by Serafina K. Bathrick
Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 23-25
Why does a feminist film critic write an expensive new study of a contemporary female movie star wherein her single most important personal and professional attribute must be an infinite capacity for action? The answer may lie in the assumption by both Patricia Erens and her publisher that it is time for film audiences to question the objectified qualities of the star as beauty queen. At $17.50, The Films of Shirley MacLaine (NY: A.S. Barnes, 1978) certainly represents a promise to update that passive symbol of perfection; but why does our new model have to be a hyper-activist actress, a self-made dynamo with a perfect body who also keeps everyone happy, if not laughing? The creation of this star insures that her act is impossible to follow, so that her special aura remains intact. But it is indeed a disturbing fact that between Erens' insights into The Modern Woman and her publishers' desire to promote a star, the persona of Shirley MacLaine is a repellent concoction of the benign and the bionic. If in fact that actress deserves recognition for creating and living a part that "paved the way for changes for all women" (p. 20), it is also significant that her power as a comedienne-dancer confines her to the use of "gentle humor" (p. 65), and that her off-screen dedication to "the simple life" (p. 35) also keeps her humble: a "conspicuously nonconsuming celebrity." (p. 27) Compared to Jane Fonda, our heroine comes off as a Total Woman, if not a Pollyana. In this text, the Good Woman is aligned against the Bad Woman, just like in the movies.
This new star hype, in both format and emphasis, fits into the old tradition of star-making by gossip columnists, fan clubs, and fan critics. Even the formula by which the private lives of the stars remain totally relevant to, if not in perfect harmony with, their screen roles, is never questioned by Erens. Instead, Shirley MacLaine's private and public lives are juxtaposed and interwoven to reveal how one can in fact neutralize the other, so that Shirley will not be another Jane.
Thus the modern movie star gets her credentials as an autonomous person, not by the roles she plays, but by the difference between those roles and the life she leads. "Being an actress is what I do; not what I am" (p. 14), MacLaine is quoted as stating. And it is this pronouncement of self which perhaps best marks the actress' real power today — the capacity and determination to create her own star-persona. Thus her desire to define and maintain a split between work and life is consistently reinforced by the critic-biographer who uses it as the basis for her own portrait of an artist whose dependence on the film industry leaves her "womanly" — untouched by her work.
Because MacLaine has already published two autobiographies, and has been the subject of much feminist film criticism, the challenge for Erens is particularly interesting and complex, although at this point I want to acknowledge that her freedom to develop a systematic critique of The Star, or an analysis of woman as actress is severely hampered by the cult-value of the enterprise itself. The book is divided into two major parts, which I will argue, inhibits a critical approach by separating the woman-star from her production. The first chapters introduce MacLaine's "Image" and "Career," while the latter two-thirds of the work is devoted to a chronological account of the films in which she appeared, with detailed plot summaries, comments on reviews, and some insights and interpretations of the actress' roles. There is the standard filmography and bibliography at the end, which apparently permits Erens to cite reviews and articles at random throughout her text, often without references to the dates, kinds of publications or qualifications of authorship.
In the first part of this review I would like to argue that the form and content of the early chapters create a number of myths about MacLaine, which contribute to the impossibility of examining her films themselves with any critical consistency or feminist acumen. The dictates of star-worship are surely incompatible with an understanding for the politics of women in Hollywood cinema. And although Erens has recently edited a collection of essays entitled Sexual Strategems: The World of Women in Film, in this particular effort her admiration for Shirley MacLaine is dependent on mythmaking, and her jargon-packed prose is finally more of an apology for a stronq woman than an honest look at her work.
The first forty pages of The Films of Shirley MacLaine are intended to introduce us to the "real" woman, and the verbal clichés that abound in the creation of this modern star are matched only by the use of dozens of slick photos of the actress clowning in a tuxedo. The pictures, like the studio stills that illustrate the section on the individual films, are never explicated in terms of their coded origins: comic as Chaplin tramp, or comedienne as Maurice Chevallier. They simply exist to provide "mood" for the flat description:
There are several myths created (and apparently fostered by MacLaine as actress-author) which typify the old ideology of the star: her humble birth, her simple life, her natural talent, and her good luck. We must read between the lines when Erens mystifies the "discovery-of-the-genius" to find indications of the real professional, although the disjunctive transitions and the super-rhetoric ("self-educated, self-opinionated, and self-propelled (p. 15)) leave the reader reeling, if not skeptical.
First, the myth of MacLaine's class and parentage. The facts are sparse and ambiguous since the self-made woman myth requires that MacLaine have been fully responsible for her upbringing, education, and career breaks. She is forever "taking herself in hand" (p. 25), so that the information about her successful real estate father who had been a professional musician or her actress and drama-teaching mother, is eclipsed in favor of some personal details about Warren Beatty, the "soul brother." In fact, MacLaine's only acknowledgement of her sibling as a potential competitor, "we both liked to be King of the Mountain" (p. 23), remains as unexplored as her parentage. Erens shifts away from this critical responsibility to a meaningless summary that tells us all we can expect to know about the complex of class and family circumstances that helped to shape this 1934 first-born daughter. The mystification of family-life remains inviolate.
No less troubling is Erens' determination to abdicate as feminist critic when she describes how Shirley got her start as a dancer. The "natural talent" myth is supplemented by the author's contention that her ballet lessons "were not oriented towards a career," but were merely a "pleasant pastime" (p. 23). No Shirley Temple, she: But in the tradition of the best of bourgeois ideology-for-girls, "dancing quickly raced through Shirley's blood" (p. 23), and there is no attempt to question the importance of classical ballet for a future moviestar. Instead, safe homilies explain MacLaine's early years as a dancer: e.g., "Perhaps things have a way of going right for the wrong reasons," (p. 24). Her beginnings in show business are treated by Erens in much the way that Hollywood film depends on "seamless" techniques by which transitions are as easy as fades and dissolves. We are never encouraged to ask the questions that are relevant for current feminist criticism: Why comedy? Why are dance and comedy a significant combination? Why does Erens keep harping on MacLaine's "great pair of legs" (p. 25)? Does her "perfect figure" somehow have to "offset" her red hair and freckles? What is the meaning of this description: "Shirley's comic bent made her a natural for the musical stage where she could freely express her feelings" (p. 24)? Is being "natural" a way by which woman retains her status as a non-professional?
The myth of the "self-taught" star also prevents us from understanding the reasons for MacLaine's dependency on a succession of successful men in the business, just as the "natural talent" myth kept hidden the many parental-teacher calculations that went into the decision to encourage MacLaine's particular career. At this point it is also relevant to note that there is no attempt to suggest that the actress had any important associations with individual women, or with any sort of female group of performers or friends. Her advice and support comes entirely from her producer-husband, and later from her bond with the "Rat Pack" (Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, etc.), two facts which imply that MacLaine needed such powerful men in the industry to help her become a confident actress and entrepreneur. Instead of taking a straight look at the economics of male hegemony in Hollywood, Erens mystifies her subject with some "perfect match" ideology that leaves MacLaine "more than human" as she ascends the traditional ladder to stardom.
On the eve of her first film-acting job, the 20-year-old MacLaine married Steve Parker. And while the lucky break (Erens even cites the backstage musical as proof (p. 26) — that really is how show biz works!) explains how she was found by Hitchcock, the myth of the kindly patron, critic, and coach explains her marriage to a man 13 years her senior. Erens further capitalizes on the magic between the two by suggesting all the ingredients needed for the happy ending.
Is writing the life of a Hollywood comedienne just like writing a classical Hollywood comedy? Where is the critical complexity or the feminist understanding in this account?
