Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society (Dyer, 1979)

In Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer looks at the images of three icons in American film and their rise to stardom through a public reading of their star images. He situates Marilyn Monroe, Paul Robeson and Judy Garland historically, using the social ideologies of the time to define these stars and their appeal to mainstream America and its many subcultures. He focuses on iconic figures for oppressed groups and minorities, including women, blacks and homosexuals between 1950 and 1970.

The text analyzes the historical context surrounding his three subjects and how the social standards affected the rise of these stars. Marilyn Monroe is studied according to the sexual ideologies of the 1950s and the stereotypes of women, beautiful or otherwise; Monroe embodied American beauty trends, voluptuousness, blondeness and stupidity. Robeson was the epitome of blackness in America emphasizing aspects of strength, sexuality and a repression of characteristics typically associated with black males (atavism and animalistic tendencies). Garland represented the conflict between normal American values and a latent glamour which directly correlated with the conflict of many homosexual men. These three stars personify what it is to survive and thrive in a predominantly white, capitalist, heterosexual male dominated society. These “three stars… in some measure revolted against the lack of control they felt they had – Robeson by giving up feature film-making altogether, Monroe by trying to fight for better parts and treatment, Garland by speaking of her experiences at MGM and by the way in which her later problems were credited to the Hollywood system” (p6). These attempts to overturn the established capitalist system is a unifying factor among the celebrities studied in Heavenly Bodies and a key factor in their ascension to icon status for their respective fan cultures.

Dyer defines a star phenomenon (i.e. the image of a star that the public adores) as the intersection of the constructed star image and reality. There are multiple personalities existing concurrently in the commodity known as celebrity. This clash is the basis of his star biographies and creates the iconographic worship that makes these three celebrities worth discussing. This phenomenon is featured on the front cover with an image of Joan Crawford in 1976 entitled “The Unretouched Woman,” wherein three images of Crawford exist simultaneously: the popular image of Crawford in the distant mirror featuring her statuesque pose with the trademark arching eyebrows, in the smaller mirror, a close-up of Crawford, highlighting the extreme makeup as well as the wrinkles in her face. The third image of Crawford is from behind, the viewer cannot see her face; this is the Crawford that produces these two other images. All three exist in perfect harmony in the photograph and personify Dyer’s approach to star studies.

This duplexity creates a star persona that fans come to associate with; cultural readings of a given star must take into account their intentions as a real person. Monroe’s star image of a dumb blonde is contrasted with her desire for better roles and better treatment. This intelligent part of Monroe’s persona, and the suppression of it in order to appease the capitalist system is the crux of many feminist readings of her career. Robeson’s personal politics and intelligence were also suppressed in order to achieve crossover popularity. Although he is often derided for possessing ‘Uncle Tom’ qualities, Robeson was very active in the socialist movement and deeply entrenched in historical black culture. He chose roles that would emphasize these passions but at the same time, not turn off the white public. Garland was the girl-next-door gone wrong. She was cast in very ordinary, classic American roles, but in 1950 and with her termination from MGM, her fans became aware of the true pain of her life. These collisions of personality (public and publicly personal) establish a level of sincerity and authenticity that are essential for public acceptance and worship.

These intersections are also used to maintain the star’s role in society. An awareness of one’s star image and the associated stereotypes is essential to their proliferation. In the case of these oppressed subgroups (women, blacks and homosexuals), it is necessary for these stars to accept roles that will perpetuate the group’s position in society. Monroe, although potentially intelligent, was the ultimate woman in the eyes of the American public and was used to reinforce the position of women in society as beautiful, sexual, stupid beings. Robeson was inoffensive to the mainstream because he upheld the “proper place” of a black man in a white male dominated American society while retaining an aura of dignity and integrity. In order to succeed these stars were forced to remain attractive to their oppressors while reaching out emotionally to their fellow oppressed.

The title, Heavenly Bodies, also alludes to the role that body plays in social acceptance. Here, Dyer’s choice of subculture becomes apparent. He has chosen groups that are subjugated because of traits that they do not have control over. This aspect of their star image is not only obvious to the audience but is exploited by the capitalist system as well. Monroe’s body was her main commodity; her brain was clearly secondary or even tertiary. Her attractive status was deeply intertwined with her unblemished whiteness. On the other hand, Robeson was the epitome of male blackness, tall, dark, sexual and brooding. He embraced his blackness and kept free of potential negative traits that were assumed of all black men including emotional animalistic tendencies (e.g. rape and violence). His body was prominently featured throughout his career and commodified as the ultimate black male body. In the case of Garland, her body and looks were often tagged as average or unattractive. By growing up onscreen, she played the tomboy role and was regularly dressed in androgynous outfits varying from sailor suits to tailored tuxedos. Garland suffered from the expectations of the world and was unappreciated for her hidden glamour, a conflict common to many gay men living in a hetero-normative society.

Overall, Dyer does an excellent job of incorporating the full historical and social significance of these stars and their place in society, addressing their position as tools for the audience. Stars articulate what its like to be human in a contemporary society and the stars that he chooses to document speak directly to subgroups that are searching for a role model in a socially turbulent time period. In the case of Garland, her star attraction can supersede the knowledge of one’s own subjugation. Dyer relates stories of young boys, whose sexual orientation is not yet in question, who are attracted to Garland although they do not consciously adopt her as a tool for understanding and personal identification. He addresses key points such as racial and sexual stereotypes and their use in cultivating a star image as well as the essential merger of public and private life to ensure a feeling of sincerity and authenticity necessary for a star to connect with his or her audience. Although these aspects of star studies do not seem particularly revolutionary, Dyer deeply scrutinizes each star in this context and delves into their oeuvre with an extensive knowledge and intricate explanations of certain scenes and performances, which tie back into the audience readings and the subtle qualities of possessing both an on- and off-screen persona.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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