Star System

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Star System



To speak of stardom as a system is paradoxical. Film stardom promotes the individuality and uniqueness of certain film performers, yet the term "system" suggests regularity, repetition, and similarity. However, the operations of the star system in cinema rest precisely on this paradox: film stardom is systematic when cinema industries put in place the organized means to repeatedly cultivate, control, and circulate the individuated identities of performers.


Stars function in three main ways within the culture and commerce of popular cinema. First, as performers who appear in films, stars are part of the aesthetic or symbolic content of films. Alongside films, movie stars also appear in other media, like television or radio advertisements, posters, and magazine interviews. Film stars are therefore always presented to the public as mediated identities—what is often referred to as a star's "image." Second, stars are a part of the labor force involved in making films. In an industrial model of film production, filmmaking is organized according to a specialized division of labor, with performers just one category of labor distinct among the various technical and crafts roles. However, not all performers are equal, and the greater artistic and economic power enjoyed by stars means they top a hierarchical structure of film actors as a privileged category of labor. This power is linked to the third way in which stars function in cinema. Stars are employed not only as a source of labor for making films but also as a key resource for use in their promotion. Film producers cast stars to expand the profile of the film in the cultural marketplace, making the star a form of investment or capital deployed in anticipation of future profits.

These three functions—image, labor, and capital—are linked in film stardom. Star images are formed not only through repetition of a performer's identity across films and other media, but also through the differences represented between those images. In the commerce of cinema, star images can be deployed in marketing campaigns to attract audiences by promoting an individuated range of meanings—for example, "a Jack Nicholson film"—offering the repetition of qualities seen in previous performances, while also differentiating a film from the many other star-driven popular titles in the marketplace. Through repetition and difference, star images therefore produce a marketable form of individuality that is fundamental to the star's status as capital. As Janet Staiger has observed in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, stars can be described as "a monopoly on a personality" (p. 101).

Ownership and control of that monopoly is organized through the contracting of star labor. For a single film, a series of films, or for a period of time, stars sign contracts with producers agreeing to the terms under which they will provide their labor. Contracts outline the terms by which the producer or distributor can profit from the rights to use the star's name or likeness in other contexts, such as promotional media or possibly tie-in products. Contracts also detail agreed terms by which the star is to be remunerated for his or her labor, either through a regular salary over a period of time or by payment of a straight fee for a number of films, possibly combined with a share in the future profits of a film. Contracts are therefore central to the operation of stardom as a system for they document in concrete form the ownership and control of stars as image, labor, and capital.


When film and cinema technologies first appeared in Europe and the United States in the mid-1890s, film was sold to consumers on the technological effect of moving images rather than the content of what those images represented. Consequently, the first entrepreneurs who aimed to exploit the commercial potential of the new medium saw its value as an instrument of technological innovation rather than as a new performance medium. In this commercial context, film acting remained an amateur or semiprofessional occupation. American theater already had an established star system, but the nascent film industry saw no immediate need to cultivate and promote stars. Frequently early cinema would see technicians or amateurs performing in films, although some professional theater actors did venture into acting for the camera. Until industrialization, the volume of film production was insufficient to provide actors with regular employment and film acting was regarded merely as a means for supplementing income from the theater.

In the period from 1907 to 1914, several developments occurred in American cinema that professionalized film acting and provided the foundations for the film star system. To supply the nickelodeon boom during the years 1907 to 1909, filmmakers increased the volume of film production, providing the beginnings of a move toward the large-scale industrialization of cinema, including the introduction of a specialized division of labor to rationalize film production. Before 1907 more documentaries and comedies were produced than dramas and tricks. After 1907, however, comedies and dramas together began to surpass nonfiction forms, and by the following year over 90 percent of films made were fictional narratives. These conditions may have provided the context for the professionalization of film acting, but the emergence of the star system in American cinema required further means to distinguish stars as a special category of film actor. In Picture Personalities (1990), a history of the early star system in America, Richard DeCordova argues that the system became possible only after film companies began actively advertising and promoting the names of their performers. Prior to 1909 the names of actors were kept anonymous, partly because producers feared the advertising of names would prompt actors to demand higher salaries; however, after this date the names of performers began to appear on film credits and posters. Besides its historical importance, naming remains fundamental to the operations of the star system, for the name individualizes the star's identity as a marker of repetition and difference, identifying the unique monopoly of a star's image. Naming therefore contributes to the commodification of the star's identity as an image that can be used and sold in public culture.

