The other day, I posted something to the Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style Facebook account (which you should follow, if you don’t already) concerning Mark Ruffalo and his forthcoming projects. I prefaced the link with something along the lines of “Sometimes I refer to Ryan Gosling as my boyfriend, but he’s really my second boyfriend. Mark Ruffalo is my first boyfriend.” But then I had to add a little caveat: “And Paul Newman is my eternal boyfriend.”
“Eternal boyfriend” sounds like something out of Seventeen magazine, but I think the phrase — and the concepts — gets at something essential about our relationships to stars, and why we think about them the way that we do, especially stars from the past.
The “eternal boyfriend” relationship is somewhat similar to the “girlcrush,” a phenomenon I considered in a post from last year. Why are we attracted, whether sexually, emotionally, or intellectually, to certain stars, male and female? But the eternal boyfriend is different than the girlcrush or even the first and second boyfriend. The eternal boyfriend is frozen in amber — he is almost always dead, or at least done with Hollywood — and he will be the object of your affection when you’re 20 and when you’re 80. The first and second boyfriends may be Mr. Right, but they also might not endure. They haven’t borne the test of time. Who knows if they’ll pull a Joaquin Phoenix and become abject sometime in the next year. They cannot be trusted, at least not yet. They may seem like Mr. Right, but they might turn out to be Mr. Right Now.
There’s also a third class — what Lainey Gossip calls “The Freebie Five.” These are men with whom you could have sex with a free pass from your significant other. You want to make out with them, but you don’t want them to necessarily speak — these men inspire a visceral response, but you know that it wouldn’t work out, or know that you’ll kinda hate yourself in the morning. They could stay the night, but you wouldn’t want to make small talk over brunch. Chuck Bass is totally in this crew. Channing Tatum might also be in this crew — I’d like to see him dance for me, but then I’d be so embarrassed.
I feel the same way about Eternal Boyfriends as I do the color blue: it will always be my favorite color. I feel the same way about the First and Second boyfriends as I do this dress with the ruffles and bric-a-brac from Anthropologie: in 20 years, I might think it’s hideous, but right now, I think it’s the best. The Freebie Boyfriend, then, is the blue tunic from Forever 21 that was fashionable for the two weeks after I bought it and I threw it in the trash.
For me, at least, there are many stars that are good looking, whose beauty I can appreciate — young Gary Cooper, for example, or Rock Hudson. Those men are classically handsome (and have made many a woman swoon), but they don’t do it for me. I can also appreciate the beauty of any dozen female stars, including Audrey Hepburn — that doesn’t mean that I love her (I know, controversial!) or want to put her photo on my wall (that’s reserved for Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Clara Bow).
I do think this works for men and women alike, even for hetero and homosexual desire: The Eternal Boyfriend/Girlfriend is the person that you wouldn’t mind actually being with — that you could bring home to your parents, that your friends would like, that wouldn’t bore you, that you wouldn’t have to get drunk just to endure conversation. This person (at least in your imagination) is everything that a perfect boy or girl friend should be — and the very best star boyfriends are adaptable to millions of fans’ different versions of what that might be. (For me, Paul Newman is really into reading Alice Munro’s short stories. For you, he might just like to go play Ultimate Frisbee barefoot in the park).
Maybe we can think of star boyfriends and girlfriends as those who merit a place on your wall: to get on the wall, a star, male or female, can’t be merely eye candy, but needs to speak to you and promise to fulfill your particular desires. They need to represent your values — or what you desire — so thoroughly that you’re willing to
a.) Look at them everyday, essentially sharing your room with them
b.) Allow all others who enter your personal space to see your connection to them.
In truth, a star gets to be your boyfriend or girlfriend through a combination of visceral attraction, an image that seems to represent something that’s important to you (Marlon Brando: emotional physicality) and a je ne sais quoi that just gets you. (You might also really identify with a character with whom the star falls in love in a particular film — I identify with Katharine Hepburn in Holiday; therefore, I identify with wanting Cary Grant to love me).
I wish I had a better explanation for why we’re attracted to certain stars and barely moved by others, but I also lack an explanation for why people fall in love with the people they do. Desire is complicated, knotty, and oftentimes impenetrable to anyone but the desirer him/herself.
BUT BACK TO MY BOYFRIENDS:
If Paul Newman is the king of my eternal boyfriends, then Gregory Peck (circa Roman Holiday) the prince, Cary Grant is the jester, and Marlon Brando (circa On the Waterfront) the duke. [I’m mixing rankings all over the place -- 1st, 2nd, king, eternal, whatevs.]
For me, Paul Newman seems to represent the platonic ideal of a man — those cheek bones, those eyes! — mixed with intellectualism, devotion, compassion. The first time I really saw him, the first time I watched Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I found him beautiful and jovial; as I saw more, saw him in the blue prisoner’s outfit from Cool Hand Luke, saw him self-destruct in black and white in Hud and The Hustler, and learned more about this extra-textual life, I found him exquisite.
You guys, he loved Joanne Woodward LIKE CRAZY! He directed a beautiful film that basically played up all of her attributes and earned her an Academy Award nomination! HE STARTED NEWMAN’S OWN AND GAVE SO MUCH MONEY TO CHARITY! He also aged with grace, which is apparently something I’m pretty into. (See Grant and Peck, but forget Brando; he aged with anti-grace).
There are all these pictures of him at home with Joanne Woodward, doing things like cooking eggs in his boxers with loafers. This is my type of guy like whoa. I’m certain he’ll make me those eggs and then we can go read The New Yorker in hammocks in the backyard.
I’m also apparently into stars from the ‘50s (although I like Grant most in his ‘30s screwballs, not his ‘50s color Hitchcocks). Grant can’t make it to the king of Eternal Boyfriends status because I just don’t know if he’d ever be able to go hiking with me. Can you go hiking in a three-piece suit and an ascot?
There’s also something performative about his love-making — something perfect for screwballs and Code-era pictures when real making out or bed sharing was prohibited — that makes me think that we’d probably have lively and witty conversations, but when the screen fades to black he’d put on his full-length pajamas and we’d retire in twin beds.
Gregory Peck is a wonderful flirt in Roman Holiday. He wears pants with a waist that’s about at his nipples; his suit seems to be adorable brown tweed; he’s a newspaper man and he and I could both work on deadline. There’s a bit of rascal in him, something indelible I love. But then he grows up to be such a DAD and lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird (I REALIZE HE’S A GOOD DAD) but you guys, I’m just not in the market for dad boyfriends right now.
And Marlon Brando, you are pure tumultuous desire. You are the guy that I wrote poems in free verse for in the 11th grade. You have hooded eyes that just beg for me to take care of you and your checked jacket in On the Waterfront.
I could switch places with Eva Marie Saint; she was a member of my sorority and we both have blonde hair, no big deal, right?
We’d have a long talk about your fighting career, Brando would do a lot of nodding and almost-crying-brooding, then we’d have a crushing embrace and have an incredible make-out session. No words, just emotions. Our three week relationship would be so hot. But then I’d telegraph forward and realize that he ended up fat, balding, and alone on his island, and the pity would just be too much. Always a Duke of Eternal Boyfriendom, never a King. He’d be a Mr. Right now if he wasn’t such a recurring and longstanding object of my affection.
Those are my personal (and admittedly crazy) narratives; you all have your own. Some of them have already been aired in the Celebrity Proust Questionnaires over the last few months, some are hanging out rather sheepishly in the recesses of your mind. If you can’t figure out why a star is your boyfriend/girlfriend, I’d be happy to help tease out some nuances of his or her star image, seeing which ones resonate with you.
But here’s the beauty of the star image: because it’s constructed, because it’s contradictory, because it’s polysemic — holding many meanings — it can be multiple things to millions of people. My boyfriend may be your nemesis; your girlfriend may be my frenemy. We take what we want from star images, selecting what we want to believe and dismissing what we don’t. Lainey Gossip always says that gossip is a buffet: we all pick and choose what we want to consume.
Eternal Star Boyfriends are the same: Paul Newman divorced his first wife, after all, but I don’t think about that when I’m busy concentrating on which Alice Munro story will be his favorite, and whether we’ll send our someday kids to Kenyon (his liberal arts alma mater) or Whitman (mine). That’s the beauty of stardom — each star’s meaning is an alchemy of what we read into it and what it actually is — and why we have, and will continue to, cultivate psychically complex, wholly unrequited, yet somehow emotionally gratifying relationships with the photos on our walls.
While I was doing all the big heady academic writing for the dissertation, I continually thought about how much I really wanted to be a.) writing for this blog and b.) writing for Hairpin. Now that the diss and finished and I’m an official Doctor of Celebrity Gossip, I get to all the things I was longing to do — blog, go the pool everyday (the joys of Texas in April), read fiction, and, at last, write for The Hairpin.
I hope you’ll enjoy the piece — Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Ingrid Bergman, Instrument of Evil — which will be the first in a series. (If you have suggestions for future topics, please post! Here or there, whichever). And enjoy!
Note: This is the beginning of the second major section of the dissertation, dealing with the transition to celebrity and scandal in the late ’50s and 1960s. Later posts will deal with the “Love Triangle” in detail, the fixation on Jackie Kennedy, and the rise of the Chuck Laufner “Teen Mags” (Tiger Beat, etc.).
In early September, 1958, a gossip bombshell exploded in Hollywood: the “Widow Todd,” also known as Elizabeth Taylor, was photographed spending late evenings at New York night clubs with one Eddie Fisher. Fisher was not only the best friend of Taylor’s late husband, Mike Todd, but also one half of the “cutest couple in Hollywood” — the other half, of course, was the perennially pig-tailed Debbie Fisher. Over the course of the next few weeks, Taylor, Fisher, and Reynolds became players in a melodrama fit for the screen, slotted into the roles of dark temptress, weak protege, and cherubic mother. Fisher and Reynolds divorced in May 1959, allowing Taylor and Fisher to marry soon thereafter. But the months in between was filled with speculation: was Taylor blaspheming the memory of her dead husband? Would Debbie grant Eddie the divorce? Could Debbie love again? As both the popular and fan press were eager to proclaim, not since the early ‘20s, when Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks divorced their respective spouses in order to wed each other, had such a scandal rocked Hollywood.
At first, Taylor, Fisher, and Reynolds offered sporadic cooperation with the fan magazines, relying on them to tell each stars’ “side of the story” and cultivate and support. Yet the three could or would not provide enough copy to satiate what quickly became a voracious demand for scoops, exclusives, and everlasting streams of content. To feed this demand, fan magazines editors and authors resorted to conjuring stories, positing hypotheticals, and extrapolating from interviews with other, more mainstream publications. As the magazines ceased to rely on the stars and their press agents as a source of material, covers and headlines became increasingly bombastic.
The subjects of this coverage took expected umbrage. In short order, Taylor, Fisher, and Reynolds ceased to grant the fan magazines access. The result was a downward spiral: the less stars cooperated, the more the fan magazines had to conjure material; the more the magazines conjured, the less willing stars were to cooperate. By 1961, the only figures granting access to the fan magazines were young Hollywood hopefuls and a handful of television and music sensations. The symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and the gossip industry, in which the studios and the stars’ agents would exchange photos, interviews, and exclusives for free publicity, was effectively over.
In this way, the Taylor/Fisher/Reynolds triangle and its coverage precipitated profound changes in the way that the gossip industry procured and published information concerning the stars. The gossip industry had long alluded to titillation and scandal, but always in a gentile, sublimated manner. In the late ‘50s, the stars were increasingly brazen in their public activities, and cultural mores — what was and and was not acceptable do and talk about — were in flux. What’s more, appetites for scandal had been thoroughly whetted by the success of Confidential, which, in summer of 1958, was enjoying front page publicity across the nation as the defendant in the “Trial of 100 Stars.” Over the course of the three years between the Taylor/Fisher/Reynolds scandal and the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in January of 1961, it became not only acceptable to air scandal on the cover of fan magazine, but expected, even necessary. Fan and movie magazine became scandal and celebrity publications — a definitional shift that continues to shape today’s gossip landscape.
To effect this shift, the magazines relied on several tactics refined by Confidential. Most importantly, they expanded their net of coverage: music stars, television personalities, and political figures all began to make regular appearances. They changed their aesthetics and form, as long-form profiles were traded in for short, image-heavy features and paparazzi photos took the place of posed publicity shots. Finally, the tone changed, especially in the flagrant headlines that began to dominate the covers of each publications. Instead of protecting and defending the stars, the magazines accused and decried them, employing a style characterized by florid rhetoric and ample use of exclamation points.
Whether Hollywood cut the fan magazines loose or the fan magazines freed themselves of studio dependency, the salient fact remains: the rules of the relationship changed. Stars publicly decried the magazine’s tactics, while cultural critics framed the magazines as bastions of all that was wrong with the nation. As the magazines continued to shift their focus to “stars” un-affiliated with the Hollywood, the studios began to doubt their efficacy in promoting film viewership, culminating in cuts in the number of advertising dollars directed towards the magazines. The very understanding that had tied the fan magazines to Hollywood — that those who read the magazines were those that attended films — was undermined. In its place, a new paradigm: those who read fan magazines read more fan magazines. By hooking readers in scandalous melodrama, fan magazines assured repeat readership much in the same way as serial narrative and soap operas.
