A Critical Appraisal of Richard Dyer’s Stars

3956 words (16 pages) Essay in Film Studies

08/02/20 Film Studies Reference this

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Richard Dyer’s book stars was first published in 1979. Dyer has focused more on cinema and has related cinema to entertainment and representations of race, sexuality, and gender. Star was therefore noted to have been written significantly to present stars within the movie industry as being remarkable, and probably influential or social phenomenon, just as being a part of film’s ‘industrial’ nature from the sociological point of view. It is however noted that films are just of essentialness to the extent that they have stars in them. The semiotic aspect is of the opinion that stars are just noteworthiness in light of the fact that they are in movies and along these lines are almost films imply.

The book was published by The British Film Institute. The book is divided into three structured parts and it has nine chapters and contains about one hundred and eleven pages. This paper would, however, consider reviewing various issues raised in the book according to chapters. The intention of the author, his assertions, relevant questioning of his ideas and how suggestions would be appraised.

Stars as a social phenomenon

Does Dyer define who a star is? He citing Alberoni. “stardom as a general social phenomenon and not just with film… stars are a group of people whose institutional power is very limited or non-existent, but whose doings and way of life arouse a considerable and sometimes even a maximum degree of interest’. Dyer observed that it is worthwhile to note that stars do not have institutional power, they are however influential due to recognition within the society. It was further asserted through Alberoni that stars are remarkable social phenomenon comprises of elites group who yet, on the one hand, do not excite envy or resentment…have no access to real political power. Is it always through that stars have no access to political power? The political power of a star depends on how well he is able to influence the people using the status he has gained through the media. It is significant to note that in this era of social media that stars are indirectly influencing the political views of their followers.

Origins of stardom

Dyer explained in his book that the origin of stardom is of the producers of films responding to public demand, giving the public what it wanted. It is thus at the point of intersection of public demand (the star as a phenomenon of consumption) and the producer initiative (the star as a phenomenon of production). Dyer cited the example of Florence Lawrence, who was up to then known as the ‘Biograph Girl’, she had been killed by a trolley car in St Louis, and following it a day later with an advertisement in the trade press denouncing the story as a vicious lie. This event was the first occasion that a film actor’s name became known to the public. It is the first example of the deliberate manufacture of a star’s image.

Where does the demand for them stem from? Who defines it? Dyer asserts that the star system was already a well-developed feature of the popular theatre (especially vaudeville, from which the cinema took its first audiences). Stars were part of the business of show business. If the public demanded it of the cinema, then this was because the public had come to expect it of the entertainment industry as a whole.

Stars as a phenomenon of production

Dyer in his book opines that stars are widely regarded as a significant element in the economics of Hollywood in terms of capital.Stars represented a form of capital possessed by the studios. He argued that Robert A. Brady sees this as part of the ‘monopolistic’ character of the Hollywood industry: ‘each star is to some extent a holder of a monopoly, and the owner of contracts for the services of a star is the owner of a monopoly product. However, it must be pointed out that, even in Hollywood’s heyday, stars did not absolutely guarantee the success of a film. Stars move in and out of favor, and even at the height of their popularity may make a film that nobody much goes to see.

The star system is noted to lend itself particularly well to the manipulation thesis because of the enormous amount of money, time and energy spent by the industry in building up star images through publicity, promotion, fan clubs, etc. Thomas Harris has described this process in relation to Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe. However, it has been argued that a more determining force in the creation of stars is the audience – that is, the consumers – rather than the producers of media texts.

Ideology

According to Dyer, production and consumption are differentially determining forces in the creation of stars (producers always having more power over commodities than consumers), but both are always mediated by and in ideology. He noted that stars are, like characters in stories, representations of people. Thus they relate to ideas about what people are (or are supposed to be) like. However, it was noted that unlike characters in stories, stars are also real people. Stars as suggested by Dyer, collapse this distinction between the actor’s authenticity and the authentication of the character s/he is playing. While in some cases (John Wayne, Shirley Temple) this collapse may root the character in a ‘real’, ‘authentic’, ‘true’ self (the star’s), in others (Bette Davis, Lana Turner) the gap between the ‘self and the performance, appearance, constructed persona may be part of the meaning of those stars. However, Dyer cited Barry King and Eckert (in his article on Shirley Temple) suggest that reinforcement may be achieved not so much by reiterating dominant values as by concealing prevalent contradictions or problems. The star solves this problem ‘because he or she converts the opinion expressed in the film to an expression of his being . . . he converts the question “why do people feel this way?” to “how does it feel to have such feelings?”‘ This works in terms of the producers: ‘The stars . . . ease the problem of judgment (which would politicize media) off the shoulders of those controlling the media by throwing it onto the realm of personal experience and feelings.’

