Films on Stars: A Star Is Born  (1953)

10 01 2011

Stardom, and particularly the more media-based “celebrity” side of stardom, is typically understood as a feminized phenomenon. The overwhelming emphasis on images and the bodies that are the bearers of those images, not to mention the (at least contemporary) emphasis on the private and “real” person behind that image aligns the concept of stardom with the private and domestic sphere most associated with women. The vast majority of stars studied by scholars are women, and the ones most often torn down by tabloids for our voyeuristic pleasure are women. This is not to say men are not stars, but the condition or perhaps more crucially, the pathology of stardom and the tragedy of fame damage is feminized across academic and popular discussions of stars.

I revisited the classic film about the Hollywood star machinery (and my personal favorite), A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester. There’s no one better to play out the tragedy of stardom than Judy, whose own star image is tightly bound to her personal struggles as a result of her child and adult stardom (see here for a brief overview). These struggles are essential to her stardom, and are vital to understanding what makes this role/film such a perfect star vehicle for Garland.

This version of the film differs in several important ways from the 1937 version I previously discussed. It paints a somewhat different version of what it takes to be a star in Hollywood, likely because it was made at a time when the studio system was losing its power and, particularly since Garland and her star image baggage are involved, that system been exposed as a soul crushing factory not simply a dream machine.

In this version, Esther’s talent eclipses her drive to achieve stardom. She works as a singer and does whatever it takes to have the opportunity to do what she loves, but, unlike Janet Gaynor’s Esther/Vicki, her drive is towards the pleasure of her talent, not the achievement of public recognition for it. She has to sing because that’s who she is, not because she is ultimately gunning for the top of fame mountain. Though Norman Maine first heard her sing at a Hollywood benefit, it is her performance of “The Man That Got Away” during an informal jam session with her band that makes him realize her potential. The use of the talent itself is the end, and any fame or recognition that comes with it is just gravy, really. If you need confirmation of Garland’s tremendous talent, look no further than this iconic performance. I’m such a sucker for all the Judy singing mannerisms, and you get them all here…watch for the hand through bangs for emphasis moment:

In Gaynor’s version, we don’t get much on-screen evidence of Esther/Vicki’s talent. Instead, we get a lot of evidence that she is willing to be a good soldier and do the work necessary to become a star in the Hollywood system. In Garland’s, we are constantly reminded of it in numerous musical numbers that show her talent as innate, not something she must craft and package for Hollywood. But, of course, such innate talent must be shared with the public!

In both films, Norman, who is already a Hollywood star, serves as a guide/Svengali who guides Esther into the realm of stardom, but the 1953 Norman (played by James Mason) helps Esther realize that her talent can get her so much more. He tells her that listening to her sing is like hooking a fish or watching a prize fighter…full of “jabs of pleasure” that go beyond the constructed nature of his Hollywood life (the jabs of pleasure I get from hearing James Mason deliver this speech in his iconic cadence makes this one of my favorite moments of the film). He says, “you’ve got that little something extra” that makes a star and dares her to dream bigger than her current dream of just getting one hit song on the radio and then retiring on that glory. He knows she can be more because she’s not simply a studio produced commodity. She’s got something more, something, it seems, they cannot take away from her and will make her famous without any studio machinations.

That Norman wants to bring her into Hollywood stardom is ironic because he hates his life as a Hollywood star. He hates the lies and the fabrications of the publicity department. He hates the way you have to play the game to get anywhere. So it seems strange that even as he feels he has been crushed by Hollywood, he wants to bring this pure and innocent talent into the maw of the machine. Perhaps he thinks the purity of her talent will protect her? After all, he has her take off the fake nose, caked on makeup and blonde wig that resulted from her pre-screentest makeup session. This returns her to her true self and lets her talent, not her constructed beauty, shine through. This, not incidentally, is a key tie to Garland’s MGM experience and her own frustration with never being the stereotypical Hollywood Glamour Girl.

What’s interesting about this film as a depiction of stardom is that the female star is the one who has it together and whose talent actually grounds her in her real self instead of transforming her into nothing but a false image. Even as her star rises, she does not give in to the excesses of fame, remains her real “girl next door” self at heart, and finds her true love in Norman. Compare this to other films I’ve reviewed in this series where the female star either falls into debauchery or is unable to fulfill her true feminine self in relationships.

