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Book Review: The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger

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Much has been written about Hollywood's Studio System and the stars of the 1930s-1950s, but there has been little said about the machinery and formula that actually went into creating the stars adored by the public. In The Star Machine, film historian Jeanine Basinger, Chair of the Film Studies at Wesleyan University who in her youth was a movie house usher, breaks down the formula and shows readers where it worked and where it didn't, whom it hurt and whom it helped, and who actually beat the system.

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Basinger divides her book into three parts: "Stars and The Factory System," "Problems for the System: The Human Factor," and "Testing the System." 

The entire book offers a fascinating look at the mechanisms of stardom, which takes in not only the appearance, the image, and the roles an actor took on his or her way up but also what appeared in the studio-controlled fan magazines and the actual formula employed. 

Readers will find Part Two the most interesting, as its chapters define how various stars handled the studio system or were handled by it: "Disobedience" gives us two scandal magnets, Lana Turner and Errol Flynn; in "Defection," we meet two stars who fled the studios, Deanna Durbin and Jean Arthur;  "Disentanglement" shows us the sheer defiance of the formula with Loretta Young, Irene Dunne and Norma Shearer; and in "Detachment," Basinger takes a look at two men of infinite grace who never seemed tainted by Hollywood, Charles Boyer and William Powell.  

Only one star, Tyrone Power,  (who shares the book's cover with Loretta Young) has his own chapter.  His story, told in "Disillusionment" is an exceptional one because of the way the studio system, who made Power one of the biggest stars in the world, frustrated him personally and professionally.  Basinger writes of her subject with great empathy and admiration: "He was born to be an actor, but he had signed on with a system that was driven by money…Had he not been so beautiful, he might have been given more challenging parts…For someone without talent, it was the perfect job.  For Tyrone Power, who actually could act, it had to have been some kind of hell." 

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Basinger's embrace of the stars is one of the best things about her book.  She does not write in a gossipy or contemptuous manner.  As she has done in her other marvelous books, including her star-based book Silent Stars, Basinger writes in a refreshingly user-friendly fashion incorporating the points of view of a film historian and fan, but a fan who is able to look critically at the studio system and the stars they manufactured.

So what makes a star? Is it looks? Talent? Personality? The studio monolilths knew one thing: they could pluck someone from obscurity and put him or her through the formula, but unless that person clicked somehow with an audience, no amount of build-up would help. Those who give Jennifer Jones and Norma Shearer short shrift because they were married to studio moguls do them an injustice.  

As can be seen from Darryl F. Zanuck's promotion of his girlfriends Bella Darvi Juliette Greco, or the buildups of the beautiful actresses Barbara Lawrence, Faith Domergue and Sigrid Gurie, without buy-in from the public, it's all for naught. The love affair between audience and performer either happens – or it doesn't.

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About Maria

  • http://vikk.typepad.com/down_the_writers_path/ Vikk Simmons

    Sounds like the book provides an interesting and thoughtful glimpse into a world that no longer exists in this era nonstop celebrity news. While she’s speaking of the past, I would think the reader would be comparing the system to the current crop of stars and their post-system world. I’ll definitely take a further look at this one.

  • Maria

    Vikk, it’s a great book, and she actually does have a chapter about today’s stars “Stardom without the Machine” – I just didn’t include it in the review. Enjoy. Maria

  • http://vikk.typepad.com/down_the_writers_path/ Vikk Simmons

    Now I’m even more intrigued. Thanks, Maria.