Stages In The History Of Stardom

One of the most important outcomes of the 1980s tradition of work on stars was the construction of a history of relations between stars and their studio employers, as follows.

1. Stardom was not 'invented' in the mythological fashion that some early histories liked to tell it - although undoubtedly the showmanship of a figure like Carl Laemmle, 'stealing' Florence Lawrence and resurrecting her after planting the story of her death, played a role. But as Janet Staiger (1991) among others has shown, there is a prior history of popular theatrical touring companies promoting themselves via one famous figure, who embodied a style and a promise of performance. Far from being an invention of early showman film producers, star processes antedate cinema in theatre, sport and travelling shows - and of course these were among the formative influences on cinema itself.

2. Richard DeCordova (1990; 1991) has identified some distinct phases in the emergence of pre-stardom discourses, centred on discourses on acting, and the establishment of picture personalities. The first phase saw discussions (from around 1907) within trade magazines on the distinctiveness of screen acting, coupled with naming those who pre-eminendy display the requisite skills. As this kind of talk permeated outwards, so public interest grew in the phenomenon of film acting per se. But because actors and actresses were hardly known off-screen, audience recognition of these traits encouraged predictable styles of performance, and the promotion of films as embodiments of these. It needed the conscious promotion of named actors on billboards, lobby cards and in press advertisements to establish the presence of individuals' distinctive aura and style across many films.

3. Overlaying this came an abiding fascination with personalities' off-screen lives. Fan magazines proliferated, gossip columns celebrated and damned with equal delight. This happened even as the growing companies were trying to secure respectability for their business, and therefore necessitated producing films whose themes and narratives marked them as serious, and opening cinemas in more middle-class districts. It also meant trying to control public discussions of cinema, as Paul McDonald captures: 'By representing the moral rectitude of performers' lives, star discourse promoted the image of the whole cinema business' (2000: 32). But the intensity and volume of fan interest continually undermined this effort. Gaylyn Studlar (1990; see also her larger 1996 study) captures this in her essay on women and the fan magazines of the 1920s, where she points up the fears about unbridled female sexuality which they both provoked and purveyed.

4. Generally, it is recognised that a distinct system of stardom, associated with the established oligarchy of Hollywood studios, was in place by the mid-1920s. Using the opportunity of the scandals around figures such as Fatty Arbuckle, and the rising demands for moral controls over films, the studios introduced vasdy unequal contracts, tying stars for periods typically of seven years. With controls over the minutest aspects of stars' public and private lives, and with penalties for failure to perform, the studio system underpinned Hollywood's rise and survival even through the dark times of the Depression. Rent with arguments, challenged from time to time by organised labour (see Danae Clark, 1995) and by powerful, embittered individuals (perhaps most famously Bette Davies - see Spada, 1993), the system survived until the 1948 federal case against the studios - at which point, with varying rapidity, stars were shed. And of course some stars did 'escape', using their economic muscle and prestige to establish a 'stars' studio' in United Artists (Balio, 1976a).

5. Slowly, a new set of structural relations emerged across the 1950s, centred increasingly on the agents, and agencies. The big players (International Creative Management, Creative Artists Agency and William Morris) took on the job of packaging script, director, stars, financing together. But as Barry King (1986) has shown, whereas the studio system management of a star's image was essentially a studio operation, now stars had to look after their own careers. King examines stardom as a mode of labour, and distinguishes two predominant modes in which this was conducted: real versus formal subsumption. Within the former, stars were contractually bound to the studios, forbidden to use their labour and skills outside their owner's permissions. In return, paradoxically, the work of maintaining that which constituted their labour-power - their star persona - was largely performed by the studios. Following the Paramount decree, however, stars now had to labour, as 'sub-contractors', at maintaining and upgrading their personae. King illustrates this by comparing two parallel figures, one from each period: Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster. Among the differences he notes are differences in career continuities, and in the ways relations between image and character were managed. Where Gable follows a 'strategy of reducing all character to the star image personality' (1986: 176), Lancaster - by never committing himself to one studio alone, and by playing against his persona - developed a 'calculating use of star image that turns on discontinuities of character' (179).

Clearly, a crucial change, with long-term consequences, came with the 1948 Paramount decision. But what must also interest us are the ways in which that history has been understood within film studies.

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  • Futsum
    What are the stages of stardom?
    11 months ago

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