Failure

The first of these concerns failure. The obvious fact is that stars do fail, and even the most successful eventually fade - unless early death freezes and immortalises them. Given all the attention to the manipulation of star personae, to the management of public opinion, and so on, what can we learn from cases of failure? One film failure offers a case in point. Judge Dredd contributed greatly to the death of its parent company Cinergi, and did no favours to the star presence of its major star Sylvester Stallone. Yet the film may actually reveal much precisely in and through its failure, and might throw light on something which ought to concern us: the failure of star studies to replicate the promise of perhaps its most famous single case study. In his study of Marilyn Monroe, Richard Dyer claimed to reveal a really close 'fit' between her persona (Monroe as soft, almost amorphous sexuality, whose body promises infinite pleasures while her talk seems innocently unaware of what her body is doing) and the ideological tensions of a period (growing public recognition of female sexuality, tensions within the family increasingly orientated around consumption and leisure, and a will to remove women from the sphere of work). Was Dyer just a touch fortuitous in finding such a neat fit? Was this a special case? If stars are more than just filmic figures, why is it not easier to locate other cases where stars may resolve ideological tensions? Or perhaps we have looked for too tidy relations between stars and ideological processes? The most promising case since Dyer on Monroe has to be the many studies of 'musculinity' in 1980s action movies, which has been widely theorised as pointing to a crisis in masculinity 'contained' and perhaps magically resolved in the bodies of action heroes (see Tasker, 1993a; Kirkham and Thumim, 1993; Jeffords, 1994). The problem is that the 'crisis' is almost entirely an imputed one. Nothing like Dyer's careful research into wider discursive patterns of Monroe's period is to be found alongside the analyses of action movies; his study stands worryingly alone.

Judge Dredd posed problems. Born out of Thatcherite Britain, Dredd represented a totalitarian future - but in a way which turned its chief villain into its hero. Dredd is the law, but he is almost above the law. Its comic-book source managed this by walking a line between the character being humourless and the story overlaying a dark humour. IPC's Form Book, giving rules to merchandisers, captured this tension nicely:

In character, Dredd is two-dimensional and machine-like. ... Dredd never smiles. Though he is capable of a very black sense of humour, we can never be sure if he thinks his remarks are funny.

An additional problem was posed by the fact that Dredd was a British view of 'America', now being transformed by an American company.

This tested the producers. One of the film's scriptwriters, Steven de Souza, revealed their solution, a way to avoid the story 'warping into a moral vacuum':

There's a temptation in the material that it's important not to give in to. I think anybody who reads the newspapers can see the frustration that people have with the court system. So it's important to show that Dredd is not a fascist, but that he's on the verge of becoming one and ultimately pulls back from it. ... He helps the society to take a step towards real justice, as well, which is very much tied in with the idea of democracy.

'Fascism' as a concept has its own peculiar history within American political thinking. It has often been used by the Right as a ground for attacks on governmental, especially federal, acts. In the 1950s, partly through the work of Frankfurt School expatriates, it became one of the tools for critical tendencies within American society and culture: unless some controls were quickly imposed on, in particular, certain mass media, there was a danger of 'fascist personalities' being drawn to a Hitlerian leader. In short, fascism is not a descriptive concept, but one thoroughly imbricated into ideological struggles in the US.

It is therefore interesting to see that in the year following Dredd, another film emerged where again the issue was acknowledged - but this time the film-makers chose to ride the risks. Starship Troopers (1996, USA) took Robert Heinlein's highly controversial (1957) panegyric to authoritarian government (the novel was a treatise against 'peacemongers' who criticised America's acquisition of nuclear capabilities), and used it as a platform for discussing the dangers of an over-ordered, or fascist, society. Edward Neumeier, the main scriptwriter, discussed this in the book of the film:

What I really liked about the idea of this movie was that it allowed me to write about fascism. That's amusing. It was also difficult to do - or do well. ... Because the message of the original book was pretty straightforward: Democracy is failing, and we need some strict controls on our culture. I retained this outlook in the Starship Troopers scripts. But I also wanted to play with it. To me, the whole spin of the movie was this: You want a world that works? Okay, we'll show you one. And it really does work. It happens to be a military dictatorship, but it works. That's the original rhythm I was trying to play with, just to sort of mess with the audience.

The comparison is relevant, because with Dredd the producers clearly saw Stallone's star-persona as a means to defray these tensions. The script was fashioned around Stallone's star-image:

Joel Silver told me that you can never forget who your star is, because the audience will never forget. ... The thing that Stallone does so well, is that he gets the shit kicked out of him, then he comes back. That's his myth, almost, ever since Rocky. So the presence of Stallone confirmed our sense that Dredd needed to get knocked down to his lowest point, because Sly is such a great fighter when he's coming back. It was a good plot device in the movie, but it was also very sympathetic to Stallone.

Late editing on Judge Dredd discloses the care which the producers took. An opening sequence in which the 'citizens' riot because the judges replace a promised park with another law enforcement barracks, was simply removed - which made the riot look like anarchistic violence that needed to be controlled.

But the star burst the bubble; in an 'outburst' widely reported at the point of the film's release, Stallone identified and praised a 'Dredd' political position:

Movie tough-guy Sylvester Stallone has stunned his Hollywood pals with an amazing right-wing outburst. The former Rocky and Rambo star wants a ruthless leader, like the fearless Judge Dredd in his new $50 million sci-fi movie, to clean up the world. Stallone believes society is in a sordid spiral of decline into a twilight zone of violence illustrated in his new fantasy epic. .. . Now Stallone is calling for criminals who use guns to be hanged within 24 hours.

CJudge Dredd to Rule the World', Sunday Mirror, 2 July 1995)

In an important sense, then, Stallone's presence in Dredd could be seen as a conscious attempt to persuade him to function as Monroe's did in her films - to resolve away tensions, to marry the unmarriable. The key difference is that Dredd failed - the tensions burst through, the film died at the box office, and Stallone's own career nose-dived even further. This is not to suggest that the film failed because of the tensions over fascism -too many other factors were in play.6 No, it was the attempt to use Stallone's persona to defray a perceived tension, reflected into the very form of the film which emerges. Dyer was only able to argue a parallelism; he did not attempt to demonstrate direct links between Monroe and 1950s sexual ideologies. Yet his writings presume that the parallelism was effective. The Judge Dredd case suggests where we might look for such links, but asks awkward questions about their effectiveness.

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