Films, promotion, publicity, and criticism make film stardom dependent on industrially organized channels of mass communication to publicly circulate the names and identities of stars. Equally, film stardom requires a mass audience for the movies. The relationships formed between moviegoers and film stars can be conceptualized in various ways.
As already suggested, star names are part of the marketing address that the film industry makes to potential moviegoers. Stars may influence choices in both positive and negative ways, for a moviegoer may choose to avoid a film precisely because it features John Travolta or Demi Moore just as much as another moviegoer may decide to see it for the same reason.
Lillian Gish was one of the first female stars of American cinema, best known for her performances in silent films but the recipient of an honorary Academy Award ® in 1970 "for superlative artistry and for distinguished contribution to the progress of motion pictures" during an exceptionally long career.
After working as child stage actors, Lillian and her younger sister Dorothy joined the Biograph Company in 1912. There they worked with the director D. W. Griffith, making their screen debuts in the one-reel An Unseen Enemy (1912) and becoming part of his repertory company of actors. Gish's rise to stardom came as Griffith moved to feature film production. After appearing as one of the four leads in The Birth of a Nation (1915), she took leading roles in Griffith's Hearts of the World (1918), True Heart Susie (1919), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), and Orphans of the Storm (1921). While Gish's screen career lasted seventy-five years, during which she was cast in a variety of parts and worked with many directors, her roles in Griffith's films largely defined her on-screen image as the victimized child-woman.
Despite the various roles she played during the silent period, Gish's image was dominated by a particular character type: a fragile young woman, epitomizing innocence and virtue, whose goodness is wrongly judged and/or brutally punished. Frequently placed in dramatic situations in which her characters were vulnerable to injustice and deceit, Gish repeatedly portrayed ethereality and unworldliness. Although victimized by the evils of society, Gish's child-woman characters nevertheless represented an independent spirit ready to confront and challenge the dangers of a hostile world. Through repetition and similarity, these roles produced a strong association between star and genre, with Gish's image operating as a sign of virtue in silent melodrama.
Gish's image was equally based on her uniqueness. Her contemporary, Mary Pickford, similarly displayed childlike virtue in many roles, but Pickford's portrayals never carried the same ethereal or unworldly qualities as Gish's, instead provoking a sense of energy and health that gained her the label "America's Sweetheart." Ethereality also became a significant aspect of the off-screen image of Gish. Journalists and other commentators frequently noted her leisure-time commitment to reading classic literature or poetry as indicating a solitude and serious manner appropriate to her tragic roles. Press commentary therefore worked to create a fit between on- and off-screen images, constructing Gish's private life as the complement to the lives of her characters.
The Birth of a Nation (1915), Hearts of the World (1918), Broken Blossoms (1919), Way Down East (1920), Orphans of the Storm (1921), The Scarlet Letter (1926), The Wind (1928), Duel in the Sun (1946), The Cobweb (1955), The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Affron, Charles. Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life . New York: Scribner, 2001.
——. Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis . New York: Dutton, 1977.
Gish, Lillian, with Ann Pinchot. Lillian Gish: The Movies, Mr. Griffith and Me . Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969.
Slide, Anthony. Silent Players: A Biographical and Autobiographical Study of 100 Silent Film Actors and Actresses . Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2002.
Silver, Charles, ed. Lillian Gish . New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1980.
Stars may also become figures with which audiences identify in films. By foregrounding the performance of the star, narrative cinema creates the star's character as a figure of central narrative agency, and so the moviegoer frequently follows and understands the plot largely through the actions and reactions of the character played by the star. In some cases, scenes are constructed to place
the moviegoer in a position to see and hear what the star's character witnesses. For example, In What Lies Beneath (2000), Michele Pfeiffer lies drugged and immobile in a bathtub filling with water as her murderous husband attempts to fake her suicide. The scene is shot and edited to place the moviegoer in a position to build identification with the star's subjective viewpoint.
