Monday, 1 February 2010

Have we entered the post-star era?” (Richard Corliss 2000). How accurate is the ‘post-star era’ as a label for contemporary Hollywood?

“I try to protect myself a little bit from a certain amount of public scrutiny. And when you protect yourself, you pay a price, particularly from the tabloids [...] Tabloids will pay cash to anybody who has any piece of information about a celebrity. And I find that incredibly disturbing [...] They want to follow me around, stalk me with 600-millimeter lenses. They even have people who will go through my trash, just so they can sell a piece of toilet paper at the checkout lines once a week to prove, once again, that I have foibles just like everybody else.” Michael Douglas (interview, May 1998)

I believe that Richard Corliss’ statement that Hollywood may have encountered a ‘post-star era’ is true. I agree that Hollywood has witnessed a new form of contemporary stardom post-2000. However, on the one hand as this new stardom focuses on a star’s commercial identity over ‘quality’ of performance it should not be viewed as a harmful actor trait but perhaps one that still benefits Hollywood production. In disagreement with Corliss’ view on production’s “return on star investment”, I consider that Hollywood productions are not considerably losing profits due to a decline of the “stars’ investment” but, arguably, consciously utilise this, fairly newfound, celebrity star status to appeal to larger audiences. My argument is that although the star status of Michael Douglas, for example, has developed into, as Christine Geraghty suggests, a “star-as-celebrity” , most Hollywood producers are seemingly impervious to this ‘post-star era’ and can still rely on Douglas’ ‘professional identity’, as well as his celebrity image, to maximise studio profit. Moreover, I believe that this argument could be strengthened by Richard Dyer’s proposed “starpower” and how it can be an important economic feature for film institutions that use the “star as a commodity” (Maltby and Craven 1995).

Firstly, I wish to briefly clarify my interpretation of what ‘post-star era’ Hollywood is. In terms of postmodern stardom, the meteoric rise of global media coverage has witnessed an increased amount of public access that directly focuses on actors’ personal and private lives. The emergence of the internet, the increase in celebrity gossip magazines and entertainment television channels all dedicate column inches and live reports to the latest celebrity news and gossip. Actors have become ‘celebrities’ in their own right that have consequently caused audience’s to compensate for a lack of self-esteem or social success which, in turn, is supplied by these gossip magazines that try to construct a bond between actor and reader/observer. The ‘post-star’ relates to this audiences’ celebrity worship insofar as Geraghty’s alternate “star-as-performer” model has been tarnished to present an increased emphasis on the “biographical aspects of a star’s private life”.

I regard Michael Douglas as an interesting case for stardom analysis as I think he could offer arguments for his acting ability (not to digress into the subject of actors’ levels of talent) or performer image on-screen and his celebrity image off-screen. My observation is supported by Paul Watson’s suggestion that Douglas “is also an example of the way a star can embody the various modes of stardom simultaneously without those modes necessarily overlapping to reinforce, complicate or contradict the star image.” In the case of Douglas’ celebrity image I believe that his star investment, and popularity, has debatably increased slightly since his marriage to Catherine Zeta-Jones in 2000. It could be argued that this pairing of these celebrities could possibly only serve to heighten Douglas’ star investment as an actor.

To return to the subject of the ‘post-star era’, Douglas’ marriage was commonly viewed as the Hollywood celebrity couple. A key example of this ‘post-star era’ is the public fued between glossy celebrity magazine companies OK!, the official Douglas’ wedding day photography, and Hello!, who published unauthorised photos. This highlights the idea of intertextuality within ‘star-as-celebrity’. Geraghty explains,

“[T]he construction, circulation and access of information across a whole range of media platforms- not only describes the ‘form’ and ‘practice’ of celebrity, but it is also a primary focus of research precisely insofar as ‘it is the audience’s access to and celebration of intimate information from a variety of texts and sources which are important’ in this mode of stardom.”

