Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Review: 'The Star Machine,' Making A Product That Couldn't Even Be Defined

I'm no actor and I have sixty four films to prove it.
If you want to see the girl next door, go next door.
There is a marvelous scene in the 1956 hit High Society that distills the greatness of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby not as terrific singers, which they of course were, but as consummate movie stars.

It is their rendition of Cole Porter's swingingly whimsical "Did Ya Evah," which as film historian Jeanine Basinger writes, required Frankie and Der Bingles to sing, dance, hit their marks, not mangle the lyrics, deliver the scripted dialogue, stay within their characters, act slightly drunk, keep the beat of the orchestra playback, move around a tight set following a specific choreography and all the while appearing to be utterly at ease while never forgetting that they were rivals for the audience's affection.

This marvelous description of star power comes early in Basinger's The Star Machine, a thoroughly researched and delightfully written layer cake of a book about a business that Hollywood couldn't even define but almost always succeeded in through a combination of astute planning, brilliant marketing, understanding its audience better than the audience understood itself, as well as sheer dumb luck.

Basinger deftly and wittily elucidates the steps in making a star:

* The actor's name would be changed.

"There could be no believable glamor in an Irmagard Gluck or Percy Flutterman," she writes. "If by some lucky chance, your name was deemed 'bankable,' you could keep it. . . . Most potential stars, however, had to undergo the name change. This was imperative if your physical image and your name were at odds. For instance, strongman 'Duke' Wayne's name was the unacceptable Marion Michael Morrison. The tall and exotic beauty Cyd Charisse had the comedy handle of Tula Finklea. Cary Grant was Archibald Leach -- no elegant man of your dream there -- and Robert Taylor, a pretty man always striving to seem more masculine, carried the original name of Spangler Arlington Bruch -- a name that would not work on a marquee, or with his image."

* A fake biography would be created.

"The best part of the studio bio was that it could eliminate anything boring or unsavory about a star's past. It could also exaggerate small things, turning an actor who'd won a meaningless medal at a local swimming meet into a 'celebrated swimming champion.' Fathers who were plumbers became engineers or architects, and two years in reform school could be recast as 'continuing his education.' . . . The studio bio was all in a game, a storytelling game, a shrewd tool that helped suggest to fans how to see the star. Only what seemed right was used; the rest was thrown out."

* Photographs would be taken.

"No one became a star without posing for silly holiday promotions. In looking through old studio publicity shots, it's one thing to see Marilyn Monroe sitting on an exploding firecracker or Esther Williams on a diving board in a bathing suit, but quite another to come across Loretta Young dressed up as an Easter bunny, her ears all a-flop, her eyes a-twitter as she offers a gigantic Easter egg, or Susan Hayward, who later became an Oscar-winning actress, 'riding' a phallic Fourth of July rocket in shorts and high heels, a leering grin on her face. Even Greta Garbo had to pose with a lion (the MGM logo)."

* Planted stories and interviews would appear in fan magazines.

"My favorite plants are the whimsical ones that would run in the movie magazines' gossip columns just to get the name in print. For instance . . . George Brent left the Abbey Players in Dublin to become a secret agent in the Irish Republican Army. Olivia de Havilland could perfectly imitate a dog's bark, and frequently did so just to startle people (a no doubt successful maneuver). Ginger Rogers slept on her stomach and wouldn't be caught dead at a bridge table. Hedy Lamarr consulted the stars before making any decisions, and Errol Flynn 'likes pretty girls and they like him.' (That one, obviously, was true.)"

* The actor would (gasp!) learn to act.

"This was accomplished largely by working the star to death. . . . Casting Clark Gable in seventeen movies in a little over two years reveals the efficiency of the Hollywood factory. While Gable was being 'fixed up' by the studio, sold out on the streets, publicized by studio flacks, written about and photographed and shown off, he was also working at his craft, learning his trade. Since the old system could turn out a great many movies in a single year, Gable could be filming all day, six days a week, mastering the business of movie stardom. For him, the idea of 'movie star' was thus not a mystery. It was his job."

* After learning to act, the actor would be typecast.

"The final step was the one that put the name above the title and could even lead to legendary status: It was typecasting. If the star's special type hadn't already been locked firmly in place by the buildup, or if nature hadn't decreed it in the first place through exotic beauty (Hedy Lamarr) or specialized talent (Eleanor Powell), it had to happen now. Every top-of-the-line movie star had to find a type that he or she could play over and over. And over. That would keep the movies rolling and the money flowing in. The star had to become 'bankable,' which meant the star had to become a recognizable shelf product."

The star machine was never a secret and Hollywood wasn't concerned that stars were manufactured. In fact, the studios let audiences in on the mysteries of the star machine and even made movies about it.

So why didn't the stare machine, predominant for nearly three decades, survive the 1950s?

Because manufacturing stars was no longer a priority and making blockbuster hits became one.

Explains Basinger:

"The 'star' of a movie can be special effects, a big-name director, or controversial subject matter.

" . . . Pundits are now claiming that the time of the star has passed. Even people inside the film business are predicting the 'starless' movie of the future. Does that mean Tom Cruise will be the last of the red-hot movie star? It's doubtful. Probably all that will change, besides their salaries, is who they are, what they play in, and how the public wants to see them.

My only quibbles with The Star Machine are small: Basinger is overly found of italics for emphasis such as in the paragraph above, and her penchant for copious and distracting footnoting. I eventually read right past the italics and just ignored the footnotes because the rest of this book is a delight.

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