The details about MacLaine as a member of The Clan are also disturbing from a feminist point of view. For instead of an analysis of the star system, which might help explain why a young actress would require the protection of and affiliation with such powerful men as Sinatra or Lawford, MacLaine's own term is used to explain her place in the group. Surely the notion of mascot might induce Erens to comment on the irony of MacLaine's self-image in this context; but no, the biographer continues to admire the actress' capacity to join in and be another good old boy in their circle. The whitewash job on this particular aspect of male culture within the film industry is painful:
Golly what fun for a woman. Dean Martin was particularly enthusiastic about their new pal: "She loves to laugh. I'd be the biggest hit in the world if I had only 500 like her in every audience" (p. 30). At moments like this, the possibility that the biography is a subtle parody of power and pretence in Hollywood does enter my mind. But no, the author is simply telling us more about the success of the comedienne — today's actress makes it by laughing for the male comic. While we learn little about the buddy system in film business, we are forced to validate Shirley-the-new-star as a buddy herself.
MacLaine's hyperactivity, presumably a sign of natural energy, and not her ambition to be a rich or famous public figure ("obviously she saw no discrepancy between a high salary and a commitment to the simple life," p. 35) also helped her to support many liberal causes in the sixties. Thus another opportunity is missed to examine the importance of the movie star whose screen roles and visibility help her to help politicians, orphans, blacks, and Sino-American diplomacy. It seems clear that her established stardom at this time, her familiarity with travel and with film production, all granted her a particular authority to attack the "ugly American" or to praise the noncompetitive Chinese ("its like having 800,000,000 in group therapy," p. 40). Once again, the biography of the star depends on invisible editing and dissolves, which smooth and mystify MacLaine's passage from ebullient tomboy (Uncle Tomboy?) to a mature and charitable woman. Quoting MacLaine's own rhetoric, Erens grants her the right to decide who she will be — today's star is her own author, as the critic abdicates (in the name of sisterhood?).
The tone even sounds like a political speech, and indeed MacLaine has changed places with our new idols: she speaks to the people at (McGovern) campaign rallies, while the male politicians become media celebrities, a new breed of movie star. What is the particular function of a woman as facilitator in this process? It is a recent development that has been observed by media critics who see politics as TV drama. Those questions are avoided, and instead of noting the real power that is available to the performer-turned-reformer, Erens applauds MacLaine for her capacity to alienate no one with that potential. Consistent with her youthful good cheer as a buddy in Hollywood, the older activist MacLaine must continue to be "nice," even above reproach, while she serves politicians who require her glamour and charisma — the presence of the star-as-mascot. Erens' attempts to keep her subject's reputation as an "original" intact seem feeble indeed at this point, and it is difficult to believe that an active life is the necessary proof of woman's autonomy or integrity.
In order to discuss Erens' approach to the films themselves, it is important at this point to formulate a position on the modern star and her roles. This position will provide the reader with a way to understand why the inadequacies of the critic's biography lead to similarly disappointing explorations of Shirley MacLaine's work. Because in a great number of her film roles, she plays a prostitute, the categories suggested by Simone de Beauvoir help to define one kind of feminist approach to the problem of Shirley MacLaine as film star. The author of The Second Sex makes a distinction between the prostitute and the hetaira. The former needs two kinds of men, client and protector.