Here, it is Norman whose stardom produces pathology in the form of alcoholism, depression and his eventual suicide. Of course all this impacts Esther/Vicki, as she is crushed as she watches Norman fall apart. As with other cautionary tales of stardom’s excesses, a tragic personal life lurks just below the glamorous surface of life as a star, and perhaps Esther not entirely successful as a wife because of her stardom. But in this case, it is really Norman who falls victim to the excesses and who is ultimately responsible for these problems. Stardom has corrupted him even as it has fulfilled her. Esther, ever the dutiful wife, recognizes that Norman somehow needs the adulation of stardom in ways she does not, saying “Love isn’t enough for him.” She is grounded by her private and personal relationship with him, as well as by the pleasure of doing what she loves. She does not fall victim to any of the excesses of Hollywood because she already has real love and real talent to remind her who she really is. Norman, on the other hand, does not recognize such anchors. As Norman’s career is eclipsed by Esther/Vicki’s and he is eventually let go by the studio, he becomes a washed up and tragic victim of the Hollywood system.

Though this film does turn the feminized version of pathological stardom on its head, it’s not exactly a feminist dream. Vicki is the long-suffering wife who struggles to put her husband’s needs ahead of her own. She sees Norman as the architect of her stardom, downplaying her own talent and hard work to do what she does. That Norman’s fame is fading at the same moment hers is rising acts to emasculate him. He has become Mr. Vicki Lester, the partner who stays home and cooks dinner, a terrible fate for a former matinee idol.

So while she experiences real love and personal connection, Norman’s experience with fame leaves him unable to fully reciprocate. He becomes increasingly distant and unable to connect with her because of this public and private emasculation. Norman overhears Vicki say she will leave the business at the height of her career in order to take care of him and kills himself in order to let her thrive. Such moments of self-sacrifice are hallmarks of melodrama, but are typically undertaken by female characters. Norman’s self-sacrifice could be read as the ultimate emasculation, perhaps demonstrating the stardom as a feminized phenomenon that destroys masculinity. However, the narrative quickly recuperates Norman’s masculinity when Vicki re-emerges into the public eye after mourning Norman’s death by introducing herself to her public not as Vicki Lester, but as Mrs. Norman Maine.

In the end, stardom still produces tragedy for both men and women. The idea that stardom is still a feminized phenomenon holds up in this film, but is applied to both men and women. Not exactly progress to see that man’s downfall framed as having to give up the public life for the private/domestic sphere as his wife achieves in the public sphere. But the fact that the female star is fulfilled (mostly) by her work, does not turn into a drug addicted mess and is able to balance her public and personal life (until Norman falls apart) is a unique view on the condition of stardom.

As a side note, rumors circulated about a year ago about a remake of this film starring Robert Downey Jr and Beyonce. No. Just no.


Comedy and Celebrity Critique: Kathy Griffin

21 11 2010

As my incredible lack of updates demonstrates, my first semester in a new teaching position has been a busy one. My attention has not just been diverted from this blog, but from blogs in general. Compared to the dissertation-writing-me of last year, I am woefully behind in my celebrity gossip. Considering I used to spend my days immersed in it and constantly checking the various blogs in my sample, it’s pretty amusing how far behind I am. Case in point: I found out about Jessica Simpson’s recent engagement from a gossip headline in the Boston Metro, the ridiculous free newspaper they give out at subway stations. The Metro, people!

Sure, I’m getting “things accomplished” and “being productive,” but for someone who is still interested in studying celebrity culture and gossip media, I’ve got to figure out a way to stay a bit more current. The answer is probably Twitter, which has essentially been my news feed for a variety of media and media studies related topics in these past few weeks. I’m actually enjoying Twitter much more than I thought I would. It’s an easy place to lurk as, I think, it lacks Facebook’s constant update imperative (yeah, yeah, I know I’m not on FB, but this is how I see it used by others, including those who constantly hassle me to join). Don’t get me wrong, I love the people who tweet frequently, but it’s easy to just follow and not have to post yourself.

