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“When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

stardom or slavery?                                          Erika Otsuka

 

Born in 1936, Jeanine Basinger grew up watching movies produced during the rise of Hollywood. Her interest in the movie industry followed Basinger through adulthood, becoming the founder and curator of cinema archives at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. She is also an active in many organizations such as the American Film Institute. Other than the Star Machine, Basinger has written works such as Silent Night and Shirley Temple.

 

 

In the late 1800s, silent movies ruled the world as actors over-dramatized to compensate for the lack of sound. Television did not exist; thus, people watched musicals on stage or heard them on the radio. But as sound revolutionized movies, Hollywood expanded, increasing the need for entertainers. Controlling, yet successful, the “star machine,” was thus introduced, “transform[ing] ordinary men and women into the gods and goddesses.” 1 In The Star Machine, Jeanine Basinger compares this star-picking system to a machine, which could malfunction, produce either a successful product or junk, and mass-produce in little to no time. The “products” of these machines were the stars.

Basinger divides her book into two sections – one dedicated to the facts and the other to her personal opinions—and into four parts. In her first part, Basinger explains the star system, admitting that the words “movie star” have never been clearly defined by the industry. Not all stars follow Hollywood’s definition of glamour and beauty; rather the stars must have “it” or the “X-factor.” 2 In the end, the final judge of the potential star’s fate is the audience, who can make or break a career. Despite its corruption and degenerate morals, Hollywood survived through times of great economic hardship, such as the Great Depression, as people flocked to the movies to escape reality. Studios such as MGM, Paramount, and Warner kept their machines well oiled, allowing for maximum output and profit and preventing breakdowns and delays. Nonetheless, stardom, despite all of its wealth and publicity, had its price – the star forfeited all sense of identity and the friendship of those around him. Once the machine started running, the star lost family and friends, turned to drugs to handle the loneliness; consequently, “stardom [was] a real bitch.” 3 The machine restricted the actors, teaching them obedience and their limits. Under the system, the star would be completely under the control of the studio. They would agree to the name change, to the hair dyes, and to the plastic surgery. To guarantee a “long shelf life,” a potential star underwent three processes with the audience—they had to respond to the audience’s first impression, secure their status, and confirm their type. 4 They agree to the name change; they agree to the typecasting and to the genre in which they fit best. Yet, despite its flaws, the process was successful.

Like any machine, despite its well maintenance, the “well-oiled” star machine could malfunction even with continued maintenance; a failure of a product is always possible. 5 But unlike any other company, which would analyze the reason for failure, the studios never looked back. The audience keeps looking forward, so when a star fails or dies, the gears kept turning. However, Basinger emphasizes only the biggest malfunction: promoting an untalented actor who succeeds.

Being a star required long hours and no sick days. The primary motive was money. Under a standard seven year contract, the stars were bound completely to the “slave system,” having to submit to the studio’s desires. 6 Despite the glamorous shell and regular paycheck, stars “were really like slaves [whom the studios could] buy and sell.” 7 Occasionally though, one star one would fall due to disobedience or popularity. Tyrone Power was a sex symbol who represented the machine’s limits. Throughout his career, he starred in many movies that often times broke box office records, sometimes with female counterparts such as Loretta Young. But after his service in World War II, Powers returned a changed man. His lack of zeal showed on screen and his popularity never returned. However, Lana Turner and Errol Flynn intentionally disobeyed the studios; in both cases, disobedience led to the court room as the sweet, ideal products turned sour. Lana Turner allowed her studio to manipulate her and transform her into a sex symbol, becoming the “epitome” of the products by maintaining her glamour and surviving through the system. 8 Despite her success, her scandalous private life interfered, leading to humiliation. However, Turner overcame her star status and became a legend. Unlike other successful movie stars, Flynn lacked stability and modesty during his career. Off-screen, he dealt with alcoholism and drugs; he fought and was convicted. Despite his scandalous lifestyle, Flynn used his versatility to his advantage and starred in movies such as Captain Blood and various other Westerns. Towards the 1940s, he was accused of raping a minor and was caught in the World War II craze, forcing him to leave Hollywood broke in 1952.

Other stars such as overnight sensation, Deanna Durbin, had talent but were defective.  Along with Judy Garland, Durbin, the “American form of Cinderella”, sang her way into audience’s hearts in popular musicals. 9 Because she started her career young, the studios wanted to preserve her youth, treating her like a child when she was past legal age. Durbin responded by not only protesting but also by marrying, destroying her image as a minor. Unlike other movie stars, she was intelligent and possessed some degree of common sense to notice the system’s subtle manipulation, allowing her to leave the system. Durbin enjoyed her life after her retirement, an unusual accomplishment for anybody involved in the scandalous Hollywood. On the other hand, Jean Arthur was anti-Hollywood, ignoring publicity and dismissing the extravagant lifestyles. However, Arthur, despite her on-screen popularity, was unpopular as a person. Loretta Young outsmarted the machine by recognizing the studio’s techniques and going independent, an action that extended her career. She was never satisfied with Hollywood and decided to take control herself, demanding perfection. Another actress, Norma Sheaters, left the industry for personal reasons. Money did not control her, unlike many other stars, so throughout her career, she sought financial independence and retired due to a new marriage, a growing family, and age. Male stars had advantages over female stars in that they were not as breakable and were more attractive and experienced with age. Born in France, Charles Boyer, the human form of Pepe Le Pew, was never under a long-term contract. In fact, he was difficult to negotiate with because he could always return to and film in Europe. He, like Durbin and Young, was a malfunction of the machine because he was unwilling to submit to the studio. He used his voice to negotiate, something many other products would not ever consider.

