If you think the movie star life in Hollywood’s golden age was all autographs and red carpet photo ops, Chair of the Film Studies Department Jeanine Basinger has some news for you. Discussing actress Betty Grable, one of the many film actors and actresses examined in her book, “The Star Machine,” Basinger laid out but a few of the job skills required of Grable to maintain her high status within Hollywood.
“She could tap, she could dance, she could play the saxophone, she could twirl a baton,” Basinger said in an interview with The Argus. “She learned all of those things for her profession.”
A pioneer in the development of Film Studies as an academic subject, Basinger has authored ten books on various aspects of American film. Her latest explores the methods through which Hollywood studios created, developed and maintained those transcendent beings otherwise known as movie stars. Examining both the structure of the star-making process and the way individual stars molded to (or fought against) this process, “The Star Machine” attempts to look past the otherworldly aura of stardom and examine how these select individuals functioned within the film industry.
“I saw them, not as these magical creatures, but also as people who had a job in the system of making movies,” Basinger said. “Their job was called, ’movie star.’ But it was just another job in the factory.”
Basinger’s love of film and its stars has its origins in her early childhood. While others collected photographs of their favorite screen actors, however, she wrote letters to filmmakers, inquiring about the artistic practice behind the on-screen magic. Her later interviews with actors cultivated a greater appreciation for stardom as an occupation, and its unique interplay of individual personality and constructed public image. Basinger recalled spending time with actress Joan Crawford, whose status as star meant every public appearance became a kind of performance for her fans.
“If she, say, took me to a restaurant, she had put on a costume, really, and that was the costume of Joan Crawford,” Basinger said. “There, she played the role on Joan Crawford, which she understood fully. At home, she was a little bit different. She didn’t dress that way. It was interesting.”
Basinger remarked that a person can never stop being a movie star.
“When you go home, when you’re in your car, when you get out of your car, when you’re in a restaurant: your job is on your face,” she said.
Such experiences provided a basis of knowledge that Basinger expanded upon through years of research into both movie stars and the studios that produced them. Much of the historical background explored within “The Star Machine” was very familiar to Basinger, who culled information from such varying sources as film magazines, internal studio documentation and personal interviews with actors and filmmakers.
Despite her familiarity with the subject matter, though, it took Basinger four years to write the book, which clocks in at just over 600 pages. Her roles as professor, department chair and curator of the Cinema Archives made it difficult to spend large amounts of time working on such an expansive project.
“You need uninterrupted thinking time so you can follow through on the ideas that you are having,” Basinger said. “Every time that process is broken, you go back to your work and have to reinvent the wheel every time.”
Time constraints notwithstanding, Basinger found the process of re-watching the films discussed in the book to be a particularly rewarding one. Chronologically screening the movies of actor Charles Boyer, for example, revealed the versatility and range of a star remembered primarily for his roles as a French lover. Similarly, researching actress Loretta Young allowed Basinger to appreciate Young’s largely forgotten career management skills.
“Feminists have kind of overlooked her because her films did not seem to not be presenting feminist issues; although interestingly, a lot of them did, when seen all together,” Basinger said. “But she herself was a real pioneer career woman, and I have so much respect for her.”
Unearthing such little-known facts about Hollywood’s history is important to Basinger for both academic and personal reasons.
“I hear people talking about my years in college, my years in high school, and they are giving a historical definition that bears no relationship to the world I lived in, to what I experienced, to what my life was,” she said. “It’s scary to me. And I see oversimplifications and what I have to think of as historical untruth. This worries me.”
Although she has already begun writing her eleventh book (an examination of marriage within the movies), Basinger has been simultaneously touring the country to promote “The Star Machine.” Along the way, she met a range of film fans: from college age readers who discovered the older stars through film classes and Turner Classic Movies, to 20 original members of actor Tyrone Power’s fan club.
Basinger dismisses those who claim movie stars no longer exist within modern Hollywood. Increased audience sophistication and stars with greater career control, however, have both led to altered expectations concerning the value of stardom.
“There aren’t a lot of them [stars] around because don’t want to be movie stars anymore,” Basinger said. “They want to be actors. They want to be taken seriously, and they don’t want to be Paris Hilton. They don’t want to be trivial, and they’re concerned about that.”
Still, Basinger admits that the era of DVD and iPods has permanently changed our relationship with film and its stars. Basinger recalled the enveloping experience of going to the movies as a child, her connection with the on-screen images made all the more powerful because of its ephemerality.
“The theater was huge,” she said. “The film was nitrate. It sparkled. And you entered into a temple, into a private space, and it was bigger than you. And then you saw it, you loved it, you wanted it. And then it left town. And you never saw it again. It was gone with the wind.”