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Star System

star systemDefinition: A system by which Hollywood studios created and managed movie stars from the late 1920s to the early 1960s. The system emphasized idealistic personas over acting, which studios molded and publicized, and which actors were contractually obligated to promote and protect.

History: Before 1910, “star” was a music hall term meaning a highly paid performer. So set were the first filmmakers against creating their own stars that films did not credit their actors. But stardom was inevitable in a medium whose audience soon dwarfed that of the stage. More than any other art form save music, the motion picture appealed to audience emotions. Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille exploited this phenomenon with the close-up, filling the screen with what would become synonomous with Hollywood—drop-dead gorgeous faces. Mary Pickford (Little Mary), William King Baggot (King of the Movies) and Florence Lawrence (the Biograph Girl) were among the hotties no studio could keep anonymous for long.

In 1910, Independent Moving Picture Company not only credited but advertised “stars” Lawrence, Baggot and other studio actors, a stroke that generated publicity and with it astronomical ticket sales. A year later, Photoplay and Motion Picture Magazine were published and by 1916 the combined circulations of the two fan magazines approached a half million.

"A star is made, created; carefully and cold-bloodedly built up from nothing, from nobody. All I ever looked for was a face. If someone looked good to me, I'd have him tested. If a person looked good on film, if he photographed well, we could do the rest . . . We hired geniuses at make-up, hair dressing, surgeons to slice away a bulge here and there, rubbers to rub away the blubber, clothes designers, lighting experts, coaches for everything—fencing, dancing, walking, talking, sitting and spitting."

Louis B. Mayer, MGM

The star system was S.O.P. by the mid-1930s. All casting was type casting, and names of stars-to-be were often changed to fit type. With the exception of gangsters, leading actors played idealized characters largely based on history or romantic, adventure and Western novels. But even movies’ gangsters did not miss a shave or swear on screen. Guaranteeing on-screen wholesomeness was strict enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, which did away with dodgy protagonists like those played by Warren William, later nicknamed the "King of Pre-Code." Meanwhile, studio publicists built wholesome off-screen images of stars that no actor could live up to and covered up scandals when actors did not.

By the 1950s there were signs of change. While idealism had provided escape from the Great Depression and World War II, 1950s moviegoers were developing a taste for realism. Films like “From Here to Eternity” (1953) and “Peyton Place” (1957) dealt with adultery and incest. Stars burst on the scene not playing their daddy’s heroes, such as Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1953) and James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955). Moreover, 1952 saw the first edition of Confidential, a Hollywood scandal sheet fed by L.A. private eye Fred Otash and his operatives. Headlines included gotchas such as: “Pssst! Vic Mature: Remember that cute trick you dated? ‘She’ was a he!”

Meanwhile, a 1948 Supreme Court antitrust decision divesting studios of their ownerships in theaters steadily took its toll. By the 1960s, studios could no longer afford stables of contract actors, directors and writers. Agents and independent casting directors replaced the studios as Hollywood’s star makers. And once formed, stars were free agents who defined themselves. As British Shakespearians like Richard Burton and Petor O’Toole strutted onto sound stages, most actors wanted to be accomplished actors, not single personas. Type casting became a phobia. And in the era of the anti-hero, in which Hollywood reflected the cynicism and rebellion of the 1960s, stars with personas—e.g. Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Frank Sinatra—had little morally to live up to. A decade after he was vilified for leaving his wife for Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra was celebrated as America’s favorite swinger.

Related Terms:    Studio System     character actor
master scene script    production value  
    Ulmer Scale

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