America is a country with no aristocracy, no landed gentry, and ostensibly no barriers to rising in society. Of course, the paradox of American culture is that the above is true while at the same time being utterly false. If social differences are more fluid than in, say, Great Britain, they are still undeniably real. Yet even the most egalitarian of societies needs its heroes, as it needs the pageant of history to provide context, and in the twentieth century movies, and the movie stars who inhabit them, fulfilled that vital function, substituting for the heroes and villains once found in books. Onscreen and in anecdotal form (Hollywood history is told most often via the anecdote) movie stars comprise a class that is as close to Olympian as any collection of individuals has ever been. "Once there were no film stars," writes film historian Ronald L. Davis. "In the early days of silent pictures studio heads didn't advertise the names of actors, were resistant to the idea of creating stars, realizing that fame would bring pressure for higher salaries. For the first year or two of her film career, Mary Pickford was known simply as 'The Girl with the Golden Curls."' It was the Edison Bund (Thomas Edison's early film production studio) that suppressed Mary Pickford's and Lillian Gish's identities, even after the public clamored for their names, and due to their intransigence, they soon lost control of the industry itself. With the advent of the second generation of filmmakers in the 1910s, this situation changed rapidly. The men who created Hollywood, and with it, the institution of the film star, were, for the most part, immigrants; and more often than not, entrepreneurs. Many of them came to film from some part of the fashion industry, where the ability to anticipate public tastes was indispensable. Adolph Zukor, the first film producer to judge the market potential of play-length films, was also among the first to use an international star—in this case the legendary actress Sandra Bernhardt—as a selling point, building the publicity campaign around his 1916 film, Queen Elizabeth, upon Bernhardt's much-vaunted reputation.
By the 1918 release of D. W. Griffith's epic, Birth of a Nation (prominently featuring Lillian Gish) the movie star had become the linchpin of film marketing. The new film moguls saw the advantage in mimicking Broadway theater, where the presence of certain name actors could insure the success of a play, but they also perceived that film was a medium of broad, simple gestures. It wasn't enough to merely present an actor and hope for the best. Actors had to be easily recognizable and their characters consistent from one film to the next, lest the audience (at the time film audiences were decidedly plebeian) become confused. Studio executives tailored an actor's image around a few easily recognizable features, and having once established their identity, repeatedly cast them in similar roles. Hence, Theda Bara always played an exotic seductress, Rudolph Valentino, the Arab prince, and John Gilbert, a Latin lover. It was a frustrating situation for any serious actor, but lucrative for the studios.
To go with their screen personas, the studios furnished their actors with new names and, often, new biographies as well. The original film "vamp," Theodesia Goodman, a tailor's daughter, was transformed by Fox Studios in the early 1920s from a nice Jewish girl from Ohio into the illegitimate daughter of a French artist and an Arabian princess named Theda Bara. It was widely reported that her name was an anagram for "Arab Death."
Many stars, John Gilbert for one, resented their being typecast. But most film stars of the time were not trained actors, and were content not to look a gift horse too closely in the mouth. Many relished their newfound notoriety. Tom Mix, the star of cowboy serials, lived up to his cowboy image onscreen and off, furnishing his mansion with a wealth of garish Western memorabilia and driving around town in an Lambretta automobile while wearing his trademark white sombrero. Rudolph Valentino, however, used his considerable wealth to hide from a prying public, buying the property around Falcon Lair, his Benedict Canyon estate, in order to ward off importuning fans. And from all accounts, Valentino saw acting as a means to an end, taking little pleasure from his acting, simply accepted the checks and steeling himself for another stint of hard work.
If many silent stars were ambivalent about their careers, they were more devoted to the lifestyle acting afforded them. They lived by the credo propounded by Gloria Swanson, who, shortly after buying razor-blade millionaire King C. Gillette's Beverly Hills mansion, announced, "I have decided that while I am a star, I will be every inch and every moment a star." The new elite built veritable monuments to their celebrity, palaces befitting their status as pseudo-royalty. Very few exercised the modesty of Clark Gable, whose modest ranch house sat amidst a working ranch, but followed instead the lead of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, whose converted hunting lodge, Pickfair, with its bowling alley, screening room, acres of landscaping, swimming pool, and ponds for canoeing became the measuring yard of accomplishment for the nouveaux riche. John Barrymore turned the modest mission-Spanish dwelling he bought for $50,000 into a seven-acre ode to bad taste, with sixteen separate buildings, a Japanese garden, aviary, and a tower built above his bedroom to which he could retire via trap door when the demands of public life grew too heavy for him to take.