THE INDUSTRIAL VALUE OF STARS, 1958 – 1961
As established in previous posts, the gossip industry does not operate in a vacuum. Rather, it is always imbricated within the shifting value and definition of “star” within both Hollywood and American culture. During the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the industry refined several practices that not only illuminated changing value of stars within the system, but predicated the transformation of the late ‘60s, when the studios underwent a massive wave of conglomeration and endured an industry-wide recession. These practices — full investment in telefilm production, the cultivation of ‘cadillac’ pictures, and the exploitation of film libraries — helped the studios counter ever-dropping audience numbers.
By 1955, studio attempts to co-opt television were at an impasse. The FCC had denied a petition for a special ‘theater band’ that would have provided a special frequency for Theater TV, which would have permitted audiences to view theater content from home for a fee. Paramount soldiered on with its fight for Pay TV — a close cousin to today’s On Demand — through the early 1960s, but was blocked at every turn. The main objection to studio investment in television technology: the studios would take over and monopolize broadcasting the same way they had film industry. In hindsight, reactionary measures to keep the studios out of television infrastructure backfired, as the studios simply moved their attention to telefilm production. Within a few short years, the studios dominated the industry, marginalizing the very entities the FCC had labored to protect.[i]
Hollywood approached television production from several angles. In 1952, the Screen Actor’s Guild granted MCA, the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood, a special blanket waiver. The waiver, negotiated by SAG president and MCA-client Ronald Reagan, exempted MCA from prohibitions against agents entering into production. For MCA, the waiver was a tantamount to a license to print money: the agency had long encouraged its clients to incorporate themselves for tax purposes, thus becoming co-producers (and profit participants) in their own work; now MCA’s production arm, Revue, could partner with their clients’ production companies and stack shows with MCA talent. As a result, stars affiliated with MCA — Reagan included — benefited handsomely.[ii] At the same time, Hollywood production entities negotiated long-term deals with the networks. In 1954, Disney partnered with ABC in a deal that traded investment in Disneyland for a stream of programming that would include The Mickey Mouse Club, Zorro, and Disneyland.
By the end of 1956, Hollywood supplied 70% of primetime programming. The percentage would only continue to grow, especially as a struggling NBC forged an agreement with MCA/Revue in 1957. According to apocryphal legend, NBC allowed Revue complete control over its schedule and new programming — a tale that not only emphasized the power of MCA in the late ‘50s, but the extent to which the networks had come to depend on Hollywood-based telefilm production.
But the telefilm producers lacked a clear vision of how to exploit their products — especially stars — over the long term. Here, the case of Warner Bros. is instructive. In 1956, Jack Warner appointed Christopher Orr as head of Warners’ main TV unit and allocated $1 million for a new TV building.[iii] By investing in telefilm at a large scale, Warner hoped to garner enough profit to float the studio’s film production arm. Orr immediately instituted several policies straight from the classic studio era: he refused profit participation for any talent; he assigned producers to various shows, rather than allowing them to produce shows on their own. As Christopher Anderson explains, Orr’s strategy was a creative catastrophe: designed to cut costs and increase standardization, what it actually cut was innovation and artistry. Nevertheless, Warners received an order for eight primetime shows in 1958, making the studio the top telefilmery of the year.[v] The goal had been achieved.
Yet the Orr mode of production was unsustainable, in large part due to the refusal to accept the new paradigm of star autonomy.[vi] Frustrated with the power-hungry stars of both film and television, Warners had reactivated its studio-system reputation for being the least star-friendly of the studios.[vii] Standard practice was to sign hungry, low-level talent at bargain basement prices. Once signed, the stars could not renegotiate their contracts, even when their careers and value took off. These “all-encompassing contracts” allowed the studio to exploit a star across both television and film as it saw fit; if a star refused, he or she was simply cut loose. When Clint Walker, star of the hit Western Cheyenne, attempted to rewrite the terms of his contract, Warner Bros. replaced him, confident that any male actor of a certain ilk could replace him.[viii] In Walker’s case, Warner’s was right.
Yet when James Garner, star of Maverick, found himself in a similar situation, the studio was not as lucky. Garner was tremendously popular, had gained increased visibility in a handful of films, and soon demanded profit participation on top of his measly $250 weekly salary. Warners balked and cut Garner loose; Garner called their bluff and left television for good. Unlike Walker, Garner proved fundamental to the success of Maverick: following his departure, ratings plummeted. Orr’s strategy had backfired. It was too dependent on a single product (the hour-long drama) in a single market (ABC) with a single mode of production. And it neglected the new rules of stardom: once a star was made, he or she could demand, and receive, profit participation and/or salaries commiserate with their worth. The lesson of Warner Bros. under Orr was that studios certainly could make money in telefilm production – but they would need to figure out how to balance creativity, star control, and studio oversight.
United Artists (UA) was the only studio that managed to balance all three of these components. While UA was focused on producing movies, their template for producer-partnership and distribution would be emulated by those in film and telefilm production. Unlike Warners’ attempt at complete control and oversight, UA encouraged creative partnerships with various independent producers, most notably Burt Lancester’s production company. In addition to granting talent complete creative control over their product, UA also promised generous profit participation.[ix] Such incentive encouraged talent to stake a claim in the success of their product – a “partial-ownership” strategy that motivated talent to work hard and with efficiency. Over the years, the studios would gravitate towards the United Artists model, turning more and more into financiers and distributors of film, as opposed to producers. In this way, distribution rights slowly became the fulcrum on which the success of a studio rested. Stars became less and less associated with the studio and more dependent on agents who could “package” them with a director/producer and negotiate partial ownership in the products in which they appeared.
Over the course of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, the studios refined a new approach to production and distribution: make ‘em big, show ‘em big, and sell ‘em big.[x] With fewer films in production, the business risks of these high budget films, the so-called “Cadillacs” of the production line, increased exponentially. Producers attempted to insure their films’ success by packing them with effects and gimmicks — Cinemascope, Cinerama, 70 mm, surround sound, 3-D, smell-o-vision — to differentiate the cinematic experience from the televisual. Whereas classic Hollywood narrative focused on character and plot, “Cadillac” pictures centered on manufacturing sensation. The rise of “runaway production” (shooting overseas) added extra exoticism, decreased the studio’s bottom lines through tax incentives, and circumvented the demands of the Hollywood guilds.
Studios made the most of their lavish, extravagant pictures through “road-showing.” “Road-show” pictures were screened for a limited set of dates in large, urban venues, with tickets sold ahead of time at elevated prices. The practice not only rendered movie-going a special event and attracted audiences who had ceased to frequent the cinema, but provided an excuse to charge higher ticket prices and off-set skyrocketing budgets.[xi] Within this paradigm, a star’s primary purpose was not to act, per se, but to serve as yet another special effect or beautiful backdrop to individuate and sell the film.
Movies on Television
Finally, the studios began to sell off the rights to their back libraries of films. In the ‘50s, film libraries were divided into two categories: those produced before the divestment decrees in 1948, whose rights the studios were free to sell, and those produced after 1948, which were bound up in negotiations between producers and the trade unions.[xii] Hollywood had hesitated to sell rights for a number of reasons: the networks’ offers were too small, and, as highlighted above, many studios spent the first part of the ‘50s attempting to work out alternate means, such as Theater and Pay TV, to exploit their libraries via television.[xiii] In 1955, Paramount opened the “floodgates”on the sale of pre-1948 films, selling thirty of its films to an independent producer.[xiv] In July, RKO sold the rights to its entire pre-1948 library, and the other studio vaults opened wide. Some studios sold their rights outright, while long-sighted studios retained their ownership and sold short-term rights or distributed films themselves. In 1960, the Screen Actor’s Guild reached an agreement with the studios for the release of post-1948 films, leading to second flurry of sales.[xv]
The importance of the sale of films — classic and contemporary — was dual-fold. First, stars, even the most glamorous, became a regular fixture in the home. The integrity of the star aura had already begun to deteriorate, accelerated, as discussed in Chapter Two, by the growing appearance of film stars on television programs in the mid-‘50s. Second, library sales provided studios with an additional influx of cash, enabling the continued production of lavish films featuring well-compensated stars. In this way, investment in television facilitated the continued production of big Hollywood films and sustained the few major Hollywood stars that remained.
Stars with recognizable names were essential, if problematic, assets for the studios — one of the few semi-reliable ways to lure the elusive audience. But under the new logic and mode
of production, every time a star had a hit, he/she could leverage his/her newfound power for bloated failure. For every On the Waterfront, a Sayonora to milk the studio dry. Nevertheless, the big stars got bigger, even as the number of films, potential star vehicles, and number of mid-level stars decreased. By the end of the 1960s, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, and Lana Turner were all in the twilights of their careers, while the number of cooperative stars from the mid-‘50s, including Debbie Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, and Kim Novak, were either receding in popularity or breaking free from their contracts. What’s more, the crop of new, compelling actors — Marlon Brando, Joanne Woodward, Paul Newman, along as with international imports Bridgette Bardot and Sophia Loren — were not only elusive, but proved un-malleable to traditional fan mag tactics of domestication. There simply was not enough sell-able star product to go around, resulting in an economic situation in which stars with demonstrated audience appeal could leverage their scarcity as they saw fit.
Such leverage had direct effect on the gossip industry. Unless a star was under long-term contract, as few were in 1958, the studio could not force the star to cooperate with the fan magazines. Editors were forced to follow one of two tacts: construct stories without the star’s participation, or turn to the seemingly everlasting fount of star material from television and the music industry. Some readers predictably bemoaned the passing glamour of the classic system, echoing cries from the early ‘50s following the demise of the studio system and rise of television.[xvi] Yet many, especially younger readers, praised the reorientation towards media products in which they were actually invested, both emotionally and financially. The decision to include non-film stars and scandal reporting was, at least in part, a move of necessity. Yet it also served to sustain and eventually increase readership numbers.[xvii] It meant new life for the fan magazines, even as it entailed a dramatic reconceptualization of tone and content.
In 1958, the fan magazines were at a crossroads. Readership numbers were steady: Photoplay’s average total paid circulation hovered around 1.3 million — an increase of around 100,000 from 1946 — with 40% of sales coming from subscriptions.[xviii] Yet Confidential had proven that cultivating scandal, covering non-Hollywood celebrities, and neglecting studio and press agent demands could sell double, even triple that number, even with virtually no subscription base. While the magazines did not adopt all of Confidential’s tactics immediately, by 1961, all three strategies were employed throughout the industry.
The magazines’ first move was to broaden the scope of their content. Before 1958, singers Elvis and Eddie Fisher were regular fixtures, but both had ties to film: Elvis began starring in films in 1956, and Fisher only appeared in conjunction with wife Debbie Reynolds. Starting in 1958, however, gossip coverage of film and television began in earnest. Part of the influx of musician-related stories can be tied to the rise of teen culture and idols in the late 1950s, when, following the phenomenal cross-media success of Elvis, dozens of rock ‘n’ roll stars flooded the market just as the first products of the baby boom were entering their teens. During this period, teen-targeted films, including B-grade exploitation, Corman horror films, music films (Rock Around the Clock) and teen melodramas (Rebel without a Cause) proved some of the most reliable box office draws.
The fan magazines, eager to attract a new generation of film fans, had begun covering filmic teen idols, including Marlon Brando, Pier Angeli, and Piper Laurie, throughout the ‘50s.While James Dean’s early death immortalized him, it also foreclosed the possibility of extended fan magazine coverage — beyond eulogies, there was little else to print. Yet Dean’s co-star in Rebel, Natalie Wood, was gossip gold. Wood had grown up in the studio system, and Rebel marked her transition to teen stardom at age 16. Yet Warner Bros., to whom she was contracted, failed to successfully exploit her stardom: she languished in mediocre films for most of the late ‘50s before a career revival in West Side Story (Wise 1961) and Splendor in the Grass (Kazan 1961).
Despite an inability to attract audiences at the box office, Wood became a fixture of the fan magazines. Discourse focused on her fairytale romance with Robert Wagner, with whom Warner Bros. had arranged a date to commemorate her eighteenth birthday. Following a highly publicized year of courtship, they married in December of 1957. As both were under contract to studios — Wood to Warners, Wagner to Fox — the fan magazines received a tremendous amount of information concerning their relationship, including wedding and Honeymoon photos and the couple’s “private love diaries.”[xix] Wood was a fan magazine’s dream: young enough to attract teens, yet involved in an idealized romance that appealed to all ages.
Wood was not the only teen film star of the time, but she was unique in having no background in either music or television. The majority of late ‘50s teen idols rose through their success in music, on television, or in productions that incorporated both, such as American Bandstand, hosted by the young and charismatic Dick Clark. ABC began broadcasting Bandstand nationwide in August 1957;[xx] with an audience of 40 million, Bandstand served as the launching pad for several teen idols.[xxi] Apart from Bandstand, young, handsome singers used television to generate broad fan bases that would then follow them to the theaters.
In April 1957, seventeen-year-old Ricky Nelson launched his career by appearing “as himself” on his parents show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Over the next two years, he would regularly close the show with a musical numbers, leading to thirty Top 40 hits between 1957-1962 and film roles in Rio Bravo (Hawks 1959) and The Wackiest Ship in the Army (Murphy 1960). Over at Disney, the mini-major was already refining its skills as a star-germinator: Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello both parlayed their Mousketeer stardom into film careers, appearing in several Disney films.[xxii]
The magazines were eager to exploit affection for these teen idols — in part because most idols were under contract and thus eager to cooperate with the magazines, but also because they attracted the highly desirable teenage audience. Modern Screen offered a “Special Youth Issue!” in August 1958, promising “12 Stories of Tenderness and Torment.” The cover, featuring an enraptured Wood and Wagner, declares “Natalie kisses her teens goodbye!”