The book explains that stars serve to mask people’s awareness of themselves as class members by reconstituting social differences in the audience ‘into a new polarity pro-star/ anti-star … collective experience is individualized and loses its collective insignificance’. In all these ways then stars, by virtue of being experienced (that is they are a phenomenon of experience, not cognition) and individuated (embodying a general social value/norm in a ‘unique’ image), and having an existence in the real world, serve to defuse the political meanings that form the inescapable but potentially offensive or explosive point of departure of all media messages.

Dyer feels that we are so shaped and penetrated by our society that the personal is always political. In this perspective it may be true to say that Wayne or Fonda are politically irrelevant in terms of converting the ‘issues’ of conventionally conceived right or left politics respectively, but precisely because they are experiential, individual living embodiments of those politics they may convey the implications of those politics in terms of, for example, sex roles, everyday life, etc.

The notion of stars compensating people for qualities lacking in their lives is obviously close to the concept of stars embodying values that are under threat. The latter are presumably qualities which people have an idea of, but which they do not experience in their day-to-day lives. However, compensation implies not that an image makes one belief all over again in the threatened value, but that it shifts your attention from that value to some other, lesser, ‘compensatory’ one.

The book further elucidates certain problems about transferring the notion of charisma from political to film theory. Alberoni is noted to have pointed out that the star’s status depends upon her/his not having any institutional political power. Yet there is clearly some correspondence between political and star charisma, in particular, the question of how or why a given person comes to have ‘charisma’ attributed to him/her.

Stars as Stars

Looking at stars as a social phenomenon Dyer indicates that, no matter where one chooses to put the emphasis in terms of the stars’ place in the production/consumption dialectic of the cinema, that place can still only be fully understood ideologically. The questions, ‘Why stardom?’ and ‘Why such-and-such a star?’, have to be answered in terms of ideology – ideology being, as it were, the terms in which the production/consumption dialectic is articulated.

With stars, it is noted that the ‘terms’ involved are essentially images. By ‘image’ Dyer did not understand an exclusively visual sign, but rather a complex configuration of visual, verbal and aural signs. This configuration may constitute the general image of stardom or of a particular star. It is however considered not to manifest not only in films but in all kinds of media text.

As suggested in the final pages of Part One, star images function crucially in relation to contradictions within and between ideologies, which they seek variously to ‘manage’ or resolve. In exceptional cases, it has been argued that certain stars, far from managing contradictions, either expose them or embody an alternative or oppositional ideological position (itself usually contradictory) to the dominant ideology.

Stardom is defined as an image of the way stars live. For the most part, this generalized lifestyle is the assumed backdrop for the specific personality of the star and the details and events of her/his life. As it combines the spectacular with every day, the special with the ordinary, and is seen as an articulation of basic American/western values, there is no conflict here between the general lifestyle and the particularities of the star. In certain cases, however, the relationship between the two may be ambivalent or problematic. 

Dyer discussed that the general meaning of the myth of success is that American society is sufficiently open for anyone to get to the top, regardless of rank. However, one of the myth’s ambiguities is whether success is possible for anyone, regardless of talent or application. The myth of success also suggests that success is worth having in the form of
conspicuous consumption. The paradox of the extravagant lifestyle and success of the stars being perceived as ordinary may be explained in several ways. First, stars can be seen as ordinary people who live more expensively than the rest of us but are not essentially transformed by this. Second, the wealth and success of the stars can be seen as serving to isolate certain human qualities (the qualities they stand for), without the representation of those qualities being muddied by material considerations or problems. Both of these explanations fit with notions that human attributes exist independently of material circumstances. Stars may serve to legitimate such notions. Finally, it was noted that stars represent what are taken to be people typical of this society; yet the types of people we assume characterize our society may nevertheless be singularly absent from our actual day-to-day experience of society; the specialness of stars may be then that they are the only ones around who are ordinary! (This is another way of conceptualizing the charisma model discussed in Part One.)