Sometimes, the machine spits out an odd product that is unlike the others yet still sells. Not all stars can be glamorous. Somebody has to play the notorious villain, the sleazy con-artist, the goofy and socially awkward teenager. These are added bonuses, the “oddities.” During the 1930s and 1940s, the machine succeeded in arousing public interest in these actors and took advantage of the fact that many male stars were fighting in World War II, allowing the introduction of new faces and new types. It was open to anybody who could connect with the audience. Clifton Webb was not as strong, handsome, or virile as Tyrone Power, but he played his parts well, capturing the hearts of audiences everywhere and becoming the star by “being the anti-star.” 10 The Oscar-winning low-class crook, Wallace Beery was proof of the machine’s abilities. He had a counterpart; for every successful male star came a female star to complete him. The opposites of the glamorous Loretta Young and Tyrone Power couplings, Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler were the unattractive couple, overweight and very unflattering. They argued, they fought, they captured attention. Considered the “younger version of Beery,” Mickey Rooney was talented as well. 11 He was too short, too goofy looking, and too young, but throughout his career, he was highly successful when co-starring with Judy Garland in musicals and in the two hit series Andy Hardy and Family Affair. Along with Beery, Rooney could promote another rising star’s career.

Three types of categories existed in Hollywood – stars, character actors, and supporting actors. The studio controlled the machine, often picking a weaker actor to support the rising star. Ironically, some actors were famous for their supporting characters, who added flair to the lead and to the movie.

The machine ran unchanged up until World War II, which changed America and drastically retooled the machine. Male actors went to fight the war, allowing other newcomers to shine and create a new type – the “boy next door.” Van Johnson, successful for a year, was unlike any other movie stars because he looked like an ordinary person. In his movie The Murder in the Big House, the studio tried to promote the movie rather than the star. World War II expanded the pop industry and introduced the word zany. Zaniness released the tension of war. For eight years, Betty Hutton, the silly “Blitzkrieg Blonde,” entertained distressed viewers by distracting them from their hardships with her “weirdly liberated voice.” 12 Others looked to Abbott and Costello, the older version of the Three Stooges, who made the “Who’s on First?” skit popular. The Exotics, the harem picture, grew as well, as many looked to elsewhere for an escape, leading to the rise of Maria Montez and Carmen Miranda; both were known for their sex appeal and their lavish excessiveness during a time of rationing. Child stars also rose, introducing Margaret O’Brien, a rival to Shirley Temple. Unlike Shirley Temple, O’Brien was not always on “the Good Ship Lollipop,” but instead, she portrayed a serious girl with real feelings.

The machine lasted for about thirty years and mass produced hundreds of stars daily of which only a few captured the audience’s hearts. After World War II ended, the views shifted, leading to a greater focus on the movie and plot rather than the star. It was a slow change, but by the 1960s, “glamour was on life support,” and by the 1970s, stars controlled the machine. 13 Modern day stars, or “neo stars,” have options. They can negotiate, explore other options, and have educational backup; thus, they are no longer financially dependent on acting. However, the modern stars are no longer supplied; they must build their own group, complete with an agent, and sacrifice their privacy to magazines such as Entertainment Weekly, assuming they can overcome their competition. Because of this fascination, audiences forget that stars are no longer objects, but humans. 

The machine, though no longer functional, is still mysterious. It combines the objective – business and publicity—with the subjective – the audience’s perception—and is still “half-calculated and half-serendipitous” and unpredictable. 14  

Despite her harshness, Basinger respects the stars and the system because it was successful in star production. Hollywood was “cautious but careless, romantic and practical, honest and dishonest.” 15 Hollywood was a gambler, but instead of handling chips, it risked people, hoping that one person, one hand, would succeed. Hollywood was two-faced, only revealing the glamorous, the perfect mask. Fascinated with movies all her life, Basinger analyzed the production line, not focusing on the actual movie stars, but instead on how they fit into the system. Before writing The Star Machine, Basinger examined different movie stars such as Shirley Temple, known as the “bossy brat,” and Lana Turner. Because she lived through the entertainment craze, Basinger experienced her subject firsthand, reflecting on times she had seen the stars live. For example, she never understood Abbott and Costello, claiming they made the Three Stooges look like “ballet dancers.”16

Living through World War II, Basinger recognized the influence the war had on America. However, Basinger did not focus on American nationalism nor did she exhibit any anti-extremist attitudes; she focused more on social changes. Nonetheless, Basinger, though not an extremist, still takes pride in Hollywood, celebrating its growth and impact on audiences. Other countries, excluding India, do not have a Hollywood that could survive economic hardships because only Hollywood could offer an escape. It provided movies for audiences throughout American and spread its influence throughout the world.

