If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen my Twitter rant about Hadley Freeman asking why Angelina Jolie is famous. I’ll be the first to admit I’m a huge fan of Jolie’s work, but I also welcome differing thoughts in the discourse of fandom. Freeman does have a (muddied) point. Jolie has cut down on her film career significantly since 2011, devoting her life to her children and humanitarian causes in addition to further exploring life behind the camera, yet her exposure rate has stayed at a near continuously exorbitant level (usually focusing on her personal life). However, what Freeman gets right is drastically undercut by her wrongs. One thing that noticeably stuck out for me was this quote: “Jolie is more in the vein of Zsa Zsa Gabor, a woman who certainly acted, but was famous, ultimately, for being both over the top and completely fabulous.”
To even begin to get an inkling of understanding on Zsa Zsa Gabor, you have to look at her upbringing. Her mother, Jolie (for the sake of clarity, we’re going to call her Mama Gabor), married Vilmos Gabor with the strict understanding that as soon as she produced a male heir for her husband, she could leave him (gotta love 1910’s Hungary). After producing three daughters (Magda, Zsa Zsa and Eva), Mama Gabor relegated herself to her fate, and set to work molding her daughters into, for lack of a better descriptor, society wives with the knowledge of courtesans. The girls regularly learned what any good wife would need to know, with the added benefit of lessons in seduction and mystery.
Eva Gabor was the first sister to reach American shores, coming over in 1939 with the strict hopes of making it as an actress–even though she’d married a doctor. Paramount signed her within months of her arrival, and Eva soon ditched the hubby (although they wouldn’t officially divorce until 1942). Eva threw herself in her career, determined to become a Hungarian Garbo. Her first film, 1941’s Forced Landing, earned 6x more than its budget, but super stardom as a dramatic actress wasn’t in the cards.
Zsa Zsa made the move to the US in 1941, leaving a Turkish diplomat husband behind, where she promptly met Conrad Hilton. They were married the following year, and so began Zsa Zsa’s life as a socialite. The marriage began to fail almost as soon as the couple said “I do,” with a pregnant Zsa Zsa filing for divorce and soon embarking on a serious affair with actor George Sanders. While Zsa Zsa later liked to claim she held dreams of stardom since the early 30s, her marriage to Sanders set the scene for her acting career to begin. Hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite and married to one of the most successful actors of the decade, Zsa Zsa longed for something of her own, but later loved to relay stories of all the film roles she turned down (as much as I love her, I take these things with a grain of salt). Fate worked its magic on Zsa Zsa when she agreed to appeared on a popular television advice show as a fill-in. The public clamored for the Hungarian beauty, and film roles soon followed.
The public first saw Zsa Zsa in 1952’s Lovely to Look At, followed by We’re Not Married a week later. She ended the year with Moulin Rouge, a film that most Gabor historians consider the best example of her dramatic work. By 1954, any serious chance of making it as an actress was long gone, with 1956’s Death of a Scoundrel and 1958’s Touch of Evil sticking out as exceptions rather than the rule on how to cast Ms. Gabor. Zsa Zsa, ever the resourceful star, set out on a rebranding campaign, caricaturizing herself on the Vegas stage, making the occasional film cameo and seemingly appearing on more television shows than stars in the sky.
Zsa Zsa forged her own path, one that requires a strict adhesion to personality stardom. As much as people hate the comparison, it’s best to categorize Gabor as a the foremother to the likes of Kim Kardashian or real life step-great-granddaughter Paris Hilton–women who have had to caricaturize themselves to make it as stars. Jolie can make herself over a thousand times in her personal life, but she’s never playing Jolie the sex symbol who doubles as a humanitarian, mother to six or 00s goth icon; she’s fully encompassing her roles, whether playing a spy, an archeologist or a fairy queen. Jolie never uses the art and skillset people must deploy to become famous for being famous, while Zsa Zsa used it until her retirement from the public eye in 2002.