Dyer in his book suggest problems with Klapp’s work. Firstly, he noted that he does not explore the sources of social types, seeing them simply as ‘collective representations’. He sees social types as positive and useful, as opposed to stereotypes, which are wrong and harmful because they deal with people ‘outside of one’s cultural world’ – yet he never examines just who is within and without the ‘cultural world’. That is, he never examines the possibility that the cultural world articulated by social types may represent the hegemony of one section of society over another. Yet it is clear from his typology that if you are not white, middle class, heterosexual and male you are not going to fit the cultural world too well – women only fit uneasily, whilst blacks, gays and even the working class hardly fit at all.

The superwoman, on the other hand, raises a more complex set of problems. What exactly is going on when a female character ‘adopts male characteristics’? There are perhaps two ways of understanding this. On the one hand, one can recognize that ‘characteristics’ of personality are not gender-specific (there is nothing innately male about aggressiveness or innately female about gentleness), but that, for whatever historical-cultural reasons, certain characteristics are associated with one gender rather than the other and that, as a consequence, individual women and men have a great deal invested (in terms of their identities as women and men) in preserving the association between such-and-such a characteristic and one gender or the other. This means that attempts to alter this, to cross gender barriers, to adopt the characteristics associated with the opposite sex, is a matter of negotiation, of working out a way of doing this which both frees people from the constructions of gender-roles and yet does not utterly damage their self-identities.

Stars as Specific Images

Stars according to Dyer embody social types, but star images are always more complex and specific than types. A star image is made out of media texts that can be grouped together as promotion, publicity, films and criticism and commentaries. Promotion is probably the most straightforward of all the texts which construct a star image, in that it is the most deliberate, direct, intentioned and self-conscious (which is not to say that it is by any means entirely any of those things).

It was noted that promotion can, however, get things wrong. Early promotion may not push the aspects of the performer which were subsequently to make them a star (e.g. both Davis and Monroe were promoted as routine pin-up starlets, to begin with). However, this is more the exception than the rule, and either way, promotion can be taken as an indicator of the studio’s (or its promotion department’s), agent’s or star’s conception of a given star image.

The importance of publicity is that, in its apparent or actual escape from the image that Hollywood is trying to promote, it seems more ‘authentic’. It is thus often taken to give privileged access to the real person of the star. Particularly of greater importance is the notion of the vehicle. Films were often built around star images. Stories might be written expressly to feature a given star, or books might be bought for production with a star in mind. Sometimes alterations to the story might be effected in order to preserve the star’s image. This is what is implied by the term ‘star vehicle’ (a term actually used by Hollywood itself).

Stars and ‘Character’

Dyer writes that in the most general sense, all fictions have characters, that is, fictional beings, whether human, animal or fantastic, who carry the story, who do things and/or have things done to them. However, how those beings are conceptualized has altered in the history of fiction. It is worth noting that stars are themselves a peculiarly characteristic feature of bourgeois theatre (and only subsequently cinema). The emergence of stars in the theatre is usually dated from the 18th century with such actors as Garrick, Peg Woffington, Sarah Siddons, Edmund Kean, Schroder, and Rachel.

The following qualities may be taken to constitute an abstract of the novelistic conception of (or prescription for) character: — particularity
— interest
— autonomy
— roundness
— development
— inferiority
— motivation
— discrete identity — consistency.

Generally, a character’s personality in a film is seldom something given in a single shot. Rather it has to be built up, by film-makers and audience alike, across the whole film. A character is a construct from the very many different signs deployed by a film (within the context of cinema).

Stars and Performance

First, the book hints that there is writing from the point of view of the performer, i.e. how to create and present a character. This is found equally in the reflections of performers on their art and in the writings of performance theorists. The signs of performance are: facial expression; voice; gestures (principally of hands and arms, but also of any limb, e.g. neck, leg); body posture (how someone is standing or sitting); body movement (movement of the whole body, including how someone stands up or sits down, how they walk, run, etc.).

A Note on Authorship

Dyer affirmed that authorship has long been an issue in film studies, in terms of who is to be considered the author of a film. The film poses this question with peculiar insistence because of its industrial production, involving hundreds of personnel and a very high degree of division of labor. He observed that it is this model that has so far had the most success in film studies under the title of the ‘auteur theory’. This proposes a single person – usually but not invariably the director – as the author of a film.

It is certainly possible to establish, as ‘auteur theory’ enjoins us, continuities, contradictions, and transformations either in the totality of a star’s image or in discrete elements such as dress or performance style, roles, publicity, iconography. However, the relationship between these and the star always has to be established by examination of what sources there are concerning the actual making of the image and films. That is to say, a star, in films, publicity, and promotion, is a semiotic construction and the fact that that construction exhibits continuity does not prove that the star as a person is responsible for them. S/he may be, but also may not be.

