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Melodrama most commonly refers either to a type of popular Victorian theatre long since superseded, or to Hollywood family melodrama which in its focus on the domestic and personal sphere is considered the province of women.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 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