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

by Brian Gallagher

Stars--who now come from many more realms than just the movies--still continue to function in contradictory and paradoxical ways in postmodern culture. Clearly, stars still figure as influential images whose personal lives can seem, even when they are not, as "scripted" as their professional activities: consider the recent metamorphosis of Magic Johnson from basketball superstar to the country's most public AIDS victim, and specifically his triumphant return to the "community" of professional basketball in the 1992 All-Star game. Oddly, perhaps, in this media-saturated era, there continue to be more or less "pure" movie stars, stars whose celebrity derives almost entirely from their work in films. Some of them, like Paul Newman and Robert Redford, function as their own producers (and sometimes directors) in an age when independent production is the long-established norm. Many others, though, prefer to work as Stewart did: essentially free-lance.

If any proof is needed that the star system still operates in mysterious and paradoxical ways, playing on "the star's fertility of cross-reference" (Yacowar, 46), I offer as a prime example the leading male box office "star" of the moment: the gap-toothed Austrian bodybuilder, Arnold Schwarzenegger.26 Here is an actor who cannot act except in the most rudimentary way (which is perhaps why his most famous role is that of an android), a colossally muscled man who fights almost all his movie battles not physically but with the most advanced weaponry, an in-law of the reigning Democratic "royal family" who is a declared (and visible) Republican. Yet, he has starred in some of the most successful, most historically important, and most culturally significant films of the last decade (e.g. The Terminator, True Lies, and Total Recall). Moreover, his star identity is so firmly fixed that he can afford to make films, like Twins and Kindergarten Cop, playing off and parodying that identity. It may be that "star images are constructed persons in media texts" (Dyer, 109), but, as the case of Schwarzenegger illustrates, they are hardly transparent or easily read constructions. They remain shadowy, compelling, intricately produced, sometimes contradictory and always paradoxical, images of individualism for the larger community.

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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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