In March 1958, Photoplay began running an “On the Record” column, along with profiles of singer Perry Cuomo and Dick Clark.[xxiii] When Pat Boone appeared on the cover of the April 1958 magazine, he was the first non-film star to do so in Photoplay’s forty-seven year history.[xxiv] Over the next year, Photoplay continued to bolster its music coverage, running features on “Who’ll Be the New Singin’ Idol?” and “What You Don’t Know About the Lennon Sisters”[xxv] in addition to a regular column “penned” by Clark.[xxvi] Motion Picture promised a “Giant Pat Boone Pin-Up – Twice as Big as This Magazine” and a “A Confidential Report on Ricky Nelson!”, while Modern Screen offered details on “Ricky Nelson’s Secret Engagement,” and the cover story, “Mariane Gaba Confesses: WHY I WALKED OUT ON RICKY NELSON!”[xxvii] Meanwhile, fan magazines with smaller circulations changed their names to reflect an increased dedication to TV and recording stars: Movieland became Movieland and TV Time in 1958, while Screen Stories merged with TV & Record Stars to become Screen TV & Record Stars.
The major fan magazines still hesitated to feature television stars who had not also gained famed as teen or singing idols. While Motion Picture published articles on James Garner, the stars of Peyton Place, and “TV’s Top Guns: All Your Favorite Western Stars!” but Photoplay and Modern Screen both maintained focus on film and singing idols.[xxviii] The hesitancy was likely motivated by economics, as several publications were already devoted to television stars, from the mainstream TV Guide to fan mags TV-Radio Mirror, TV and Movie Screen, TV and Screen Life, TV and Screenworld, and TV and Movie Fan. TV-Radio Mirror was also Photoplay’s sister publication (both were owned by Macfadden Publications), and ads in Photoplay regularly invited readers to refer to TV-Radio Mirror for exclusives on television personalities. It would have been at cross-purposes for Macfadden to allow Photoplay to siphon off readers from Mirror.
In hindsight, these changes may seem slight: a few new columns, a few new faces on the cover. But the fact that movie fan magazines were now covering rock ‘n’ roll singers was tangible proof that Hollywood film stars were decreasing in number and receding in prominence. Which is not to say that the biggest stars of the period did not receive attention. They did, in equal if not greater proportion to the new generation of idols. Yet the need to embed these stars in narratives of domestic bliss in moral rectitude was in decline. In its place: inflecting a story with scandal and salaciousness, no matter the subject matter. By 1958, this tonal shift had already been set in motion, yet the maelstrom of the Taylor-Fisher-Reynolds scandal worked as a catalyst, helping to codify new industry-wide standards in aesthetics, form, and tone.
[i] Michele Hilmes, Hollywood and Broadcasting (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 137
[ii] In 1959, MCA arranged a deal for Reagan to star in General Electric Theater with Ronald Reagan, allowing him to reap millions through his production company’s co-ownership of the show.
[iii] See Christopher Anderson, Hollywood TV (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).
[iv] See Anderson Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine on Warner Bros.’ television production.
[v] Anderson 246.
[vi] For additional ways in which the production was unsustainable, see Anderson ***.
[vii] Warner Bros. was well-known as the least star-friendly studio in Hollywood; James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Olivia DeHavilland had all sued for over mis-treatment.
[viii] CITATION NEEDED — Anderson.
[ix] See Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company that Changed the Film Industry (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987).
[x] Balio 125.
[xi] Balio 215.
[xii] In 1951, SAG signed a contract with the studios that relinquished all rights to films produced before 1948; “In return for that concession, the Guild indicated that it expected to negotiate royalty and residual system for post-1948 products. Each producer who wished to distribute post-1948 fils to television was required to negotiate additional payments to the actors involved; failure to do so meant that the studio would run the risk of losing its contract with the Guild altogether, and with it further use of Guild actors” Hilmes 159; see also Janet Wasko, “Hollywood and Television in the 1950s: The Roots of Diversification,” in Peter Lev, The Fifties (University of California Press, 2006), 138.
[xiii] Wasko 138; Hilmes 157.
[xiv] Paramount sold thirty films to an independent studio for $1.15 million. See Hilmes 159.
[xv] By 1961, films began to show on network television “relatively soon” after their theater releases; How to Marry a Millionaire premiered in full color in NBC in September. See Hilmes 166.
[xvi] For example: “Please let’s have more on Lana Turner, Liz Taylor, Ava Gardner, and Rita Hayworth. These gals have real glamour and they do something exciting once in a while. Anybody can sit home at night and rock a baby, as you read about some stars doing” “Readers Inc.,” Photoplay, July 1952, 4; ”Couldn’t we have just a little less of the hum-drum family life of the stars plastered over your magazine? We’re awfully fed up looking at pictures of Gordon MacRae’s wife and children, of Alan Ladd and his wife and children, Gregory Peck’s family, etc. After all, movies still mean glamour and romance to young and old — and that’s what put them where they are, or were. Anyway, this is the opinion of an 18-year-old, a 40-year-old, and a 5-year-old and I’m sure many others. Won’t you give it a thought? Yours for more glamour and less domesticity.” “Readers Inc.,” Photoplay, Sept. 1952, 4.
Even Lana Turner decries the lack of glamour in Hollywood’s new crop — see Don Alpert, “Lana: No Dash to New Gals,” Los Angeles Times, June 11, 1961, B5.
[xvii] In 1950, Photoplay’s average total paid circulation: 1,211,644; in 1959, it has risen to 1,295,723, by 1965, 1,328,771. Modern Screen’s average total paid circulation rose from 1,168,445 in 1950 to 1,267,420 in 1959, while Motion Picture’s climbed from 795,173 (1950) to 986,896 (1959). Further figures unavailable. See Anthony Slide, Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), 171; 182; see also Association of National Advertisers, Magazine Circulation and Rate Trends 1946-1976 (New York: The Association, 1978).
[xviii] In 1946, Photoplay’s average total paid circulation: 1,253,095; in 1955, Photoplay’s average total paid circulation: 1,379,627. See Association of National Advertisers, PAGE NUMBER.
[xix] “Nat and Bob Honeymooner’s Own Album” (Photoplay, Apr. 1958); “Natalie and Bob’s Diary: 12 Months of Love!” (Modern Screen, Mar. 1958); “Natalie’s Honeymoon!” exclusive by Louella Parsons (Modern Screen, Apr. 1958); “Love Secrets of Nat and Bob” (Photoplay, June 1958).
[xx] By March 1958, American Bandstand aired on Saturday evenings and Monday through Friday from 3-3:30 and 4-5 p.m. — exactly when teens had monopoly over the television set. See John P. Shanley, “Dick Clark – New Rage of the Teenagers,” New York Times, Mar 16, 1958, X13.
[xxi] Leslie Lieber, “Why Everybody Likes Dick Clark,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16, 1958, TW8.
[xxii] Other examples of teen idoldom: First-season Mousketeer Johnny Crawford found fame as the fresh-faced co-star of television Western The Rifleman, while Tommy Sands, signed at age 15 to RCA by Elvis’ manager, found success playing a teen idol on an episode of Kraft Television Theatre and went on to a starring role in Sing, Boy, Sing (1958).
[xxiii] Music-centered features in March 1958 Photoplay include: “On the Record” (Disc Jockey Tommy Reynolds asks ‘What is jazz?”, 26; Profiles of singers – “Easy Does It” (profile of Perry Cuomo), 45; “Round the Clock with Dick Clark,” Alex Joyce, 54.
[xxiv] Eddie Fisher had appeared, but only when coupled with Debbie Reynolds.
[xxv] “Who’ll Be the New Singin’ Idol?”, Photoplay, Apr. 1958, 54; “What You Don’t Know About the Lennon Sisters,” August 1958.
[xxvi] ‘Dick Clark’s Special 6-Page Dance Book” — “Top of the Hops”/”Get Hep with These Real-Gone Steps”, Photoplay, Oct. 1958, 60-64. DICK CLARK CHEERS “Teams! Teams! Teams! (The top musical teams that you asked for: The Everly Brothers, The Four Lads, The Diamonds, Donny and the Juniors, Dion and the Belmonts), Photoplay, Nov. 1958, no page given; “Dick Clark’s Scrapbook for 1958,” Photoplay, Jan. 1959, 46.
[xxvii] “Giant Pat Boone Pin-Up – Twice as Big as This Magazine” (Motion Picture, July 1958); “A Confidential Report on Ricky Nelson!” (Motion Picture, October 1958); “Ricky Nelson’s Secret Engagement” (Modern Screen, August 1958); “Mariane Gaba Confesses: WHY I WALKED OUT ON RICKY NELSON!” (Modern Screen, November 1958).
[xxviii] “James Arness – Gunsmoke’s Giant!” (Motion Picture, May 1958); “Peyton Place Powerhouses” (Motion Picture, April 1958); “TV’s Top Guns: All Your Favorite Western Stars!” (Motion Picture, March 1958); “Dinah Shore: She’s Got a Secret!” (Photoplay, March 1958)
Note: this is the second in a series of posts dealing with Photoplay Magazine and its changes through the course of the 1950s. You can find the first in the series here).
Think, for a second, about the people that head up our current gossip industry. They might not all be movie star gorgeous, but they are at least somewhat attractive, and if not, they’re young, or gay, or funny. Joel McHale, Ryan Seacrest, Lainey Gossip, even someone like Mary Hart on Entertainment Tonight. You may hate Perez Hilton’s flamboyant persona and style, but it’s certainly young, unique, fully self-aware. People who are most often behind the camera or pen manage to manifest a youthful persona — see, for example, the seldom photographed but firmly developed personas of the Fug Girls Heather and Jessica.
Now I want you to take a look at these pictures of the women who ruled the gossip industry from the 1920s through the end of the 1950s.
That’s Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Elsa Maxwell — the mavens of Hollywood gossip, still attempting to rule the roost through the ’50s. Sheilah Graham, pictured below, is the youngest of the bunch; like Hedda Hopper, she was a failed actress.
There were also male gossip journalists — Walter Winchell foremost amongst them. But Winchell mostly gossiped about New York cafe society with a bit of Hollywood in for good taste; his work was rarely featured in the actual fan magazines. Mike Connolly was perhaps even more powerful than Winchell — as the gossip columnist for the Hollywood Reporter, his gossip was what others in the industry read and believed. He was ruthless and merciless, and was specialized in lording his knowledge of others’ homosexual preferences in order to protect his own closeted sexual identity. A 1954 Newsweek article on the gossip columnists (and rise of press agents) puts a fine point on his power:
“….as one big-time press agent said: ‘The most important plant in town? Mike Connolly. So many people are out of work today, the first obligation is to get a client work. I want the producer, the casting director to see my people’s names. Maybe only 50 men. Everyone in the industry reads Mike. But not everyone reads Hopper or Parsons. An actor — an idiot type — wants to see a lot of space always, but for me and my smarter clients, the trade sheets are the life blood of the business.”
He regularly wrote toothless pieces for Photoplay — usually about a page in length. Working for several publications was quite commonplace at the time — Parsons, Hopper, Maxwell, and Graham all wrote for multiple magazines in addition to daily or weekly columns syndicated nation-wide (and long-running radio shows, plus a smattering of television specials). I’d always heard that Parsons and Hopper were arch rivals — and they were, but only until the late ’40s. There’s been a lot of work on these early gossip mavens, including Samantha Barbas’ The First Lady of Hollywood and Neal Gabler’s fantastic and expansive Winchell. I’ve recently been able to read sections of Jennifer Frost’s forthcoming book, Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood: Celebrity Gossip and American Conservativism, forthcoming in 2011, which deals with the Hopper’s unexplored role in ushering in the age of American conservatism in the early ’60s. It’s nice to think of this old, proper women as keepers of classic Hollywood.
But just look at these women! They were invited to everything — all the big parties; they strolled around at the Hollywood hot-spots, dined and shopped and had tea with the stars. Through the medium of Photoplay and the newspaper columns, the columnists were the mouthpieces of the stars. But they were odd ducks: they didn’t in; some were failed actresses; jealousy and lack of self-confidence regularly manifested in the form of passive-aggressive quips in print.
But what I really want to point out is the fact that these women ARE ALL OLD BIDDIES. Especially by the time we get to the mid-’50s — these ladies used to be matronly, but now they’re downright elderly. They’re your Great Aunt with the costume jewelry telling your brother to shave his beard. And they were the face of traditional fan magazines — and gossip more generally — as Hollywood attempted to reconfigure itself during the 1950s.
They weren’t just old in appearance — they were straight-up old-fashioned. Sheilah Graham less so — perhaps because she herself had earned her initial fame by being the mistress of F. Scott Fitzgerald when he died, then penning a tell-all memoir. But the other three were moralizing, vindictive, and generally unforgiving. They played favorites — that’s nothing new — but they also used their posts to condemn those, like Ingrid Bergman, who would dare not to concede to their authority. From all that I can gather, when Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini’s baby and estranged from her husband, it wasn’t that she wanted to lie to her public — or the columnists — about her illegitimate child. She just didn’t want to talk at all — an early symptom of the stars ceasing willingness to abide by the rules of the old implicit contract between fans, magazines, and stars.
But Louella Parsons knew that one star refusing to play by the rules would open the floodgates, and she lashed out, attacking Bergman for weeks for her transgression. To my mind, it was a tacit acknowledgment of her forthcoming obsolescence: the peak manifestation of her power foretold her slow descent into irrelevancy.
Now, most of the most vicious rhetoric actually isn’t in the Photoplay pieces, but tucked into the end paragraphs of the daily newspapers columns. The Photoplay columns take a different tact, essentially explaining ‘bad’ or scandalous behavior through speculation and pop psychology. A smattering of examples:
On Judy Garland — who had endured a roller coaster of romance, scandal, weight-gain, exhaustion, drug-overdose, and attempted suicide — Parsons argues that Garland can only recover by ceasing to blame others, instead of overwork and MGM head Louis B. Mayer: ”Judy, herself, likes to believe that it is this early childhood effort and strain that hs caused her complete breakdown. But many disagree. Child actresses on the motion picture lots are sent to school and permitted by the courts to work only a certain amount of hours.” Further “one thing I shall never in the world believe is that Judy was driven into her condition by a hard-hearted stuido forcing her to work beyond her endurance….Always Mr. Mayer has loved Judy and advised her like a father…It was L.B. who sooted her to the point of her decision to go East for treatmet under the care of the doctors…Far from her being forced back to work against her will, she was acutally begging MGM to put her to work. ‘I’ve worked all my life,’ she pleaded with them, “Im restless being idle.’ And, believing her, they put her to work in Summer Stock.” (1950).
Two years later, Elsa Maxwell spends an entire article admonishing readers to “Stop Pitying Judy!” “It is past time we all stopped being sentimental about Judy Garland,” she explains, “we should stop being sentimental about Judy, and making excuses for her, encouraging her, in other words, to go on the way she is going…..Her emotionalism, no doubt about it, is both dramatic and touching. And audiences respond to it. But when it goes on and on and on, when unhappy time after unhappy time her secretary, manager, lawyer and physican excuse her as being overwrought or emotionally exhausted, it becomes evident she is ill and need s medical help.”
Maxwell concludes that “Something should be done about Judy — now! That she is permitted to go on appearing overweight, failing to make performances, tading on her emotionalism by sobbing through curtain speeches is unjust to her and it also is unjust to the tradition of the theatre.”
On the subject of the quick break-up of Nicky Hilton and Elizabeth Taylor, Maxwell explains —
“Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton came to their breaking point before their marriage really began; just as soon as eitehr of them was required to think first of the other. The failure of this marriage — if six months of life on luxurious ships and trains and hotels can be called a marriage — must be blamed, I think, not upon Liz and Nicky, but upon their parents who first spoiled them; then sanctioned their marraige after a courtship so short and public that they were little more than strangers…”
When Kirk Douglas insists that “Divorce is a Private Affair,” Parsons is completely befuddled —
“Never have I been more puzzled….Had Diana been a non-professional who stayed home and concentrated on him — forgotten her career — they might have been happy. But Kirk would not admit this. ‘Diana has talent. She should act if she wants to. She is one woman in a million; quite capable of bein a good wife and a good actress at the same time!’”
Parsons reassuring readers that even though Joan Fontaine is getting a second divorce, she’s still a ‘man’s woman’:
“A odd as it may sound, this ordinary gay, carefree girl, who is at the height of her career, has two qualities unusual in a career woman: she has a natural inferiority complex. And she has a natural, inborn dependence on the male sex which naturally makers her devastating to men! There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that Joan Fontaine will marry again, in spite of being a two-time loser in the matrimonial sweepstakes. She is fundamentally a man’s woman — and that she won’t even attempt to change”
And Hedda Hopper admonishes the stars for their generalized bad behavior — especially their negligence of their ‘duties’ —
“I am sick of the people who revel in the gifts of stardom but groan at the liabilities. They forget that they were deliberately created in and by the public mind; and therfore, to a great extent, they belong to the public. They want the fame that brings screen success; and at the same time, the anonymity of a John Doe when they choose to step out of line. This is impossible, and, having written about Hollywood for many years, I’ve sweated blood trying to explain it to stars. If all stars would take stock of thesmelves, they would see just how dependent they are on the their associates and the world for their success. They have no right to offend th epublic who decides whether or not they’ll swim or sink professionally. I for one feel the time has come for the people of Hollywood to draw the line. We must say to stars who won’t conform: Behave yourselves, or there will be no place for you in this town” (1953)
In my previous post, I concluded that part of what went ‘wrong’ in the 1950s — and precipitated the decline and eventual collapse of the traditional fan magazine — was a change in the terms of agreement between the fan, the star, and the gossip industry that served as the mediator between the two. Now, part of that change had to do with what the star was willing and/or able to give to the fan as the result of structural changes in the studio system. But this shift was put into greater relief by the presence of aging moralist columnists still present in the traditional forms — I mean, there’s nothing that’ll make you feel like a publication is old-fashioned like an elderly woman saying ‘kids these days…’ – exactly what these women were doing on a monthly basis.
They had a right to be nostalgic and embittered. The Hollywood they had constructed with their pens was crumbling; the rules they had helped to set were crumbling. But they stuck to them, and certainly continued to please a broad swath of readers who were still eager to believe that the spread of television, the moves to the suburbs, the baby-boom, The New Look, The Kinsey Report, the publication of Playboy, The ‘Miracle’ Case, and myriad additional cultural events had and would not change the moral contours of Hollywood.
But the Photoplay editors weren’t clueless. They knew they needed to cater to the burgeoning youth audience — not only by featuring young stars, such as June Allyson and Liz Taylor and other ‘young marrieds’ — but by offering younger, snappier voices. Sheilah Graham provided some of this flavor — indeed, during this period, her newspaper column surpassed Hopper’s and Parson’s in circulation numbers — but Photoplay also used small aesthetic and visual concessions, promising ‘What Everyone in Hollywood is Whispering About” and daring to even put the word “sex” on its cover (granted, it was to ask if Hollywood was too obsessed with sex — but the word appeared nonetheless).
In some ways, it’s like abstinence porn: decrying the morals, but still bringing up the act itself, keeping it on the minds of all involved. That’s the fine line that Photoplay attempted to ride, and by the end of the decade, the old guard of gossip was on its way out. They voiced the beliefs of many in America — those still firmly against low neck lines, integration, extra-marital fornication, even divorce in any case — but those who believed that way were no longer the ones buying movie tickets.
Ultimately, Photoplay had to make a decision: go with the moral (but silent) majority….or go with the transgressive, sexy, young, yet potentially alienating style adopted by the new set of scandal magazines and tabloids. They tried to both in the 1960s — and did neither well. In the 1950s, however, the persistence of the old biddies underlined Photoplay’s resilient ties to classic understandings of stars and star behavior….and how increasingly anachronistic that approach was becoming.
(Note: this post will function as a continuation of my previous post on the importance of the banal, boring, straight-laced fan magazines of the 1950s, which you can find here.)
First, a methodological note: fan magazines are notoriously difficult to locate. Photoplay is held by several large research institutions for most of its run — mostly on microfiche, with a few smatterings of battered print copies. Other than that, there’s very little that’s been saved. The Pop Culture Library at Bowling Green University apparently has tons of stuff, but they’re mostly unsorted and not available for Inter Library Loan. Same goes for the fan mag collections at the Herrick in Los Angeles. (If you’ve been out of school for awhile, Inter Library Loan is a magic feature where you can request items from basically all of the libraries in the US and/or world….articles are scanned and arrive in your inbox as a PDF; books are sent from Biloxi Community Library, etc. etc.). So for much of my research, I go to eBay, amassing at least $500 of old, dusty copies of magazines that smell keenly of my granddad’s house. People who don’t know what they have list them for cheap — usually between a dollar and five — while people who know they have something good charge upwards of $20-$50 dollars. I now have most of Confidential from 1954-1958 (when it was published by Harrison) and random yet crucial issues of Modern Screen, Photoplay, Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, Screen Stories, etc. from the ’40s through ’80s. (People Magazine is now available in full color PDF – every issue! — on its website. Thank you, conglomerate archiving).
Collectors love Hollywood memorabilia, and fan magazines are no exceptions. There seem to be many who have amassed full collections of mint condition magazines — troves I would love to explore. (AND IF YOU HAVE A GREAT AUNT BERNIE WHO COLLECTS FAN MAGAZINES, PLEASE LET ME KNOW). They’ve also put together resources such as MovieMags.com, which, through a very elegant interface, provides full color .jpgs of hundreds upon hundreds of magazine covers, organized by magazine and year. Here’s the page of Photoplays from the 1950s; here’s Confidential; here’s Modern Screen. (You can click on them and scroll through the enlarged images….really quite marvelous).
These images help supplement what’s available to me in the form of microfiche — which are basically shadowy x-ray scans of an otherwise vibrant magazine. Have you worked with microfiche? It’s pretty much the weirdest thing ever. I’ve made some new microfiche best friends: a middle aged professor looking at John Quincy Adams’ handwritten correspondence and journals from the mid-19th century and an elderly gentleman apparently scanning all obituaries in regional newspapers in the 19th century — amateur genealogist. And me, looking at bra advertisements in fan magazines. While the process is still oddly endearing in its slow and analog-ness (spool the reel; press the forward button; look at the blown up image) many libraries (UT included) have acquired technology that allows you to scan a page-size segment of the microfiche, even several page-size segments, and turn the entire deal into a nice little PDF on the attached computer.
But even the best PDF scans still can’t make up for the fact that you’re basically making a photocopy of a photocopy; the over-darkness, the infidelity of images, it’s all pretty horrible. For example, the introductory profile of Marlon Brando in a 1950 Photoplay, entitled “That Mad Man Marlon.”
Text is usually clear — and obviously that’s what’s important — but I can only assume that the picture is what the caption tells me it is. With all that said, cross-referencing with the color photographs online, I feel like I have a solid grasp of the magazine’s format, tone, style, and changes from 1948-1960. There’s a polemic to be published somewhere about the lack of archival funds allocated to pop culture materials such as these — and once I finish this dissertation, I’d love to attempt to help host a wiki of PDFs of the fan magazines that media scholars have already purchased themselves.
But for now, I’ll just write my way through some initial findings…
Each Photoplay I’ve looked at begins the same: the cover, a full-page ad for a popular women’s item (Lux, Playtex, Revlon), the table of contents, and a full-page ad for the latest MGM extravaganza, highlighting the film’s stars. (This is a small but crucial point — by the end of the 1950s, the studios would basically cut off most advertisement in the fan mags, citing their scandalous and immoral content…and the fact that fan magazines didn’t actually sell movie tickets. The fan magazines countered that their readers were all that was driving Hollywood, etc. etc. But the fan mags have never really recovered — at the height of the studio era, all of the major studios paid for lavish ads, basically bank-rolling at least half, if not more, of the magazine. Cut out that income….and you need a lot of make-up and soap advertisements to take their place). You can see a representative table of contents below:
Note how each article is titled something catchy and flirty, but with a very explicit parentheses to alert the reader as to the single star focus of the article. When a parentheses is absent, it’s almost always because the star him/herself is proclaimed as the ‘author’ of the post. Above you’ll see that Joan Crawford penned a column entitled “If You Want to Be Charming” — one of a series that lasted around a year, all purportedly written by the star (who, at this point in her career, basically spent a large amount of time bitching about how low-rent and crass the new crop of stars were. It reminds me of the part at the end of Almost Famous when Fairuza Balk’s character is talking about the new crop of groupies and sighs “None of them use birth control and they eat all the steak.“)
Crawford was one of several stars of Classic Hollywood who fueled their dwindling careers on nostalgia for Classic Hollywood. For example, Claudette Colbert served as the magazine’s resident Dear Abby for several years while her career rapidly faded, answering reader queries of “What Should I Do?” (The evocation of classic Hollywood is central component of ’50s era fan magazines, and one that I’ll explore at length in a future post).
The covers also promise these first-person narratives — below, for example, you’ll see that Tab Hunter offers “Advice to Teenagers” while Doris Day offers an essay on “I’m Well Again.”
The pieces themselves are always well-written. Who knew all our stars were so good with grammar and vocabulary and turns of phrase! Mostly, they’re earnest; sometimes they’re witty or tongue-in-cheek. For example, in February 1954, Janet Leigh is credited with a piece entitled “Spoil the Brute!” detailing how she caters to the whims of husband Tony Curtis: “I’m an old-fashioned wife who holds the currently unpopular opinion that a husband should be picked up after, catered to, babied, waited on and made comfortable.” The rest of the article then proceeds to underline what a slob Curtis is, gently teasing him for his silly ways — a process made all the more endearing through the use of Janet’s first person voice.
Of course, these articles were not, in fact, written by the stars. At this point, they would have been written either by the star’s ‘press agent’ (what we now refer to as P.R.), regular agent (the person who got them work, most likely at William Morris or MCA during this time), or someone at the studio, depending on whether or not the star was under contract. These individuals would most likely collaborate with Photoplay and its editors to get the tone and format right. (I have little documentation of how much oversight editors during this time exercised on pieces generated outside of the magazine, but if you have any insight, let me know).