Someone who has no problems staying current, and in fact makes her living doing so, is Ms. Kathy Griffin. I had the pleasure of catching her live show in Worcester last night, and it was hilarious. I love when she mocks celebrities, but she’s also got a critical and political edge to her comedy that I think is often overlooked. If you haven’t seen the episode of My Life on the D-List where she judges and then participates in a toddler beauty pageant, I highly suggest you seek it out (and a big BOO on Bravo for not putting episodes of their shows on their website). It’s an episode full of feminist critique of the child pageant industry and our cultural obsession with youth and beauty.

Kathy Griffin takes on beauty pageants

At last night’s show, Kathy cast her insider/outsider eye on various aspects of celebrity culture. What was most interesting to me was the way that her own mocking reminded me of the type of gossip talk I saw across the blogs during my dissertation research. It’s complex and often contradictory. For example, though she made fun of celebrities (and herself) for “visiting the dentist” aka getting plastic surgery as a way to challenge ridiculous beauty norms, she also, fairly viciously, body snarked on Bristol Palin for “being the only contestant on Dancing with the Stars to gain 40 pounds during the show. Look, I’m not fan of any of the Palins, but this moment of contradiction really stood out to me. She talked explicitly about feminism and the idea that young women don’t relate to it in today’s culture even though it is still desperately needed, yet she mocked a young woman’s body size as a way to discredit her. If there was some deeper critique in that, I missed it.

Nevertheless, overall the show was fantastic and I continue to love me some Mrs. Kathy. I generally love her over the top performances because they show that female comics can be just as political, raunchy and hilarious as the guys. She uses her femininity in a way that makes people uncomfortable, particularly in the sense that she acts and talks like women “shouldn’t.” Furthermore, I think because so much of her work centers on celebrity culture that she is often dismissed in ways that reinforce “women’s talk” as something outside of the political sphere. She’s officially added to my ever expanding list of topics for further research.

Can’t Be Tamed

21 06 2010

And I thought I’d have more time after I defended my dissertation! But when it rains, it pours, and my life has been pretty hectic lately. Between getting a job (yay!), looking for new apartments, doing revisions for a journal article, revisions for my dissertation, and working as an RA, there’s been precious little time for blogging. Since I’m headed out of town for a mini-vacation/family wedding this week, I figured I better get something up. Not to mention this whole Miley Cyrus/Perez Hilton fracas nearly demands that I comment upon it!

On June 15, notorious gossip blogger Perez Hilton (allegedly) posted an upskirt paparazzi photo of 17-year-old pop star Miley Cyrus on his Twitter account. The original photo (allegedly) showed that Miley, in the tradition of Paris Hilton and Britney, was not wearing any underwear. Though Perez took the photo off his Twitter account, we all know that once something goes out in the world of the internet, it’s nearly impossible to delete it completely. So the photo continued to circulate on other web sites, though most blurred out her lady parts.

The problem, of course, is that Miley is underage and such a photo could be classified as child pornography. Perez has faced a lot of legal problems before, but this is a new one. And in his typically classy way, has defended himself by saying that 1) he blurred out the naughty bits anyway (though then backtracks and said he didn’t pixilate anything) 2) Miley “should know better” because she’s been in the business too long to make such an “unladylike” exit from a car when she “knows” paparazzi are present and 3) (and this is my personal favorite) that the pictures aren’t pornography because they “aren’t arousing”. That’s the nutshell of his “side,” but you can watch his full interview on Joy Behar here:

I think his main justifications are ridiculous (particularly when he backtracks) and really just designed to keep the controversy going so that he can reap some pageviews. But Miley is also in her Britney-esque moment of trying to break free from the Disney pop princess image and become more of a grown up pop star. So to me, this just raises a whole set of questions about the sexualization and objectification of female celebrities in general. Miley is, in a way, trapped in this moment where she has to become more sexual in order to continue as an adult pop star while simultaneously being lambasted for doing so because of her Disney past that is absolutely reminiscent of Britney’s “I’m a Slave 4 U” moment. For example, see her new video for “Can’t Be Tamed,” which is clearly working to make her more of an adult (read: sexual) star. The fact that I could see Britney doing this exact same song is really no coincidence.

