A key difference, probably the key difference, between the Hollywood of today and of yesteryear is the studio system. The way the studios manufactured and marketed stars is legendary. Stories of stars having their names and biographies changed are just the start, but a studio controlled where a movie star went, who they dated, and how they were to act in their free time, let alone the movies they were to make. The collapse of the era in the 1960s led to stars having freedom over themselves, but it also limited the idea of the star personality. There’s a reason that movie stars of the era had “faces,” memorable personalities that gives even the most minor C-list actor of the era more recognition than the stars of today. All of this is laid out in Jeanine Basinger’s fantastic book, The Star Machine, a tome exploring how stars were created and sold to an eager public.
The Star Machine is the second Basinger book I’ve read and reviewed. I previously reviewed I Do and I Don’t: A History of Marriage in the Movies, a book I devoured just as much as this one. Basinger’s approach to history starts with providing background on the subject in question before delving into and breaking down her points through examples. In this case, the opening chapters succinctly explain the star process. From the minute a person is discovered, one possessing the bare modicum of camera worthiness, they were measured and sized up. Ears too big? Nothing a quick medical procedure can’t fix. Teeth crooked? Braces. Camera not liking your brunette hair? Make you a blonde. Basinger makes no bones about stars being manufactured and cut to be what was needed. And stars were needed, no matter how often studios were quick to show how expendable they were (one chapter is devoted to Deanna Durbin, a star who left Hollywood of her own volition).
The midpoint of her text explains the necessity for copies of successful stars during WWII when the A-listers went into war and later chapters mention the more minute demographics meant to appeal to niche audiences: “exotics” like Maria Montez, child stars, animal stars, and the like. Basinger is big on examples and there’s great chapters on lesser known stars like Dennis Morgan, June Allyson, and others. The point is in showing how they became stars, by process of the machine, but also why they were limited from becoming iconic and failed to reach the heights of a Clark Gable or Bette Davis. Basinger provides guesses at several of them, whether they hewed too closely to more tenacious stars or didn’t pick the right projects, while those A-list stars struggled to keep themselves a float (chapters are devoted to the self-destruction of Errol Flynn and the personal drama of Lana Turner). For all the machine’s ability to create a star it was still 2% the star toeing the party line and 1% of that indefinable “spark,” what Elinor Glynn called the “it” factor.
Much like I Do and I Don’t, Basinger’s large historical tomes never feel like textbooks you’d read during a college film class. Everything about her prose reads friendly and simply. Even her copious use of footnotes aren’t there to provide reference material or additional bibliographic information, they discuss background, dates, or just witty asides she likes to throw at you. This is a film history book for those who detest musty volumes spewing names and dates, cold stories about the chronological nature of film as opposed to the faces that made such work legendary.
The Star Machine continues to show Basinger as one of the preeminent film historians of our time. Her work takes a rather broad facet of the movie-making industry, and breaks it down for the novice to read and enjoy. She never dabbled in things that aren’t relevant, and her books have an easy “read as you go” approach to them, in that you can pick a section to read at will. If you missed this upon release a few years ago, try to find a copy and give it a read!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.