Stardom: Industry of Desire

By Christine Gledhill | Go to book overview

16

SIGNS OF MELODRAMA

Christine Gledhill

It is perhaps no coincidence that critical interest in stars and in melodrama emerged at roughly the same time in the late seventies. A few intriguing suggestions have been offered as to their relationship-most notably Jean Loup Bourget's essay on Joan Crawford as a 'face of melodrama' and Andrew Britton's comments on Katharine Hepburn's tears 1 -but no sustained examination. This chapter starts from the hypothesis that stars function as signs in a rhetorical system which works as melodrama. It proceeds to explore this proposition by investigating the similarity of terms used in recent work on the two phenomena.

Melodrama most commonly refers either to a type of popular Victorian theatre long since superseded, or to Hollywood family melodrama which in its focus on the domestic and personal sphere is considered the province of women. If, however, we want to consider how stars relate to melodrama, the term is better conceived as a mode which embraces a range of Hollywood genres. There is ample precedent for this; nineteenth-century western melodrama, while most sharply codified on the stage, nevertheless produced not only widely divergent theatrical genres, ranging from the military to the domestic, but also a way of viewing the world which informed many areas of artistic and intellectual production. The relative invisibility of melodrama today is due to the rise of realism as a touchstone of cultural worth and to its ghettoisation as a women's form. 2 A major issue, then, for any attempt to understand the operation of the melodramatic mode in contemporary popular culture is its passage from the Victorian period into modern forms of film and television fiction. Arguably stars constitute an important mechanism in this process of transformation.


THE PERSON AND THE MELODRAMATIC PROJECT

'The Hollywood star system', Andrew Britton states, 'is an enormously sophisticated development of…[the] tradition of [melodramatic] character and performance, and is inconceivable without reference to it.' 3 In this respect a major conceptual link between melodrama and stardom is the

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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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