Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reading Race and "Rita" in the Lady from Shanghai: Decrypting the Mogul, the Star, and the Auteur

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Reading Race and "Rita" in the Lady from Shanghai: Decrypting the Mogul, the Star, and the Auteur

Article excerpt

This essay explicates the desire to be independent that derives, I argue, from the moguls who invented Hollywood, resistant actors (James Cagney) and "rogue" producers (David O. Selznick). My historical analysis of this desire as it circulates among these figures will be supplemented by script variations of The Lady from Shanghai.

Even the greatest stars change themselves in the looking glass ....

--Kraftwerk, "The Hall of Mirrors," Trans-Europe


Fredric Jameson posits that works of mass culture "cannot manipulate unless they offer some genuine shred of con tent as a fantasy bribe" ("Reification" 29). The unconscious "bribe" in question here is the "fantasy" of total autonomy that, instead of being confined to the director, circulates, as I will argue, between the director-actor, Orson Welles, the star-actor, Rita Hayworth, and the mogul, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, the company that produced the actor-auteur's The Lady from Shanghai in 1947. A re-reading of the ideological function of this capitalist fantasy in Welles's Hollywood oeuvre complicates recent analyses of race in The Lady by taking account of archival script variants. This essay sets the stage for a redirecting of attention to archival inscriptions by making the counter-intuitive claim that the auteurist drive for independence does not necessarily derive from the tradition of high art, (1) but can be productively reconceived through independent moguls such as David O. Selznick. Welles's ideology of the auteur is founded, then, on the fantasy that he could maintain independence within the system. This "fantasy bribe" will be seen to typify a "cognitive or allegorical investment" in "fantasizing an economic system" "at that deeper level of our collective fantasy," since it is, according to Jameson, "only" at this "unconscious" level "that we think about the social system all the time" (Geopolitical 9).

Selznick, the force behind Gone with the Wind, worked at the majors before becoming infamous as an independent producer obsessed with every detail of moviemaking--set design, casting, camera angles, publicity, etc.--and for orchestrating blockbusters such as Duel in the Sun, which cost $5 million to make, $1 million to advertise, and grossed $10.75 million for a $2 million profit (Schatz 392, 405). Not only did Selznick write, produce, and ghost-direct (five other uncredited directors were used, including self-professed auteur par excellence Jo Sternberg), he also used the film as a star-perpetuating vehicle for the actress with whom he was infatuated at the time: Jennifer Jones.

Selznick exemplifies the drive for independence that Welles will also be seen to take up in relation to his infatuation with Hayworth. This libidinal drive serves, I argue, as a hidden motivator for the director, the mogul, and the star. If the fantasy bribe of the "independent filmmaker" continues to be a fetish today, the case of Welles, Cohn, and Hayworth demonstrates that the idea of "independent film" (Biskind 155-215) also serves as a way of "fantasizing an economic system on the scale of the globe itself" (Geopolitical 9): i.e., the current cross-cultural fantasy of the "'independent-director-as-rockstar'" or resistor to global cinematic capitalism (Biskind 165). This desire to be an auteur untouched by capitalism typifies, then, a desire to reincarnate the moguls that Selznick excelled at imitating. This desire is, however, self-contradictory in that one wants to be that from which one wants to be free.

The desire for independence is not confined to the auteur, but is distributed to actors as well as to the moguls who invented Hollywood. Most of the great moguls felt, as Neil Gabler argues in An Empire of their Own and as Steven Alan Carr concurs in Hollywood and Anti-Semitism (133), excluded from a racist East Coast establishment and invented their own coast to ape the American bourgeoisie. The stars that the moguls struggled to dominate in their rise to status, wealth, and power had less artistic and economic control than in the post-studio system. …

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