Academics explore enduring icons of the screen

New book considers why some stars burn out and others continue to shine

May 19, 2016
Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra
Source: Alamy
Staying power: Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra are still international icons

Star studies, says Lucy Bolton, lecturer in film studies at Queen Mary University of London, “shouldn’t just be about Marilyn Monroe and James Dean but investigating how stars operate in the industry and in culture, all the factors which affect their creation, their popularity, and whether or not they are remembered”.

Dr Bolton, the author of Film and Female Consciousness: Irigaray, Cinema and Thinking Women, is working on a monograph about Iris Murdoch and cinema, in which she hopes to explore “the moral dilemmas at the heart of many mainstream films, how films are doing moral philosophy and how we are too as we watch them”.

But she is also a film buff and has been teaching star studies for about 10 years. Her new book, Lasting Screen Stars: Images that Fade and Personas that Endure, arises out of discussions that she had with co-editor Julie Lobalzo Wright, a teaching fellow at the University of Surrey, about the 1956 film High Society.

Two of its stars, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra, are still international icons, the subject of exhibitions and shows, and used for advertising L’Oréal hair colouring and Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Meanwhile, Bing Crosby is now known mainly for his Christmas songs and Celeste Holm is virtually unknown. So what make some stars survive and some fade away? Was it just about looks and performance, or did quite different factors come into play?

To answer that question, the editors put out a call for papers and selected 20 of about 70 submissions covering a range of countries, national identities, eras and types of star.

In every case, explains Dr Bolton, the central question was: “have they endured and why (or why not)?” Robert Taylor, widely considered a perfect star with a perfect profile, had the longest-ever contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in the 1940s and 1950s, so why is he now totally forgotten? How has Ice Cube “evolved from hip hop star to actor to auteur and major industrial player”? How far is reinvention a key to longevity? Are there more or less effective ways to age successfully on screen? And to what extent has Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian work helped her transition “from action babe to mature actress”?

Although she admits that there is “no formula” for creating a lasting star, Dr Bolton believes that star studies can do far better than just fall back on vague notions such as “charisma” or “that special something”.

By bringing together a team of contributors who have studied individual stars in depth, she and her co-editor hope to break new ground by looking at “race, body type, changing conceptions of masculinity and femininity, the importance of portraiture and social media, the role of fans and producers – all the different factors which affect whether or not stardom endures”.

Lasting Screen Stars: Images that Fade and Personas that Endure, edited by Lucy Bolton and Julie Lobalzo Wright, is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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