Stars
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Stars

Richard Dyer, Paul McDonald

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eBook - ePub

Stars

Richard Dyer, Paul McDonald

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Through the intensive examination of films, magazines, advertisingand critical texts, Dyer analyses the historical, ideological and aesthetic significance of stars, changing the way we understand screen icons. Paying particular attention to icons including Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne.

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PART ONE
Stars as a Social Phenomenon
The stars are a reflection in which the public studies and adjusts its own image of itself ... The social history of a nation can be written in terms of its film stars. (Raymond Durgnat, Films and Feelings, pp. 137–8)
Far more than men, women [stars] were the vessels of men's and women's fantasies and the barometers of changing fashion. Like two-way mirrors linking the immediate past with the immediate future, women in the movies reflected, perpetuated, and in some respects offered innovations on the roles of women in society. (Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape, p. 12)
Take Robert Taylor, M. Boyer, Mr Laurence Olivier, and take Miss Durbin, Miss Garson and Miss Davis and a few more film actors and actresses, and you may be able to arrive at a complete anthropological typology of which no La Rochefoucauld, Pascal or Jung could ever dream.
(J. P. Mayer, Sociology of the Film, p. 262)
Stars . . . are the direct or indirect reflection of the needs, drives and dreams of American society.
(Alexander Walker, Stardom, p. xi)
Part One is concerned with the question – why do we get the phenomenon of stardom and, given that we do, why do we get the particular stars we do? How are we to account for the phenomenon in both general and specific terms?
It is organised as follows:
discussion of the general social conditions favouring stardom
the role of forces of production and consumption in shaping stardom and stars
the ideological functioning of the star phenomenon.
1Conditions for Stardom
Francesco Alberoni and Barry King have both suggested various social structures that must obtain for the phenomenon of stardom to exist. These conditions are necessary rather than sufficient – that is, they do not automatically produce stars but are the grounds on which stardom may be produced.
Alberoni is concerned with stardom as a general social phenomenon and not just with film stardom. His definition of stardom, already indicated in the title of his article ('The Powerless Elite'), centres on the fact that stars are a group of people 'whose institutional power is very limited or non-existent, but whose doings and way of life arouse a considerable and sometimes even a maximum degree of interest' (Alberoni, p. 75).
The basic conditions for this phenomenon, Alberoni suggests, are:
a state of law
an efficient bureaucracy
a structured social system.
(These three factors ensure that social roles are delimited and judged according to 'objective' criteria (e.g. efficiency). In this situation, stars operate only in their own sphere and there is no 'danger' of their 'charisma' becoming important 'from a political point of view'.)
a large-scale society (stars cannot know everyone, but everyone can know stars)
economic development above subsistence (though this need not be very great development – cf. film stars in India)
social mobility (anyone, in principle, may become a star).
Thus, argues Alberoni, stars are a remarkable social phenomenon – an elite, privileged group who yet on the one hand do not excite envy or resentment (because anyone may become one) and on the other hand have no access to real political power.
Alberoni's discussion is useful for suggesting explanations for such features of the star phenomenon as: why during the Depression starving people could hear and read of the high life of the stars without apparent resentment; why only minor stars have become politicians; why the socialist press has had far more pity than scorn for stars, stressing them more as victims than beneficiaries of capitalism.
However, because a star cannot become a crucial decision-maker (and remain a star), this does not mean that s/he is without political significance. Alberoni ignores the ideological significance of the stars. In his terms, the overt political stands of a John Wayne or a Jane Fonda, or the implicit political meanings of a Bette Davis or a Marlon Brando, are irrelevant or insignificant. Whilst no one would claim that they have a direct political 'effect', surely these form part of the way by which values and attitudes are shaped? However, it is probably true to say that Wayne, Fonda et al. are widely believed to be politically insignificant and unimportant, and that the only 'real' politics is decision-making within the institutions of society. Because of this belief, the ideological significance of stars is masked or discounted. One might then suggest that just because it is so masked its real political power is all the greater for being less easily resisted.