Dyer suggested at various points in the book how the stars can be seen variously to handle opposed, or uneasily related, notions such as star-as-person: star-as-image star-as-image: star-as-character star-as-auteur: star-as-text star-as-self: star-as-role and now star-as-essence: star-as-subject.

Throughout this book – as throughout most film studies – Dyer opines that the audience has been conspicuous by its absence. In talking of manipulation consumption, ideological work, subversion, identification, reading and placing, a concept of the audience is clearly crucial, and yet in every case, I have had to gesture towards this gap in our knowledge and then proceed as if this were merely a gap. But how one conceptualizes the audience – and the empirical adequacy of one’s conceptualizations is fundamental to every assumption one can make about how stars, and films, work. It’s not as if we aren’t ignorant enough in other areas.

Criticism/appraisal

Richard Dyer’s wrote a remarkable book in the history of literature. Stars (first imprinted in 1979) mapped a field and procedure – or rather a gathering of techniques – for the close examination of stars as a social event and social improvement of contemporary culture.

Dyer’s content initiated a rich seam of scholarship discussion and arguments about what a star entails. The book has a retained its lasting quality over the most recent couple of decades and its viability is not abating anytime soon. In any case, while a large number of Dyer’s unique perceptions and definitions still remain constant today, there have been various improvements in the field and stars studies have taken newer dimensions in cultural awareness and social capacity of stars since the late 1970s which took star study in a newer direction, with new needs, new settings and new parameters.

Early star studies had contemplated in general to expect a correspondence between the terms ‘star’ and Hollywood. Stars were viewed as a key element of the Hollywood framework. Dyer’s work, therefore, established new propositions to what a star entails, he further opened leading research by analyzing various stars based on examples from other literary works.

Paul McDonald asserted that at the aftermath of Dyer’s Stars, numerous analyses were essentially channeled in revealing the symbolic capacity of stars within a specific culture and social routine. Meanwhile, McDonald admits that ‘stars are texts, meaning, images and culture’, they are likewise in the meantime monetary and business substances, and this capacity has, on the off chance that anything, picked up is significance and need over the previous decades.

Dyer had investigated same thought in his seminal works, Stars, he had distinguished the book what precisely makes a star, and what a star says about the general public in which we live. Richard Dyer, an eminent film researcher and a professor at the University of Warwick, wrote the book Stars, initially distributed in 1979, the book is recognized for its first inside and out examination of superstar culture. Today, Dyer’s star hypothesis remains the most generally utilized methodology in star picture investigation.

Dyer took a deep analysis of various texts in his book Stars. He has done an analysis of on and off-screen texts of popular film stars, which took note of characters like Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda, Gretta Garbo, Robert Redford, Marilyn Monroe, and John Wayne. Dyer in this book examined and unveiled how and why the social phenomenon of stardom exists.

These well-known screen icons are examined both as semiotic developments, dissecting and profound perusing of the texts in which they showed up, and as articulations of social possibility, dyer discussed social phenomena, stars, and the society. Stars distinguished into three particular areas: stars are seeing first as a, branded social phenomenon. Secondly, stars are viewed as commoditized pictures, and stars as indications of social belief system, these together structure forms what is referred to as Richard Dyer’s star hypothesis. While Dyer’s book revolves exclusively around film symbols, his star hypothesis can be stretch to be applied to different areas of entertainments i.e. pop, shake, and hip hop celebrities.

As indicated by Dyer’s star hypothesis, stars are viewed as owing their reality exclusively to the machinery of film production, (Dyer, 1998). The star is not close to a genuine figure, but rather a development of materials and marking, creating a perfect picture of an individual.

Stars are also commoditized images, as Dyer’s star theory states “stars are models for consumption… their fashions are to be copied, fads followed, sports pursued, and hobbies taken up”, (Dyer, 1998).

Overall Dyer’s writing is astoundingly captivating, a seemingly perfect mix of hard academia and film nostalgia and the only drawback may be the slightly heavy focus on cultural perspective theory with minimal attention to viewer agency.

Generally speaking, Dyer’s writings are astoundingly enrapturing, an apparent reward for hard academia and film sentimentality, and the main disadvantage might be the marginally overwhelming spotlight on culture dominance theory with negligible thoughtfulness regarding watcher office.

References

  1. Dyer, R. (1998). Stars. London: BFI Publishing.
  2. Paul McDonald, Hollywood Stardom (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 4–5.

 

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