Star system (filmmaking)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The star system was the method of creating, promoting and exploiting movie stars in Classical Hollywood cinema. 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 (see Clara Bow) 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, especially if one of them was homosexual (as in the case of Rock Hudson, Tab Hunter, and others). 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 actors' main skills was their voice. They were afraid that appearing in films would ruin their reputation. 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-) and Photoplay. They were initially focused on movies' stories, but soon found that more copies could be sold if they focused on the actors.

Also, precedents set by legitimate theater encouraged film to emulate the star system of the stage. Theater stars in the late 19th century were treated much like film stars came to be treated by the middle of the 20th century.

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 Hawk's 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 would sue famed producer Hal Wallis over a contractual dispute. This suit was another nail in the coffin. 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.

See also

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