Miley’s just playing the game as it, for better or worse, exists for female celebrities in general. Perez makes this point, though, of course, in a bratty sort of way that slut-shames Miley for expressing her sexuality in any form. This is certainly not the first time he has slammed her for behavior he deems to be inappropriate, further shrinking the already precariously thin line separating proper female sexuality from “slutty” behavior. Margaret Schwartz has a great piece on the upskirt photo during its Paris/Britney heyday of early 2007 that I highly recommend as a way to think about the construction of female sexuality and agency in these moments of exposure. But this, of course, is not the way most of the media discuss this controversy.

I find it maddening, but not particularly surprising, that few people are talking about the overall objectification of female celebrities inherent to these sorts of photos. While I would certainly take some pleasure in Perez (finally!) going down for something, I think to consider the photo a problem only because of her age is missing some of the larger issues at work here in the construction of female stardom. Even though Miley may claim she “can’t be tamed,” such “out-of-control” female sexuality is simply recuperated back into a contemporary celebrity culture in which female stars are both praised and shamed for their sexuality.

Desperate Feminism or, Why Am I Still Watching This Show?

30 04 2010

My first content post will surprisingly not be about celebrities. I’ve been ruminating about last Sunday’s episode of Desperate Housewives and figured that’s as good a place as any to start. It also gives me the opportunity to experiment with embedding video clips!

Desperate Housewives is a complicated text, especially for a self-identified feminist viewer. Others have grappled with the show as a feminist or anti-feminist text (see the excellent debate from 2005 in Ms. Magazine ). I myself have moved between love of the show’s campy attitude and occasional moments of feminist subversion and an eye-rolling irritation at the ridiculousness of the plot lines and the recuperation of those increasingly rare moments of feminist critique of some of the relationships and issues that drive the show.

I have been known to stridently defend the show to non-watchers (sidenote: I love it when people criticize a show as “bad” or “problematic” when they’ve never actually seen an episode), but maintain that defense is becoming increasingly difficult in the wake of this season’s story lines involving strippers, lesbian relationships, and now, the Fairview Strangler. At the risk of sounding like a jaded hipster, it was better in the earlier seasons.

My viewing of the show is complicated by the fact that it has become a ritual for a friend and me to watch it together on Sunday nights as a way to unwind and drink some wine while we enjoy the latest antics of those ladies on Wisteria Lane. Even when she was out of the country for a year, I still watched it alone, which was never as satisfying. That our weekly DH-fest is framed more as an excuse to spend time together than our undying love for the show may also dull my critical observations of it. This last episode, however, really put my feminist sensibilities on high alert.

I’m not going to do a recap of the whole season here, but one important storyline revolves around “The Fairview Strangler.” First, Julie, daughter of Susan Mayer (Terri Hatcher), was attacked outside her home that left her (briefly) in a coma. The show always centers on several (often overlapping) mysteries, and the mystery of who attacked Julie was central to this season’s overarching story. Everyone first suspected spurred would-be boyfriend (and new boy in town), Danny. He had been pursuing Julie, but she refused his advances because, it turns out, she was having an affair with his (married) father, Nick. Oh the soapy fun! Long story short, the audience and the residents of Wisteria Lane had their suspicions about Nick once the story emerged, but no proof ever surfaced. Then another girl, who was not a main character, was strangled as she closed up the local coffee shop where she worked. The Fairview Strangler strikes again!

In last Sunday’s episode, the identity of the strangler was revealed to the audience (but not to the characters) as Eddie, a high school boy who is friends with other main characters but had not really been a part of the show up until this season. He killed Irina, the Russian “golddigger” who was trying to trick Porter Scavo into marrying her despite all of Lynette (Felicity Huffman’s) efforts to stop the wedding. Look, part of the fun of this show is its use of soap opera/melodramatic conventions in a campy sort of way. Just go with it. Eddie is giving Irina a ride to the bus station after she has been ousted from the Scavo home as a fraud. When he, somewhat jokingly, offers her a place to stay and promises “no funny business,” she laughs and says she is out of his league. This causes him to snap and kill her. The audience sees him bury her body and it is clear that we now know the identity of The Fairview Strangler.

