Stars are huge balls of very hot, mostly ionized, gas (plasma) that are held together by gravity. They form when vast agglomerations of gas and dust known as molecular clouds (typically 10 to 100 light years across) fragment into denser cores (tenths of a light-year across) that can collapse inward under their own gravity. Matter falling inward forms one or more dense, hot, central objects known as protostars. Rotation forces some of the matter to accumulate in a disk rotating around the protostar(s). As gravity pulls rotating material inward, it spins faster, akin to what happens to figure skaters when they pull their initially outstretched arms in toward their bodies.
In order for material to fall onto a protostar from a rapidly spinning disk, it must slow down. Recent theoretical work suggests that this is accomplished through the interaction of the material with magnetic fields that thread the disks of protostars. Near the disk, the magnetic field is bent into an hourglass shape. Gas particles are flung off the rotating disk by centrifugal force, slowing the rotation of the disk. The ejected material is channeled into narrow jets perpendicular to the disk, while material from the disk falls onto the protostar. Planets may eventually form within the disk. The jets plow into the surrounding medium, sweeping up a bipolar outflow on opposite sides of the protostar. It is not yet known whether the final mass of a star is determined by the initial mass of the core in which it was born or from the clearing of material by bipolar outflows. In any case, the final mass of the star determines how it will evolve from this point on.
Main Sequence Stars
When the star has accumulated enough material so that the temperature and pressure are high enough, nuclear fusion reactions, which convert hydrogen into helium, begin deep within the core of the star. The energy from the reactions makes its way to the surface of the star in about a million years, causing the star to shine. The pressure from these nuclear reactions at the star's core balances the pull of gravity, and the star is now called a main sequence star.
This name is derived from the relationship between a star's intrinsic brightness and its temperature, which was discovered independently by Danish astronomer Ejnar Hertzsprung (in 1911) and American astronomer Henry Norris Russell (in 1913). This relationship is displayed in a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram. A star's color depends on its surface temperature; red stars are the coolest and blue stars are the hottest. The temperature, brightness, and longevity of a star on the main sequence are determined by its mass; the least massive main sequence stars are the coolest and dimmest, and the most massive stars are the hottest and brightest. Objects less than about one-thirteenth the mass of the Sun can never sustain fusion reactions. These objects are known as brown dwarfs.
Red Giants and Red Supergiants
Counterintuitively, the more massive a star is, the more rapidly it uses up the hydrogen at its core. The most massive stars deplete their central hydrogen supply in a million years, whereas stars that are only about one-tenth the mass of the Sun remain on the main sequence for hundreds of billions of years. When hydrogen becomes depleted in the core, the core starts to collapse, and the temperature and pressure rise, so that fusion reactions can begin in a shell around the helium core. This new heat supply causes the outer layers of the star to expand and cool, and the star becomes a red giant, or a red supergiant if it is very massive.
Planetary Nebulae, White Dwarfs, and Black Dwarfs
Once stars up to a few times the mass of the Sun reach the red giant phase, the core continues to contract and temperatures and pressures in the core become high enough for helium nuclei to fuse together to form carbon. This process occurs rapidly (only a few minutes in a star like the Sun), and the star begins to shed the outer layers of its atmosphere as a diffuse cloud called a planetary nebula. Eventually, only about 20 percent of the star's initial mass remains in a very dense core, about the size of Earth, called a white dwarf. White dwarfs are stable because the pressure of electrons repulsing each other balances the pull of gravity. There is no fuel left to burn, so the star slowly cools over billions of years, eventually becoming a cold, dark object known as a black dwarf.
Supernovae, Neutron Stars, and Black Holes
After a star more than about five times the mass of the Sun has become a red supergiant, its core goes through several contractions, becoming hotter and denser each time, initiating a new series of nuclear reactions that release energy and temporarily halt the collapse. Once the core has become primarily iron, however, energy can no longer be released through fusion reactions, because energy is required to fuse iron into heavier elements. The core then collapses violently in less than a tenth of a second.
The energy released from this collapse sends a shock wave through the star's outer layers, compressing the material and fusing new elements and radioactive isotopes, which are propelled into space in a spectacular explosion known as a supernova. This material seeds space with heavy elements and may collide with other clouds of gas and dust, compressing them and initiating the formation of new stars. The core that remains behind after the explosion may become either a neutron star, as the intense pressure forces electrons to combine with protons , or a black hole, if the original star was massive enough so that not even the pressure of the neutrons can overcome gravity. Black holes are stars that have literally collapsed out of existence, leaving behind only an intense gravitational pull.
see also Astronomer (volume 2); Astronomy, Kinds of (volume 2); Black Holes (volume 2); Galaxies (volume 2); Gravity (volume 2); Pulsars (volume 2); Sun (volume 2); Supernova (volume 2).
Bennett, Jeffrey, Megan Donahue, Nicholas Schneider, and Mark Voit. The Cosmic Perspective. Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999.
Kaler, James B. Stars. New York: Scientific American Library and W. H. Freeman,1992.
Seeds, Michael A. Horizons: Exploring the Universe, 6th ed. Pacific Grove, CA:Brooks/Cole, 2000.
Imagine the Universe! NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. <http://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/science/know_l2/stars.html>.
"Stars." Space Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/stars
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Remote yet familiar, stars have fascinated people throughout history and are part of many myths and legends. Although the sun and the moon usually have the leading roles in mythology, often appearing as deities, the stars also appear in many stories. In some cultures, the stars represent part of the cosmos, such as the heavens or the home of the gods, or a path between the earth and another world. In many myths and legends, individual stars or constellations, groups of stars, have special significance.
deity god or goddess
cosmos the universe, especially as an orderly and harmonious system
Explaining the Stars. People who lived before electric lights and air pollution dimmed the night skies saw the heavens glittering
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
with thousands of stars. They developed various stories to explain their brilliant presence.
The Paiute of North America describe the stars as the children of the sun and moon. Because the sun loves to eat his children, the stars disappear whenever he rises above the horizon. However, the moon, their mother, often dances happily across the sky with the stars. To the Yakut of Siberia, the stars are crystal windows that allow the gods to look down at earth. The tent-dwelling Turko-Tatar people of Central Asia picture the sky as a large tent over the earth, with the stars as tiny holes in the tent.
The Milky Way, a dense band of stars that spans the sky, marks the center of the galaxy to which our solar system belongs. In myths, however, the Milky Way has been a road, a river, and a bridge between worlds. According to a Peruvian tradition, the Vilcanota River is a reflection of the Milky Way and water constantly circulates between the two, passing from the river to heaven and back again. The Navajo say that the trickster Coyote created the Milky Way by tossing a blanket full of sparkling stone chips into the sky. Scattered in a great arc, the stones formed a pathway linking heaven and earth.
In many traditions, the stars have been associated with death and the afterlife. The Maya considered the Milky Way to be the road to Xibalba, the underworld. Many Native Americans regard the Milky Way as the path followed by the souls of the dead. According to the Zulu and Ndebele people of southern Africa, the stars are the eyes of dead ancestors, keeping watch on the living from above.