With naming, producers and moviegoers had the means to identify links between a series of film roles by a performer, providing the foundation for the construction of a performer's onscreen professional identity. However, DeCordova argues that the film star system fully came into being only after 1914, when the press in America began to publish stories and features covering the off-screen lives of film performers. This coverage documented the private lives of the performers in ways that were never truly private, for it always offered a vision of the star's life designed and offered up for public attention. Frequently, in the early days of cinema, the practice was to represent the private lives of stars as the perfect complement to the type of roles they played onscreen. However, during the early 1920s a series of star scandals made the headlines. Most famously, the comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle (1887–1933) was tried but acquitted of raping and killing a young woman. Scandals disrupted beliefs in the private life of a star as the simple reflection of his or her onscreen image.

DeCordova's history of the star system tracks the emergence of different categories of knowledge or discourse about film performers. Naming made the performer's onscreen image—the product of a succession of film roles—known, and press coverage made a star's private life knowable. But as the discussion of scandal revealed secrets that often contradicted the version of the star's private life given to the press, a distinction could then be drawn between the star's "private" off-screen image (that is, the image of privacy publicly offered to the press) and the private off-screen image that was intended to remain private and secret but nevertheless publicly known. These categories are valuable for mapping the realms of knowledge about star performers that still endure in contemporary film culture.


The emergence of publicly circulated knowledge about performers was foundational to the making of film stardom. In the 1930s and 1940s Hollywood stardom reached its most systematic phase. During these decades the major vertically integrated studios all instituted arrangements for systematically cultivating and marketing star performers. Talent scouts were hired by the studios to search theaters and clubs for promising new performers. Once signed to a studio, performers would receive in-house coaching to develop their skills. Before a performer appeared in films, he or she might undergo vocal training along with singing and dancing lessons. Initially, a new performer would be tried out in several minor and supporting roles. Those performers who were regarded as star material would progress to lead roles in minor features before graduating to star in major productions. These arrangements provided the studios with systemized routes for the training and "apprenticeship" of performers.

b. William Clark Gable, Cadiz, Ohio, 1 February 1901, d. 16 November 1960

Although Clark Gable would obtain the title "the King" during his years in Hollywood, as a contracted performer at MGM, the dominance of the studio system would mean that Gable was always more ruled than ruling. After an unspectacular stage career, Gable secured a couple of supporting roles in film, with MGM then signing him to a two-year contract with six-month options at $350 per week. That year Gable made eight more films for MGM and two on loan to Warner Bros. as he became integrated into the studio system.

As an MGM star, Gable was paired with many of the studio's other contracted stars: Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Jean Harlow, and Norma Shearer. Repeatedly cast in romantic starring roles, he was frequently required to display a savage, sadistic attitude toward women. Although these roles contributed to making Gable a marketable star image, they equally limited his performance repertoire. In 1932 Gable commented to Photoplay, "I have never been consulted as to what part I would like to play. I am not paid to think."

Gable's individual career at MGM is indicative of the more general conditions defining the star system in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, and the contracting of Gable's labor illustrates the legal and commercial operations of the star system. Shortly after winning the Best Actor Oscar® for his role in It Happened One Night (1934), a film he made on loan to Columbia as punishment for his objecting to being typecast by MGM, in July 1935 Gable signed a new seven-year contract with the studio. MGM held exclusive rights to the use of Gable's name, image, and voice. If Gable were injured or facially disfigured, the studio could suspend him without compensation. Gable would be billed as either star or co-star, with his name appearing on posters and other advertising in letters larger than that of other performers' names. He would work for forty weeks a year, making up to three films in that time.

