Friday, June 26, 2009

Book: The Star Machine, by Janine Basinger (2007)

It’s a question Hollywood constantly wrestles with: are stars necessary? On the one hand, of course not. On the other, as the new TV ads remind us, Depp IS Dillinger. One reason why I was able to look past The Taking of Pelham 123 being a remake of my favorite movie is that it’s a rare chance this summer to see two big personalities go through their paces. Alas, that doesn’t seem to have helped at the box office.

Bringing me to one of the best books I’ve read on the film business in years. The Star Machine focuses on the system established by the studios in their heyday to groom and maintain those in the Hollywood firmament. As the title indicates, Wesleyan professor Basinger is interested in the mechanism of stardom, so she doesn’t write about actors who would have found their way to the top without it. Instead she concentrates on talented performers who were transformed by it, like Dennis Morgan and Ann Sheridan, and on oddities who benefitted from it, such as Maria Montez and Clifton Webb.

She also offers extended case studies on those who bucked the system. Tyrone Power, a beautiful (no other word is appropriate) leading man who had the misfortune to be talented and ambitious as well. Deanna Durbin, a massive draw in the ‘30s and ‘40s who became the true Garbo when she walked away from Hollywood and America at the height of her fame. Loretta Young, whom Basinger views as a now-neglected visionary. The book closes with a section on stardom without the machine. As Basinger notes, it’s easier to achieve but harder to hang onto in the modern era, and she singles out actors who deserve more credit for the way they’ve managed their careers (Matthew McConaughey) and who would have fared every bit as well under the auspices of the studios (Sandra Bullock, who just had the best opening weekend of her career with The Proposal).

The Star Machine is actually too much of a good thing; Basinger gets so absorbed in the details of the actors’ lives that she occasionally loses the thread of her argument. But she writes with such verve and wit that I didn’t mind. It helps that I share many of her opinions. I, too, am somewhat immune to the charms of Katherine Hepburn. And I second her passionate defense of Tom Cruise.

A late footnote made me feel bad, though. Basinger laments how genre has warped the understanding of film history. Most hardcore movie fans are more familiar with Dana Andrews than Ronald Colman or even Clark Gable, for instance, because of the emphasis on noir. I can only raise my hand and say guilty as charged.