Now, did people actually believe that the stars wrote these articles? In recent years, much work has been done in star studies to correct the notion that fans of the time were clueless as to the machinations of the studios. As Adrienne McLean convincingly demonstrates in her work on Rita Hayworth, the magazines themselves often highlighted the ways in which stars were fabricated and transformed. (Further bolstering this claim is a 6-part series in Photoplay from 1950 on ‘How to Be a Star’ that explains, in pretty faithful detail, the process of transforming ‘raw material’ into a studio star). But what about these articles? People knew that stars had been changed — their names, their hair color, their walk, their accents — but did they believe that they would deceive them in this way?
If you’ve happened upon any research or information on this, let me know. Historical reception of stars is so difficult. For Jackie Stacey’s groundbreaking work on the subject, Star Gazing, she advertised in British newspapers and magazines, asking for women to write about their experience of fandom and spectatorship during the 1940s and 1950s. She received a wealth of responses, but even those have caveats, as these women were describing their experience through the filter of time, memory, and nostalgia.
A second means of getting at reception = letters to the editor. They’re contemporaneous and responding directly to the articles themselves — and I’ve happened upon several that indicate a belief that the sentiments expressed in an article (such as Marilyn Monroe’s heartfelt, four-page realization that “I Want Women to Like Me”) were those of the star him/herself. But Photoplay editors selected the type and tenor of letters they published; while they didn’t shy from printing letters decrying certain stories, I very much doubt they’d print a letter accusing the magazine and the star of purposeful deception. The letter below is a perfect example of this sort of interplay:
Mitchum was arrested in Sept. 1948 for possession of marijuana; he declared his career dead. But after a stint in jail, a triumphant reunion with his wife and children, and some deft publicity work, including a Photoplay mea culpa, referenced above and entitled “Do I Get Another Chance?”, he became a bigger star than ever.
As Marsha Orgeron points out, it behooved the magazines to encourage a strong (and oftentimes interactive) connection between the publication and the readers:“First, the magazines encouraged readers to consider themselves valuable critics and correspondents whose opinions could impact the industry and especially the stars. Second, the magazines relentlessly promoted self-improvement, a task with clear connections to the commercial interests of their advertisers…” For example, in all the issues I’ve read, half of the letters to the editor were devoted to “Casting” — basically, fans would write in with their suggestions for who should be in a picture together, or who should star in a potential adaptation of a popular book, or who should be cast in the remake of a classic (such as Gone with the Wind). Every month, dozens of suggestions.
The imagined connection between reader and star — that the star could speak directly to the fan; that the fan could voice his/her reply in fanmail — functioned in this very way. Of course, Photoplay editors selected the type and tenor of letters they published; while they didn’t shy from printing letters decrying certain stories, I very much doubt they’d print a letter accusing the magazine and the star of purposeful deception.
So I could fixate on this — and try to prove that people did or did not believe that the stars were writing them. Basically I’d be spending a long time proving that there’s no real way to get at the way that actual fans responded and thought and felt in the actual moment, and that’d be my conclusion. But I think it’s more productive to think about the fact that the magazines and the stars themselves thought it was a smart idea to perpetuate the illusion.
I mean two things by this: most obviously, the first person narrative connotes authenticity; a story would not only make the singular star appear more real, sincere, down-to-earth, loyal-to-fans, etc., but it would also help reinforce Photoplay‘s reputation as the most direct link to the stars. Orgeron touches on this — fans really want to believe that what they think can influence what happens in the films. Photoplay would authenticate that belief not only through first person narratives (the stars really want to tell you the truth!) but also through polls “Do you Want Ingrid Bergman back?” (Answer: 75% did; Photoplay pledged to serve as trusted ambassador of the results to Bergman herself). The magazine also held a yearly “You Pick the Stars” contest, asking readers to read bios and photos of a select group of up-and-coming stars. While many of the chosen ones never made their way to stardom, several previous winners — Ava Gardner, Kim Novak — are amongst the most renowned of the period…a point Photoplay is keen to remind its readers. The reader is rhetorically endowed with the power to influence the industry at large – at the same moment that his/her loyalty to Photoplay as the intermediary between the two is reified.
So what’s going on here? Building on the ideas of intimacy and Photoplay as the foremost in Hollywood publications, I want to think of these features in terms of the magazine’s attempts to fashion an ideal fan magazine reader — and an ideal fan-magazine-star relationship. This ideal reader would be wholly invested in the stars — and interested in them as people, interested in reading their human concerns, not just seeing their clothes. Along these lines, this reader will believe in the importance of a star’s personal morality: for these readers, what the star does and says in her personal life matters. A lot.
Now why would this be important? Pretty simple: if fans are interested in private lives, the magazines can generate (and recycle) an endless amount of material, detailing stars’ biographies, children, love lives, religious views, etc. etc. The moment that fans become disinterested in the persona lives of stars — instead focusing on (gasp!) actual performances — would signal the end of the fan and gossip market. You can only generate a finite amount of speculation over a character in a film — and a star only plays a limited amount of characters in any given year. In this way, the entire gossip industry is dependent upon fans caring about what the stars do and say.
This seems like a bit of an obvious point, but I think I take it for granted. The star-penned articles simultaneously create a demand — and feed it — for first hand access to the stars’ private lives. The more the star discloses, the more you want to know, the more you’ll be willing, as a fan, to write in and ask for more. In essence, these articles, as laughably forged as they may seem today, are the most perfect manifestation of this ideal studio-fan agreement: the studio promises to give you stars, shining and beautiful and moral new, if you promise to believe in and care about and consume them.
The star-penned articles, along with the ‘casting suggestions,’ disappeared slowly, just as the classical star system itself trickled slowly away. Photoplay attempted to change with the times, adopting the sensational tactics of the tabloids through the course of the 1960s, but it continued to lose readership: to Confidential in the ’50s, to The National Enquirer in the late ’60s and ’70s, to People starting in 1974. While larger industrial shifts in publishing are somewhat responsible, I believe that what really changed was the tacit agreement between those who made the stars and those who consumed them. As the Hays Code slipped into oblivion, the films themselves became more risque, with actors performing theretofore unspeakable deeds, including kissing horizontally. And as the stars refused and/or failed to cover their drunken or sexual tracks, it became more difficult for readers to ‘buy’ the illusions sold by the fan magazines. The scale was out of whack. Stars seemingly cared less; gave less. And the fans reciprocated: not by abandoning stars, per se, but by allowing themselves to believe the worst of their former idols. As always, it wasn’t that the stars of the 1950s and 1960s (or today) are necessarily more scandalous than the stars of the 1930s and ’40s. It’s that the cover-up was poorer….and that the fans, after the slow and silent breaking of the former agreement, were ready to believe the worst.
We might call the new agreement the “right to scandal.” Libel laws were substantially revised in 1964, opening the floodgates for what could be speculated and published concerning a public persona. The new fan didn’t agree to believe the best in return for personal information; rather, she agreed to believe the worst, especially so long as the star proved uncooperative. The more indignant a star becomes about her lack of privacy, the more the fan believes he/she has the right to read speculation about that so-called private sphere.
The question, then, is how to connect this shift to other cultural currents in the 1950s – 1970s…..? Ideas? I’ve thought of the general disillusionment concerning privacy and secrecy post-Watergate, but that’s a little late.
First, full disclosure: I’m writing under the influence of massive amounts of painkillers and steroids — treatment for a sudden and acute case of jaw pain that may or may not be TMJ. TMJ disorder is basically a messed up jaw joint; many are caused by grinding teeth and stress (and certainly no stranger to graduate students in dissertation) but that’s not the case with me. I just apparently have a weak jaw tendon. And while I wait for it to heal (and to stop taking things that make me feel somewhat as if floating) I’ve been tinkering around with a new format/style for the blog. Turns out altering CSS while doped up is not as difficult as one might think. (It also turns out that this is the weekend for blog alteration, as Alissa Perren has done a fantastic revamp, including a set of indepensible links, over at Media Industries)).
You’ll notice that the blog now has a new URL — http://www.annehelenpetersen.com. You’ll want to note this in your blog readers, etc. as the old URL — http://annehelenpetersen.wordpress.com — will remain active for a short period of time only to redirect readers to this site. Also note that I’m still working through some kinks in old posts as a result of the transfer, but hopefully all posts will be back to normal within a few weeks. If you do have any problems/suggestions concerning the redesign, I’d love to hear from you, either via Twitter or email.
The majority of these last few blurry days have been spent with the blog redesign, but I’ve also been subconsciously thinking through the piles and piles of fan magazines I’ve been reading, scanning, and annotating via dusty microfiche in the university library. And while I still do plan to maintain a relative hiatus from the blog, I think that writing my way through some of these initial ideas might prove beneficial (and, just perhaps, interesting to readers other than my mother).
The first chapter of the dissertation will be dealing with a few overarching changes in the way that Hollywood — and stardom within it — operated following World War II. (For those of you familiar with Hollywood history, I’m going to recite some well-rehearsed information concerning the end of Classic Hollywood, and you can skip to the image of Photoplay Magazine). But for those of you perhaps less familiar, it’s important to go through a few overarching changes in Hollywood following World War II.
First, the big studios of Hollywood were at last forced to divest themselves of their theater holdings in what have become known as the “Paramount Decrees” of 1948. This move had been a long time coming — the Department of Justice had been moving since the late ’30s to attempt and break up the monopoly held by the big studios over production, distribution, and exhibition of films. By forcing the Big Five studios to sell of their exhibition holdings (each held vast strings of theaters — think of the old places in your hometowns named ‘The Paramount’ or ‘The Fox’) the government was essentially forcing a massive reorganization of the way that Hollywood could do business. Without as much pure capital coming in from the theaters — and without the ability to block book lesser films with sure-fire hits — the studios couldn’t maintain the massive movie-making machines that had churned out dozens of films a year with amazing efficiency. The bottom line: the studios slowly but surely transformed into smaller entities, much more focused on *financing* films (oftentimes produced by independent producers) than making them on-set themselves, using their own contracted actors, make-up artists, directors, screenwriters, etc. Put differently, MGM, known for the most lavish of musicals and as the home of the biggest, brightest stars, simply couldn’t afford to keep all of its massive staff on retainer. They simply had to get smaller — and the movies, and the way that stars were used, changed as a result.
Now, keep in mind that none of this happened over night — MGM kept many stars on contract through the 1950s, and Hollywood had its very best year in 1946, pulling in enormous grosses from films like The Best Years of Our Lives and Duel in the Sun, both of which were star-driven.
Importantly, though, both of these films were produced by independent producers in agreement with studios. David O. Selznick was the most important and successful of independent producers in Hollywood, putting together massive hits like Gone with the Wind and Rebecca. In fact, he was more like a little mini-studio, signing stars to contracts and then lending them out at his will, as he did with Ingrid Bergman throughout the ’40s. Selznick was behind Duel in the Sun, while Samuel Goldwyn, another powerful independent producer, put The Best Years of Our Lives together with financing and distribution agreements with RKO. This would prove to be the mode of production that would govern Hollywood until the present day: independent producers putting a film together, with a studio functioning as the ‘green-lighter’ — providing financial backing and distribution of the film. I can’t over-emphasize what a sea-change this would be from the old way of doing things — before, the film was conceived of, staffed, made, finished, distributed, and even often times shown in theaters all under the control and oversight of the studio. Everything was done in-house. Now, all labor became freelance, and every picture became a game of puzzle-piecing together talent, financing, stars, distribution, exhibition.
During this same period, the stars were also fighting for power. In 1944, Olivia DeHavilland, acting on advice from MCA agent Lew Wasserman, won her case against Warner Bros., terminating the practice of placing stars on suspension in order to extend their contracts indefinitely. While her courtroom victory did not end the star system – many stars remained contracted to the studios well through the ‘50s – it marked the first in a series of shifts that would transfer power formerly vested in the studios into the hands of the stars and their agents. Stars began to go ‘freelance,’ relying on their powerful agents to leverage power over the weakening studios.
What’s more, social and cultural shifts strongly affected Hollywood: as patrons moved to the suburbs, the traditional urban picture palaces lost large swaths of their potential audience. Growing families, distance from theaters, and alternative leisure – including the rise of television – functioned to discourage what once were weekly and bi-weekly patterns of movie going.
But I want to be clear: Hollywood wasn’t in freefall. Attendance numbers were certainly decreasing, the studios knew something was up, but people were absolutely still going to the movies — and still infatuated and enthralled by stars. But what it meant to be a star — the labor involved in maintaining an image — was absolutely beginning to shift. You can see this shift in the rise of agents and the specific rise of the monster agency MCA, headed by Lew Wasserman. You can see this in the rise of Confidential, which feasted on the transgressions of the stars, no longer under the watchful eyes of studio fixers. (For more on Confidential — which will be featured extensively in this chapter of the dissertation – see my post from last year). You can see it in the change in ideas of what ‘glamour’ meant — instead of opulence, it became a sort of innate quality to be refined, made visible on live television, when a star’s ‘true’ glamour quotient became visible. (The outside reader on my dissertation, Mary Desjardins, is exploring this idea at length in her forthcoming book, Recycled Stars).
But you can also see this in the mainstream fan magazines — and that’s what I’ve been immersed in for the last week. Photoplay was, without a doubt, the biggest and most influential fan magazine of classic Hollywood. Founded in 1911, it grew alongside the industry, featuring beautiful color portraits of the stars and elaborate, melodramatic, often times first-person narratives of life stories. (e.g. “My Childhood,” by Clara Bow, as told to Adela Rogers St. John).