Gable signed a new seven-year contract in January 1940, raising his salary, and a further contract signed in November 1946 granted him a percentage share in film grosses. In 1954, after MGM refused to renew Gable's contract, he signed for two films with 20th Century Fox. For the remaining six years of his life, Gable worked in the new freelance conditions of Hollywood stardom, appearing in productions for United Artists (e.g., Run Silent, Run Deep, 1958), Warner Bros. (e.g., Band of Angels, 1957), and Paramount (e.g., Teacher's Pet, 1958).


Red Dust (1932), It Happened One Night (1934), Manhattan Melodrama, Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), San Francisco (1936), Saratoga (1937), Gone with the Wind (1939), Mogambo (1953), Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), Teacher's Pet (1958), The Misfits (1961)


Fisher, Joe. "Clark Gable's Balls: Real Men Never Lose Their Teeth." In You Tarzan: Masculinity, Movies and Men. Edited by Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumin, 35–51. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1993.

Harris, Warren. Clark Gable. London: Aurum Press, 2002.

Spicer, Chrystopher J. Clark Gable: Biography, Filmography, Bibliography. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.

Tornabene, Lynn. Long Live the King: A Biography of Clark Gable. New York: Putnam, 1976.

Paul McDonald

To secure and protect the potential marketable value of the performer's identity produced through this system, the major studios signed their most promising performers to contracts that spanned a term of up to seven years. Term contracts defined the legal but also the commercial conditions of the Hollywood star system in the 1930s and 1940s. A contract defined the terms by which a studio had the rights to commercially exploit a star's image or likeness. In signing a term contract with a

studio, a performer agreed to provide the studio exclusively with his or her services. If a performer advanced to the heights of stardom, he or she would be guaranteed riches and fame unknown in other arenas of the performing arts. However, the exclusivity of the personal services contract prevented the performer from seeking work with any other studio.

Alongside the legal and commercial functions, the term contract also served as an instrument of control. A studio could determine what films and roles a star would be cast in, frequently resulting in typecasting, against which many stars complained. Term contracts also served as instruments of discipline. As the emergence of star scandals beginning in the early 1920s destroyed the careers of some popular performers, the studios, to protect the marketable images they had so carefully cultivated and circulated, included morality clauses in contracts to guard against stars committing any damaging transgressions in their private lives.

Faced with the controlling terms under which they worked, many stars entered into disputes with the studios, usually over restrictive casting or when renegotiating their contracts. It was common for studios to loan out their stars to other studios but in certain cases this practice could be used as a way of disciplining a troublesome star by forcibly loaning out the performer to take an uninviting role for a lesser studio. In the most heated disputes, stars played what was the only card left for them—to withdraw their labor and refuse to work. However, in such situations the star could be suspended, with the period of the suspension then added on to the overall duration of the contract. The term contract was therefore both a blessing and a trap: it guaranteed performers regular employment on privileged terms but also granted the studio absolute control over their careers.

From the late 1940s the vertically integrated studio system was gradually dismantled. Hollywood was internally reorganized following the Paramount Decree of 1948, a Supreme Court antitrust ruling against the studios; external influences, including the impact of television, brought about a decline in the moviegoing audience. With film production consequently reduced, contracted stars and other leading talent became a hugely expensive overhead. From the end of the 1940s into the 1960s, the studios therefore gradually phased out the long-term contracting of stars. All performers, including stars, became part of a large freelance labor pool for the industry to draw on. Stars were no longer bound to the studios in the way they had been in the 1930s and 1940s. Freelance stars had greater freedom to select their roles and negotiate significant increases in their fees between films. They also obtained greater creative power through forming their own independent production companies. Without the term contract, the studios no longer had the means to control and discipline stars. Arguably, the star system was built on the very mechanics of that control, and so while Hollywood cinema has continued to be a popular cinema fronted by the images of stars, the rigid systemization of the 1930s and 1940s has been replaced by a looser system based on the circulation of a few major performers across the freelance labor pool.