Constellations and Individual Stars in Myths. Chinese mythology includes many references to the stars. Various deities, such as the god of literature and the god of long life, were associated with the stars. One myth that occurs in several versions concerns the Weaver Girl, the goddess who weaves the clouds, and the Herdsman, who tends the cattle of heaven. The two were lovers. When the gods placed them in the sky, the Weaver Girl became the star called Vega, while the Herdsman became either the star Altair or the constellation Aquila. The gods separated the lovers with the river of the Milky Way so that they would not neglect their work. But every year, on the seventh night of the seventh month, birds formed a bridge across the Milky Way allowing the Weaver Girl and the Herdsman to meet.
Berenice was the wife of Ptolemy III, a king of Egypt, in the 200s b.c. According to legend, she promised to sacrifice her hair to the goddess Venus if the gods brought her husband safely back from war. When Ptolemy returned unharmed, Berenice cut off her hair and placed it in Venus's temple as promised, but the hair disappeared. The royal astronomer told Ptolemy that it had become a constellation in the night sky, known to this day as the Coma Berenices, or Berenice's Hair.
trickster mischievous figure appearing in various forms in the folktales and mythology of many different peoples
underworld land of the dead
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
People have told many tales about the group of seven stars called the Pleiades. In Greek mythology these stars were the seven daughters of the Titan Atlas* and the ocean nymph Pleione. According to some accounts, Zeus* placed them in the sky to protect them from the hunter Orion. But then Orion became a constellation and continued to chase the Pleiades across the heavens. The cattle-herding Masai people of Africa see the Pleiades as a group of cattle, and their appearance in the sky marks the rainy season. The Inca of South America called the Pleiades Collca —meaning a place where grain is stored—and believed that the constellation protected seeds and farming.
The constellation Ursa Major, called the Great Bear or the Big Dipper, appears in many Native American myths. The Seneca of New York believed that the constellation was made up of a large bear and the six hunters who chased it into the sky. The Inuit of northern Greenland, though, see Ursa Major as a giant caribou. They imagine the constellation Orion as a series of steps in the great bank of snow that connects earth and heaven.
The constellation known as the Southern Cross figures in Australian mythology. According to a story from New South Wales, it is a gum tree in which a man and a spirit are trapped, their eyes blazing forth as stars. Two other stars are white birds that rose into the sky with the tree.
Many myths and legends refer to the morning star and the evening star. These are not true stars but names for the planet Venus, which shines brightly near the horizon early or late in the night, depending on the time of year. A Norse* myth says that the morning star was originally the toe of a hero named Aurvandil. Thor* had carried Aurvandil out of Giantland and across the river Elivagar. On the way, however, one of the hero's toes froze, so Thor broke it off and threw it into the sky. To the Greeks, the evening star was Hesperus, grandfather of the goddesses called the Hesperides, who guarded the golden apples of eternal life on islands in the western sea.
See also Moon; Sun.
"Stars." Myths and Legends of the World. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/stars
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Stars and Stripes the national flag of the US. When first adopted by Congress (14th June 1777) it contained 13 stripes and 13 stars, representing the 13 states of the Union; it now has 13 stripes and 50 stars. An informal name for the flag is Old Glory.
See also seven stars, star.
"stars." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/stars
"stars." The Oxford Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/stars
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STARS . In all times and places, the starry night sky has both challenged and satisfied the human need to order, categorize, and standardize the unknown. In their efforts to make the night sky a familiar place, ancient civilizations imposed on groups of stars the outlines of mythical and historical figures, thus linking the celestial and terrestrial realms. The two terms used for these star groups are constellation and zodiac. Constellations are groups of stars held together by the human mind and eye. While certain of them may be related mythologically, such as the Pleiades and Orion, they are essentially autonomous and not limited in number. The zodiac is an integrated system of twelve constellations, referred to by astrological signs, that forms a backdrop to the movements of the sun, moon, and planets. Each zodiacal sign is also associated with a part of the human body and thereby serves to link the celestial and terrestrial planes. Aries, the first sign, represents the head; Pisces, the feet; the ten remaining signs between them represent other parts of the body in descending order. While scholars credit Babylonia with devising the zodiac (c. 700–420 bce), the Babylonians themselves in their creation epic, the Enuma elish, credit the god Marduk with that invention.
The ancient Egyptians also developed an integrated system of star organization. Here, the thirty-six decans, or star groups, each ten degrees in width and each named for a deity, served two purposes. The heliacal rising (first appearance in the dawn sky) of the leading star of each decan was noted, then used to mark out the twelve-month Egyptian calendar. At night, the decans functioned as a star clock, enabling priests to know the correct time for the performance of religious observances. In this way the temporal rhythms of the earth were linked to those of the sky.
In Indian tradition the Nakṣatras, or lunar mansions, comprise another integrated system of stars. The passage of the moon through the sky was charted as the journey of the god Soma through his "resting places." Each star is thought to be inhabited by one of the twenty-eight wives with whom Soma spends one night each month.
The Sky in Myth
In religions around the world, the sky symbolizes transcendence and sacrality, stretching and satisfying the human imagination. Whether it is understood as the home of the gods, the resting place of heroes, or the land of the dead, the sky is often envisioned as the transcendental model for human existence. The powers of the stars watch and guide people in life and welcome them in death. As the land of the ancestral dead, the stars represent the place of future human existence and reward. In them humans will endure forever, see and know all, thus also becoming godlike.
On the terrestrial plane, everything exists in a state of constant change. Nature is unpredictable—sometimes benign and sometimes malevolent. The sky alone remains constant, predictable, beyond change. Since the distant sky gods are usually the lawgivers of a culture, establishing order in human society, the celestial-terrestrial relationship is a reciprocal one: Humans order the uncharted night sky by imposing images on it, while the heavens, in return, impose lawful order on human society.
Catasterisms, tales in which either humans or animals achieve immortality by becoming stars, express the notion of the stars as the home of heroes. Catasterisms present a permanent image of the reward for heroic feats while providing an etiological explanation for the existence of individual stars and constellations. These tales exists in such diverse cultures as Australia, where a man becomes a star to avoid the wrath of the irate husband chasing him, and Greenland, where a group of lost seal hunters become stars. The Greeks and the Romans were the most prolific creators of catasterisms.
These stories relate that after death the soul becomes a star, a notion that originated with the Pythagoreans. The belief that only heroes become stars leads to the use of star groups such as Herakles and the Pleiades as models for heroic effort and reward. Star groups such as Andromeda and Orion, by contrast, serve as demonstrations of the lasting punishment given for the sin of hubris. The star Antinoüs was named in 132 ce in honor of Hadrian's young lover who drowned himself in the belief that he could thereby add the years allotted to him to Hadrian's life.