Aside from showing what the star's character sees, other techniques are frequently used to encourage understanding of, and identification with, what the star's character knows or feels. Again in What Lies Beneath , one sequence involves Pfeiffer's character Claire in her daughter's bedroom discovering an old vest from her days as a music student at Juilliard. This sets off a chain of remembrances as she then leafs through a photo album in the basement. A range of emotional changes occurs during the sequence, from wistful longing to sadness and anxiety. These are not registered by Pfeiffer's acting, for the camera only occasionally looks at her. Instead, the musical score carries over from bedroom to basement, shifting in tone to convey Claire's range of feelings. Here the moviegoer is able to understand the star character's emotional point of view through the music. Identification with a star can therefore be achieved through various visual and aural techniques and these work independently of whether the moviegoer does or does not like a star: they do not depend on audience taste but rather are the effects of how image and sound work to direct and structure relations between the moviegoer and the presence of the star in the narrative.
Subjective viewpoint shots or point of view devices work to position moviegoers with the experience of the star's character in the narrative. In this case the relation between star and moviegoer is constructed through what the film does to the audience. However, the processes of identification involved with the star/moviegoer relationship are more complex than that. While films may place moviegoers in positions of identification with stars, the question still remains—what is it about stars that fascinates moviegoers? For Dyer, star images enthrall because they are able to draw together contradictory ideological meanings in the one figure: Monroe signified both innocence and sexiness in equal measure. John Ellis, in his 1992 book Visible Fictions , has suggested the off-screen images of stars provide audiences with only a scattering of elements from reviews, interviews, or gossip, which leave an incoherent and incomplete sense of the star. Moviegoers are drawn to seeing stars perform in films, Ellis argues, because it is only in those appearances that the various elements are brought together at a point of coherence and completion. Ellis also understands the relationship between star and moviegoer through various psychoanalytic concepts. As the film performance allows moviegoers to spy on figures apparently unaware they are being watched, there is a voyeuristic component to watching stars. Since stars appear to be both ordinary and extraordinary, they are also similar to and different from moviegoers. This closeness and distance makes the star an object of desire, for the star is simultaneously accessible and inaccessible. For psychoanalytic film theory, the identificatory relationship between the movie-goer and the star is based on star images providing ego ideals, making up for deficiencies or divisions in the self by presenting identities who appear to be complete and lacking nothing.
A crucial problem with these broad-based theories is that they tend to generalize the way in which moviegoers relate to stars. Moviegoers form a far wider array of responses to stars, combining adoration, esteem, and respect with feelings of loathing, disdain, and contempt. In a study of letters from female moviegoers remembering the pleasures they had found in watching female stars of 1940s cinema, Jackie Stacey, in her 1994 book Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship , noted how identification took a variety of forms both inside and outside the movie theater. Inside the theater, moviegoers related experiences of forming a loyal attachment to a star, regarding a star as different and unattainable, or otherwise losing a sense of self by fantasizing about becoming the star. Stacey describes this range of identificatory fantasies as instances of "devotion," "worship," and "transcendence." Outside the theater, identification continued, as women described make-believe games of pretending to be the star or otherwise imitating a star's behavior, foregrounding an actual physical resemblance to the star, or copying the star's style. Here identification took various practical forms that extended the significance of a star image beyond the theater and into the everyday lives of moviegoers.
In these cases, identification was the product not of what the film did to the moviegoer, but rather what the moviegoer did with a star image. Stacey's research therefore began to point toward some of the identificatory relationships formed between moviegoers and film stars. Stacey's work provided valuable ground for beginning to think about the complex variety of emotional responses moviegoers have to stars and the manners in which they enact those relationships.
DeCordova, Richard. Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America . Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society . New York: St. Martin's, 1986.
——. Stars . London: British Film Institute, 1979.
Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video . London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982.
Gledhill, Christine, ed. Stardom: Industry of Desire . London and New York: Routledge, 1991.
King, Barry. "Articulating Stardom." Screen 26, no. 5 (1985): 27–50.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema , 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.
McDonald, Paul. "Reconceptualising Stardom." In Stars , edited by Richard Dyer, 175–211. London: British Film Institute, 1998. Original edition published in 1979.
——. "Star Studies." In Approaches to Popular Film , edited by Joanne Hollows and Mark Jancovich, 79–97. Manchester, UK and New York: Manchester University Press, 1995.
Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship . London and New York: Routledge, 1994.