King1 takes up the argument with Alberoni by pointing out that stars have a major control over the representation of people in society – and how people are represented as being in the mass media is going to have some kind of influence (even if only of reinforcement) on how people are in society. Stars have a privileged position in the definition of social roles and types, and this must have real consequences in terms of how people believe they can and should behave.
King also suggests his own set of preconditions for stardom:
production of surplus (i.e. commodities in excess of basic material needs)
development of a technology of mass communication
extensive penetration of the cultural sphere by industrialisation which leads to a separation between a system of action committed to instrumental goals (utilitarian and predominant) and a system of action committed to expressive goals (moralistic and subordinant)
rigid separation of work and leisure: division of role structure between expressive and instrumental roles
decline of local cultures and the development of a mass level of culture, transformation from specific to universalistic modes of evaluation
organisation of the motion picture industry around commodity production and the progressive centralisation of control over production
a relative increase of social mobility into expressive role positions unconnected with sacred institutions (which in feudal society constituted centres of power).
To some extent, King's preconditions cover the same ground as Alberoni's. King's instrumental–expressive distinction reworks Alberoni's distinction between effective (i.e. in his terms politically significant) roles and non-effective ones. The advantage of King's terms is that they allow one to see the political or ideological significance of expressive roles as well as of instrumental ones. Alberoni's terminology on the other hand does remind us, as suggested above, that expressive roles are not believed to be politically significant.
2Production: Consumption
Both Alberoni, by default, and King, expressly, point to the need to examine stars in terms of ideology. However, in supplying a list of preconditions, neither explain why stars arise on the basis of those preconditions. This question can be approached first in terms of what Edgar Morin (in New Trends in the Study of Mass Communications) calls the 'production–consumption dialectic of mass communications'. That is, are stars a phenomenon of production (arising from what the makers of films provide) or of consumption (arising from what the audience for films demands)?
Origins of stardom
The problem of what determines what – production or consumption – is endemic to all discussions of the mass media, and emerges clearly from accounts of the origins of stardom in Hollywood. Looking at this is a good way of highlighting the issues and problems involved.
'The history of movie stardom as an institution is a familiar one', states Richard Schickel in His Picture in the Papers, and proceeds to provide a very useful summary of it:
how the producers had resisted giving billing to the actors who played in their little films; how the actors themselves, regarding appearance in a medium that robbed them of what they regarded as their prime artistic resource, their voice, had been glad to hide their shame in anonymity; how the public had begun singling them out of the crowds on the screen, demanding to know more about them, and, more important, demanding to know, in advance, which pictures featured their favourites; how a few independent producers, grasping at any weapon to fight the motion picture trust (composed of the major studios), had acceded to public opinion and had been rewarded by the most deliciously rising sales curves; how the demand for stars was quickly perceived as a factor that could stabilize the industry, since this demand was predictable in a way that the demand for stories or even genres was not; how, as feature-length films established their popularity and the cost of producing these longer films required bank loans, star names came to lead the list of collateral that bankers looked upon with favor when their assistance was sought; how certain actors achieved unprecedented heights of popularity and prosperity almost overnight in the period 1915–1920; and how this phenomenon, this beginning of a new celebrity system, destroyed or crippled almost everyone caught up in it . . . (p. 27)
The key event in this history is usually taken to be Carl Laemmle's action of planting a story in the St Louis Post-Despatch to the effect that Florence Lawrence, up to then known as the 'Biograph Girl', had been killed by a trolley car in St Louis, and following it a day later with an advertisement in the trade press denouncing the story as a vicious lie. This event was the first occasion that a film actor's* name became known to the public. It is the first example of the deliberate manufacture of a star's image. Equally, runs the argument, it is the first example of the producers of films responding to public demand, giving the public what it wanted. It is thus at the point of intersection of public demand (the star as a phenomenon of consumption) and the producer initiative (the star as a phenomenon of production).
Left at that, within the confines of the film industry and market, there can be little argument that films stars were a phenomenon of consumption that had even been strenuously resisted by the producers in the first instance, although they mightily capitalised upon it once it was under way. There are, however, a couple of problems with the history as it stands. First, the notion of 'demand'. Stars have not existed in all societies at all times. Where does the demand for them stem from? Who defines it? Second, the star system was already a well-developed feature of the popular theatre (especially vaudeville, from which the cinema took its first audiences). Stars were part of the business of show business. If the public demanded it of the cinema, then this was because the public had come to expect it of the entertainment industry as a whole. This then forces us back to the question of why it was part of all entertainment.
A look at how the origins of stardom have been discussed is useful because it orchestrates and concretises the more general issues involved in this section. Let me now turn to some of the explanations of the star system, all of which could be considered in relation to the early period, although they are discussed below in general terms.
Stars as a phenomenon of production
Stars are images in media texts, and as such are products of Hollywood (or wherever). Discussion of Hollywood production generally takes place between two polar views. The first considers Hollywood production as a capitalist production like any other, and in this perspective stars are to be seen in terms of their function in the economy of Hollywood, including, crucially, their role in the manipulation of Hollywood's market, the audience. At the other extreme come views that seem innocent of any consideration of Hollywood in terms of profit, and account for the star phenomenon in terms either of some intrinsic property of the film medium or else the special magic of the stars themselves. (For discussion of stars as the producers of their own images, see Chapter 9.)
Economics
Stars are widely regarded as a vital element in the economics of Hollywood in terms of:
capital. Stars represented a form of capital possessed by the studios. Robert A. Brady sees this as part of the 'monopolistic' character of the Hollywood industry: 'each star is to some extent a holder of a monopoly, and the owner of contracts for the services of a star is the owner of a monopoly product. The majors dominate the employment of this individual monopoly talent' ('The Problem of Monopoly', pp. 131–2).
investment. Stars were a guarantee, or a promise, against loss on investment and even of profit on it.
outlay. Stars were a major portion of a film's budget – hence their handling, in filmic terms, had to be careful and correct.
the market. Stars were used to sell films, to organise the market. Alexander Walker talks of 'the use of a star to stabilise audience response' (Stardom, 1974, p. 15). Alice Evans Field writes: 'Star names on the theatre marquee, above the title of the picture, draw great audiences not only because of their personal magnetism but also because they are symbols of certain types of entertainment and because they assure production efforts far above average' (Hollywood USA, p. 74.) This suggests how stars both organise the market and act back upon the 'quality' of the films they are in.
Hortense Powdermaker in her 'anthropological investigation' of Hollywood, the Dream Factory, sums this up:
From a business point of view, there are many advantages in the star system. The star has tangible features which can be advertised and marketed – a face, a body, a pair of legs, a voice, a certain kind of personality, real or synthetic – and can be typed as the wicked villain, the honest hero, the fatal siren, the sweet young girl, the neurotic woman. The system provides a formula easy to understand and has made the production of movies seem more like just another business. The use of this formula may serve also to protect executives from talent and having to pay too much attention to such intangibles as the quality of a story or of acting. Here is a standardised product which they can understand, which can be advertised and sold, and which not only they, but also banks and exhibitors, regard as insurance for large profits ... (pp. 228–9)
The economic importance of stars can be highlighted by certain moments in film history: for example, it was the development of the star system by the independent producers (especially Adolph Zukor, but also Laemmle, Fox, Loew, Schenck, Warner) which broke up the monopolistic hold the MPPC (Motion Pictures Patents Company) had on the industry. Also, in 1933 'Paramount ... went into unexpected receivership in January ... Only a break in the European market and the unexpected success of Mae West's films at home enabled Paramount to refloat itself with its own resources at the end of the year' (Walker, Stardom, p. 235). Similarly Deanna Durbin 'saved' Universal in 1937, and Edgar Morin argues that Marilyn Monroe (and wide screen) were the industry's answer to the threat of television in the 50s.
Against this, however, it must be pointed out that, even in Hollywood's heyday, stars did not absolutely guarantee the success of a film. Stars move in and out of favour, and even at the height of their popularity may make a film that nobody much goes to see. If some of the careers charted by David Shipman in his two books2 are brought down by ill-health or sheer lousy pictures, the majority rise and fall for reasons unconne...

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