An Evening of Stargazing

Authors Discuss How to Write and Publish in the Field of Star Studies


“’British Film Institute Star Studies Panel’ (from left to right) Martin Shingler, Cynthia Baron, Jacqueline Reich, Keri Walsh).” Photo courtesy of Fordham University English Department.

On the evening of Friday, September 19 at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center, I attended an engaging and productive panel discussion entitled “British Film Institute Star Studies.” The session focused on “the thorniest questions encountered in star studies” contributing to Fordham’s three-day conference “Rethinking Realist Acting,” organized to confront established notions about realism in film and theater.

The panelists, speaking from personal experience, introduced some of the challenges scholars face when writing about a screen star and suggested various methodological approaches to negotiating them. The four panel speakers were the editor and authors of books on movie stars, three speakers had written BFI series books.

The Film Star Series contracted by BFI publications in 2012 currently consists of eight titles with a number of volumes forthcoming. Each book focuses on an international performer, conducting a critical inquiry through examining the icon’s body of work and the construction of their persona. The books contain a filmography at the back and are written by scholars working in the fields of performance, cinema and English.

Co-editor of the BFI Film Star Series, Dr. Martin Shingler (himself author of the 2012 BFI book Star Studies: A Critical Guide), began the discussion by identifying a few common obstacles authors writing for the series encounter. He then outlined difficulties he continues to meet as editor of the series.

Shingler finds one of the first pitfalls many scholar meet results from underestimating how difficult and time consuming writing a volume for the series proves. Several panelists echoed Shingler’s observation, admitting to having made this mistake. Dispelling any ideas that authoring a book for the series might be easy, Shingler proceeded to recite from a lengthy list of the criteria each volume must meet. A pared down list includes: stressing a specific interest in acting, considering the star’s persona, examining the impact of the star’s celebrity, paying attention to the star’s reception, fandom, aging, and continued media presence after death, and addressing the star within the context of cultural history. Additionally, authors must watch every (extant) movie their star appears in. Many performers in the Film Star Series have been featured in over fifty films, and in the case of silent movie stars, sometimes up to three hundred films. These movies can take time to track down and an author then has the additional problem of selecting from the star’s extensive corpus the few films they have space to address. To incorporate everything the editors require in a modest forty thousand words does indeed appear a daunting task.

One of the problems Shingler and his co-editor Susan Smith continue to encounter as editors is agreeing with BFI Publishing upon which stars to commission titles. The editors’ wish list for books in the series includes: stars from the silent era, classical Hollywood, and contemporary stars, world screen stars, cult stars, non-human stars, and animated stars. (Shingler announced he would love to commission a book on Donald Duck!). In contrast, the BFI’s attitude towards star studies appears conservative, with their initial inventory for titles in the series mainly composed of Hollywood and British stars of the forties and fifties. The BFI is also more cautious than Shingler about commissioning books by new scholars. According to Shingler, the editors continue to push through their vision for the series, but he reports that it is slow, hard work. However, despite the conflicting positions of editors and publisher, the series boasts books on movie icons as varied as Carmen Miranda, Nicole Kidman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Amitabh Bachchan. While each volume offers an innovative approach to addressing stardom, the blueprint the editors have formulated ensures that every book belongs to the Star Series “family,” thereby mapping how stars at different historical moments and from all over the world have each arrived at a similar points of recognition.

Dr. Keri Walsh is one of the authors who bravely took up the editors challenge. Her book Mickey Rourke was published earlier this year. Walsh found her relationship to her object of study complicated by the fact that, “prone to movie star obsessions,” she is a self-confessed Rourke fan. Walsh’s fandom initially made her question her ability to legitimately write about Rourke. However, taking her inspiration and starting point from Richard Dyer’s methodological approach to his analysis of Judy Garland, an approach that combines semiotics and sociology, and balances “scholarly respectability with fandom,” Walsh struck on an intellectually sophisticated way to approach her analysis. Rather than hide her fandom, Walsh decided to embrace it in an effort to better understand Rourke’s star appeal, and in doing so she made a fascinating discovery. By acknowledging her fandom, she told the audience, she realized her own susceptibility to what she identifies as an “ultimately pernicious form of objectification — that of the middle-class woman for the working-class man.” Walsh realized that one of the appealing aspects of Rourke’s performances for her is how they self-consciously address — and even protest — such fetishization. Walsh’s work highlights the chasm between the “loutish star image of Rourke” and his under-celebrated virtuoso performances, as in The Wrestler. She surmises that this is the cost for a “working-class male star trading on his working classness.” Walsh’s bold approach, she said, demanded that she write with great style. She encourages anyone who wants to learn style to try writing about a star they love.

In contrast to Walsh, Dr. Cynthia Baron, who authored the book Denzel Washington for the Star Series, felt at times an extreme distance from her subject and one that almost led her to abandon the project. Baron’s struggle began, she reported, when her research revealed Washington to be an actor with a long, convoluted career that has at times provoked great hostility. Baron felt concerned that as a white, middle-class woman she lacked legitimacy to enter into the fray of these discourses. However, as Baron came to realize through closely analyzing Washington’s performances, her book could provide structure for these debates. She also found a way to allow the actor’s voice to enter into the discussion by incorporating extracts from Washington’s interviews. Baron concluded by stating that star studies offers a “fabulous window into the industry, American society, and African American cinema’s relationship to American cinema.”

Dr. Jacqueline Reich, is not currently an author within the BFI series, but wrote the forthcoming book on the Maciste figure in silent-era Italian cinema of the teens and twenties. Reich said that she found one of her biggest problems was that the same paradigms and theories in star studies she had employed to write her book on Marcello Mastroianni could not be applied to silent cinema stars. (Beyond the Latin Lover: Marcello Mastroianni, Masculinity, and Italian Cinema, Indiana UP, 2004.) Reich explained that the scholar working on this period enters a different “philological constellation” – one in which the motion picture industry was only just developing and the public initially didn’t even know the names of film actors. Reich found therefore she had to look at the whole culture surrounding Maciste, which eventually led her to develop an interest in the relationship between stars and religion. Reich was later asked, given the historical and cultural specificity she stressed, whether she felt there was anything extra-historical one could say about individuals who obtain screen star status. Reich gave a compelling reply on the transhistorical, transnational nature of charisma. Complicating this idea of charisma, Shingler stressed the industry’s role in the creation of a star, stating that in star studies there is always a tension between the question of “whether someone has something remarkable or whether they’re just a good type.”

For me the panel discussion highlighted how nothing about the field of Star Studies is easy. “Why do we think it’s going to be easy?” Reich asked. Reich appropriates this common misconception to star studies’ position in relation to other subjects of inquiry in cinema studies. She argued that there exist economies in film studies and that Star Studies doesn’t currently have the same cache as other areas. The star is seen as low culture, in contrast to the high status of the director. But as Shingler made clear, all of the buzz words that have recently come to dominate discourses in moving image scholarship, such as intermediality, intertextuality, fandom, celebrity studies, industry studies, etc., these have always existed within the practice of star studies.

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