The movie star's extravagance was grist for the mill of the slew of magazines and newspaper columns devoted to this new breed of royalty. In the 1920s, no fewer than twenty-six fan magazines, publications like Motion Pictures, Picture Play, The New Movie, Screenland, and Photoplay, appeared to fulfill this vital function. The nation hungered for news about their stars, but not just news. All the minutiae of their daily lives—what they wore, their hobbies, who they entertained for dinner, their secret hopes and aspirations—were all assiduously reported, and a star who was hostile to the press played a dangerous game with their career. Often the stars took pains to appear ordinary or underscore the sacrifices of show business. Confided Norma Shearer to Modern Screen: "I love to go to my friends' houses for an evening. I love to have them come to my house…. I don't care for huge parties. I seldom go to them and never, never give them." "Fame imposed on Milton Sills the curse of nerves…. He forced himself through picture after picture. Finally came a nervous breakdown," went another story.
If a star did not in fact have their own personal publicist, studio publicity departments made sure to keep their stars cooperative, eagerly arranging interviews and publicity appearances, orchestrating the star's off-screen life as carefully as their filmed performances, including at times who they were seen with in public, and who they married. A star's good name was money in the bank, and after suffering through the many scandals that rocked Hollywood in the 1920s, many a studio publicist went to profound lengths to shield a valuable star from the potentially disastrous effects of their private missteps.
The reigning—and rival—queens of Hollywood gossip were Louella Parsons, whose column was syndicated in the powerful Hearst newspaper empire, and Hedda Hopper, another columnist. At the peak of their careers in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the two had a combined readership of 75 million readers, and each wielded their power ruthlessly, nursing grudges for years on end, sometimes going to great lengths to scuttle a career. This was the case in Hopper's vendetta against Charlie Chaplin. Upon his engagement to 18-year-old Oona O'Neill in 1943, Hopper was instrumental in bringing a paternity suit against Chaplin on behalf of another youngster allegedly made pregnant by the comic. Blood tests revealed the child was not his, but by then the damage was done. When Parsons learned that the role model for Citizen Kane (1941) was her boss, she launched a concerted effort to stop the film's release and drive Orson Welles from Hollywood, which is what eventually happened. While the pair could indeed do great damage to a nascent career, when it came to established stars, their influence was limited. Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, and Laurence Olivier all felt the lash of the gossips' poison pen with little consequence to their popularity.
Star status was a tricky thing to maintain. Some stars, including Chaplin and Pickford, had the business savvy and the talent to endure, but the exception proved the rule. When a familiar profile fell out a favor, the public could be as cold as they had been adoring. "So what?" ran the summation of a piece by columnist Faith Service. "A newer star appears and to you, Fickle Public, our heroine becomes—the Forgotten Face." Most actors were so thrilled with the amounts of money they made that they spent lavishly, only to find themselves inexplicably out of favor with the public or the studios or both. The tragedy of stardom (luridly documented in Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon series) was that success so blinded young, marginally talented performers that despite the object lessons of their fellows, they rarely thought that their star, having ascended, would plummet. This became part of the allure of star-watching, the schadenfreude of seeing the mighty fall. And a fall from grace was a deceptively simple thing. It might be due to the caprices of a restless public, or a too-public display of arrogance, but once you were out, as so many found, the road back into public favor was more often a cul-de-sac. "Looking back on Hollywood," wrote Joan Fontaine, "I realized that one outstanding quality it possesses is … fear. Fear stalks the sound stages, the publicity departments, the executive offices. Since careers often begin by chance, by the hunch of a producer or casting director, a casual meeting with an agent or publicist, they can evaporate just as quixotically."
Until 1944, actors, regardless of salary, were basically the chattel of whatever studio held their contract, existing at the whims of the studio heads who dictated what parts they would play, and how they would appear to the viewing public. But in that fateful year, Olivia de Havilland, who as a result of a contract dispute had not appeared in a movie for three years, won her lawsuit against Warner Brothers. This suit, combined with the anti-trust ruling that had forced the major studios to divest themselves of their theaters, opened the industry to independent producers. The locus of power began to shift away from the studios and into the hands of the stars themselves, who with their agents and managers were not only accountable for their image, but in packaging and producing films. "Stars discovered that working for the majors meant they couldn't hold on to most of their earnings," publicist Arthur Mayer said in an interview. "Each star thereupon sought to establish his own company … if you own a company, you can arrange your taxes quite differently…. So the stars went out for themselves." Many stars started production companies; Rosalind Russell and her husband, director Frederick Brisson, formed Independent Artists, producing The Velvet Touch in 1947. Burt Lancaster and his agent, Harold Hecht, produced their first film, The Crimson Pirate, in 1952, and went on to produce a string of well-received films such as Marty and The Bachelor Party.
The perception of the movie star didn't change overnight, but in increments. By the 1950s, the cult of the movie star became the cult of the actor. A pretty face could still excite, but more and more it was an actor's skills that brought him or her fame. And because they were no longer studio employees, the stars were no longer beholden to publicity departments to smile and nod and give interviews to reporters. Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, and James Dean disdained the careful choreography of studio publicists, guarding their privacy and independence. Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor were still sex symbols, but they no longer were forced to hide their personal strife. No longer were the stars demi-gods or goddesses residing in unearthly splendor. Now they were perceived as frail, human, sharing the attributes of lesser mortals. A marijuana possession conviction failed to tarnish Robert Mitchum's allure, nor did the marital strife of Marilyn Monroe detract from her star appeal. Maybe it was the general prosperity of the times. Movies were no longer a novelty—as in the 1920s—or an escape—as in the 1930s and 1940s. Movies were simply entertainment, and the stars simply entertainers.
