Firstly, the star system had a major significance in defining the elements in a Classical Hollywood film, which include the acting method and mise-en-scene. It was important to the development of the Hollywood as this was the main mechanism used during that period. Under this system, the story plot of a Classical Hollywood film was constructed based on the public persona of a performer, which is referred as the “star vehicle” (Maltby 1995, p.89). Based on this, the influence of the system can be seen in the performers’ acting style. McDonald states that they were adopting a new acting method that reflected “realism”, which was more focusing on the facial expressions and other minor gestures (2001, p.27). This strategy was widely used by film producers and they used the real personality of the actor to advertise a film (De Cordova 2001, p.88).
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For instance, James Dean was one of the famous performers who put his own feelings and psychological states into acting, in which he presented himself as a rebellious teenager in his films. During the Classical Hollywood period, there was an increasing use of close-ups and other editing techniques to illustrate the performers’ natural expressions clearly (McDonald 2001, p.27). In a Dean’s film East of Eden (1955), the director used specific light settings and various types of cinematic shots to bring out the raw emotions of him. Dean has portrayed the confusion and depression in Cal’s character by putting in his own experience and feelings. In the sequence where Cal is questioning Adam about his mother, medium close-ups were frequently used throughout the part, alongside with using a shot/reverse-shot technique to allow audience focusing on the character who is speaking. The director has also put dark colour furniture as the backdrop and a single light source at the centre of the room to make the characters stand out from the shot. With these camera and light settings, all the facial muscles movements and hand gestures of the characters can be seen and this helps audience recognise their emotions. It can be said that these cinematic techniques arose as a result of the new melodramatic acting method, which was a product under the star system. The influence of the system can be seen in the modern film industry as these techniques are commonly seen in the contemporary drama or romance films. Apart from that, the natural acting method is also widely taught in the university acting programs in the United States nowadays (Wiles 2000, p.161). In fact, James Dean’s acting style was acclaimed by various film critics. He was seen as one of the best actors at that time (Dalton 2001, p.158). Therefore, it can be seen that this acting style has influenced on the contemporary performers and they are still adopting this method in their films.
Furthermore, the major studios have employed particular marketing strategies to promote their films, which were crucial to the star system and the film industry. Maltby states that the major studios controlled the movie stars tightly and they required them to sign long-term contracts, thus the performers could only have a small portion of creative input in their work (1995, p.88). From this, it can be said that the performers were used by the studios as a tool to achieve commercial goals. Due to the studios’ ability to control the performers, the studios tended to construct the image of a star based on the “star vehicle” mechanism, which could allow audience to recognise him and his public persona (Chisholm 1993, p.147). For example, Joan Crawford was often portrayed as an independent and hardworking woman in her films. In her Academy Award-winning film Mildred Pierce (1945), Crawford was portraying the character of Mildred, a divorced woman who supports the household by her own effort. In the film, her second husband questions about her successful career, and she replies, ‘you look down on me because I worked for a living, don’t you?’ This has become a memorable quote from the film. She became an independent women icon and encouraged them to embrace their new identities. The modern entertainment industries are using similar tactics to construct the image of a star in order to attract audience of different preferences.
Apart from that, it is also essential to explore the relationship between the major studios and the mass media. With the rising status of various movie stars, the publicists of these film institutes had deliberately promoted the movie stars through different media platforms, like magazines, newspapers and radio programs. The MGM was reported to send out glamour pictures of the star to media outlets and set up romantic relationships for well-known performers in order to gain publicity and create rumours (Harris 1991, p.41). It can be said that the major studios and the publicists were manipulating the circulation of information within the media as the target audience would consume these products. Marilyn Monroe was portrayed as the sexual symbol and the publicists intentionally revealed her teenage life and young marriages to the media in order to gain attention (Harris 1991, p.43). With the extensive media coverage, Monroe eventually rose to fame and her films became box office hits. She became an international sensation and she was covered in many news stories during the 1950s. In fact, the technological improvement in the millennium has provided more platforms for performers to gain publicity. For example, Paris Hilton became infamous when her sex tape was leaked online. This mechanism still applies in our modern commercial sectors as stirring up a controversy is one of the ways to gain public’s attention.
In addition, the star system had a huge impact on the American and international popular culture. Maltby suggests that the star system had created an ideal version of the character for the audience (1995, p.90). This shows that the stars have somehow reflected the reality in the society and linked to the audience’s own experience. As an illustration, James Dean’s wild personality in the films has been described as an “original spirit of revolution” in the American society (Dalton 2001, p.161). In his film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Jim is wearing an iconic red jacket and blue jeans when he is having a conflict with his parents after the “Chickie Run” game. The dark lighting in the room makes the colour of his jacket stands out from the scene. The red colour shows a clash between him and their parents as it represents vibrancy and energy, which is very different from the plain colour outfits of their parents. With film as a medium, the teenagers could connect themselves to the character and they tried to copy his fashion style and actions. They saw Dean as an idol and this created a new culture among the younger generation at that time. The representation of the performers in films has changed the way the audience perceive themselves, and it changes their everyday life as well as the popular culture.
