Richard Dyer’s Theory of Movie Stars

The movie star is on the cutting edge of changing portrayals of the self. A relatively recent phenomenon, stars combine a variety of representational strategies in order to produce charisma. Hollywood has capitalized on the charisma of stars in order to persuade, using stars’ charisma to stimulate consumption, define and promote particular gender roles (such as moving women into the factories during WW2 and then back into the domestic sphere after the war), and promote “hardness” during times of conflict (the images of “fitness” during the cold war). Which strategies of representation produce charisma?

Richard Dyer, in his book Stars, draws on Weber’s theory of ‘charisma’ to discuss ways in which stars function ideologically. Weber theorized that persuasion, when not achieved by force, functions through three different types of appeals: to “tradition (doing what we’ve always done), bureaucracy (doing things according to agreed but alterable, supposedly rational rules), and charisma (doing things because the leader suggests it).” (30) Stars, as charismatic figures, do not have the same persuasive abilities as charismatic political leaders – Dyer argues that the expressed political beliefs of John Wayne and Jane Fonda were irrelevant or insignificant – but their influence over the representations of people, their “privileged position in the definition of social roles and types,” (8) has influenced how people expect themselves and others to behave. Thus stars can be studied for the ways in which they persuade: their representations of identity, of social roles and of types.

Charismatic figures, according to Weber’s theory, embody a relatively stable constellation of opposing binary terms. Dyer discusses Marilyn Monroe as a notable example.

[Monroe’s] image has to be situated in the flux of ideas about morality and sexuality that characterized the 50s in America and can here be indicated by such instances as the spread of Freudian ideas in post-war America (registered particularly in the Hollywood melodrama), the Kinsey report, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, rebel stars such as Marlon Brando, James Dean and Elvis Presley, the relaxation of cinema censorship in the face of competition from television, etc. (In turn, these instances need to be situated in relation to other levels of the social formation, e.g. actual social and sexual relations, the relative economic situations of men and women, etc.) Monroe’s combination of sexuality and innocence is part of that flux, but one can also see her ‘charisma’ as being apparent condensation of all that within her. Thus she seemed to ‘be’ the very tensions that ran through the ideological life of 50s America. You could see this as heroically living out the tensions or painfully exposing them. (31)

Marilyn Monroe’s stardom can be considered representative of changing notions of the self, of the ways in which we understand selfhood as constructed in terms of identity and roles.

Stars represent a unique opportunity to study changing notions of the “self.” But we should not confuse movie stars with ordinary actors or “picture personalities.” Paul McDonald, in his supplemental chapter to Stars, presents Richard DeCordova’s distinction between the “Star” and the “Picture Personality.” McDonald explains this difference as follows:

The picture personality was named as someone who worked in film and was only known for that work. A ‘star’ discourse emerged as commentary extended to the off-screen life of film performers. If the discourse on acting and the picture personality constructed knowledge about the professional life of screen actors, from 1913 the star discourse made known the private lives of film actors. As a general point about star studies, overuse of the term ‘star’ to describe any well-known film actor obscures how with most popular film performers, knowledge is limited to the on-screen ‘personality’. (178)

Dyer argues that, in many cases, stars’ “offscreen personalities” were at least as important as their on-screen personalities in shaping our perceptions of their meanings. Offscreen personalities must be understood as constructed personalities, just as we understand the characters stars play in films to be constructed. “What was only sometimes glimpsed and seldom brought out by Hollywood or the stars was that . . . personality was itself a construction known and expressed through films, stories, publicity, etc.” (20) How are star personalities constructed? How have stars changed our notions of personality? According to Elizabeth Burns, people have long understood personality by means of the metaphor “life is theater.” But the notion of “life-as-theater” has changed from “a view of life directed by God, Providence or some less anthropomorphic spiritual force,” to

a growing awareness of the way in which people compose their own characters, contribute to situations, and design settings. . . the commonplace analogy is of the world itself as a place where people, like actors, play parts, in an action which is felt obscurely to be designed by “social forces” or the natural drives of individual men. (11)

The result of this more recent notion, according to Dyer, is that we have developed two distinct concepts of “self.”

On the one hand, we can believe in the ‘existence of a knowable and constant self’, which is theoretically distinct from the social roles we have to play and the ways we have of presenting our ‘personality’ to others. On the other hand, as Burns stresses, there is increasing anxiety about the validity of this autonomous, separate identity – we may only be our ‘performance’, the way in which we take on the various socially defined modes of behavior that our culture makes available. (21)

The phenomenon of stars playing characters in Hollywood cinema dramatizes the tensions between notions of self and performance. This tension becomes embodied through the elision of the star image with the role. Dyer argues that there are three possible relations between the two: selective use, perfect fit, and problematic fit. These relations between star image and role reflect varying degrees of tension between them. Selective use occurs when films “bring out certain features of the star’s image and ignore others.” (127) Dyer cites Robert Redford as an example of a star whose image has been selectively fitted to various films. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, he is glamorously lit in order to bring out the romantic/erotic elements of his star image for his role as the Sundance Kid. In All the President’s Men, he is lit in standard ‘high-key’ lighting in order to bring out the serious/political elements of his star image for his role as Bob Woodward. The filmmakers try to suppress the supplemental elements of Redford’s star image in each film, elements which the audience may choose to privilege over those articulated through the role.

The perfect fit occurs when “all the aspects of a star’s image fit with all the traits of a character.” (129) Dyer cites John Wayne’s roles in Westerns where “his relaxed, masculine, Westerner/leader qualities” perfectly fit the roles he’s given. The problematic fit occurs when “there is a clash between two complex sign-clusters, the star as image and the character as otherwise constructed.” (130) The common term for this occurrence is miscasting. Dyer’s example here is Marilyn Monroe as Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

Everything about Anita Loos’ character . . . constructs Lorelei as a cynical gold-digger, who fully understands how to use her sex to trap rich men and is motivated above all by cupidity. Her dialogue as written is self-aware and witty, signaling (to us and to herself) amusement at what she is doing even while she is playing the fausse-naive. The weight of the Monroe image on the other hand is innocence. She is certainly aware of her sexuality, but she is guiltless about it and it is moreover presented primarily in terms of narcissism – i.e. sexuality for herself rather than for men. At this stage in her image’s development, her motivations were taken to be ‘spiritual’, either in the magic, ‘little-girl’ aspirations to be a movie star or in the ‘pretentious’ interests in Acting and Art.

There is thus quite a massive disjunction between Monroe-as-image and Lorelei-as-character. They only touch at three points: the extraordinary impact of their physicality, a certain infantile manner and a habit of uttering witticisms. Yet even these points need to be qualified. Lorelei is quite definitely in control of her physicality whereas Monroe (at this stage in her image) was equally clearly not; Lorelei pretended to be infantile, Monroe was by and large taken to be so; Lorelei’s wit expresses an intelligent but cynical appraisal of the situation, whereas Monroe’s remarks to the press (known as Monroeisms) were regarded far more, at this point, as wisdom on a par with that of ‘out of the mouths of babes and sucklings’ (i.e. wise by chance rather than by design). As a result of this disjunction . . . , the character of Monroe-as-Lorelei becomes contradictory to the point of incoherence. This is not a question of Lorelei/Monroe being one thing one moment and another the next, but of her simultaneously being polar opposites. (130)

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