The Milky Way, which is frequently called the River of Heaven or the Celestial Road, is connected with the notion of the stars as the land of the dead. In Norse mythology it is the road of the ghosts going to Valho̜ll; in Celtic lore it is created by Gwydion so that he can use it to seek his son's soul in the heavens; in Islam it is said that Muḥammad walked on it to reach God; in Akkad it was called the River of the Divine Lady and was traveled by ghosts; in eastern Washington state the Sanpoil Indians place the land of the dead at the end of it; the Pawnee say it is the path followed by the spirits of the dead, and the Lakota add that travel to the Spirit Land is interrupted just before arrival by an old woman who checks for wrist tattoos; those without tattoos are sent back to earth as ghosts.
Temples and the Stars
The most concrete way to establish the importance of the stars in the ancient world is to study the alignment of temples with particular stars. As sacred structures, temples—especially those dedicated to sky gods—are designed according to a celestial pattern. In 1894 J. Norman Lockyer published his research on Egyptian temples, under the title The Dawn of Astronomy. With the advent of modern technology, much of Lockyer's dating has been called into question, but his general theory of celestial alignment is still operative. In England, the Americas, and the ancient Near East there is evidence of such alignment. Ancient temples were most commonly constructed in relation to the sun's position at the solstice or equinox, but there are significant instances of design with relation to individual stars.
Astral alignments are established by astroarchaeologists, who calculate the age of a site from its remains and then use computers to recreate the star patterns visible at the time the site was built. England's Stonehenge (construction started c. 2800 bce) is a good model. There, the large standing stones were arranged against the horizon to function as foresights; smaller stones served as backsights. In order to mark the passage of the sun, the astronomer-priest would fix a spot on which to stand to observe the sunset against the foresight stones. As the sun changed its course during the year, it would set to the right or left of these stones, its extremes marking the solstice and equinox points. Stonehenge was used as an elaborate observatory for marking the important celestial events of the year. The movements of the sun, moon, planets, and important star systems such as the Pleiades and especially the heliacal risings of the stars and planets were all noted there.
The same principle was employed in Mesoamerica, most dramatically at Tenochtitlán, the political and religious capital of the Aztec, where the course of a river was altered in order to create the desired alignments for observing the rising sun at the equinox and solstice and the heliacal rising of the Pleiades. Other Mesoamerican sites were also constructed with relation to the Pleiades, as well as to the stars Capella and Sirius and the planet Venus.
Gerald Hawkins (in Stonehenge Decoded, Garden City, N.Y., 1965), using modern techniques, has checked Lockyer's thesis at several sites in Egypt. While disagreeing with some of Lockyer's findings, he does establish that Egyptian temples are aligned with certain stars. Edwin C. Krupp (1978) has made a connection between the alignments of the pyramids and the cult of Isis and Osiris, represented respectively by the stars Sirius and Orion. First, he notes that all stars are invisible for approximately seventy days when their light is lost in the brighter light of the sun; he finds it significant that the ancient Egyptians called this time "being in Duat" (i.e., the underworld). Krupp sees a relation between this time span and the period allotted for embalming: Seventy days were required to prepare a body for burial. Because the stars are often thought of as the land of the dead, Krupp suggests further that the shafts in the pyramids aligning with Sirius and Orion were constructed so as to allow the souls of the pharaohs to rise up to these stars, the souls' final resting place.
In North America there are few sites of astronomical interest, but where they exist the myths and legends of the people also show astronomical characteristics. The kivas of the Anasazi, ancestors of the modern Pueblo, show some evidence of astral alignment, and modern Pueblo rituals preserve astral timings. Among the Plains Indians, medicine wheels constructed of large and small stones arranged in the shape of a wheel with spokes establishing alignments, mark the solstices. In Saskatchewan, Canada, the Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel is also aligned to the heliacal rising of the bright summer stars Aldebaran, Rigel, and Sirius.
Sometimes diverse cultures use similar images to describe the same star. The polestar, or North Star (the position held today by the star Polaris in Ursa Minor), because of its relative lack of motion as compared to other stars, is important for both land and sea navigation. In many cultures it is seen as the center of the universe.
Norse people believed that the gods ordered the universe by driving a spike through the earth and causing the heavens to revolve around this axis. The end of this spike was fastened to the polestar. For the Mongols, the polestar was the golden peg or nail that holds the turning heavens together. In India it is called the "pivot of the planets" and is represented by the god Dhruva, who was so immovable in his meditation that he became the polestar shining about Mount Meru, the center of the world. Because Dhruva began his meditation in a search for constancy after having been disappointed by the unsteadiness of his father's love, the star is worshiped in India as a source of constancy both in meditation and in marriage. The Mandaeans, along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, worshiped the polestar as the central star around which all other heavenly bodies move; their sanctuaries were built so that persons entering them faced the polestar. Worshipers prayed facing it, and the dying were positioned so their feet and eyes were aligned with it.
The constancy of the polestar also led to its popularity among sailors, as the epithets Steering Star, Lodestar, and Ship Star show. (Strabo, the Greek historian and geographer of the first century bce, attributed its use among Greek sailors to Thales, the astronomer and philosopher of the sixth century bce.) The constant position of the polestar made it useful to land travelers as well. In Mesoamerica it was thought both to protect and to guide traveling merchants, who burned copal incense in its honor. The Arabs used the polestar to navigate across the desert and believed further that fixed contemplation of it would cure itching of the eyelids. For the Chinese, the polestar was secretary to the Emperor of Heaven and as lord of the dead punished the dead according to their deeds.
Even in societies where little attention was paid to the stars, the movements of the Pleiades were noted. For instance, the Bantu-speaking peoples of southern Africa regulated their agricultural calendar by them, and in Bali the Pleiades and Orion were used to keep the lunar calendar. In Australia, where the first annual appearance of the Pleiades coincides with the beginning of the rainy season, the Aborigines consider these stars the source of rain and curse them if rain does not follow their appearance. In general, the last visible rising of the Pleiades after sunset is celebrated all over the southern hemisphere as beginning the season of agricultural activity.
Where myths have developed about the Pleiades, these stars are generally associated with women. In the Greco-Roman world, these stars were called the "seven daughters of Atlas," and in China they were worshiped by women and girls as the Seven Sisters of Industry. In Australia, they are seen as young girls playing instruments for a group of dancing young men, the stars of the Orion group. In the Solomon Islands they are called a "company of maidens," and among the Yurok of North America they are thought of as six women. In India they had a rich and varied identity as the nurses of Skanda, the infant god of war, and as the seven wives of the seven sages of Ursa Major. Myths in which they are depicted as wives describe the reasons for their being changed into stars as either punishment for infidelity or as a reward for fidelity. In one positive reading, the star Arundhati is considered the ideal Indian wife because her virtue was great enough to resist the god Śiva's attempt at seduction. Like the polestar, she is worshiped by married couples as a symbol of constancy.