Fashion is also part of the popular culture. The star system had helped establish the stars as cultural icons and they represented the popular trend at that time, in which the effects can still be seen nowadays. McDonald suggests that the factors that determine the popularity of stars were fashion style and audience’s preference, which allowed them to enjoy popularity over a long period of time (2001, p.7). Therefore, the films became the main platform for movie stars to show off their latest fashion styles. For example, Banner mentions that Marilyn Monroe often wears white costumes in her films, which was a fashion trend during the 1950s (2008, p.12). The audience admired her unique and outrageous fashion styles and they started to follow the way she dressed. In the film The Seven Year Itch (1955), there is a scene where Monroe was wearing a white dress and it was blown by the wind. Since the release of the film, this scene became an iconic moment in the film and that image was then turned into many products, like t-shirts and tote bags. The fashion influence of the stars extends to the global market, such as Japan and other European countries. These stars remain as iconic figures in our modern world and their images are still circulating in our popular culture.
Lastly, the star system has encouraged various economic activities within the American society. Stacey suggests that the film industry leads to an increased consumption of other commodities (1993, p.177). The increasing popularity of movie stars has brought them the opportunity to promote a new product. The popular culture that was brought by the film stars had also led to the popularity of new economic goods, as the consumers preferred following the new trends so that they could become stylish. The celebrities were also seen as the guarantors of high quality products by the consumers thus encouraged them to purchase the promoted items. This phenomenon can be seen in the women consumers’ market. Maltby states that the cosmetics and fashion products used by the female stars in the films were readily purchased by the female fans, and the Hollywood became the largest influence in changing women’s fashion in the 1930s (1995, p.93). This indicates that the promotion tactics of the commercial firms have proved successful in leading the consumers’ trends and changing their preferences.
In fact, the consumer economy had experienced rapid growth after the Hollywood started using films and celebrities to promote their fashion and household goods (McDonald 2001, p.54). In this case, the film has become another medium for promoting the use of various products and it encourages a more frequent purchasing pattern. In order to attract consumers to buy different products, the Hollywood started to apply product placements in the films and the film producers used luxury places as the shooting locations (Eckert 1991, p.38). This can be shown in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961). The story takes place in the metropolitan New York City and the famous Tiffany and Co store on Fifth Avenue is one the significant locations in the film. In the opening sequence of the film, it shows that Holly (Audrey Hepburn) is walking alone and having breakfast on the Fifth Avenue. From the reflection of the window, it can be seen that she is wearing a black dress and extravagant accessories. Throughout the film, Audrey Hepburn has constantly changed her costumes and she presents herself as an elegant woman in the film. The portrayal of the high-end items in the film represents an ideal lifestyle and it encourages audience to purchase more commodities in order to improve their living standards. In present days, various economic goods are used in the blockbusters and the companies use the films as a platform to advertise their products.
In conclusion, the importance of the star system in academic study is that it influences our society in different ways. In terms of film elements, the star system has introduced a more natural acting style and other editing techniques. Meanwhile, the promotion tactics used by the major studios and the media relations are also applicable in modern days. The influence of the system can also be seen in the popular culture and the consuming patterns in a capitalist economy. The system has a huge impact and it has transformed our modern world. The effects can be studied in various aspects of academic study and it will be beneficial to explore the influences in from different perspectives.
Banner, L 2008, ‘The Creature from Black Lagoon: Marilyn Monroe and Whiteness’, Cinema Journal, Vol. 47, No. 4, pp. 4-29.
Chisholm, D 1993, ‘Asset Specificity and Long-Term Contracts: The Case of the Motion-Pictures Industry’, Eastern Economic Journal, Vol. 9, No. 2, pp.143-155.
Dalton, D 2001, James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography, Chicago Review Press, Chicago.
De Cordova, R 2001, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America, University of Illinois Press, Urbana.
Eckert, C 1991, ‘The Carole Lombard in Macy’s Window’, In Gledhill C (eds), Stardom: Industry of Desire, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 40-44.
Harris, T 1991, ‘The Building of Popular Images: Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe’, In Gledhill C (eds), Stardom: Industry of Desire, Routledge, London and New York, pp. 40-44.
Maltby, R 1995, Hollywood Cinema: An Introduction, Blackwell, London.
McDonald, P 2000, The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities, Wallflower Press, London.
Stacey, J 1993, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship, Routledge, London.
Wiles, D 2000, ‘Practicing the paradox : addressing the creative state’, in Krasner D (eds), Method Acting Reconsidered: Theory, Practice, Future, St. Martin’s Press, New York, pp. 169-178.
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