How the Stars Were Formed: Hollywood Science
HENRY P. RALEIGH
THE STAR MACHINE (Knopf 2007) is a wonderfully fascinating book for film aficionados whether young or old. If you are, forgive me, among the seniors then you may delight in the remembrance of films and names long thought forgotten. And if among the young, bless you, you will be introduced to a remarkably ruthless, highly efficient and unquestionably successful organization for the making and marketing of films of which nothing remains today.
Written by Jeanine Basinger, chair of film studies at Wesleyan University, the work details in 586 pages the star making system devised and perfected by Hollywood studios between 1930 and 1950, the points at which the silents have made the transition to sound and post-World War II years when the system, for a variety of reasons, breaks down. Ms Basinger writes with an exceptionally keen eye for film and the techniques used by the studios to showcase their 'products', as they referred to contract players. With an obvious love for film and a warm regard for the actors, Ms Basinger spins out tales of luck, success, tragedy, failure and occasional rebellion. If the studio system's star making machine too often seems cynically calculating, the author is quick to remind that it was, after all, a money-making business and its 'products' were nourished, served, cared for, and protected from harm in ways unheard of in the current industry where actors are largely on their own.
The qualities that made a star were as mysterious then as they are still. A seemingly likely candidate with looks and acting ability would fail to show star quality before the camera; the most unlikely candidate might perversely exhibit 'it' — whatever 'it' was it could only be summed up in the expression, "You know it when you see it". When 'it' was spotted or even guessed at, the machine went to work on its development, to produce a money-making product for so long as the product gave a good return. The stages in the ascent and descent of a star were not very complex. A cruel contemporary jest quoted by the author puts it neatly: "Who is Ben Affleck?, Find Ben Affleck, Find a young Ben Affleck, Who is Ben Affleck?" What did Ben Affleck do to deserve this slight? He played in two films both wrong for the character he was known by, both dismissed by the critics and worse were financial flops — "Pearl Harbor" in í97, "Gigli" in '03. A few years apart he had no big hits in between or after. Such would never happen in the studio days. Clark Gable starred in seventeen films in one two-year period, Cary Grant averaged six a year and all selected and designed for their unique film personae. If one or two proved a clunker, no matter, plenty of others came along to wipe out audience memory, publicity flacks would have drowned out any negative criticism. But an actor must work and Affleck, like many others, drawing from his long experience in the business now writes and tries his hand at directing, recently "Gone Baby Gone" almost ironically starring his younger brother, Casey.
Film stars today must take on all the chores once done for them by the star system including forming their own production companies. They must be flexible enough to take on diverse roles but not so diverse that they risk straying too far from the way audiences perceive them. The film "Courage Under Fire" floundered at the box office — audiences found it hard to seriously accept Meg Ryan in a blood and thunder combat situation. When asked about her acting, she replied, a bit unhappily, "I twinkle". And without the protection of the star machine, actors lose their privacy, every misstep, every peccadillo exposed to the media. Errol Flynnís destructive behavior could be covered up; Lindsay Lohanís canít.
For old readers, The Star Machine can send them into fits of nostalgia sweetened with a wealth of trivia. Who remembers Maria Montez in the "Cobra Woman" of 1949 or little Margaret OíBrien in 1942 as a refugee of the London blitz wearing an empty incendiary bomb canister around her neck or the Andrew Sisters belting out "Boogie Woogie Bugler Boy" in the 1941 Abbot and Costello "Buck Privates"? An who knew that Lana Turnerís eyebrows had been so closely shaved to play an Asian that they never grew back or that Van Johnson was 4-F because he had a metal plate in his skull or that Veronica Lakeís success was due to the fact that she was shorter than Alan Ladd or that Victor Mature once said, "I canít act and Iíve made sixty-four films to prove it"? Oh, those were the days.
In the long run some things change, some things donít. True back then, and probably still so, a film starís longevity at the top of stardom was about ten years; in only a few cases it might last several decades. Rarest of all are the actors who retained stardom to perpetuity, immortal film icons — Wayne, Bogart, Garbo, Turner among this celestial pantheon. .