THE STAR MACHINE
By Jeanine Basinger – Knopf

This lively tome will delight fans of old Hollywood. Jeanine Basinger’s well-researched, loving discussions of the stars of yesteryear, many now overlooked but still interesting, focus on each respective actor’s relationship to the Hollywood star system, “a well-oiled machine.” Basinger focuses on the thirties through the fifties, this being considered the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when everything was controlled by studio hegemony and nearly everything was done on the lot. Every day new arrivals from Middle America, attractive young men and women with a dream, flooded Hollywood. The chosen would be put through the “factory-like studio system” which involved new hair color, makeup, glamorous clothes, speech and posture training, and, in most cases, a new name. Then, the potential star would be placed in smaller roles to show him/her to the public, who would sometimes respond wildly. Basinger, a seasoned author (Silent Stars), film historian, and head of the film department at Wesleyan University, brings her past experience as a movie theater usher in the forties and fifties into play. Seeing particular films repeatedly on the job, she witnessed audiences responding in identical ways to particular actors. Back then, Basinger explains, movies revolved around stars, and star power had much to do with the simple fact of a star’s physical beauty as much his/her charm or personality. Basinger points out how the camera would linger upon close-ups of stars, allowing the audience to have a nice long look at the beauty of both male and female actors. She offers a pointed response to the influential psychoanalytic-feminist criticism of Laura Mulvey, deploying the concept of “the male gaze” in analyzing and critiquing film. Basinger notes that, while the audience is indeed encouraged to gaze, the studios knew that they were catering to both men and women, so male stars are “objectified” as much as female stars in this era of film. One recurring topic addressed is masculinity. Many male stars, such as Tyrone Power and Valentino, were “beautiful,” possessing a certain androgyny and sensitivity that women appreciated. Once an actor was polished and shown in smaller roles, he/she would be paired up on dates with another actor of his/her fame level, manufacturing fodder for the fan magazines and gossip columns. Actors personal lives were heavily controlled by the studios, and while they were well-paid, Basinger emphasizes that they worked hard for the money. The problems caused by the machine are dealt with in Part Two. One issue is that many actors were typecast in “their” role, and both moviegoers and the studios caused an actor’s life and film roles to get mixed up in a “persona,” expected always to play “themselves.” But as Cary Grant once quipped, “Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant.” Actors were not encouraged to branch out, less so than today. Throughout the book and in the conclusion, Basinger makes illuminating comparisons with contemporary stars and shows how the various “types” that today’s screen idols fall into were well-established in the old days. Bette Davis, Loretta Young, Rita Hayworth, Gary Cooper, Lana Turner, Errol Flynn, along with countless other now lesser-known stars are discussed with love and deep knowledge by the author. Those looking for a thorough but fun history of the studio star system, or those who miss the glamour and mystique of old Hollywood, simply must dive right in. (Michael Snyder)
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