The magazines boasted a full color cover, almost always a portrait (as opposed to an actual photo) until the early ’40s. The inside was black and white, but replete with illustrations, ads for women’s products, as evidenced below, but also advice columns, fashions, film reviews, and tours of stars’ homes, cars, etc — the stars conspicuous consumption, or, in Richard Dyer’s words, the picture of the way that the stars lived. Photoplay performed a serious amount of discursive labor in constructing the stars as simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary — the supposed ‘first person’ narratives allowed stars to seem intimate and confessional, looks into their private lives and pictures of their children made them seem domestic and approachable….at the same time that photos from premieres, and of their luxurious environs, emphasized their otherworldliness.
As film historians, we like to limit this sort of unabashed star myth-making to Classic Hollywood. The magazines and the studios were in perfect cooperation: Warners would offer a confessional or inside look at Bette Davis’s home; in exchange, Photoplay would get to boast that they had the exclusive look at her home, or the exclusive scoop on her latest divorce. But in order to keep that ‘scoop,’ they had to toe the studio line, basically regurgitating a clean-cut, coherent, immensely likable star image.
With the rise of the scandal mags, Confidential foremost amongst them, the ability to control this image was compromised. This was one of the first discoveries I made when I first started investigating the history of celebrity gossip, but it’s also one of the most obvious — and in some ways facile. Because even though some images were compromised, causing a tremendous amount of anxiety (basically all of Hollywood sued Confidential publisher Robert Harrison in 1958), the mainstream fan magazines continued to churn out the exact sort of rhetoric for most of the 1950s, with very few exceptions. In fact, the ways in which they attempted to passive aggressively deal with the rise of the scandal mags — and scandal in general — without every naming them….and the changing landscape of Hollywood, without ever identifying it — are perhaps even more illuminating of the state of the nation and its attitude towards stars than the scandal rags themselves.
Let me rephrase that a bit. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, what I’m arguing is that the really scandalous — and even bigger selling, sensational publication, e.g. Confidential — may shed light on what hot-button topics were, but it doesn’t really paint a comprehensive picture of how Hollywood and its public were negotiating what a star should be like. Sure, Confidential focused on the subject that undulating beneath all conversations during the 1950s — sex — but dared not speak its name. But the style of Confidential was so over the top and campy — a purposeful strategy, as Harrison well-realized that things that made people laugh couldn’t, at that time, be considered obscene and thus banned from the mail. Point is, I think that these magazines, while hilarious and fascinating and an ostensibly perfect research subject, actually serve as a distraction. If I really want to understand how the concept of stardom expanded and renegotiated its identity during the post-war period, I’ve got to look to the magazine that had been attempting that very negotiation since the inception of the star system, the selfsame publication that reified and supported the status quo, rather than challenging it.
Think of this in the present: if we want to study current celebrity gossip culture, and look at the predominant attitude towards stars, should I look at something like Lainey Gossip? Or should I actually focus on the magazines like People and US Weekly that attract far broader audiences? Which one is more representative of the overarching treatment and value of stars and celebrity today?
Studying Lainey — or even Perez — is much more interesting. Even more interesting than TMZ. But one thing that I’ve discovered over the course of my preliminary research is that the most interesting media artifacts are easy to write about — they’re sexy, there’s some sort of hook to write about, there’s a potential for transgression, they oftentimes embody the spirit and spark that we, as scholars, love to attribute to the best and brightest of media. But they’re not actually want most people are consuming. Thus the most seemingly banal of objects — the Entertainment Tonights and People Magazines, the Photoplays and Good Housekeepings and TV Guides – demand detailed attention…and attention that doesn’t simply dismiss them as banal. They seem so boring and normal as to be unworthy of comment, but they’re actually fortifying the line which the other products push against and transgress.
This is a familiar argument in media studies, especially in film and television — namely, that we should spend less time gasping over The Wire and more time thinking about Everybody Loves Raymond. But I’ve only recently realized that the maxim holds when thinking about magazines and gossip publications: granted, most would dismiss both Photoplay and Confidential as unworthy of study, but I want to push this chapter not only to think through the ways in which Confidential challenged the 1950s status quo, but how Photoplay, Modern Screen, and dozens of other straight-laced, traditional fan publications diligently, steadily, and quietly countered that discourse. How, exactly, did these publications sustain their popularity? What did and didn’t they alter in their design? What were people yearning for — what image of Hollywood — when they continued to read this magazines?
I’ll address those questions in more detail in my next post, so stay tuned….
About once a year, Vanity Fair likes to feature a classic Hollywood star — and a classic rhetorical rehashing of their established star image — on its cover. Last year, if memory serves, it was Marilyn Monroe; this year it’s Grace Kelly.
The article, entitled ‘Grace Kelly’s Forever Look,’ featuring a slideshow of her ‘Eternal Style,’ ostensibly celebrates the opening of the exhibition ‘Grace Kelly: Style Icon’ at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, which will ‘retell her story’ in ‘artifacts.’
But the real purpose of the article is to reactivate the memory of Kelly, highlighting exactly what made her, and her image, so culturally resonant in the 1950s — and to do so in a way that further mythologizes and reifies Kelly as all that was virginal, sophisticated, proper, and perfect about that time. In this way, she becomes the last artifact of true class — and true Hollywood. And, in the process, makes me want to vomit all over her ‘pure-white cupcake of a skirt.’
My repulsion is not with Kelly — how I love her in To Catch a Thief! And that aforementioned white dress in Rear Window — I covet! – but the rhetorical twists and turns employed throughout the article render her into something saccarine….a play-thing with princess-dreams. Or, to quote directly from the profile,
The rare beauty and stunning self-possession that propelled Grace Kelly into the Hollywood pantheon, onto the Best-Dressed List, and ultimately to Monaco’s royal palace were more than captivating—they were completely genuine.
Which, of course, is how she has endured in the public memory. A blonde exemplar of the 1950s, so perfect in the Dior silhouette, demure and everything that that hussy Marilyn Monroe was not. What troubles me is the ways in which that particular memory is reproduced for contemporary consumption — and unchallenged. And, in positing her as the last ‘true star’ of classic Hollywood, the profile enacts some serious (and seriously flawed) revisionist history.
How is this accomplished? In classic Vanity Fair celebrity profile style: with an immense amount of banality, false invocations of intimacy, and quotes from ‘experts’ regurgitating the profile’s thesis, e.g. that Grace Kelly was effortlessly, eternally, and ethereally sophisticated, classy, and stylish. That much is quite explicit. Less explicit are the undertones; namely, that Kelly’s sexuality, at once virginal, clean, authentic, unthreatening, and immaculate, was, and remains, ideal. She’s sex drive dressed in fine pearls — orgasmic yet without a fear of vagina dentata….the virgin/whore dichotomy washed of all negative connotations. And she’s a figment of our imagination — an image of complex ideological maneuvering whose persistence highlights the regressive sexual politics that continue to structure our understandings of women, sexual desire, pleasure, and, even more importantly, how each of those is attached to class.
Along these lines, the text of the profile emphasizes three overarching traits: sophistication/class, authenticity, and ‘passion.’
Kelly came from money: ‘The Kellys built a 17-room home in the Philadelphia neighborhood of East Falls, overlooking the Schuylkill River, upon which Jack rowed. And there they stayed, enviably wealthy, sailing through the Great Crash without a dip because Jack didn’t play the stock market.’
It was Irish-Catholic money, so it wasn’t as high society as many believed, but it helped craft her image as ‘well-bred.’ Her family is likened to the Kennedys, those shining beacons of Eastern patrician sophistication: ‘bright, shining, charismatic, Irish-Catholic Democrats, civically and politically engaged.’
Kelly’s voice (elocution) and poise are repeatedly emphasized — the voice hadn’t always been that way; rather, ‘she put a clothespin on her nose and worked to bring her voice down a register, to achieve clarity and depth. The result was diction with a silver-spoon delicacy—slightly British—and the stirring lilt of afternoon tea at the Connaught.’ Kelly had taken years of ballet, and she never ‘lost her ballet posture or a dancer’s awareness of her limbs in space…..This too contributed to a poise, an inner stillness, in the way she moved. Her walk became something unique: regal above the waist, shoulders back and head high, and a floating quality below, akin to a geisha’s glide, or a swan’s.’
Crucially, the voice and posture were, and remain, shorthand for class. Not because they magically ooze class….but because they indicate the amount of money spent on training.
Kelly’s clothing of course signified class as well: she wore white gloves, little make-up, nude hose, creating a ‘Bryn Mawr look.’ Later in her career, she was outfitted in ‘light, airy, and ineffable’ fabrics, including ‘chiffon, watered silk, unlined linen, and that most levitational textile, silk organza.’ In this way, she ‘became shorthand for a very polished and well-accessorized look’; while ‘no one wore white’ quite like her. The Kelly Hermes bag, renamed for her, became ‘the icon of impeccable breeding and quiet good taste.’
Just look at those adjectives! Polished, white, quiet, light, ineffable, Bryn Mawr…..put differently, she wasn’t garish, or speaking, or taking up too much space. She knew her place, and occupied it. According to this understanding, she never did, or wore, something that was untoward, never stepped out of place. And that brand of understanding — of knowing where she belonged and not challenging it — is here elevated as the very pinnacle of achievement. To be a Goddess and a Princess, it seems, is to shut-up, look virginal, and float across the room with good posture and clothing that suggests, rather than displays, the fact of sexuality.
The invocation of authenticity infuses the article. Kelly is consistently referred to as ‘Grace,’ effectively creating a a sense of intimacy and knowing: the author knows ‘Grace’ like a close friend; when she tells you that Kelly’s ’voice, walk, and reserved bluestocking style’ all ‘came together in a kind of crystalline equation. You couldn’t say it was calculated. Grace was well brought up, and disciplined, and cultured, and shy. She was only highlighting what she had,’ it seems believable. Of course it wasn’t calculated!
It doesn’t really matter whether not it was calculated: what matters is that the reader and consumer of the Kelly star image believe that it wasn’t. Because calculation is artifice, and artifice is the opposite of class.
Kelly is likewise constructed as destined for her role as a princess — the absolute pinnacle of class and sophistication, where men and women are literally bred for their roles as models of wealth. The author recounts an anecdote of Kelly’s childhood, when she apparently “‘told her sister Peggy, “One day I’m going to be a princess.’” Particular roles are singled out for their immaculate conflation of the ‘true’ Kelly and the performing one: when she played Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story, ‘it was the beginning of the potent, sometimes prophetic connection between life and art that would reverberate’ throughout her career.
And then, in the biggest claim of all, she’s heralded as the last genuinely charismatic and sophisticated star — ’With the newer generations we subconsciously know there’s artifice involved. And we don’t quite believe what we see. But we did believe what we saw with Grace.’
I can’t overemphasize the falsity of that claim. People knew there was artifice involved in all of the Hollywood stars — see, for example, the lengthy fan magazine articles detailing Rita Consuelo’s transformation into Rita Hayworth, including photos of the electrolysis of her hairline. Then, as today, some fans chose to be more excepting or oblivious of the strings of construction than others. Many, many stars had extra-textual lives that mirrored their onscreen ones; many, many stars had back stories that seemed to magically and perfectly support to their adult star images. What is essential to understand, then, is that discourse picks up on the parts of the background and lifestyle that fit with our perception of the star — such as Kelly’s history as a ballerina, her parents’ wealth, her role as Tracy Lord — while selectively ignoring those that do not fit. People believed what they saw with Grace, but they also believed what they saw with Diane Keaton, with Tom Cruise, with Julia Roberts. Believing what you see is part of a well-maintained star image — not indicative of ‘innate authenticity.’
Finally, Kelly is not sexual, per se, but passionate. Passionate about sex. But not sexual. Hitchcock loved her ‘potential for restraint’ and ‘sexual elegance.’ She was ‘ladylike yet elemental, suggestive of icy Olympian heights and untouched autonomy yet, beneath it all, unblushing heat and fire.’ Under her ‘snowcap’ was a ‘volcano…surprisingly active and full of fire.’
Following her death in the early ’80s, a number of biographies alleged that she slept with every man who crossed her early Hollywood path. The profile makes it very clear that she did not. Rather, she was ‘romantic and passionate. She followed her heart, which might or might not lead to bed. All her biographers agree that she never used sex to win roles. Judged in retrospect, not by 50s standards but by feminist ones, she was as self-possessed about her sexuality as she was about her work.’ She wasn’t constantly having sex; rather, she was ‘constantly falling in love.’ She was ‘devout, an absolutely sincere Catholic’ who ‘took full advantage of Catholic mechanisms for private misdemeanors.’
And she wasn’t frigid. This is essential. According to actor Alexandre D’Arcy, “She was … very warm indeed as far as sex was concerned. You would touch her once and she would go through the ceiling.”
What emerges is a portrait of Kelly’s sexuality that defends the posthumous revelation of her sexuality….but simultaneously maneuvers it to fit in with the established image of class and elegance. Sure, Kelly had sex — she even had sex before she was married, and with multiple men. She wasn’t a virgin when she was married, but she still signified as virginal (‘no one wore white like Kelly’) and that was what mattered. Her sexuality is turned into passion; her desire turned into love. She is not over-sexualized, but appropriately sexualized — especially in hindsight. She’s a proto-feminist!
