Star system (filmmaking)

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The star system was the method of creating, promoting and exploiting stars in Hollywood films. Movie studios would select promising young actors and glamorise and create personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. Examples of stars who went through the star system include Cary Grant (born Archie Leach), Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur), and Rock Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.)

The star system put an emphasis on the image rather than the acting, although discreet acting, voice, and dancing lessons were a common part of the regimen. Women were expected to behave like ladies, and were never to leave the house without makeup and stylish clothes. Men were expected to be seen in public as gentlemen. Morality clauses were a common part of actors' studio contracts.

Just as studio executives, public relations staffs, and agents worked together with the actor to create a star persona, so they would work together to cover up incidents or lifestyles that would damage the star's public image. It was common, for example, to arrange sham dates between single (male) stars and starlets to generate publicity. Tabloids and gossip columnists would be tipped off, and photographers would appear to capture the romantic moment. At the same time, a star's drug use (such as Robert Mitchum's arrest for marijuana possession), drinking problems, divorce, or adultery would be covered up with hush money for witnesses or promises of exclusive stories (or the withholding of future stories) to gossip columnists.

Beginnings of the star system

In the early years of the cinema (1890s–1900s), performers were not identified in films. There are two main reasons for this.

  1. Stage performers were embarrassed to be in film. Silent film was only considered pantomime. One of an actors' main skills was their voice. They were afraid that appearing in films would ruin their reputation. Moguls such as Adolph Zuckor, founder of Famous Players in 1912, brought theater actresses such as Sarah Bernhardt into the movies however audiences wanted movie stars.[1] Early film was also designed for the working class. Film was seen as only a step above carnivals and freak shows.
  2. Producers feared that actors would gain more prestige and power and demand more money.

Thomas Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) forced filmmakers to use their equipment and follow their rules, since they owned the patents of much of the motion picture equipment. The MPPC frowned on star promotion, although, according to research done by Janet Staiger, the MPPC did promote some stars around this time.

The main catalyst for change was the public's desire to know the actors' names. Film audiences repeatedly recognized certain performers in movies that they liked. Since they did not know the performers' names they gave them nicknames (such as "the Biograph Girl," Florence Lawrence, who was featured in Biograph movies).

Producer Carl Laemmle promoted the first movie star. He was independent of the MPPC and used star promotion to fight the MPPC's control. Laemmle acquired Lawrence from Biograph. He spread a rumor that she had been killed in a streetcar accident. Then he combated this rumor by saying that she was doing fine and would be starring in an up-coming movie produced by his company, the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP).

The development of film fan magazines gave fans knowledge about the actors outside of their film roles. Motion Picture Story Magazine (1911–1977) and Photoplay. They were initially focused on movies' stories, but soon found that more copies could be sold if they focused on the actors.

The creator of the star system in any form of entertainment was P. T. Barnum in the mid 19th century, a system of promotion he developed for his Museum of Freaks and later his Greatest Show on Earth circus. Barnum's biggest stars were Jenny Lind, Tom Thumb and Jumbo.

Also, precedents set by legitimate theater encouraged film to emulate the star system of the Broadway stage. Broadway stars in the late 19th century were treated much like film stars came to be treated by the middle of the 20th century. The main practitioner of the star system on Broadway was Charles Frohman, a man whom Zukor, Laemmle, Mayer, Fox and the Warner Brothers emulated and who later perished in the Lusitania sinking.

Star system in American cinema

The cinema operates from three eyes: the eyes of the director and the cameraman, the eyes of the protagonists, and finally, the eyes of the audience. The secret of the star system comes with the second one.[2] In movies, the most efficient way to show the emotions of a certain character is by inserting a shot of him reacting to a specific action (generally, the action is placed just before or after). This is what is called a reaction shot[3]

The reaction shot is a substitution; a mimetic transfer of the spectator's feelings that brings him to identify himself in the star. It is like a mirror or a double, but with a sublimated image. Marilyn Monroe is a great example of the use of the reaction shot. In many of her films, the audience can appreciate many long close ups of her face reacting. At this point, the spectator has a privileged relationship with her; something even better than being her friend or a member of her family: for a moment, the viewer is Marilyn Monroe. In the Hollywood system[clarification needed], an actor can never really become a character: he is a star, no matter the quality of his performance[clarification needed].[4][ambiguous]

