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Some Historical Reflections on the Paradoxes of Stardom in the American Film Industry, 1910-1960

by Brian Gallagher

Part Four: The evolution of the close-up as the emblematic star shot sometimes created a stylistic confusion and disjunction between two stories: the story being told in the film and the "story" of the star's appearance in that film.

Although close-ups appeared as early as Porter's The Life of an American Fireman in 1903 (the unidentified hand pulling the fire alarm), it was Griffith who clearly established the close-up as a means of emphasizing what was physically a relatively small but highly significant facet of narrative information (e.g., Mae Marsh's clenched hands in the courtroom scene of Intolerance). Despite the fact that certain directors (most obviously Hitchcock) continued to use the close-up in this fashion in American cinema, since the late 1910s the close-up had become the most emblematic way of depicting the individual screen "star." (Think of Norma Desmond's boast about the silent era: "We didn't need dialogue; we had faces," in Sunset Boulevard.) The star was one who could withstand, indeed triumph over, the giantism of the close-up, turning it into an instance of synecdoche--the face standing for the whole body, for the whole larger presence (which, paradoxically, was a literal absence from the site of a screening). As Barry King suggests, stardom should be seen as "a part of the occupation of film acting, as a form of work" (155)--and nowhere is that work more in evidence than in the close-up, where the star need appear serenely himself or herself under the closest scrutiny. Perhaps it is as Andre Gide has said: "One cannot both be sincere and seem so."

"The screen face is a pool we swim in," observes David Thompson, a fact amply borne out by the fascination created among some of the most astute commentators on cinema by a screen face like Garbo's. For Robert Sklar, Garbo "became the new embodiment of European passion. . . . she shone with an inner intensity" (100, 102). Roland Barthes, conversely, sees her face as the emblem of the asexual ideal to which the classical cinema aspired:

Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could neither be reached nor renounced. . . . it is not a painted face, but one set in plaster, protected by the surface of the colour, not by its lineaments. . . . not drawn but sculpted in something smooth and friable, that is, at once perfect and ephemeral. . . . Garbo offers to one's gaze a sort of Platonic Idea of the human creature, which explains why her face is almost sexually undefined, without however leaving one in doubt (56).

Queen Christina

View an animated GIF of the final close-up from Queen Christina (30 frames, 221KB) and listen to an excerpt of the soundtrack.

For Bela Balázs, though, Garbo's face epitomizes not transcendence, but a suffering of the here-and-now: "Greta Garbo is sad. Not only in certain situations, for certain reasons. Greta Garbo's beauty is beauty of suffering; she suffers life and all the surrounding world. . . . Greta Garbo's beauty is a beauty which is in opposition to the world of today" (286-87). The screen face, which comes to us most fully in the close-up, is rather like a screen within a screen, a second screen on which viewers can project their own impressions and fantasies--within, of course, the stylistic and cultural confines of that gigantic image. (E.g., one could see Garbo's beauty as spiritual or bland, compelling or over-perfect, but one probably could not see her as "downright ugly" without willfully misreading the image.)

Affectively, as the above comments hint, there is something disruptive about the close-up, for it heightens the self-consciousness of the viewer's gaze and often virtually blots out the identity of the character being impersonated. One never speaks, or even imagines speaking, of the "face" of Anna Christie or Camille or Ninotchka. Of course, it was the face of Garbo the audience went to see (30 feet high on perhaps 500 screens across the country at the same time), and moviegoers would have felt cheated if her role changed that face overmuch. Even with stars not noted for their beauty (e.g., Marie Dressler and Mickey Rooney, MGM's top box office stars of the early 1930s and late 1930s respectively), the face had to bear an occasional close-up as a vouchsafe for the star's authenticity as such.12

While audiences may have gone to see a film because of its star(s), the audience's reading of a film for star presence could be disruptive, since it sometimes privileged the close-up at the expense of the narrative rhythm and importance of the all shots, or, at least, gave the close-up an added, supra-narrative importance. Some indication of this fragmentation is the fact that the single most famous shot of Chaplin is a close-up (his hesitant, nervous smile at the end of City Lights), although Chaplin's films, like all silent comedies, virtually eschewed the close-up for a more fulsome shots of the comedian's body in action.

The famous closing close-up from City Lights

A more telling example of the rhythmic and psychological disruptive potential of the close-up is Alice Adams (RKO, 1935), a typical single-major-star vehicle from the middle of the classical period.

Alice Adams (George Stevens' first major directorial assignment) was the film that fueled the first of Katherine Hepburn's many comebacks. In the film, based on a Booth Tarkington novel, she plays a small-town young woman with social pretensions who suffers a long string of embarrassments due to her poverty and her family's lack of any social standing or even social graces. (The longest scene in the film is an excruciating family dinner to which she has invited her would-be boyfriend.) The fact that Alice regularly puts on airs and lies, worships success and is ashamed of her family, seems to be a racist and definitely is a social climber may undercut her character but hardly undercuts Hepburn's performance. Much like her boyfriend (Arthur Russell/Fred MacMurray), the camera "loves" her for herself--and therein lies the reason for a pattern of close-ups and close shots that increasingly disrupt the narrative and, most particularly, the visual flow of the film. As Kristin Thompson notes, "The basis of the American classical cinema's narrative aesthetic was compositional unity rather than realism" (Classical, 175)--but the film fairly regularly breaks the unobtrusive shot/reverse shot pattern, thereby upsetting its "compositional unity." For instance, an early scene between Alice and her invalid father culminates with a close-shot of Alice (her father's head a vague, dark blur on the left of the screen), in full, flattering light, from behind and through the iron bars of his bedstead, a bedstead a number of earlier shots have clearly established as being against a wall. Whatever symbolic import the shot may have diegetically (Alice as imprisoned etc.), I would suggest the extradiegetic import of this highly self-conscious framing of the moment is far greater: here is beautiful, vibrant "star" trying to break out of a recent career slump, her recent "failure," a star who at that very moment is telling her screen father that he is not a failure. It is affectively a very hard shot to resist.

