Friday, 27 March 2015

Book Review: The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger

The star making process - like everything else during Hollywood's studio years - was contradictory, unpredictable, and ambivalent, but none of that slowed the system down.

When a young hopeful recieved a studio contract, their every flaw was immediately put under the microscope. Slightly overweight? You were put on a diet. Slightly balding? A hairpiece was created to match your hair color. Teeth not straight? The star would be whisked off to the dentist's chair. Hairline too low? The studio would use hairline electrolysis, a painful procedure designed to manufacture a more glamorous hairline. If you required extensive work on your appearance, surgery was not out of the question. Every aspect of a star's appearance was dissected and, subsequently, altered. And that was only the beginning....

Rita Hayworth before and after her hairline electrolysis.

Released in 2006, Jeanine Basinger's methodical deconstruction of the studio system's "star making" process makes for a highly entertaining read. With confidence, finesse and a voice uniquely her own, Basinger introduces us to stars who prospered- and stars who floundered- under the harsh studio lights. 

While a considerable read at 608 pages, I promise if you invest in Jeanine Basinger's The Star Machine you will never once be bored. Her exploration of the studio system is intricate and extensively researched, presenting the reader with a treasure trove of information- yet it never actually feels as though you are learning, such is the nature of Basinger's light and entertaining writing style. Don't misunderstand me, I know much more now than I did before reading The Star Machine (it is littered with historically accurate information about the studio system and it's stars)- and yet, the information is presented in such a way that I didn't feel as though I was reading a work of non-fiction. It was both fun and informative! Basinger's deconstruction is laced with humor, poking fun at the studio system's archaic ways, while also remaining respectful of the process and it's subsequent results (afterall, say what you will about Louis B. Mayer, he was the envy of every studio head in Hollywood for over 30 years). 

I think what makes this book so interesting is the stars Basinger has chosen to examine. Instead of simply trotting out the old favourites (Garbo, Crawford, Davis, Gable, Grant- though they do get a mention here and there), she instead selects actors and actresses who are seldom put under the microscope. Eleanor Powell, Van Johnson, June Allyson, Tyrone Power, Loretta Young, Deanna Durbin, Jean Arthur, Charles Boyer and more...Basinger expertly identifies how they were all molded into profitable commodities for their respective studios and details their rise and fall in the eyes of the public. With Tyrone Power, she explores his rebellion against the studio system that had nurtured his career and made him the crowned "King of the Movies" (he actually did receive a crown for that honor- in 1939, The Chicago Tribune ran their annual "Movie King and Queen" poll, surveying over 20 million readers. Tyrone Power was pronounced the king- his queen, the lovely Jeanette MacDonald). Through Jean Arthur, she re-iterates the need for actors and actresses to have a defined "type" to survive and thrive during the studio era. She even pinpoints the exact moment Arthur's "type" was established (her performance, under the direction of Frank Capra, in the 1936 film Mr Deeds Goes to Town) and chronicles her career successes in recreating this "type" in the years that followed

More than anything else, this book is a tribute to the Hollywood studio system, which thrived for over 40 years. In the book's final chapter, Basinger looks at modern actors and actresses (such as Julia Roberts, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angeline Jolie, Mel Gibson, Sandra Bullock etc.) and deconstructs how there careers would have differed had they been under studio protection. The most prominent modern example explored is Tom Cruise. The book was published in 2007, just as Cruise's career was beginning to unravel, and Basinger notes how studio protection would've prevented his reputation and image being irretrievably damaged. While some modern examples suffer as a result of the book's publication date (Brendan Fraser is a notable example- unfortunately, his career has taken a considerable nosedive in the years since 2007 and I'd wager that nobody in 2015 would compare him to Tyrone Power), for the most part Basinger correctly predicts the career trajectory of the stars she has dissected- a testament to her considerable knowledge in regards to Hollywood (both past and present) and how it functions. 

Her most impressive deconstruction of career trajectory is that of Matthew McConaughey. In 2007, I'd wager that most of us would never have predicted that McConaughey was capable of winning an Oscar. Basinger, demonstrating a profound (and almost psychological) understanding of actors and actresses, assesses his career to date and (correctly) predicts the trajectory it will take. While she doesn't outright say "he will win an Oscar", she boldly predicts that his star will continue to rise and that he will find roles more suited to showcasing his unique acting talents showcase (in 2007- after Failure to Launch, Fool's Gold, Sahara, The Wedding Planner, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days etc.- who knew he had any real acting talent). 

This book is a true testament to Jeanine Basinger's standing as one of the most respected film historians of our times. Her considerable knowledge of Hollywood (both past and present) and her methodical analytical skills make this a book to remember. It's both entertaining and informative- a fascinating read that will keep you captivated from start to finish.

My Rating

Interested in purchasing The Star Machine? The book is available in paperback and for the Kindle via Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment