Wednesday 13 September 2017

On Screen Acting - Bruce Hodsdon considers The Star Actor in Classical Hollywood and After (Part One)

 Interpretation of plot and characterisation, almost certainly form the greater part of everyday discussion of films. The majority of film books are also directed at actors or film genres. Little sustained work has been done on the role of actors in the sense of some kind of a systematic understanding which could be used for empirical investigation of generational change in the industry and audience reception.  The most insightful entries on actor and performance tend to be found inserted in star biographies. In media studies, to my knowledge, there has been little beyond passing recognition of stardom's significance as a sociological phenomenon or as an element, seemingly resistant to theorising, in the way films signify meaning.

Robert Mitchum, publicity shot for
Bandido, (Richard Fleischer, USA, 1956)
A few weeks ago a celebration of Bob Mitchum was posted on Facebook placing him with the five great male stars of classical Hollywood.  It was almost immediately expanded into ten and then some. It also demanded similar recognition of the female equivalent. In turn it raises the question of change in acting styles, in response to genre demands, in each succeeding generation following the transition to the New Hollywood with the break-up of the studio system in the late sixties and the strengthening of independent feature film production given focus by Sundance.

In the last decade long form tv drama is further changing the notion of authorship and the nature of characterisation and performance driven by attenuation of drama through adaptation of the serial form made possible by technology and the resultant transformation of the concept of 'the audience'.

A starting  point is to revisit the first generation of sound cinema c1930-60 which was also the focus for the notion of the director as auteur in American cinema.

Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, USA, 1953)
The director-actor relationship centres on how the former can make the familiar persona of the star and fit his/her  concerns in relation to the script (more often than not a given for the director in classic Hollywood) through the direction of actors and the mise en scène. The given of a star image can suggest possibilities, usually privileging the director over the star, although a disjunction between them can be at least as interesting. Richard Dyer in his book Stars (1979) cites as an example, Monroe v Hawks in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in which Jane Russell becomes the Hawksian warm, practical 'buddy-woman' displacing the Monroe character's femininity, the 'hero' in Anita Loos's script. In the Hawksian world Dyer controversially suggests that the effect (is) “that women, especially 'feminine' women, really should be feared by men.”

In von Sternberg's films with her, the changing projection of the feminine in the Dietrich characters raises its own questions about the degree of possible conjunction imposed by the the requirements of the system and Sternberg's 'formal-erotic fetishes' in the films' mise en scène, matched by Dietrich's growing air of detachment. There is also the question of how Hitchcock's erotic fetish for blonde actresses plays out in his films or how the 'father-son' relationship between Ford and Wayne is reflected in their many films together from Stagecoach to Liberty Valance via The Searchers.

At the same time Dyer warns against the trap of reducing authorship in these films to the romantic concept of 'self expression', let alone, I might add, to more or less subconsciously motivated fetishes. The stars (not the auteurs) are what the audience directly responds to. As they articulate the underlying contradictions between ideologies, “stars also dramatise the problem of self and role.” The practicalities involved in the domain of mainstream criticism are not so accomodating to analysis of such problems as, for example, critiquing Wayne's roles in his films with Ford and Hawks in terms of say the Duke's right-wing politics apparent in his self-produced and directed films The Alamo and The Green Berets (1).

The following is a schematic representation of some of the better known auteur-star relationships, in the main in classical Hollywood, each centrally marking the work of auteur and star, grouped in relation to each auteur along gender lines. The stability of the studio system in classic Hollywood in which key creative personnel – actors, directors, writers - worked under long term contracts with particular studios, often facilitated continuities in the forming of these kind of relationships. How they worked through the films is a fascinating, if often unrecognised, aspect central to an understanding of the oeuvres of both director and actor. It is also interesting to note that the two directors at the apex of auteurism as applied to classical Hollywood – Hawks and Hitchcock – have the most extensive (horizontal) spread in the linked thematic relationship in the films with their stars.

Griffith: Lillian Gish;  
Mauritz Stiller-William Daniels: Garbo;  
Ford: Will Rogers-Fonda-Wayne-Stewart,  O'Hara; 
Wyler: Davis;  
von Sternberg: Dietrich;  
Walsh: Cagney-Flynn,  Mayo-Lupino;  
Cukor: Katharine Hepburn,  Tracy; 
Minnelli: Kirk Douglas;  
Hawks: Bogart-Grant-Wayne,   Russell-Bacall-Arthur-Sheridan-Dickinson;
Hitchcock: Grant-Stewart,  Kelly-Miles-Novak-Leigh-Hedren;  
Capra: Cooper-Stewart. 
K Vidor: Cooper,  Davis-Jennifer Jones; 
Ray: Bogart-Mitchum-Cagney-Dean;  
Preminger: Andrews,  Darnell-Dandridge-Seberg;  
Sirk: Sanders-Hudson-Stack,  Wyman-Malone;  
A.Mann: Stewart/Kennedy;  
Kazan: Brando-Dean,  van Fleet;  
Siegel: Eastwood;  
Boetticher:  Scott,   Steele;  
Scorsese: De Niro.

1. Other films produced by Wayne's company, Batjac, include Hondo, Seven Men from Now, Blood Alley and Track of the Cat

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