Another possible suggestion for Douglas’ celebrity status could be his emergence into Hollywood. Specifically his early acting career, I consider the factor of nepotism (a relentless tendency within Hollywood) to affect Douglas’ fame and celebrity image, as the son of famous iconic Hollywood actor Kirk Douglas. Douglas’ family celebrity image arguably hyperbolizes the singular ‘star-as-celebrity’ through forms of historical intertextuality. The Douglas’ father-and-son clean-cut, conservative and respectable image has questionably been sustained over the years which could correspond to interaction with their audience expectations for their first family film It Runs In The Family (2003). This film may act as a reason why Hollywood producers are completely exercising this ‘post-star era’ by purposefully using the off-screen persona (not the name) of the Douglas family (Kirk, Douglas and son Cameron) in order to appeal to pre-knowledge of their celebrity consumed audiences. Similarly, Douglas’ appearance in a Will and Grace episode, aptly titled “Fatal Attraction”, in 2002 I think should be valued as a ‘post-star era’/ postmodern homage or, more likely pastiche, to Douglas’ film Fatal Attraction (1987).

Conversely, I need to address the opposite side of my argument that producers still rely on Douglas’ ‘professional identity’, as well as his celebrity image, to maximise studio profit. As I’ve already argued that Douglas’ ‘star-as-celebrity’ image has affected his on-screen performance, Watson explains that “in general [,] a more plausible account of his stardom within the cinema, especially latterly, is related to the consistency of his screen persona.” Furthermore, Douglas himself confesses,

“I've been able to choose different types of roles, and I am proud that the audience has been able to accept me in whatever type of role I play. They are not the typical 'movie star' roles. They're more ambivalent character [...] They are not the outright positive type of images that you attribute to selecting a 'star' type role.”

One possible suggestion could be that, audiences have witnessed a shift through his acting career in terms of characterisation. Whereas Nick James describes Douglas’ earlier character choices as “a lightning rod for the anxieties of the US male”, I can observe a shift of roles during this ‘post-star era’. Douglas’ on-screen persona, in his film Wonder Boys (2000), arguably sees a deliberate artistic decision to play a role that is particularly older than his previous performances. Wonder Boys was the first film for Douglas since his last on-screen performance two years before in A Perfect Murder (1998). James explains that,

“part of the power of Wonder Boys lies in the way the more furious, control-freak aspects associated with Douglas are reincarnated in ‘a passive wreck of a man’. The poignancy of the scene in which Douglas’ character, Grady, a disillusioned professor and writer, sits slumped on his porch wearing a tatty woolly hat and his ex-wife’s pink flannelette dressing gown watching the rain fall significantly depends precisely upon his professional star image just insofar as it can be read not only as a key moment in the film, but also as a mileage marker within an overarching star persona.”

One argument that could be made is that Douglas has decided to perhaps subconsciously surrender to this ‘post-star era’ and has acknowledged that his own on-screen identity and “star-as-celebrity” status has devalued, in a cultural and economic sense. His off-screen celebrity image as a husband, father and grandfather is beginning to transfer in his on-screen characters in The In-Laws (2003) and You, Me & Dupree (2006).

In conclusion, I believe my argument that although the star status of Michael Douglas has developed into a ‘star-as-celebrity’, most Hollywood producers are seemingly impervious to this ‘post-star era’ and can still rely on Douglas’ ‘professional identity’, as well as his celebrity image, to maximise studio profit has been supported by a range of different academics and source material. Nevertheless, I can accept that Geraghty’s explanation of the star’s image overweighting the actor to be true; “it is not simply that the star image of the celebrity exceeds the film text, but instead that it is dislocated from it altogether and dispersed across a range of extra-filmic texts. [The] adaptability and ubiquity, as well as the proximity of ‘celebrity culture’ to media per se make ‘celebrity’ perhaps the key mode of contemporary stardom.” I consider Corliss’ statement that we “have entered a post-era” in Hollywood but not all actors need to rely just on upon their own star image. On one hand, I think actors like Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis depend upon their ‘star-as-celebrity’ image more than their professional identity within this Hollywood ‘post-star era’. Whereas on the other hand, I believe some actors, including Michael Douglas, offer a greater division between star and actor, ultimately limiting risk for Hollywood production.

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