In a New York Times book review, Manohla Dargis criticizes Basinger for her repetitive structure and poor editing. Basinger lists 14 Andy Hardy movies one page, but claims the existence of 16 on another. Dargis, like Basinger who compares the system to slavery, believes the star system was a “cage [with] a gold-plated [and] ermine-lined.” 17 It caged stars, keeping them wound on a tight clock, controlling their every move. Though they agree that the system is an “oligarchic industry,” Dargis believes that within the stars’ biographies, Basinger lacked historical background about stardom and hardly emphasized the system’scoldblooded operational reality.” 18 For example, Hollywood neglected black performers.

Meanwhile, William Grimes, also from the New York Times, calls Basinger “ingenious,” praising her for “cleverly” chosen examples that illustrated and revealed inefficiencies. While Dargis criticizes Basinger, Grimes praises Basinger’s “bouncy, bright style” and her “shrewd” eye in identifying the system. 19 However, Grimes, like Dargis, recognizes Basinger’s biased point of view; however, he appreciates the odd combination, how Basinger can both gush and inform.

The Star Machine is rather repetitive often using two stars as examples when one would suffice. However, despite being a nonfiction book, it has a personality, unlike many other history-dominated books; Basinger weaves her personal experiences and opinions with the actor’s biography and allows her bias to shine through her blunt diction and judgments.

Hollywood produced movies that were shown across the country, even worldwide. People everywhere watched Lana Turner’s seductive entrances and the passionate romance between couplings. Audiences everywhere reacted to these products, expressing their opinions, criticizing the actors’ talent, voice, and looks. Hollywood is in California, but Hollywood did not hit just California – it impacted the world. The movies “manufacture illusions” and offered an alternate worlds, lives impossible to create in reality. 20 Movies allowed people with and without talent to reach to audiences outside of their region. Movies connected the citizens of the United States, giving each moviegoer a topic of conversation. Hollywood changed in response to its audiences, which came from everywhere, not just California.

However, the movies came straight from Hollywood, California, where nice weather with long sunny days and little seasonal variation created the perfect setting for a glamorous lifestyle. During the rise of the movie industry in the 1930s, Hollywood became the focal point of stardom, the place for scandal and drama, both off and on screen. With the exception of Bollywood, a remake of Hollywood in India, no other place exists, even now. All “legendary figures” lived in Hollywood; the most famous people in the country stepped on the same ground, saw the same sights, and touched the same building, creating the perfect tourist attraction. 21 Because of Hollywood, California is unique from its sister states. Hollywood revolutionized entertainment by creating films that helped people forget about their miserable lives. Despite its shallowness and emphasis on beauty, the film industry provided a momentary escape from pain, giving emotional support that nothing else could provide. The industry single-handedly transformed American culture, creating a sense of community. Just by creating Hollywood, California unified strangers across the country, a feat never before attempted.

Through her analysis and detailed examples of stars, Basinger explains the “crackpot business[‘s]” function and the techniques it used to produce a successful product; the more successful the products, the more money the film industry made. 22 Just like any product, the star’s popularity was always unknown until after their debut. After introducing themselves to the world, they could only hope they would be treated externally well to compensate for the industry’s lack of respect internally.

 

1. Basinger, Jeanine. The Star Machine. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.

2. Jeanine Basinger, 9.

3. Jeanine Basinger, 71.

4. Jeanine Basinger, 74.

5. Jeanine Basinger, 13.

6. Jeanine Basinger, 131.

7. Jeanine Basinger, 131.

8. Jeanine Basinger, 181.

9. Jeanine Basinger, 257.

10. Jeanine Basinger, 425.

11. Jeanine Basinger, 442.

12. Jeanine Basinger, 490.

13. Jeanine Basinger, 523.

14. Jeanine Basinger, 453.

15. Jeanine Basinger, xiii.

16. Jeanine Basinger, 501.

17. Dargis, Manohla.  “Hot Properties.” The New York Times 30 December 2007. 1 June 2008 < http://movies.nytimes.com/2007/12/30/books/review/Dargis-t.html?pagewanted=1> 3.

18. Dargis, 3.

19. Grimes, William. “When the Studios Calls the Shots, and Close-Ups.” The New York Times. 30 December 2007.  1 June 2008 < http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/31/books/31grim.html? _r=1&scp=2&sq=The+Star+Machine&st=nyt&oref=slogin> 2.

20. Jeanine Basinger, xiii.

21. Jeanine Basinger, xiv.