The Pleiades also played a central role in the religious life of the Aztec. The fifty-two year cycle of their calendar was measured by the Pleiades. Indeed, legend recalls that the destruction of the world in a past age occurred at such a moment. The ceremony at the end of the cycle, the "Binding of the Years," established that the movements of the heavens had not ceased and that the world would not end but was guaranteed to last for another fifty-two years. Not only was one of the alignments of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán to the Pleiades, but a further clue to the importance of these stars is the fact that at the time of the city's erection (c. 150 ce), the heliacal rising of the Pleiades occurred on the same day as the first of the sun's annual passages across the zenith, a day of great importance in demarcating the seasons, and the day when the sun in Mexico casts no shadow at high noon. Additionally, this was the beginning of the rainy season so important to agriculture.
The Inca called the Pleiades the "stars of summer" and believed that their appearance on the first sighting predicted the success of the crops. If the stars were large and bright when they first appeared, the crops would be successful; if they were small and dim, the crops would fail. This connection to the agricultural season in part explains the emphasis placed on the Pleiades. In Greece the Pleiades presage temperate weather: The name of one of the stars of this group, Alcyone, is connected, by derivation, with the term "halcyon days," a clement and temperate time. In ancient Greece the season safe for navigation began in May with the heliacal rising of the Pleiades and closed with their setting in late autumn. In the Hervey Islands of the South Pacific they are the favorite guides for night sailing and are worshiped by sailors.
In North America the Blackfeet use the Pleiades to regulate their most important feast, which includes the blessing and planting of the seed. The Navaho believe the Pleiades appear on the forehead of their principal deity, Black God.
Regarded as one of the most important stars in ancient Egypt, Sirius played a role there similar to that of the Pleiades among the Aztec. Sirius's heliacal rising at the summer solstice coincided with the annual inundation of the Nile, thus beginning the Egyptian year. Seen as the goddess Sothis by the Egyptians, Sirius was also connected with the goddesses Hathor, Sekhet, and Isis and was generally considered to be the resting place of Isis's soul. Also called the "Nile star," Sirius had a dog for its hieroglyph and to this day is widely known as the "dog star." In ancient Rome, when the sun approached conjunction with Sirius at a festival for the protection of grain, farmers sacrificed a fawn-colored dog to the god Robigus. The Dogon of Africa also connect Sirius with a grain called po, and Po is their name for Sirius's smaller, darker companion star. That companion was first seen by Western astronomers in 1962, yet the Dogon discussed the star with Western anthropologists as early as 1940. Claiming to have known of the companion star for eight centuries, the Dogon correctly estimated that its orbit around Sirius took fifty years.
A Finnish tale explains the brightness of Sirius by the story of the lovers Zulamith the Bold and Salami the Fair: When they finally completed a bridge to each other (the Milky Way) after a thousand years of separation, they rushed into each other's arms and melted into one.
Comets, Meteors, and Shooting and Falling Stars
Noticeably short-lived celestial phenomena such as comets and meteors (shooting and falling stars) share in the sacred nature of the sky and add to the meaning of the "permanent" stars. The abruptness of their passage often made them seem to be omens full of meaning for good or ill. The American writer Mark Twain said of himself that he was born when Halley's comet approached the earth, and he correctly predicted his death upon its return. A comet recorded in 431 bce gave support to the notion that Julius Caesar had become a comet upon his death a year earlier. Shakespeare made dramatic use of this idea when he wrote "When beggars die, then are no comets seen; / the heavens themselves blaze for the death of princes" (Julius Caesar 2.2).
In ancient Greece and Rome, comets were generally thought to portend unfortunate events. The astronomer Ptolemy (second century) said that the meanings of comets could be discerned by their individual shapes; their color revealed what they would bring (generally wind and drought), and their position in the zodiac indicated the country that would be affected. Pliny, the Roman writer of the first century ce, also believed that comets signaled disaster and specified, for example, that a comet in Scorpio portended a plague of reptiles and insects, especially locusts. Seneca the Younger, writing in the first century ce, following Aristotle, said that comets were portents of bad weather during the ensuing year.
Such ideas persisted after the rise of Christianity. In the third century ce, the church father Origen held that comets appear on the eve of dynastic changes, great wars, and other catastrophes but also may be signs of future good: He seems to have taken the star of Bethlehem, which announced Christ's birth, to be a comet. The German philosopher Albertus Magnus (d. 1280) wrote that comets signified wars and the death of kings and potentates. According to Ptolemy of Lucca (d. 1377), a comet portended the death of Pope Urban IV in 1264. The pope had sickened as soon as the comet appeared and had died three months later, on the very day it disappeared. Elizabeth I of England gained great prestige by manifesting her indifference to the comet of 1557. When her courtiers tried to deter her from looking at the dreaded object she advanced boldly to the window, declaring, "the die is thrown." Seventeenth-century Christian preachers declared that comets were sent by God to draw human beings to repentance, and as late as 1843 the Millerites thought a comet confirmed their belief in the immediate destruction of the world.
Among the Aztec similar notions prevailed. They called comets "stars that smoke" and thought they usually signified the impending death of members of nobility; the death of the ruler of Tenochtitlán followed the appearance of a comet, and another was said to have predicted the fall of Moctezuma II. The Plains Indians also connected appearances of comets with disaster and misfortune.
In the Society Islands, comets (along with meteors) were believed to be the tails of gods, and when they were seen, the people threw off their upper garments (the mark of respect shown to gods and sacred head chiefs) and exclaimed, "A god! A god!" But in Samoa comets were believed to predict the death of a chief, or some other calamity such as war or bloodshed. The Indian astronomer and astrologer Varahamihira (sixth century ce), while generally concurring with such theories, developed an elaborate system of analysis to predict the three types of events comets can bring: auspicious, inauspicious, and having mixed effects.
Shooting and falling stars, meteors, and meteorites have in common the sacred quality of having come from the heavens, whether for good or ill. Like comets they are preeminently seen as signs and portents. Ptolemy says they indicate the coming of winds and storms, while Seneca links them to violent political events. By contrast, some believed them to be connected with healing. Pliny preserved the notion that a corn may be successfully extracted at the time of a shooting star; the physician Marcellus (fourth century ce) says the same of warts, adding that if you start counting while a star is falling, the number will equal the number of years you will be free of sore eyes. In India falling stars are thought of not only as reincarnating souls traveling back to earth, but also as demons who love the night and who are connected in a negative way with the souls of the dead. Such beings are especially dangerous to pregnant women.
Among the most famous meteorites in religious history is the Kaʿbah of Mecca, which tradition says was brought to earth by the archangel Gabriel. Also important is the meteorite of the goddess Cybele of the Phrygians. It arrived in Rome in 204 bce, when Rome was being threatened by Hannibal. The Sibylline Books, which had been consulted after a meteorite shower, foretold that a foreign army could be driven from Italy if Cybele's symbol, a meteorite, was brought to Rome. It was, and Hannibal was defeated. The Romans expressed their gratitude to the goddess by erecting a temple to her on the summit of the Palatine and held an annual celebration to commemorate her arrival.
