Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s

Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s

Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s

Larger Than Life: Movie Stars of the 1950s

Synopsis

The constellation of Hollywood stars burned brightly in the 1950s, even as the industry fell on hard economic times. Major artists of the 1940s--James Stewart, Jerry Lewis, and Gregory Peck--continued to exert a magical appeal but the younger generation of moviegoers was soon enthralled by an emerging cast, led by James Dean and Marlon Brando. They, among others, ushered in a provocative acting style, "the Method," bringing hard-edged, realistic performances to the screen. Adult-oriented small-budget dramas were ideal showcases for Method actors, startlingly realized when Brando seized the screen in On the Waterfront. But, with competition from television looming, Hollywood also featured film-making of epic proportion--Ben-Hur and other cinema wonders rode onto the screen with amazing spectacle, making stars of physically impressive performers such as Charlton Heston.

Larger Than Life offers a comprehensive view of the star system in 1950s Hollywood and also in-depth discussions of the decade's major stars, including Montgomery Clift, Judy Holliday, Jerry Lewis, James Mason, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, Bing Crosby, Gene Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, and Audrey Hepburn.

Excerpt

By the end of the 1940s, the Hollywood film industry had established itself as an integral part of American popular culture through the production, distribution, and exhibition of celluloid entertainment for general national (and international) audiences. Because the value of such releases depended, for obvious reasons, on filmgoers seeing films as unique or innovative, marketing campaigns often emphasized the supposedly pleasurable differences that each “coming attraction” somehow embodied. But Hollywood’s business model also depended heavily on sameness and predictability, qualities as necessary for producers (who needed to be sensitive to economies of scale) as they were for exhibitors (who required a constantly changing supply of films of consistently high quality). Crucial to the satisfactory maintenance of a dialectical balance between the absolutely new and the tried and true were a stable system of diverse genres and the contracted availability of established star performers. Hollywood’s balance between sameness and difference finds a microcosmic reflex in what critic Richard Maltby calls the “two bodies” of the star: the perdurable (if existentially varying over time) form of the performer consumed and enjoyed across a series of productions, as well as the transitory incarnation of that same self as a character customarily limited to a single film (380–84).

Stars, of course, were not all that the industry had to offer the paying public. Over almost three decades, the studio system had developed a flexible approach to providing every film with a variety of attractions: compelling narrative; appealing spectacle; and provocative but ultimately conservative themes. The onscreen (and, complexly, also the offscreen) presence of those charismatic, culturally evocative personas called stars had long been crucial to the industry’s continuing profitability. Stars, in fact, were absolutely essential to the very notion of Hollywood. Hollywood produced films, but, just as important, also produced itself as a fantasy, extending the glitz, glamour, and charisma it put on the screen to “real life.” The Los Angeles suburb was both a thriving business center and an idealized world of the imagination, a “tinseltown” inhabited by endlessly captivating celebrities whose “private lives” were carefully surveilled and shaped by . . .

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