Introduction star studies star systems

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WHAT DO 'STARS' MEAN?

Stars from such diverse realms as sport, politics, music, television and film are a ubiquitous feature of modern popular culture. They occupy spaces as varied as internet sites, adverts of all kinds, chat shows and magazines, as well as the original sources of their stardom (usually, but not always, distinct) such as films, songs, TV programmes. They feel known to us, and we often wish to be them or to be like them. Stars are not 'just' people, they are also commodities, brand names, whose capital is their face, their body, their clothing, their acting or their life style. They have been described as 'cult objects [that] condense audience fantasies' and as the embodiment of myths.1 Of film stars it has been said that 'Leur xne privée est publique, leur vie publique est publicitaire, leur vie d'écran est surréelle, leur vie réelle est mythique'} In the modem era, stars are very much associated with the myth of the individual: finding yourself, being yourself, expressing yourself, fulfilling your potential.

Star studies is a relatively recent development within the study of film and media, and can be traced back to the publication of Richard Dyer's Stars in 1979, at least for an Anglophone readership. Like many who followed, Dyer looks almost exclusively at Hollywood stars: Brigitte Bardot, for instance, is only mentioned to cast light on the star image of Jane Fonda.3 The principal tenets of his influential work are that stars possess a 'star image' made up of both on- and off-screen elements, and that these images reflect notions of identity that are relevant to the society which creates and consumes the stars. Moreover, Dyer suggests that most stars, by means of charisma, reconcile opposites within their persona and thus incarnate idealised solutions to ideological issues. Sometimes stars may 'subvert' such issues, but more usually they 'manage' or resolve them.4 In Dyer's words, 'the theory of charisma advanced in this book places particular emphasis on the star as reconciler of contradictions'.5

1* C. G. Crisp, The Classical French Cinema, 1930-1960, Bloomington, IUP, 1993, p.216; and E. Morin Les Stars, 3rd edition, Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1972, p.38.

2* "Their private life is public, their public life is all publicity, their screen life is surreal and their real life is mythic', ibid., p.13.

3- See R. Dyer, Stars, New edition, London, BFI, 1998, pp.70 and 73. The link between Bardot and Fonda is made through their association with film director and svengali Roger Vadim.

Massive though Dyer's contribution to star studies is, his is not the first major intellectual investigation into how stars function and what they mean. That honour goes to Edgar Morin's Les Stars, first published in France in 1957 and acknowledged by Dyer as one of the key precursors to his own work. Like Dyer, Morin tends to concentrate on Hollywood stars, and takes Hollywood as the implicit model for film stardom generally, but he does also include analyses of French stars, albeit without noticeably differentiating between American and French modes of stardom. Apart from a section where he analyses fan letters to Luis Mariano, Morin makes Bardot the focus for most of his references to French stars. (Her star-making performance in Et Dieu ... créa la femme had come in 1956, just a year before the publication of his study.) Bardot, along with Marilyn Monroe, is given as an example of the reinvigoration of the star system in the 1950s and, like Monroe, Bardot reconciles opposites. By uniting innocence and eroticism both stars, in a clear anticipation of Dyer's 'charisma theory', embody lla synthèse des qualities contraires'.6

Although Morin makes few distinctions between America and France (or indeed Europe), he does historicise stardom to some extent by differentiating between the grand, god-like stars of the silent era and the more realistic, bourgeois and approachable stars of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Before 1930, according to Morin, stars were perceived as other, as semi-divine beings who were not like mere mortals. They came from Olympus and kept to their own, either marnong other stars or retiring in haughty solitude. In the 1930s, thanks in part to the advent of sound cinema and a related trend towards realism in film, Morin detects an 'embourgeoisement' of stars. No longer distant in castles or temples, they are seen to live in villas, apartments and ranches. Magazine spreads feature their homely lives, their bourgeois interiors, their ordinajiness, so that 'La star est en effet devenue familière et fam.iliale\'' Thus begins the modern era of stardom, in which stars are not otherworldly creatures, but role models who are not only idealised but also emulated. Modern stars have come down to earth.

Recent developments in star studies include investigations into the relationship between audience and star, a concern to historicise stardom, an emphasis on the star body and star performance (often predicated on Judith Buder's theories of gender and performance),8 and the description of stardom as work, as opposed to the more usual equation between stardom and leisure.9 Much of this is a development of Dyer's work, some of it a critique. In Heavenly Bodies, his study of what Marilyn Monroe, Paul Robeson and Judy Garland signified for audiences in specific contexts, Dyer had attempted to show 'how people could make sense of the star', and thus to fill 'a major gap in work done on stars, and indeed in media and cultural studies generally'. But because Dyer privileges 'the idea of shared ways of reading'

6* "the synthesis of opposing qualities', Morin, op. cit., p.32.

7- 'the star has become familiar and familial' - ibid., p.33.

8- See, for example, K. Reader, lMon cul est intertextuel?: Arletty's performance of Gender', in A. Hughes and J. Williams (eds), Gender and French Cinema, Oxford and New York, 2001, pp.63-76.

9* See P. McDonald, 'Supplementary Chapter: Reconceptualising Stardom' in Dyer, Stars, pp.175-200.

rather than 'individual readings',10 Heavenly Bodies does not direcdy address how individual spectators interpret, understand and renegotiate star images. The fans that make up any star's key audience are addressed in a much more empirical, individualised way by Jackie Stacey in Star Gazing, her study of how British women identified with classical Hollywood stars.11 No similar approach has yet been taken to French audiences (or to audiences for French stars), but this may be the next step in the gradual, belated entry of audience issues into the field of French film studies. As for star studies in France itself, this is a fragmented and neglected area. There are occasional essays in the more intellectual film magazines, like Cahiers du cinema and Fbsitif, but both tides tend to concentrate on actors rather than stars (thus avoiding the issue of celebrity which distinguishes the two), when they are not addressing their usual subject, directors.12 This leaves stardom to the attentions of biographers, the popular film press and the press in general, while it is not yet a subject for concerted study in the academic sector. It seems that Morin's very early lead has not been followed, and that in France at present, stars definitely belong to popular rather than academic discourse.

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