Importantly, while Kelly herself may have been far more progressive in her personal and private actions and beliefs than was ever represented at the time, the ways in which she is crafted retrospectively is not, in any way, feminist or progressive. The author yokes sophistication to money, beauty to demurity, desirability to a very specific (and heterosexual) and unarticulated form of sexual appetite. This profile is imbued with nostalgia for a certain type of womanhood and legible class distinction. And it’s that untempered nostalgia — not Kelly herself — that makes me want to vomit.
I’ve previously posted at length on Nikki Finke and her divisive role in New Hollywood — see also Alisa Perren’s nice take on the strife (and lack of public attention) around the war between Finke, Variety, and industry bloggers David Poland (The Hot Blog), Sharon Waxman (The Wrap), and Kim Masters (The Daily Beast).
My earlier post was incited by a short by succinct article on Finke by The New York Times. Yesterday, The New Yorker went live with a new article, available here (don’t worry, it’s not behind the pay wall), that has incited a bit of a Hollywood shitstorm, most of it fueled by Finke’s own incendiary rebuttal.
The article was authored by Tad Friend, a NYer staff writer who often pens the “Letter from California” or “Letter from Hollywood” section of the magazine. The article, available on newsstands today, is part of the magazine’s annual “Money Issue” — and explains why the piece takes the tact that it does, reporting on Finke’s leverage within the industry of Hollywood (as opposed to, say, a gossip columnist’s leverage in celebrity culture).
For me, there are several salient points of the article:
1.) Nikki Finke is not, or at least is no longer, a journalist. She feels no need to heed journalistic ‘ethics,’ however one defines them.
2.) Nikki Finke is not a gossip columnist.
3.) Nikki Finke does not care about movies, per se.
4.) Nikki Finke cares about power, reputation, and melodrama.
In other words, the comparison between her and the “unholy three” gossip mavens — Friend enumerates them as Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, and Sheilah Graham — is, like the New York Times‘ comparison to Walter Winchell, off the mark.
We love to tell stories — and write profiles — by evoking the personas of others: George Clooney is the new Cary Grant (I did that one myself); Lady Gaga is the new Madonna; Angelina Jolie is the new Elizabeth Taylor. Journalistic profiles especially take this tact: either by photographing the celebrity/persona in a manner evocative of other historical figures (one of Annie Leibowitz/Vanity Fair‘s favorite traditions) or dropping specific allusions throughout the article.
But such comparisons leave much to be desired, especially as all four of the classic gossip columinsts were working in classic Hollywood — and the stakes, not to mention the ‘rules’ — were incredibly different. Winchell dealt with New York cafe society and, to some extent, Hollywood; the others were concerned with the studios and the stars employed by them.
By contrast, Finke writes about money, agents, deals, and massive media conglomerates with international holdings across film, television, print, new media, and hardware. The old school columnists wrote for the public at large; Finke writes specifically for the industry — and does not deign to modify her style to an Entertainment Weekly/Tonight-style industry news.
Finally, Finke is ridiculously brazen. So were the other columnists, but none would have dared to have posted the following:
I’m too superficial to read The New Yorker because it’s so unrelentingly boring. Even the cartoons suck these days. So back in 2008, soon after the writers strike ended, I said no when The New Yorker first approached me to cooperate for a profile. Fast forward to this summer, when the mag was desperate to liven up this week’s dullsville “Money Issue” with some Tinseltown mockery.
Or further indict the publication for collusion/hypocrisy:
I found Tad Friend, who covers Hollywood from Brooklyn, easy to manipulate, as was David Remnick, whom I enjoyed bitchslapping throughout but especially during the very slipshod factchecking process. (Those draconian Conde Nast budget cuts have deflated the infamous hubris of this New Jersey dentist’s son.) But I wasn’t the only one able to knock out a lot of negative stuff in the article without even one lawyer letter, email, or phone call. I witnessed how The New Yorker really bent over for Hollywood. NYC power publicist Steven Rubenstein succeeded in deleting every reference to Paramount’s Brad Grey. Warner Bros and Universal and DreamWorks and William Morris/Endeavor and Summit Entertainment execs and flacks and consultants also had their way with the mag. (They were even laughing about it. When I asked one PR person what it took to convince Tad to take out whole portions of the article, the response was, “I swallowed.”)
Or, for that matter, drop the C-bomb — first by putting the word in Weinstein’s mouth, and then by appropriating it herself:
At Harvey Weinstein’s personal behest, his description of me as a “cunt” became “jerk”. (Then the article would have contained two references to me as a “cunt” in addition to its four uses of ”fuck”. Si Newhouse must be so proud…) And so on. Now remember, readers: you, too, can make The New Yorker your buttboy. Just act like a cunt and treat Remnick like a putz and don’t give a fuck.
Of course, all of this is, as my former adviser and secret gossip aficionado Michael Aronson pointed out, part of Finke’s own plan to a.) direct massive amounts of traffic to her site and b.) reify her image. She’s already known within the industry as cutthroat and crude — the article, and her response to it, simply amplify that image, making it available for (quasi) popular consumption.
Finke will never be Perez Hilton, but she does live and report on Hollywood, which has enjoyed a long and spirited feud with New York. Indeed, as Anne Thompson, Finke, and others point out, Friend’s “Letter from Hollywood” only highlights how out of touch even a reporter tasked with knowing the business really is. He’s an outsider — and will remain so. A tourist on sunny vacation, believing what’s whispered in his ear as truth.
Interestingly, I think both Hollywood (embodied by Finke, Thompson, Variety, and all the other industry bloggers and journalists) and New York (represented here by The New Yorker) are suffering from inferiority complexes, perhaps rooted in the fact that neither industry (Hollywood or New York Publishing) have figured out how to monetize their old media forms in the new media environment, perhaps best evidenced by Variety‘s plans to move back to a pay wall, The Hollywood Reporter going from a daily to a weekly, and today’s announcement that Conde Naste was eliminating Gourmet. Even Finke, who sold her site to mail.com for a reported $10 million, gets relatively little traffic — granted, most of it is very loyal, but we’re not talking huge ad dollars.
This brings us back to Alisa Perren’s interesting observation about the non-hoopla over the ‘brawl’ between these entities — sure, Finke, Thompson, Variety, and all these other players hate each other; sure, Ari Emanuel colludes with Finke and alienates other parts of Hollywood; sure, Finke said she ‘bitchslapped’ the editor-in-chief of one of the nation’s long-established high brow weeklies.
But does any of it matter when T-Mobile’s Sidekick service is down, one of the Real Housewives of Atlanta’s ex-fiance was murdered, and there’s sweet zombie movie in theaters? This is great gossip for those of us interested in the machinations of Hollywood and media more generally, but rather banal for everyone else. That’s why Finke is not Winchell, Hopper, or Parsons: those columnists had loyal audiences numbering in the millions. Their subtle insinuations may not have always been legible to those not ‘in the know,’ but their gossip about clothes, romance, and betrayal was still readily consumable and spurred discussion in circles outside of The Ivy.
The question, then, is if Nikki Finke swears up a storm and no one, or at least relatively no one, really hears her, does it even make a sound? I suppose the answer would be yes: posts Finke writes and deals she scoops have real ramifications on the types of media that we consume. But I’m still dubious as to whether or not Finke is a gossip so much as a power-hungry, popularity-obsessed instigator. She doesn’t make public appearances, but that simply ups her rep. Again, I’m tempted to make the comparison to Lew Wasserman, who eschewed publicity and, like Finke, had but one or two photos of himself in public circulation — and still controlled Hollywood for much of the postclassical period. But Wasserman was an agent, actually making deals and profiting off of them — and Finke is just writing about them and calling names. Which doesn’t necessarily make her less influential — of all people, I celebrate and appreciate the tremendous power of discourse — but does, in some ways, put her in perspective.
Katherine Heigl: The New Shrew?
A number of trusty tipsters have pointed me towards a bevy of articles (one on NPR here; another, more lengthy one you can find here from Newsweek) that, in light of Heigl’s recent visibility in promoting The Ugly Truth, attempt to grapple with the question of her stardom — and the backlash against it. Is she a shrew? Do people really hate her? And why?
The NPR Piece points to Heigl’s recent appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, which has been repurposed and used as ammo against her. In the clip, she complains about working an 18-hour day, but somewhat jokingly. Here’s what NPR reported:
When Katherine Heigl was on The Late Show With David Letterman in support of The Ugly Truth this week, he asked her about her return to Grey’s Anatomy, and she told him (it’s at about the 1:25 mark in this clip) that her very first day back was a seventeen-hour day. “Which I think is cruel and mean,” she said with exaggerated somberness, before moving on to talk about how it was great to be back, she misses former co-star T.R. Knight, and so forth. If it were anyone else, mentioning that she thought seventeen hours was a rather long first day, it would have gotten no attention whatsoever.
But she is not anyone else. She is Katherine Heigl.
Every time Heigl opens her mouth, the majority of the outlets that cover this sort of news gleefully write another story about what a horrible complainer and diva she is. (Two of those articles claim that she was on a “rant” and that she “railed at” producers. I challenge you to get “rant” or “rail” from that clip.)
The article then points out the following concerning her ploy against her own show last year:
People will tell you she got herself into this mess by insulting the Grey’s Anatomy writers by pulling her name from Emmy consideration last year and blaming the quality of the material she was given. That move was, indeed, not diplomatic in the slightest, despite the fact that she was absolutely correct about both the writing in general and the writing for her particular character. (What was she supposed to do? Submit the episode where she saved the deer?) There is a certain “you don’t trash your co-workers out loud” ethic that it would have been both wiser and kinder to embrace. (Although, of course, plenty of show “sources” haven’t hesitated to dish equally about her, except that they do it anonymously and avoid the consequences.)
…before going on to show examples of how her quotes have been taken out of context and used against here (including one in particular about smoking, which outlets used to complain that she swore she wasn’t addicted to smoking (even though she smokes regularly). Anyway. Point is, the press — especially the blogs — are out for her.
Newsweek offers a bit more of a meta-analysis:
How did Katherine Heigl fall so far and so fast in esteem? Part of it is pure sexism. Every decade has a Most Annoying Actress (not that long ago, Jennifer Love Hewitt was the object of tabloid disaffection), never an actor, and it’s a distinction doled out via a caveman’s principles. Heigl violates every archaic, unspoken rule of being America’s box-office sweetheart. A lot of actors smoke, curse, drink, and mouth off, but she gets the most grief for it. Last summer, when she was caught flicking a finished cigarette onto the sidewalk, Star magazine quickly tarred her as an environmentally unfriendly “litterbug” who inappropriately goaded a nearby police officer into letting her off without a ticket.
But then it goes on to do exactly what the NPR piece was highlighting —
- “more than simply daring to challenge chauvinistic mores, Heigl has shot herself in the foot with her delivery”
- “This week, she carped to David Letterman that she’d had a “seventeen- (dramatic pause) hour (dramatic pause)” workday on set, and that she was “going to keep saying this because I hope it embarrasses them [the Grey's Anatomy show runners].” Embarrass them for what? Keeping her employed? To a country nearing 10 percent unemployment, the remark was tone-deaf”
- And this doozy at the end: “Just like real life, in which Heigl seems unable to see the acreage between oversharing and keeping her mouth shut. Heigl might be an actress, but she could work on her act.”
So what is it? In a debate on my Facebook wall, two of my friends offered the following:
KL: while i think that gender plays a significant role in the Heigl backlash, i also think that she needs to step up her game. i mean how can she complain about Knocked Up and then star in The Ugly Truth? am i missing something here? they look about the same in terms of gender politics – except one doesn’t involve a baby, at least as far as the trailer acknowledges.
KW: heigl is a punching bag but that in my opinion it is fully deserved…i think what you said about the politics of her films (and tv shows) is true: she’s done nothing to merit being so damn sanctimonious about things. of course she’s right about knocked up but why … say that after you’ve cashed your check and become a “bonafide movie star”. as far as grey’s goes and last year’s incident, regardless of the writing, if she could actually ACT then that’s what would have counted. meryl streep could read the phone book and get an oscar nomination. what’s her excuse? heigl just infuriates me.
See the vitriol there? And I feel the SAME WAY. I don’t know exactly why: most likely a confluence of reading about what we have collectively taken as her ‘ungratefulness,’ her outspokenness, and her general complaining about the situation in which she’s found herself.
But this anger/annoyance bespeaks a greater sentiment and attitude towards stars, something I’ve been continually reading about in recent weeks. Part of our reason for being okay with stars and celebrities — who are paid enormous salaries, enjoy lavish lifestyles, have everything better than us — is our fundamental belief that they are there for two reasons:
1.) They have talent. And that talent merits their elevation — they are magical, beautiful, superlative. Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep. They DESERVE our adulation.
2.) WE have chosen them. They become superstars because we, as a discerning audience, have ‘voted’ for them each time we attend a movie, watch a TV show, are interested in their lives. In this way, stars are strongly linked to feelings of democracy — we believe that those in power (and those that are elevated) are there because we, the people, have selected them to be so. They aren’t monarchy, they aren’t put in power by force — it’s US who have selected them to be our representatives. Even if they are completely and totally manufactured and put before us as the “new star” — see the Disney star factory — there’s still an illusion that they are of our choosing.