Eddie is the Fairview Strangler

The episode, titled “Epiphany,” brought us Eddie’s back story, showing the audience “how a killer is made.” Putting the audience in the position of understanding, and even sympathizing with, a villain’s perspective is nothing new, and not necessarily problematic. For example, the slasher film explicitly positions the spectator as sharing the point of view of the killer, for both sadistic/masochistic spectator pleasure and, in some cases, as a way for the audience to understand the killer’s motivations (I’m thinking Silence of the Lambs here, which is not exactly a slasher film, per say). In a less gruesome example, characters like Tony Soprano are compelling precisely because of the uneasy spectator position of identifying with an often morally bankrupt character. Sure, Tony ruthlessly kills Ralph Cifaretto, but it’s because he loves that horse! Okay, that’s a bit of a glib example, but hopefully you see my point. Think also of characters like Dexter or, maybe even Ben Linus from Lost (in more recent seasons)

My problem with the “epiphany” about Eddie’s back story on Desperate Housewives is the attempts to get the audience to sympathize with him and to flesh out his character are based entirely on blaming women for his behavior. In other words, he kills women because all the women in his life, most notably his mother, have failed him in some way. In the attempt to make him multi-dimensional, the narrative actually ends up reinforcing tired tropes of “bad mommy” as at the root of all evil and emphasizing a much more one dimensional character motivation. If only his mommy had really loved him!

The fact that Eddie’s father left him and his mother is the catalyst for his mother’s descent into alcoholism and escalating abusive behavior towards Eddie. He completely disappears from Eddie’s life, which conveniently works to absolve him from any actual responsibility for what his son becomes. We literally do not see him again after he packs his bags and leaves.

So Eddie becomes a killer because his mother (played here by Diane Farr, who deserves much better than this) mistreats him. At best, she ignores him. At her worst, she laughs at him. She tells him no one will ever love him. She tells him he is worthless. He becomes a killer because of the effects of this abuse. Here is the ending of the episode, which encapsulates the abusive home as the root of his impulse to kill.

I don’t mean to make light of the issue of emotional abuse. But it is presented in such a way that any woman who exhibits personal agency becomes equated with his mother’s belittling predictions. In other words, he kills women who have the audacity not to fall in love with him, or at least give him some kind attention. He strangles a prostitute (of course he does, those women are expendable anyway) when she laughs at his offering of flowers. He kills Irina because she says she is out of his league. He strangles Julie because he mistakes her for Susan, who had previously laughed at his marriage proposal. What’s important here is that when women refuse him in some way, they must be punished. More crucially, we are meant to sympathize with this impulse because his mother was so abusive instead of recognizing the victim’s agency in not wanting to be involved with Eddie. Sure, some of those refusals were crueler than they needed to be, but that’s just a convenient excuse. Susan’s refusal wasn’t cruel. In fact, she had previously been encouraging him to develop his artistic talents (something his mother also mocked).

What I find more troubling is the way the narrative shows that his mother’s emotional distance and abuse leads the other main characters to step in (in various capacities) to offer Eddie support and encouragement. These moments not only fail to stop the killer within from emerging, but the narrative also works to blame these women for not being able to stop it. So again we have women (all women in his life, not even just the ones he actually kills) taking the blame, not Eddie. We see each of the main characters try to “help” Eddie at various points in his life. Susan’s encouragement of his artistic talent is most noteworthy here, since she/her daughter eventually become victims. He takes this encouragement of his artistic talents as evidence she must love him, and when she (re)marries Mike instead, she must be punished. All of the women’s interventions eventually “backfire” (though they may not know it yet), and they are added to the list of women whose actions are at the heart of Eddie’s monstrous acts.

The episode ends with Lynette refusing to continue to stand by when she knows Eddie lives in an abusive situation. Even though she is showing him kindness, it’s pretty clear that she’ll pay for that mistake next week. There’s going to have to be some sort of major recuperative action next week that reframes Eddie as responsible for his behavior in order for me to get back on board with this.

On a related but slightly different note, my scouring of YouTube for clips yielded this video that uses Lady Gaga’s “Monster” as background to clips of Eddie as the Strangler. My reading of Eddie makes the use of the song somewhat of a misreading, but the idea that a monster lies where we don’t suspect still works. Plus, what can’t Lady Gaga make better?