Myths and dreams of a society

Another important aspect of the Hollywood star system is the stars' ability to convey the myths and dreams of their society, such as the myth of the "self made man", which for many viewers represents the belief that everyone has a chance of happiness in America. For a consumer of the star system, looking at these stars is a way to continue believing that anything is possible, regardless of class or money. Thus, the star system creates hopes and preserves the ideals of a still young country. The film industry is more than aware of this, and puts all of its power into the stars[clarification needed].[5]

Decline of the star system

From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was somewhat regular for studios to arrange the contractual exchange of talent (directors, actors) for prestige pictures. Stars would sometimes pursue these swaps themselves. Stars were becoming selective. Although punished and frowned upon by studio heads, several strong-willed stars received studio censure & publicity for refusing certain parts, on the belief that they knew better than the studio heads about the parts that were right for them. In one instance, Jane Greer negotiated her contract out of Howard Hawks' hands over the limp roles he had been foisting on her. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis both sued their studios to be free of their gag orders (Davis lost, de Havilland won). After completing The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe walked out on 20th Century Fox and only returned when they acquiesced to her contract demands. The publicity accompanying these incidents fostered a growing suspicion among actors that a system more like being a free agent would be more personally beneficial to them than the fussy, suffocating star system. The studio-system instrument Photoplay gave way to the scandal-mongering Confidential. In 1959 Shirley MacLaine sued famed producer Hal Wallis over a contractual dispute. This suit was another nail in the coffin.[6] By the 1960s the days of the star system were numbered.

The conspiratorial aspect of the studio system manipulating images and reality, eventually began to falter as the world and the news media began to accept the dismantling of social boundaries and the manufactured virtue and wholesomeness of stars began to be questioned; taboos began to fall. By the 60s and 70s a new, more natural style of acting ("the Stanislavski Method") had emerged, been mythologized and enshrined; and individuality had been transformed into a treasured personal quality. With competition from TV, and entire studios changing hands, the star system faltered and did not recover. The studio system could no longer resist the changes occurring in entertainment, culture, labor, and news and it was completely gone by 1970.

Contemporary stardom

The phenomenon of stardom has remained essential to Hollywood because of its ability to lure spectators into the theater. Following the demise of the studio system in the 1950s and 60s, the star system became the most important stabilizing feature of the movie industry. This is because stars provide film makers with built in audiences who regularly watch films in which their favorite actors and actresses appear.[7]

Contemporary Hollywood talent agencies must now be licensed under the California Labor Code, which defines an agent as any "person or corporation who engages in the occupation of procuring, offering, promising, or attempting to procure employment for artist or artists." [8]:167 Talent agencies such as William Morris Agency (WMA), International Creative Management (ICM), Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and many more started to arise in the mid-1970s. CAA represented the modern agency, with new ways of marketing talent by packaging actors, agencies are able to influence production schedules, budgeting of the film, and which talent will be playing each particular character. Packaging gained notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s with films such Ghost Busters, Tootsie, Stripes, and A League of Their Own. This practice continues to be prominent in films today such as Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore, Waterboy, and Billy Madison. The ease of selling a packaged group of actors to a particular film insures that certain fan groups will see that movie, reducing risk of failure and increasing profits.[8]:167–180

See also


  1. Basinger, Jeanine (2007). The Star Machine. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-4000-4130-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Warren, Paul. "Le secret du star system américain", L'Hexagone, 2002, p. 11.
  3. Warren 2002, p. 12.
  4. Warren 2002, p. 19.
  5. Lévi-Strauss, "L'analyse structurale du mythe", Plon, Paris, 1958
  6. Hanrihan v. Parker, 19 Misc. 2d 467, 469 (N.Y. Misc. 1959)
  7. Belton, John (2008-11-10). American cinema/American culture. McGraw-Hill. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-07-338615-7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 McDonald, Paul, and Janet Wasko. The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.