Alice Adams

View an animated GIF of the father-daughter scene (10 frames, 75KB) and and listen to an excerpt of the dialog.

The fact that Alice/Hepburn is given the only close-ups in a number of dialogue interchanges sometimes disrupts the visual flow (e.g., when she and her mother, in mostly medium shots, talk across the kitchen), but not always (e.g., when high angle close-ups depict her misery in having to dance with and talk to a pudgy oaf because none of the handsome young men will pay attention to her). The most startling restriction of close-ups comes in the penultimate scene: as Alice fervently, almost miraculously, wins back her father's disgruntled former boss--delivering her father from bankruptcy, her brother from imprisonment and her family from shame--the cuts back and forth from the elderly boss (always in medium shot) to Hepburn/Alice (first in similar medium framings, then in close-ups as she grows more inspired and convincing) not only create a disjunction in shot transition but also a confusion about narrative closure. On a literal level the boss is being won over by the force of her argument (which, hardly co-incidentally, blames all the misunderstandings and difficulties suffered by her father and brother on her mother and herself13). On the emotional level--where film often works its strongest conclusions--he is being overpowered by Hepburn's magnetism, that "star power" so evidently revealed to us in the close-ups. No doubt, the audience in 1935 chose to believe in Hepburn rather than in Alice's arguments--and so, presumably, would the audience today.

Alice Adams

View an animated GIF of the daughter-boss scene (13 frames, 101KB) and listen to an excerpt of the dialog.

There was, within the givens of classical Hollywood filmmaking and its focus on the heterosexual romance, one character besides Alice who had to have some share of the film's close-ups: the male lead. But Alice Adams rather severely restricts MacMurray's close-ups in those central scenes, inevitable to romance, where the lovers talk intimately. The two crucial scenes on the porch of Alice's house evidence a progression from a relatively ordinary to an extraordinary shot/reverse shot exchange of close-ups. In the second scene, where Alice neurotically tries to drive Arthur Russell away after the fiasco of the dinner, Hepburn commands a very large share of the screen time (partly justified by the fact that Alice is doing most of the talking), is framed from slightly closer in than MacMurray, and is backlit (her eyes sparkling) against the deep, dark space beyond the porch--much like a jewel being set off by its casing. In mid-scene, she moves to the corner of the swing, whose chain creates a perfect framing of her now oblique face, which now holds the camera's gaze even longer in each close-up.14

Alice Adams

View an animated GIF of the Hepburn-MacMurray scene. (20 frames, 148KB)

MacMurray, by contrast, is framed against a flat, dully lit background (the porch furnishings and later the wall of the grayish house), is partly cut off by another swing chain (in the second half of the scene), and quickly "surrenders" many of his close-ups as he struggles to find reassuring words for Alice. Seemingly, the scene is about Alice making a fool of herself by trying, out of familial shame, to drive away her lover; in actuality, the scene is about Hepburn remaking a star of herself. Whatever disjunction the scene causes, however, is recuperated in typical Hollywood fashion in the final scene: instead of accepting his dismissal, Arthur lingers on the porch, while inside Alice miraculously solves all the crises in the family melodrama, and so he is there for a final, "forgiving" kiss at the end. Having been the justification for the porch scene's close-ups (i.e., they were shot roughly from his ostensible point of view), Arthur/MacMurray, like the audience, knows Alice/Hepburn's supreme worth and embraces her, effacing only at the last the tension between character and star.

Alice Adams

View an animated GIF of the final kiss (15 frames, 116KB) and listen to an excerpt of the dialog and soundtrack.

The sometimes obvious insertion of close-ups in Alice Adams to a certain extent contravenes the recognized practices of classical cinema, foregrouding the process of shot transition, "the basic element" in virtually all cinema (Burch, 12), but a process Hollywood sought to suppress through the practice of "invisible editing": "Characteristically, Hollywood's style effaced the techniques of making the film. . . . It was a cinema of concealed artifice" (Bordwell, Classical, 101). If Alice Adams is at all typical of classical cinema (or even a specific type of classical film), and "in a classical film, narration is motivated composition; it works to construct the story in specific ways" (Bordwell, Classical, 24), then the "star close-up" sometimes (maybe often) paradoxically works to construct another narrative: the quest for stardom that must be undertaken with each new film, each new textual packaging of the star's image.

page 5 of 9

Go to:


Part One: The emergence of the star system

Part Two: The real, the "reel," and fan magazines

Part Three: The selling of stars

Part Four: The close-up and Alice Adams

Part Five: Cultural self-importance and A Star is Born

Part Six: Studio battlers--James Cagney and Bette Davis

Part Seven: The power of stars, the power of agents, and Jimmy Stewart



Works Cited

Brian Gallagher is a professor of English and film at the City University of New York (LaGuardia).

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