The alignments of temples, the long history of astrological beliefs, and the abundance of myths and folktales about the stars provide ample evidence for the existence in many cultures of the notion "as above, so below." This view of the universe, in which the terrestrial and celestial realms are recognized as interrelated, has been a source of great richness to the cultural and religious experience of the human race.
The best collection of myths surrounding the stars, constellations, and zodiac is Richard Hinckley Allen's Star Names: Their Lore and Meaning (1899; reprint, New York, 1963). Allen makes no attempt to synthesize his material, which is arranged in alphabetical order. For the various astral systems of the ancient world, see Robert Brown's Researches into the Origin of the Primitive Constellations of the Greeks, Phoenicians and Babylonians, 2 vols. (London, 1899–1900); for their scientific background, see Otto Neugebauer's The Exact Sciences in Antiquity (1951; New York, 1969); while Ptolemy's Tetrabiblos, translated by F. E. Robbins (Cambridge, Mass., 1940), remains the starting place for Western views. For the Nakṣatras and general Indian views, see The Brihajjātakam of Varāha Mihira, 2d ed., translated by Swami Vijnanananda (New Delhi, 1979), and Robert De Luce's Constellational Astrology according to the Hindu System (Los Angeles, 1963). The decans are covered by Wilhelm Gundel in Dekane und Dekansternbilder (Hamburg, 1936). Lynn Thorndike's A History of Magic and Experimental Science, 8 vols. (New York, 1923–1958), remains a valuable resource on the West up to the medieval period.
On the issue of alignments, Joseph Norman Lockyer's The Dawn of Astronomy: A Study of Temple Worship and Mythology of the Ancient Egyptians (1894; Cambridge, Mass., 1964), while challenged today, helped to create the field of astroarchaeology. This work is continued in In Search of Ancient Astronomies, edited by Edwin C. Krupp (Garden City, N.Y., 1978), which also contains excellent essays on ancient astronomy, and in Native American Astronomy, edited by Anthony F. Aveni (Austin, 1977), which treats archaeological sites in North and South America.
Finally, in part 4 of The Raw and the Cooked (1969; Chicago, 1983), Claude Lévi-Strauss provides an interesting comparison of similar myths of particular constellations, such as the Pleiades, in South America and ancient Greece.
Aveni, Anthony F. Stairways to the Stars: Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures. New York, 1997.
Condos, Theony. Star Myths of the Greeks and Romans: A Sourcebook Containing the Constellations of Pseudo-Eratosthenes and the Poetic Astronomy of Hyginus. Grand Rapids, Mich, 1997.
Evans, James. The History & Practice of Ancient Astronomy. New York, 1998.
Krupp, Edwin C. Skywatchers, Shamans, & Kings: Astronomy and the Archaeology of Power. New York, 1997.
North, John David. Stonehenge: A New Interpretation of Prehistoric Man and the Cosmos. New York, 1996.
Serinity Young (1987)
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StarsFILM STARDOM AS A CULTURAL INSTITUTION
STARS AND MOVIEGOERS
Film stardom is a phenomenon formed between the industry that produces films, the actual content of films, and the ways in which moviegoers form their relationships with films. To a large extent, the popularity of cinema results from the production, distribution, presentation, and consumption of film stars. Looking at stars therefore provides a focus from which to reflect more generally upon the workings and attractions of cinema.
In his 1990 history of the formation of the star system in American cinema, Richard DeCordova argues that after an initial period when the names of film performers were not publicly circulated and films actors remained anonymous to the moviegoing public, the first move towards a star system came with the earliest advertising of performers' names from 1909 onward. Ever since, film stardom has worked through the circulation of performer names and it is through the distribution of those names that the identities of film stars enter the broader public culture.
Star names appear in film credits, trailers, posters, interviews, talk shows and fanzines as a familiar and taken-for-granted feature of popular film culture. Why are star names so important to popular cinema? What is the function of star names and what do those names do to films? While a moviegoer may have seen many films, sufficient differences exist between single films as unique cultural artifacts. Moviegoers can therefore never be entirely certain what they will get at the first viewing of a new film. Audiences pay for their tickets at the box office or rent DVDs with an incomplete knowledge of what they are buying. As film production and distribution requires high levels of investment, the film industry bases its business on trying to sell expensively produced products to audiences who have very little idea of what they will get. Like systems of genre classification, stars names are one of the mechanisms used by the film industry to predetermine audience expectations.
A star's name places a film in relation to a string of other films featuring the same performer, working as a marker of continuity. "Tom Cruise" situates Collateral (2004) in relation to Top Gun (1986), Mission: Impossible (1996) or The Last Samurai (2003). Although one Tom Cruise film will never be exactly like the last, nevertheless the name of the star serves to cultivate a range of expectations and to guarantee the delivery of similar performer qualities. At the same time, the name is also a marker of difference: "Cruise" differentiates the aforementioned films from the chain of Mad Max (1979), Lethal Weapon (1987) and Signs (2002) linked by the "Mel Gibson" label.
Star names serve a commercial function similar to product brand names: a star's name links together a string of film performances or appearances, labeling the continuity of certain physical and verbal characteristics across a number of film performances and so creating a "branded" identity. Simultaneously, in the crowded marketplace of films, the star name differentiates a film from the many others in the market. Continuity and difference therefore define the function of star names in the commerce and culture of cinema.
History demonstrates the significance Hollywood placed on the names of performers. In the case of Frances Gumm, it is widely known that MGM renamed her Judy Garland to give the child performer a more glamorous title. In other cases, renaming worked in the opposite direction to deexoticize of the performer's name. When MGM's head of production Louis B. Mayer supposedly claimed the name of the new contract player Lucille Fay LeSueur sounded too much like "sewer," a competition in Photoplay magazine saw moviegoers voting to rename her Joan Crawford. In other cases, renaming has served to mask the racial or ethnic roots of performers: for example, when Columbia signed New York-born dancer Margarita Carmen Casino, her Spanish patrilineage was obscured when the studio gave her the more Anglicized name of Rita Hayworth.
While film stars are known for their performances in films, their fame does not rest upon cinema alone. Aside from film roles, film stars make numerous appearances in other media. During the production of a film, stories frequently appear in magazines or newspapers about a star's work on the set. It is the role of the unit publicist to arrange for stories from the production unit about a film's stars to be prepared and made available to the press. Once the film is completed, the star becomes one of the crucial instruments used to market the film. While the average feature film is a relatively long media text, the poster or trailer must promote the idea of that film in a comparatively small amount of space or time. Stars are therefore frequently foregrounded in these media as a way to summarize and crystallize the larger body of the film. For example, posters for As Good As It Gets (1997) condensed the whole idea of the film into a single image of Jack Nicholson smiling. The star alone was used to represent the larger idea of the film and communicate it directly to the moviegoing public.
Trailers, posters, and advertisements are all forms of paid promotion. Alongside these marketing channels, stars are also used to give interviews for newspapers, magazines, or television. By holding a press conference or a high-profile premiere with stars in attendance, a film may gain front page coverage in a newspaper without paying for print advertisements. While costs are attached to running such events, these channels are classified not as paid promotions but rather as publicity, for they give a film relatively free exposure compared to the high costs of promotional campaigns.
Films, together with promotion and publicity, therefore result in a star's identity circulating across a range of media channels. However, for a star's profile to endure, his or her performances must be critically well received. Critical opinion, as published through the press, is important to a performer becoming recognized as a star. Criticism also works to evaluate stars by circulating opinions about performers. While members of the movie-going public will ultimately decide whether they like a star or not, and those responses may or may not correspond with the opinions voiced in published reviews, professional film criticism nevertheless mediates responses to films and their performers.
Film stardom is therefore a multiple-media construction. Promotion, publicity, and criticism provide various contexts in which the names of stars circulate across a wide range of mass media. While film stardom cultivates belief in the power and significance of the extraordinary individual performer, that individuality is always dependent upon the industrial conditions of mass communication that plan and organize the circulation of star names; without those conditions, the making and dissemination of star identities would be impossible. It is the persistence of those conditions that has made film stardom a modern cultural institution.
While film technique has undergone substantial revision throughout film history, narrative filmmaking has maintained certain basic conventions to center and emphasize the star performer. Leading roles, close-ups, backlighting, tracking shots, or character-related soundtrack melodies are just some of the narrative and aesthetic devices repeatedly used to isolate and focus on star performers on-screen. Despite historical differences between styles in filmmaking, the persistence of these devices for nearly a century has resulted in the establishment of widely instituted aesthetic conventions in star performance.
Between the star and the larger ensemble of actors making up the cast, a distinction can be drawn between what Richard Maltby (p. 381) describes as the "integrated" and "autonomous" qualities of performances witnessed in popular cinema. While performances by the majority of actors appearing in a star-driven feature film will remain submerged and integrated into the flow of the narrative, the presentational techniques of star performance give the stars greater autonomy by lifting them out of the general narrative to isolate and foreground their actions. When Kate Winslet is first introduced in Titanic (1997), she appears on the crowded pier in Southampton among the hordes waiting to board the ship. Centralized and tightened framing, combined with an overhead craning shot, costume, lighting, and a surge of the musical score, all serve to differentiate her from the supporting actors and extras. When Winslet's colead, Leonardo DiCaprio, is introduced, the camera lurks behind his head, immediately creating an enigma within the shot, and the following montage then picks him out from the three other card players he is seated with. It would be easy to believe this autonomous quality is a result of acting or star presence but it is entirely an effect of film technique.
Throughout film history, stars have become associated with particular breakthrough performances that made their reputations: Brigitte Bardot in Et Dieu … créa la femme ( … And God Created Woman, 1956), James Cagney in The Public Enemy (1931), Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel (1930), Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (1990) are just a few examples of performances that could be regarded in this way. Such performances not only serve to give the star a widespread public profile but also become defining statements in that star's on-screen identity.
Where the entire construction of a film seems to rest upon the continuity of a star's established qualities, then it is appropriate to describe such films as "star vehicles," for they maximize exposure of the star's distinctive qualities. In the star vehicle, the continuities of a star's on-screen identity override the differences of character: whatever the particular role, in the films of Cameron Diaz or Brad Pitt, the central character always remains to some extent "Cameron Diaz" or "Brad Pitt." This is not to say that the star vehicle merely displays the "natural personality" of the star performer, for the on-screen identity of the star is as much a performed act as the individual roles he or she plays.
Star vehicles are frequently constructed in order for a star to demonstrate a particular feat or skill for which he or she is well known. After Elvis Presley's rapid rise to music stardom, the melodrama Love Me Tender (1956), set immediately after the end of the Civil War, may not have appeared the most obvious movie debut for him. However, despite its historical context, the film still plausibly integrated songs by Elvis into the narrative, and his subsequent roles in Loving You (1957) and Jailhouse Rock (1957) fully showcased his contemporary youth-orientated musical appeal. Similarly, after several decades working as a performer and director in Hong Kong cinema, Jackie Chan had acquired a reputation for his physical performances combining martial arts maneuvers with slapstick humor. This mixture of talents was subsequently foregrounded once Chan moved to Hollywood, as evident in Rush Hour (1998) and Shanghai Noon (2000). An Elvis song or Jackie Chan fight can therefore been seen as an example of the conscious organization of a film's narrative in order to reserve moments for the performance of the "star turn."
So resonant is the breakthrough performance or star vehicle that any departure from the roles played in those contexts is frequently judged through reference to the familiar type. Critical commentators regarded Jim Carrey's performances in The Majestic (2001) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) as straight roles aimed at transforming the comedy star's established on-screen identity. In these cases, Carrey's performances received a largely positive critical reception. However, in other cases, the continuity of a star's name may bring such a weight of expectations to a film that it becomes impossible for that star to break from type. For example, When Harry Met Sally (1989) provided Meg Ryan with a breakthrough role that associated her with the contemporary romantic comedy, resulting in further romantic roles in Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and French Kiss (1995). Through these roles, Ryan's name became so burdened with generic expectations and a particular character type that her appearance in the war drama Courage Under Fire (1996) received uniformly poor reviews, conditioned by the apparent implausibility of accepting Ryan in a combat drama. Continuity therefore builds but also restricts the on-screen identities of film stars, and star performance always rests on a delicate balance between the needs of continuity and the limitations of typecasting.
Although film stars are widely-known public figures, few people ever get to meet an actual star in person. Instead, it is through the combination of film performances, promotion, publicity, and criticism that film stars reach the broad moviegoing public. Consequently, films stars are mediated identities. Somewhere in the world there is the real Tom Hanks; however, the vast majority of the public will know only the mediated Tom Hanks. Films, promotion or publicity materials, and criticism are various forms of textual materials that mediate the identities of stars. As star texts cluster around a given name, they define the identities of individual stars, and as they accumulate over time, they also form a public sense of film stardom in general.
b. Clinton Eastwood, Jr., San Francisco, California, 31 May 1930
In an acting career spanning more than five decades, Clint Eastwood achieved stardom by epitomizing tough masculine independence. This image was the product not only of the characters he played, but of a performance style that remained emotionally impassive and contained. Although Eastwood played a variety of roles, his stardom was defined by those he took in westerns directed by Sergio Leone and police thrillers directed by Don Siegel.
Following a succession of minor film roles, Eastwood obtained steady work as the character Rowdy Yates in the TV western series Rawhide (1959–1966). This generic association led to Eastwood's casting in Leone's famous "Dollars Trilogy" of Italian or "spaghetti" westerns: Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), Per qualche dollaro in più (For a Few Dollars More, 1965), and Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966), in which Eastwood appeared as The Man With No Name, an anonymous bounty hunter practicing his trade along the US-Mexican border. Afterward, Eastwood worked with Siegel in Coogan's Bluff (1968), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), and Dirty Harry (1971), where he made his first appearance as San Francisco police Inspector Harry Callahan, a role he reprised in four later films.