Many popular cinemas have stars, but beyond Hollywood, few national film industries can claim to have developed a star system. As early American film saw considerable interaction between theater and film, so in Britain, France, and India professional performers of the dramatic and comedy stages occasionally worked onscreen; but most early film performers in these countries remained anonymous. In Britain, stage stars appeared on film from two sources: the legitimate theater

(for example, Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and Sir Herbert Tree) and the music hall (George Robey and Fred Evans). Similarly, in France at the start of the 1900s early films featured performers from the legitimate theater such as Coquelin and Réjane. From 1907 the Film d'Art company signed stars from the Comédie-Française, including Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), Louise Lagrange, and Gabrielle Robinne. Performances by music hall stars like Maurice Chevalier were also committed to film.

In India, after an initial period of actualités, comedies, and trick films, production of narrative features began from 1913 on. At this time the theater entrepreneur Jamsetji Framji Madan expanded his business interests into film. He formed Madan Theatres Limited in 1919, and systematically created a synthesis between theater and film, using stage hits as the material for early narrative film features while casting his leading stage actors in the screen adaptations. A contracted Madan player, the Anglo-Indian actor Patience Cooper, became the first major star of silent cinema in India, with her name promoted on posters by Madan. Cooper was representative of a group of Eurasian actresses, including Ruby Myers, who adopted the name Sulochana, and Renee Smith (b. 1912), who became Seeta Devi, that formed the initial wave of stars in the colonial Indian cinema.

Studios in Britain, France, and India placed their leading performers under contract. In 1905 the French comedian Max Linder (1883–1925) was signed by Pathé, where he would make a series of comedy shorts. Because Linder's performances received popular recognition outside France, Ginette Vincendeau has argued that he was the first international film star. Unlike the long-term contracts offered by the major studios in Hollywood, historically it became the familiar pattern in French cinema for film performers to sign contracts with a producer or director for only one to three films. Consequently, the French cinema never instituted a star system comparable to Hollywood's. The careers of performers were never controlled in the same manner and producers did not work to cultivate and circulate the images of stars with the same intensity, for any effort made by an individual producer to promote a star was sure to be of greater benefit to whomever the star next worked for.

Although the Indian industry would produce stars of its own, until the late 1940s popular cinema in India continued to be dominated by the films and stars of Hollywood. From the 1930s to early 1950s, a number of major studios stood at the forefront of the Indian industry, each with its own contracted stars: Bombay Talkies, Imperial Film Company, New Theatres, Prabhat Film Company, Ranjit Film Company (renamed Ranjit Movietone), and Sagar (later National Studios). For example, the silent star Sulochana signed to Imperial, where she was reportedly paid 2,500 rupees per month in 1933, making her the highest-paid film performer in the period; Kundan Lal Saigal (1904–1947) became the leading star of Indian cinema in the 1930s while signed to New Theatres. Following national independence in 1947, the film industry in India was transformed. As the Hollywood studio system was breaking up, in the early 1950s the studio system in India began to dissolve. A consequence of this change was that performers were no longer retained on term contracts but instead operated on a freelance basis, signing to perform in a specific film or series of films. In a direct challenge to the power of the studios, independent producers offered large payments to star names, thereby providing the context in which star fees would rapidly inflate, accounting for an increasing proportion of the production budget for a film.

Historically, the British cinema has always struggled to define and sustain itself against the overwhelming dominance of Hollywood film. Recognizing the importance of stars for popular cinema, the British film industry has made several attempts to cultivate its own stars and star system. During the 1930s and 1940s leading studios retained stars on contract: Gainsborough Studios' stars included Margaret Lockwood (1916–1990) and James Mason (1909–1984), and in 1947 Dirk Bogarde was signed by Rank's Contract Artists Department, whose talent roster was informally known as "the Rankery." In an attempt to systemize the creation of star identities, during the late 1940s and early 1950s young male and female performers like Joan Collins, Diana Dors, John Gregson, and Christopher Lee had their screen personas groomed through the "Rank Charm School." However, the system never guaranteed work for the performers who passed through; because Rank cultivated a strong English middle-class persona for its performers, their appeal was not only restricted within the social parameters of British cinema but also overseas. As the examples of Charles Chaplin, Vivien Leigh, Cary Grant, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and Catherine Zeta-Jones all illustrate, British-born performers have historically achieved levels of national or international fame to rival the Hollywood stars only after transferring their careers to Hollywood itself.