This is complicated somewhat by the rise of people like Paris Hilton (note, however, what a backlash there is against her — for her lack of talent, specifically) and reality stars. In my opinion, however, reality stars are the embodiment of the second quality: in American Idol, the country literally votes for who they want to be the newest celebrity. But a full discussion of this phenomenon merits a separate post.
For now, assume that we consider our stars as if elected officials. Now, what do we expect of an elected official?
1.) They will ‘serve’ us.
For stars, they serve us by entertaining us. When they do bad movies, or offer a bad performance, they are ‘failing’ us.
2.) They will make good on campaign promises.
A star must ‘make good’ on the promise of his/her first elevation into stardom. Katherine Heigl must “make good” on the promise of her performance in Grey’s Anatomy and Knocked Up.
3.) They will not begrudge the responsibilities of the office.
It was the star, after all, who wanted to be ‘elected’ — so he should not be angry when the paparazzi follows him, stars want autographs, or he has to work long hours. This was his idea, right?
4.) They will be grateful for our support.
For Heigl, this is key. She is ungrateful, she begrudges her work (see above), she lambasts the films/shows that made her a star (see her comments on Knocked Up and Grey’s.
5.) You must acknowledge (and play by) the rules of the game.
Politicians know they must participate in the publicity game — you spin negative things to look okay, you make sure you don’t put your foot in your mouth, you never say anything too outspoken — see the backlash against President Obama’s comment on the “stupid” decision to arrest Gates this week. You exhibit grace under pressure. You’re not too loud, too brash, too out there.
And Heigl is ALL of these things — and she has no compunction about it. Her transgression is of course embolded by the fact that she’s a woman — as one of my professors has pointed out, a woman who speaks (and especially speaks boldly) is always labelled as shrill, because women aren’t supposed to be speaking in the first place. But she’s also demonstrated a general unsavvyness, for lack of a better word, when it comes to negotiating her image, sustaining her fan base, and generally INVITING the press to take jabs at her.
Now, the feminist in me might want to look at this as a general critique on outspoken women. And Hollywood certainly has a long history of banishing those who don’t play by the rules: Heigl hails from a long line of “outspoken shrews” that include Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, and Roseanne Barr. The first two bore the brunt of media criticism and fan backlash (Hepburn was “box-office poison; Fonda was the reason we “lost the war at home”) before returns in tour-de-force actings; as for Barr, well, I think we do different things (and force different fates) on women who aren’t considered ‘beautiful.’
So what does Heigl need to do? I don’t think she needs to “shut-up and sit down.” But her stardom is contingent upon a certain “contract” between fan and star — and to me, she just seems uncognizant of what is expected of her. As KW points out, this may be due to the fact that her MOTHER IS HER MANAGER. (See the example of Tom Cruise. Sigh.)
I’m not saying that women shouldn’t be able to speak their minds. Female stars speak their minds all the time — they just do so in a more calculated, less press-release-to-lambast-writers-on-my-own-show sort of way. I am saying that any star — regardless of gender — needs to be aware of the way that the game is played — especially when your words, whether in the form of an official statement or a couch-jumping tirade on Oprah — can be morphed, digitalized, and spread far into the corners of the internet. With so many opportunities for distortion — so many media outlets, so many voices that get to “speak” the star — it’s reckless, at least from a purely financial, star-maintenance point of view, to give them the opportunity to do so.
This month’s Vanity Fair
There’s been a bit of fanfare over Peter Biskind’s recent Vanity Fair piece on Heath Ledger — available only in summary form here. (You know, for those of you interested in celebrity, Vanity Fair costs a ridiculous $12 dollars a year — definitely worth it for the airplane reads alone, let alone glossy photos).
Biskind is a well-known Hollywood ‘historian,’ best known for his book on the ‘silver age of Hollywood,’ Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and his look back on the rise and fall of the ’90s indie movement, Down and Dirty Pictures. (Both of which are required reading in each and every Tom Schatz class — I think I’ve read or skimmed some sections five times now). Biskind is also a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, a past editor-in-chief of Premiere, and a general smut-monger. If you’ve read his books, you understand — he loves stories — the more lurid, the better. There are a few in his books that genuinely test the limits of good taste. He doesn’t care whether they’re true or not — he even oftentimes reports a counter-narrative — but loves to put such things in print. It certainly sells. One of my advisors (on friendly terms with Biskind) told me that he never does research — has no theoretical or Variety background, never goes to archives — but remembers EVERYTHING that ANYONE has ever told him in an interview.
In other words, he’s perfect for Vanity Fair, which loves to make any story — whether it’s about Bernie Madoff, Sarah Palin, or Heath Ledger — into a melodramatic, thrilling tale of smut, back-stabbing, andhe-said/she-said. The celebrity profiles are notorious soft, but they’re also responsible for some of the most notorious recent celebrity admissions: Brad Pitt basically admitting that he doesn’t think that marriage is forever (when he was still married to Aniston); Angelina Jolie disclosing that her rendezvous with certain men in hotel rooms for sexual gratification (and nothing more) so that she could concentrate on being a mother to newly-adopted Maddox.
This look to Heath Ledger is a nice combination of the Biskind and VF-profile style. Usually, this sort of piece would NOT be the cover — VF subjects are usually living, promoting something, and hot. But when “new information” about a beloved figure is discovered (or manufactured), it sometimes spurs a cover: sometimes with Marilyn, othertimes with a Kennedy, and this most recent cover with Ledger.
A Los Angeles Times columnist has declared the article “celebrity porn,” ridiculing the Biskind/VF style and claiming,
Virtually everything in the piece, even the tales of how Ledger pals Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law volunteered to help Gilliam finish “Parnassus” after Ledger’s death, has been reported elsewhere. After a while, you start to focus less on Biskind’s meddlesome reporting and more on Gilliam, asking yourself: Why is the filmmaker still talking endlessly about Ledger 18 months after his death? Is it just because he lost a friend and collaborator? Or is it because Gilliam knows that a Vanity Fair cover story will help him continue to beat the drums for his movie, which still hasn’t found a U.S. distributor?
Excellent point. And I’m sure this was, at least in part, strategic on the part of Gilliam — he realized that rousing anticipation for the film would encourage distributors to bid for the film, which, from the sounds of it, promises to be as weird as The Fountain meets Alice in Wonderland.
But the article also serves a less overt or financial function — in providing the details of Ledger’s life, demeanor, and artistry, including his emotions and actions in the months and days leading up to his death, it soothes concerns and provides a form of cultural ‘closure’ to the rupture that was his unexpected death by drug overdose. When a celebrity dies in some ‘scandalous’ way — most commonly drug use, sometimes, as in the case of Keith Carradine, in a more illicit fashion — it tears a hole, if you will, in the ideological fabric that resassures us of societal solidity and our place within. Put differently, an unexpected death makes us question what we believed to be true.
For instance, I had no connection to Heath Ledger. I greatly admired his performance in Brokeback Mountain and knew of his upcoming role as the Joker, but was not what I would term a ‘fan.’ Yet I remember exactly where I was when I heard NPR announce his death — and keenly recall how surprised I was. I had a vision of Ledger as a doting father and, albeit separated from Michelle Williams, not in danger of eminent death. I had heard the stories of his ‘absorption’ into the role of the Joker — and Jack Nicholson’s words of advice on maintaining the self, lest it be sucked into the psychosis — but that didn’t mean I thought he was going to die. His death thus served, for me and millions of others, as a surprise — especially as it was laden with smutty overtones in the early hours of reporting, when it was associated with one of the Olson twins, a masseuse, dozens of pills, nakedness, etc.
What we need, then, to resolve this problem, to restitch this hole, to reassure us that method acting isn’t destructive, that we didn’t pay money to see a money slowly killing himself onscreen, that handsome young talented men don’t succumb to addiction, is an answer: some sort of reckoning.
In the case of Ledger, this has been accomplished in two ways:
1.) The overwhelming awarding of his performance in The Dark Knight.
I’m in no way saying that the performance wasn’t incredible, or didn’t merit recognition. But awarding it certainly served as an affirmation of Ledger’s talent — that his life, and specifically this peformance, was not for naught. To NOT award it would be tantamount to declaring his life — and the method of his death — to be a scandal, unworthy, worthy of scorn.
2.) This Vanity Fair article — and others of its ilk.
Here I turn to another drug scandal — one that few remember yet rocked Hollywood when it occurred. Along with the Fatty Arbuckle scandal, the death of Wallace Reid (due to complications from withdrawl from heroin) is considered one of the greatest scandals of the classic period. As mentioned, it’s generally forgotten, but as a compelling chapter in Headline Hollywood (Mark Lynn Anderson’s “Shooting Star: Understanding Wallace Reid and His Public) explains, the scandal of Reid’s death was not only a huge scandal — but also a huge victory for the newly organized Hays Office, which successfully parlayed what could have been a story of Hollywood excess and sin into a narrative of a star sacrificing his all for his public and a “national lesson” for the masses.
Briefly, the Hays Office was instituted — at the insistence of the studios — to regulate Hollywood films, which were under fire from all sides for ‘encouraging vice.’ Instead of subjecting themselves to a national regulatory agency, the studios decided to regulate themselves. The Arbuckle scandal was the final straw in putting the agency in place — not only would it regulate the content of films, but the behavior of the actors as well. With the Hays Office in place, there would be no more drunken fat men supposedly raping starlettes in hotel rooms!
But then Wallace Reid succumbed to heroic addiction. In the early ’20s, Reid was one of the biggest stars — rivaled only by Pickford and Fairbanks — with a star image as a strapping young man who, at least in his film roles, would exhaust himself for the sake of the greater good (laboring all night to help others out of a mine disaster, for example). Thus the idea of his addiction rang incredibly out of character — how could such a strong body fall victim to such a drug?
Therefore, before he died — when he was in treatment — his wife, with help from the Hays Office, helped to create a brilliant media manipulation that framed Reid’s addiction as:
a.) the product of an early on-set injury (he became addicted to pain killers after a back inury). His addiction was thus transformed into a something that occured while he was trying to get back into shape to do his job for the people — he just wanted to please his public!
b.) the fault of a national crime syndicate. Constructed as such, it reinforced federal calls for a national crack-down on drugs (the first war against drugs — quickly followed by prohibition, which probably should have taught us a lesson about wars on addictive substances). He was thus a figurehead for larger governmental forces — and a VICTIM!!
c.) using MORPHINE, not heroin. Heroin was a poor people’s drug — and thus had to be disassociated with film stars, which were already on a slippery slope as members of the nouveau riche. But morphine — that was a high class drug. It’s like the difference, today, between crack and cocaine. Or maybe between meth and prescription drugs.
Wallace Reid’s widow even participated in a film against drug use — the equivalent of a PSA for “don’t use drugs,” only not as thoroughly as acknowledged as propaganda. In the end, Wallace Reid’s star was recuperated — instead of a junkie, he was transformed into a victim, both of his desire to please and devious men of ill-repute.
So how does this relate to Heath Ledger?
While the Biskind article is neither as sincere nor bald-faced manipulative as the discourse surrouding the Reid overdose, there’s a fair amount of image repair going on throughout the piece.
First: Remind us of the immense talent lost
“This final performance, while not the tour de force of weirdness that was the Joker, is good neough — more than good enough — to remind us that Leger’s death has deprived the movies of one of their most accomplished, and promising, talents”
Second: Remind us of his immense commitment to both craft and family
Multiple mentions of his performance in Brokeback Mountain, connection and intense loyalty to Gilliam (for whom he had previous starred in The Brothers Grimm — and who he apparently credits with ‘liberating’ his acting). What’s more, he LOVED his daughter: “above all else, Ledger was devoted to his young daughter and feared he might lose custory. ‘He was absolutely obsessed about Matilida,’” according to Gilliam. And he was such a class act that three top actors agreed to step in and finish the film for him.
As for his break-up with Willaims: She courted stardom, he didn’t. She bought into the Oscar campaigning, he didn’t. He reportedly had an anxiety attack when his handlers tried to turn him into a teen idol. He was the anti-star star: he didn’t want the renown pushed upon him. He was, overall, the victim: of too much talent and too much audience fascination.
Third: Explain and innoculate his addiction.
Ledger was on drugs because: 1.) He had battled pneumonia, 2.) He was overworked (only two weeks between The Dark Knight and Parnassus) 3.) He was in a constant struggle with insomnia — caused by anxiety over needing/wanting to see his daughter after the separation from Williams. The only release he found was in massage, acting exercises, and, apparently pills.
Importantly, the death was not the result of an OVER-dose, but a negative combination of doses. He had too many things in his system – he was not hedonistic in his abuse, just needy for release.
Even more importantly, the cause of his anxiety was NOT (or at least entirely linked to) his role as the Joker — instead, it was the confluence of over-work and dedication to craft and family that precipitated his death. This is an essential move: for if it was the role as the Joker that caused his death, we, as an audience, would in effect be pleasuring in his demise each and every time we viewed, and found pleasure, in his performance as The Joker. Audience guilt assuaged.
Now, please bare in mind that I’m not saying that Ledger isn’t any of things this article claims of him — or that he didn’t care about his daughter, wasn’t dedicated to his craft, etc. I’m just looking to way that the discourse concerning those dedications is deployed to mend over the rupture created by his death — and how such narratives can still prove effective, even 18 months after the event. Star drug abuse, like any other star scandal, demands a reckoning. Some reckonings — like this one — are simply employed more deftly, and more invisibly, than others.