Eastwood carried the same performance characteristics across both roles—taciturn manner, emotionless expressions, deadpan witticisms. No Name and Callahan are singular men who refuse allegiance to any larger collective or institution. They represent qualities of independent individualism that convey broader ideas of social and political significance. No Name is a mercenary hero, serving only his own interest and profiting from death. When placed in the context of the American western, the ambiguity of this character questions and subverts the moral ground on which the genre built a sense of national identity. Callahan remains a more reactionary figure, for while he cannot align himself with the institutionalized law, which he regards as inadequate to maintaining social order, he searches for a more effective moral code that legitimates the enforcer's use of brutality, torture, and gun violence. In both cases, Eastwood's emotionless acting underscored the moral ambivalence of the characters.
Eastwood made further westerns, including The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Pale Rider (1985), while the final outing for the Callahan character came with The Dead Pool (1988). Although the Leone and Siegel films continued to define Eastwood's image, he diversified his generic range by appearing in comedy (Every Which Way But Loose, 1978) and romantic drama (The Bridges of Madison County, 1995). Alongside his acting, Play Misty for Me (1971) and High Plains Drifter (1973) also established Eastwood as a critically praised director, and he won Oscars® for his directing of Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).
As Actor: Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964), Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, 1966), Dirty Harry (1971); As Actor and Director: Play Misty for Me (1971), High Plains Drifter (1973), Unforgiven (1992), Million Dollar Baby (2004); As Director: Bird (1988), Mystic River (2003)
Kapsis, Robert E., and Kathie Coblentz, eds. Clint Eastwood: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1996.
Smith, Paul. Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.
It was a focus on the mediation of star identities which, during the late 1970s, stimulated and energized the growth of star studies as a distinct stream of research
in film scholarship. The key to this development was the original publication in 1979 of Richard Dyer's book Stars. Dyer drew on historical, sociological, and psychological works to review previous scholarship on film stars and presented his own fresh approach to the study of film stardom. He did not contemplate the biographical truth of a star—the star-as-person—but concentrated instead on what he described as the "star image." Although the term "image" may suggest that Dyer was interested only in the visual texts mediating star identities, he emphasized that the study of star images must encompass the whole range of visual, verbal, and auditory star texts circulated through films, promotion, publicity, and criticism.
Dyer's approach was grounded in a semiotic form of analysis, in which a star's performance in a film is constructed across a combination of signs: visual (for example, hair color or style, the shapes of facial features, aspects of physical build, gestures, and costume), verbal (words spoken from a script or familiar turns of phrase) and nonverbal (the speed and volume of the voice, or dialect). Together these signs combine to form the star's on-screen image.
A star's performances produce the on-screen image but DeCordova argues that American cinema did not achieve a fully formed star system until the second decade of the twentieth century, when the press and other media began to run stories covering the private lives of stars. This trend has continued ever since with newspapers and magazines publishing stories and photos relating to the social events a star has attended, whom he or she is dating, his or her tastes in fashion, or the star's home. As these materials multiply the volume of signs in circulation about a star, they work to produce his or her off-screen image.
Fundamental to Dyer's perspective was a regard for film stars as constructed images. At the most basic level, a star's image is constructed because at any moment an actor's performance is formed through the confluence of many signs and meanings. Star images are also intertextual constructions, for they are produced through the sharing and linking of meanings between a variety of sources of star texts. Finally, the meanings attached to any of the signs that make up the star's image are contingent upon particular historical and cultural circumstances. At different historical moments, images of different stars have defined audiences' ideas of beauty or desirability, for example. Star images are therefore cultural constructions, for the signs they present and the meanings they generate are products of the cultural circumstances in which they are circulated and read.
When the star-as-person is replaced by the star-as-image, the significance of particular stars is no longer explained by recourse to ineffable essential qualities of charisma or magnetism but rather through exploring how a star's significance is, or was, constructed through the tangible textual materials by which the images of stars are circulated.
Reading stars as images concentrates on regarding film stars as mediated identities. Such images are never the straightforward or transparent portrayal of the real personality of a star, but rather, represent an identity made and circulated through channels of mass communication. Whatever meanings are generated through those images may or may not correspond to the actual personality of a star; however, this does not mean the star image is something supplementary, untrue, or inauthentic, behind which lies the hidden truth of the real star. Instead, star image studies regard the image as the only means by which the public knows a star, and so assume that the truth or reality of any star is in the image. It is the work of analysis, then, to show how the various signs and texts that construct the image of a star serve to produce meaning and thereby construct what is known about a star.
Dyer's star-image approach considered how the meanings of star images are formed through, and reproduce, wider belief systems in society. At one level, star images provide us with the identities by which we are able to conceptualize distinct individual star identities, for example "Zeenat Aman," "Amitabh Bachchan," "Theda Bara," "Maurice Chevalier," "David Niven," "Shirley Temple" or "Bruce Willis." Each name represents an individual unique star identity. Equally, however, and in a contradictory manner, star images are also important for their typicality rather than their uniqueness. Star images are marketable or intelligible to the broad moviegoing public only because they represent socially and culturally shared meanings of masculinity or femininity, ethnicity, national identity, sexuality, or maturity, for example. Star images are therefore always socially meaningful images, and it is in their social significance that their ideological meaning can be read.
As a socially meaningful image, the significance of any star image inside the cinema is always the result of meanings produced outside the cinema, elsewhere in society. Dyer further explored the relations between star images and society in his 1987 study Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. Here he enriched the study of star images by seeking to situate the meanings of stars historically, taking star texts and attending to how their ideological significance related to the context in which they circulated. For his study of Marilyn Monroe (1926–1962) in Heavenly Bodies, Dyer used the sexiness of Monroe's image to consider the historical significance of her image in relation to ideas of sexuality and femininity at the time she first reached stardom in 1950s America. He explored how that image in the early 1950s was consistent with beliefs about the naturalness and innocence of sexuality, promoted in particular through the men's magazine Playboy, first published in 1953. For Dyer, the Monroe image appeared to enact the Playboy "philosophy" (p. 28). As Playboy addressed its male readership about the truth and naturalness of sex, so Monroe's image appeared to unproblematically affirm the correspondence of female sexuality to those beliefs.
By constructing his sense of context in this way, Dyer did not seek to situate his reading of Monroe and sexuality in relation to actual sexual practice in the 1950s. Rather, he interpreted Monroe through the ideas or discourses of sexuality circulating in the era, a collection of texts coexisting within a context of other texts, which together constructed notions of sexual truth and pleasure during the 1950s. If Stars made the study of star images into a work of intertextual analysis, that is, reading across a range of textual materials to see how they constructed the mediated identity of the star, then Heavenly Bodies extended that work into an interdiscursive realm by considering how the images of stars related to broader clusters of ideas and perceptions in circulation.
Films, promotion, publicity, and criticism make film stardom dependent on industrially organized channels of mass communication to publicly circulate the names and identities of stars. Equally, film stardom requires a mass audience for the movies. The relationships formed between moviegoers and film stars can be conceptualized in various ways.