Although popular cinemas in other national contexts have created star performers and worked to put in place mechanisms to systematically promote the identities of stars, arguably the only cinema to have sustained a long term star system is Hollywood.


Stardom in the cinema has always relied on relationships with various other forms of popular mass media. Historically, relationships between film stardom and other media have operated in two main ways: the flows of performing talent between other media and film, and the use of other media as channels to promote film stars.

As already discussed, theater originally fed the film star system in the earliest decades of cinema. With the birth of radio broadcasting in the late 1920s, a new popular medium arose, creating stars of its own, providing performers such as Bing Crosby (1903–1977) with the exposure to build a film career that continued into the 1960s. After the international popularization of television from the early 1950s, the small screen provided a fresh window for film stars whose glory years had passed to present television drama anthologies. Examples include Robert Montgomery Presents (ABC, 1950–1957), Charles Boyer Theater (1953), and The Gloria Swanson Show (1954). However, for the American cinema, television increasingly provided the testing ground previously served by the in-house training offered by the studios. Numerous stars initially worked in television before achieving film stardom. Clint Eastwood (Rawhide, 1959–1966), John Travolta (Welcome Back, Kotter, 1975–1978), Robin Williams (Mork and Mindy, 1978), Michael J. Fox (Family Ties, 1982), Will Smith (Fresh Prince of Bel Air, 1990), Brad Pitt (Glory Days, 1990), Jim Carrey (In Living Color, 1990–1994), and George Clooney (ER, 1994–1999) are just a few of the performers to gain film stardom following successes in television.

The ways in which the images of stars are produced and circulated also contribute to relationships between film and other media. Alongside films themselves, stars make a number of other media appearances. The name, face, and voice of a star will appear in the press, in television and radio advertisements, and on posters, DVD cases, and magazine covers. The Internet has added to the mixture of media channels circulating star identities, contributing to the presentation of stars in a variety of contexts, from film promotions to fan sites and "celebrity nude" sites. Through these channels, film stars make multiple media appearances, often simultaneously, and cumulatively these channels create and circulate the image of the star. A star's image today is therefore multiply mediated. Film stardom works across diverse sources of media output to make a star's image a sign of similarity and difference. Of course, organizing the multiple appearances of a star's image across different media requires planning. A star's multiple media appearances are therefore among the clearest indicators that film stardom is never the product of the individual performer alone but always of an array of collaborative and institutional actions systematically designed to make performers known to the moviegoing public.

SEE ALSO Fans and Fandom;Film History;Journals and Magazines;Publicity and Promotion;Stars;Studio System


Austin, Thomas, and Martin Barker, eds. Contemporary Hollywood Stardom. London: Arnold, 2003.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Burrows, Jon. Legitimate Cinema: Theatre Stars in Silent British Films, 1908–1918. Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 2003.

Clark, Danae. Negotiating Hollywood: The Cultural Politics of Actors' Labor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

DeCordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Dyer, Richard. Stars. Revised edition. London: British Film Institute, 1998.

Gaines, Jane. Contested Culture: The Image, the Voice, and the Law. London: British Film Institute, 1992.

Garga, B. D. So Many Cinemas: The Motion Picture in India. Mumbai, India: Eminence Designs, 1996.

Gledhill, Christine, ed. Stardom: Industry of Desire. London and New York: Routledge, 1991.

Macnab, Geoffrey. Searching for Stars. London: Cassell, 2000.

McDonald, Paul. The Star System: Hollywood's Production of Popular Identities. London: Wallflower Press, 2000.

Vincendeau, Ginette. Stars and Stardom in French Cinema. London and New York: Continuum, 2000.

Walker, Alexander. Stardom: The Hollywood Phenomenon. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1974.

Paul McDonald