to the public, visual effects are one of the many below-the-line creative fields, and we clearly would like more of a place,” said Eric Roth, executive director of the Visual Effects Society. “On the one hand, I understand how it’s evolved; on the other, I would like them to develop a broader perspective.”As one of the fortunate below-the-line recipients, Haskell Wexler could be forgiven for expressing a great deal of pride. Yet he looks at the entire experience and the process surrounding selection in a grounded, realistic way.“All I know is that I got a call that said I’m going to have a star on Hollywood Boulevard, and they wanted to know who I wanted to make the speech at the presentation,” recalled Wexler, who was honored in 1996. “I had [actor] Mike Farrell give the speech. They made a big thing of it because there are very few below-the-line people on it. The fact that I won a few Academy Awards and five nominations probably had something to do with it.”Despite sympathizing with crew members who lack similar recognition on the Walk, Wexler conceded that Grant’s comments on the importance of public awareness were the harsh reality of the Walk selection process. He also believes that the lack of Walk recognition is merely a symptom of a larger lack of respect for crew contributions throughout the industry.“DPs had to fight for years to get recognition on the screen. Producers don’t want to give recognition to anyone extra who, because of that recognition, might be deserving or desiring money,” said Wexler. “Everything’s about money. Hollywood’s about money, the stars are about money. They’re not likely to proliferate the streets with below-the-line people because that’s not the purpose. Studios can show their appreciation by paying the crew more money; the notoriety of having a star doesn’t buy the groceries.”Yet in the end Wexler tries to put a positive spin on things and looks at the broader crew workforce as a family with whom he, or any other fortunate below-the-line star recipient, can share their good luck.“This is to help publicize Hollywood, and really incredible grips or gaffers won’t bring one more tourist to Hollywood,” said Wexler. “The great part about it for me is that all the cameramen and DPs I know were out there because I’m one of them, they’re one of me, so they felt that giving me the star was honoring their profession. With all those guys there, it represented an official appreciation of them being stars as well.”

Written by Carl Kozlowski

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