By the late 1960s, Hollywood was at a low ebb. The public might be temporarily aroused by a Steve McQueen or Robert Redford, but with James Dean and Montgomery Clift dead, there was little to attract the baby-boom generation. Stars like Rock Hudson and Doris Day seemed out of step, not with it, no longer pertinent. The new generation of stars, often second generation Hollywoodites, were not merely actors but rebels. And not in a symbolic sense as James Dean had been, but revolutionaries. In varying degrees, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, and Jane Fonda were all part of brewing anti-war, counterculture rebellion, and they took aim at society both on and offscreen; Warren Beatty in particular caused a stir with his portrayal of Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), not so much for his character's violence as for his impotence.
If many 1960s-era movie stars didn't exactly take vows of poverty, they did evince less concern with material things than their predecessors. The British actress Julie Christie was notorious for both her radical politics and her lack of concern with money: Warren Beatty once had to retrieve a substantial royalty check from a Beverly Hills sidewalk after it had fallen unnoticed from Christie's purse. Jane Fonda drew the scorn of middle America for visiting North Vietnam. The French film director Jean Luc Goddard later made a documentary on her trip consisting of a single image: that of Fonda sitting atop a North Vietnamese tank.
And Hollywood was no longer lily white, as it had been, at least in appearance, for so many years. The new Hollywood stars no longer took pains to hide their ethnic origins. Nor were they classically handsome, although for the most part women actors were held to a different standard. Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and Harvey Keitel bore little resemblance to the stars of yesteryear, and for the first time, black men, like Sydney Poitier and Bill Cosby, would achieve mainstream success as more than character actors. Their grittiness was part and parcel of their appeal, and for a time, the rules of the game changed sufficiently to allow casting against type for both men and women.
Hollywood is at heart a conservative industry. It is also, in its eighth decade of existence, an industry built on nepotism. Like Jane and Peter Fonda, Warren Beatty, and Shirley MacLaine, the film stars of the 1990s are often the product of one or two generation of selective breeding and what Joan Didion calls "the last extant stable society." In this last extant stable society the role of the movie star is a well-known commodity, and its pitfalls well-known pitfalls. If today such things as same-sex relationships, black leading men and women, feminists, and miscegenation are accepted, the game itself has changed very little. The same could be said of the public's relationship to movie stars, one of adoration and enduring fascination. In retrospect, the late 1960s and early 1970s appears as a short aberration in an otherwise uninterrupted, continuous stream of manufactured gods and goddesses, sex symbol selling an idealized version of the masculine and feminine. In today's age of diminished expectations, movie stars still hold out the promise that a pot of gold does exist at the end of the rainbow, and this pot is on display to the public who live out a dream of wealth and physical charms vicariously.
Screenwriter Budd Schulberg once observed that "Hollywood, after all, was only a picture of America run through the projector at triple speed…. Hollywood [has] always been excessive, speeded- up, larger-than-life reflection of the American Way." It is the lot of film stars to play out these excessive, larger-than-life visions of America, and in so doing, embody America. Like the demi-gods of old, they are half-breed creatures, equal parts mortal and immortal, for in their films, something of their time and their essence is captured. And like the Greek pantheon (it is no accident that an exclusive Hollywood development is known as "Mount Olympus"), movie stars are indeed something like gods to Americans. On screen and off they can be tragic, comic, or virtuous, and modern Americans need these figures to provide context in their own lives. We need to learn of Elizabeth Taylor's ongoing travails in the National Enquirer, or read about how very down-to-earth Brad Pitt is in Premiere. We want to learn about Jack Nicholson attacking a passing car with a golf club. Extenuating circumstances rise up and block a clear picture of the trajectory—downward or upward—of everyday life. But in the life of a movie star, everything is as vivid as technicolor.
Anger, Kenneth. Hollywood Babylon. San Francisco, Straight Arrow, 1975.
——. Hollywood Babylon II. New York, Dutton, 1984.
Davis, Ronald L. The Glamour Factory. Dallas, Southern Methodist University Press, 1993.
Didion, Joan. The White Album. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1979.
Hutchinson, Tom. Screen Goddesses. New York, Exeter Books, 1984.
Kobal, John. Gods and Goddesses of the Movies. London, Crescent Books, 1973.
Niven, David. Bring on the Empty Horses. New York, Putnam, 1975.
——. The Moon's a Balloon. New York, Putnam 1971.
Sommers, Robin Langley. Hollywood: The Glamour Years (1919-1941). New York, Gallery Books, 1987.