As already suggested, star names are part of the marketing address that the film industry makes to potential moviegoers. Stars may influence choices in both positive and negative ways, for a moviegoer may choose to avoid a film precisely because it features John Travolta or Demi Moore just as much as another moviegoer may decide to see it for the same reason.
b. Lillian Diana de Guiche, Springfield, Ohio, 14 October 1893, d. 27 February 1993
Lillian Gish was one of the first female stars of American cinema, best known for her performances in silent films but the recipient of an honorary Academy Award® in 1970 "for superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures" during an exceptionally long career.
After working as child stage actors, Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy joined the Biograph Company in 1912. There they worked with the director D. W. Griffith, making their screen debuts in the one-reel An Unseen Enemy (1912) and becoming part of his repertory company of actors. Gish's rise to stardom came as Griffith moved to feature film production. After appearing as one of the four leads in The Birth of a Nation (1915), she took leading roles in Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918), True Heart Susie (1919), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). While Gish's screen career lasted seventy-five years, during which she was cast in a variety of parts and worked with many directors, her roles in Griffith's films largely defined her on-screen image as the victimized child-woman.
Despite the various roles she played during the silent period, Gish's image was dominated by a particular character type: a fragile young woman, epitomizing innocence and virtue, whose goodness is wrongly judged and/or brutally punished. Frequently placed in dramatic situations in which her characters were vulnerable to injustice and deceit, Gish repeatedly portrayed ethereality and unworldliness. Although victimized by the evils of society, Gish's child-woman characters nevertheless represented an independent spirit ready to confront and challenge the dangers of a hostile world. Through repetition and similarity, these roles produced a strong association between star and genre, with Gish's image operating as a sign of virtue in silent melodrama.
Gish's image was equally based on her uniqueness. Her contemporary, Mary Pickford, similarly displayed childlike virtue in many roles, but Pickford's portrayals never carried the same ethereal or unworldly qualities as Gish's, instead provoking a sense of energy and health that gained her the label "America's Sweetheart." Ethereality also became a significant aspect of the off-screen image of Gish. Journalists and other commentators frequently noted her leisure-time commitment to reading classic literature or poetry as indicating a solitude and serious manner appropriate to her tragic roles. Press commentary therefore worked to create a fit between on- and off-screen images, constructing Gish's private life as the complement to the lives of her characters.
The Birth of a Nation (1915), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Cobweb (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life. New York: Scribner, 2001.
——. Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis. New York: Dutton, 1977.
Gish, Lillian, with Ann Pinchot. Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Slide, Anthony. Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Silver, Charles, ed. Lillian Gish. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
Stars may also become figures with which audiences identify in films. By foregrounding the performance of the star, narrative cinema creates the star's character as a figure of central narrative agency, and so the moviegoer frequently follows and understands the plot largely through the actions and reactions of the character played by the star. In some cases, scenes are constructed to place
the moviegoer in a position to see and hear what the star's character witnesses. For example, In What Lies Beneath (2000), Michele Pfeiffer lies drugged and immobile in a bathtub filling with water as her murderous husband attempts to fake her suicide. The scene is shot and edited to place the moviegoer in a position to build identification with the star's subjective viewpoint.
Aside from showing what the star's character sees, other techniques are frequently used to encourage understanding of, and identification with, what the star's character knows or feels. Again in What Lies Beneath, one sequence involves Pfeiffer's character Claire in her daughter's bedroom discovering an old vest from her days as a music student at Juilliard. This sets off a chain of remembrances as she then leafs through a photo album in the basement. A range of emotional changes occurs during the sequence, from wistful longing to sadness and anxiety. These are not registered by Pfeiffer's acting, for the camera only occasionally looks at her. Instead, the musical score carries over from bedroom to basement, shifting in tone to convey Claire's range of feelings. Here the moviegoer is able to understand the star character's emotional point of view through the music. Identification with a star can therefore be achieved through various visual and aural techniques and these work independently of whether the moviegoer does or does not like a star: they do not depend on audience taste but rather are the effects of how image and sound work to direct and structure relations between the moviegoer and the presence of the star in the narrative.
Subjective viewpoint shots or point of view devices work to position moviegoers with the experience of the star's character in the narrative. In this case the relation between star and moviegoer is constructed through what the film does to the audience. However, the processes of identification involved with the star/moviegoer relationship are more complex than that. While films may place moviegoers in positions of identification with stars, the question still remains—what is it about stars that fascinates moviegoers? For Dyer, star images enthrall because they are able to draw together contradictory ideological meanings in the one figure: Monroe signified both innocence and sexiness in equal measure. John Ellis, in his 1992 book Visible Fictions, has suggested the off-screen images of stars provide audiences with only a scattering of elements from reviews, interviews, or gossip, which leave an incoherent and incomplete sense of the star. Moviegoers are drawn to seeing stars perform in films, Ellis argues, because it is only in those appearances that the various elements are brought together at a point of coherence and completion. Ellis also understands the relationship between star and moviegoer through various psychoanalytic concepts. As the film performance allows moviegoers to spy on figures apparently unaware they are being watched, there is a voyeuristic component to watching stars. Since stars appear to be both ordinary and extraordinary, they are also similar to and different from moviegoers. This closeness and distance makes the star an object of desire, for the star is simultaneously accessible and inaccessible. For psychoanalytic film theory, the identificatory relationship between the movie-goer and the star is based on star images providing ego ideals, making up for deficiencies or divisions in the self by presenting identities who appear to be complete and lacking nothing.
A crucial problem with these broad-based theories is that they tend to generalize the way in which moviegoers relate to stars. Moviegoers form a far wider array of responses to stars, combining adoration, esteem, and respect with feelings of loathing, disdain, and contempt. In a study of letters from female moviegoers remembering the pleasures they had found in watching female stars of 1940s cinema, Jackie Stacey, in her 1994 book Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, noted how identification took a variety of forms both inside and outside the movie theater. Inside the theater, moviegoers related experiences of forming a loyal attachment to a star, regarding a star as different and unattainable, or otherwise losing a sense of self by fantasizing about becoming the star. Stacey describes this range of identificatory fantasies as instances of "devotion," "worship," and "transcendence." Outside the theater, identification continued, as women described make-believe games of pretending to be the star or otherwise imitating a star's behavior, foregrounding an actual physical resemblance to the star, or copying the star's style. Here identification took various practical forms that extended the significance of a star image beyond the theater and into the everyday lives of moviegoers.
In these cases, identification was the product not of what the film did to the moviegoer, but rather what the moviegoer did with a star image. Stacey's research therefore began to point toward some of the identificatory relationships formed between moviegoers and film stars. Stacey's work provided valuable ground for beginning to think about the complex variety of emotional responses moviegoers have to stars and the manners in which they enact those relationships.
DeCordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. New York: St. Martin's, 1986.
——. Stars. London: British Film Institute, 1979.
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"Stars." Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stars
"Stars." Schirmer Encyclopedia of Film. . Retrieved January 17, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/stars