Stardom: Industry of Desire

By Christine Gledhill | Go to book overview

14

SCREEN ACTING AND THE COMMUTATION TEST

John O. Thompson

At the moment, only those who oppose the semiotic study of the cinema seem to want to talk about screen acting. Since a good deal of the meaning of the fiction film is borne by its actors and their performances, this amounts to leaving an important territory in the hands of the enemy (to put it over-belligerently). And some of the standard doctrines and endlessly rediscovered 'truths' about actor and role, screen vs. stage and so on may be inhibiting not only critical but also creative practice in the cinema. Yet it is understandable why this gap in the semiotic programme remains. Performances seem ineffable, and thinking about them induces reverie rather than analysis.

In this chapter I want to propose the controlled extension to screen actors of the semiotic technique called the commutation test as a means of prompting a more methodical and reflexive discourse in this area.


I

To begin with, here is a quotation from a recent essay by David Thomson. The point the quotation first makes is a familiar one. Brecht, summing up a conversation with Adorno in his diary in 1942, asserted that 'the theatre's first advantage over the film is…in the division between play and performance', and continued 'the mechanical reproduction gives everything the character of a result: unfree and inalterable'. 1 Thomson says the same thing, and then manoeuvres around this apparent blockage at the heart of the cinema's 'nature':

Stage parts are like concertos-they are supple, lofty and impersonal enough to take on all comers. But parts in films live only briefly: like virginity, once taken, they are not there to be inhabited again. Before shooting, all manner of choices may perplex the film-makers and keep the part blurred: Kim Novak's part(s) in Vertigo were designed for Vera Miles; Shirley Temple was first choice to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz-imagine how 'Over the Rainbow'

-183-

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Stardom: Industry of Desire
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • Acknowledgements xii
  • Introduction xiii
  • Part I - The System 1
  • 1 - Seeing Stars 3
  • 2 - The Emergence of the Star System in America 17
  • 3 - The Carole Lombard in Macy's Window 30
  • 4 - The Building of Popular Images 40
  • 5 - Fatal Beauties 45
  • Part II - Stars and Society 55
  • 6 - Charisma 57
  • 7 - Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller 60
  • 8 - 'Puffed Sleeves Before Tea-Time' 74
  • 9 - The Return of Jimmy Stewart 92
  • 10 - Three Indian Film Stars 107
  • 11 - A Star is Born and the Construction of Authenticity 132
  • 12 - Feminine Fascinations 141
  • Part III - Performers and Signs 165
  • 13 - Articulating Stardom 167
  • 14 - Screen Acting and the Commutation Test 183
  • 15 - Stars and Genre 198
  • 16 - Signs of Melodrama 207
  • Part IV - Desire, Meaning and Politics 231
  • 17 - In Defence of Violence 233
  • 18 - The Politics of 'Jane Fonda' 237
  • 19 - The Glut of the Personality 251
  • 20 - Pleasure, Ambivalence, Identification 259
  • 21 - 'A Queer Feeling When I Look at You' 283
  • 22 - Monster Metaphors 300
  • Select Bibliography 317
  • Index 332
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