The hetaira, on the other hand, seeks a life of her own. (2)
De Beauvoir sees a parallel between the hetaira and the modern movie star, the latter being a professional who does not "reveal the world" as a real artist might, but rather "tries to captivate the world for her own profit."(4) The French feminist goes on to comment on the enormous power that this new hetaira-female possesses through her capacity to satisfy a new level of male fantasy: Her pride, her independence, and her money mean that she will never be "taken" like the prostitute — no man will be her absolute master. And yet de Beauvoir points out, with characteristic compassion for the female dilemma, that even the hetaira, whose entire personality is understood by her to be her capital, remains hopelessly dependent on her beauty. And for the Hollywood actress, "the struggle against growing old assumes its most dramatic form." (5) At this point de Beauvoir speculates that of the two, "the prostitute who simply yields her body is perhaps less a slave than the woman who makes a career of pleasing the public."(6)
The insistent descriptions of MacLaine's projects, past and future, all in the name of her "boundless energy," might thus indicate an increasing need to compensate for her decreasing value as an aging woman. Instead, this biography asks that we admire the proliferation of new plans and careers (MacLaine is writing a novel, and will write the script and star in a film about Amelia Earhart), rather than question the compulsion that keeps her ever-active. A feminist analysis of the star would seem to require an examination of both her own career choices and the conditions that necessitate such decisions. Why did this astute hetaira-star combine her business savvy with a determination to play the role of prostitute on the screen?
The challenge for a feminist critic to find a method of inquiry whereby these essential questions of sexual politics can be raised and discussed is heightened by the narrow dictates of Erens' publishers. On the jacket copy, the editors have summarized their own limits for understanding the problem:
Up to this point I have tried to show how the language and ideology of star-mythmaking has shaped Erens' approach to MacLaine, and that the author has thus had to neglect all the difficulties and compromises which a woman must experience in Hollywood, or more generally, as a public commodity in America today. Her analysis of the MacLaine mystique provides us with little understanding or even admiration for MacLaine's life as an entrepreneur (perhaps the male-impersonator par excellence). Furthermore, at the point when Erens' project might involve some critical insights into the recurrent narrative structures and techniques in the films themselves, as well as some speculation as to the actress' abiding desire to play the whore, she abdicates again. This time it is because (and the jacket copy sets out the paradigm) she must show that it is the versatility of the actress that qualifies her to play the prostitute, rather than MacLaine's extensive experience as a modern hetaira — the star who learned to promote her whole self, to use her charm as capital, and to "captivate the world for her own profit."
Classical Hollywood narrative films have consistently denigrated the importance of women's work, as wage earners, or as houseworkers. The professional woman appears most often on screen as a broad shouldered caricature of a man, her hair pulled back, her eyes and feet denied their fetish values by the use of glasses and practical shoes. Characteristically, the Good Woman who gets the man and the happy ending is portrayed as a sexual child, a dependent who prefers to wait at home while her profit-minded sister-in-a-suit burns herself out doing public work.
Erens suggests the difficulty of changing this formula, and refers often to "the absurdity of traditional role-playing" (p. 61), but her approach to each film as an individual product requires that she, and we, must repeatedly experience the possibility and then the denial of that possibility for these films to promote the independent woman as loveable. There is a curious sense of naive surprise engendered by the retelling of plot after plot, as though the "selling out" by the strong woman, or the sad resignation by the older and wiser woman, are disappointing "twists," rather than part of a systematic way by which narrative film consistently operates — to offer and then withhold the potential for change, equality, or sexual liberation. The mechanisms that make this tantalizing offer renewable with each decade of genre-innovations are not explored by Erens. Just as she preserved for us the "image" of the star-above-reproach, she seems intent upon the same non-critical affirmation of Hollywood's narrative tradition. What that tradition has done to women, and to our understanding of alternatives, cannot be uncovered by an apologist mode of criticism. The prostitute is no answer to our search for the independent woman on screen, and I have suggested that the entrepreneurial hetaira may be no answer to our need for the public woman.
A close look at the film criticism itself is best provided by the description and commentary on SOME CAME RUNNING (1969), an important beginning for MacLaine's role as prostitute, "the prototype for all the subsequent hookers" (p. 66) she would play on screen. Half of what Erens includes in her two pages on the film (why is the third page entirely blank?) is a plot summary, parts of which are as provocative to the feminist critic as Ginny was to her tough lover:
After this description, the story is traced to its conclusion, with the observation that Ginny "becomes the tool of Dave's revenge" (p. 68) followed by praise for MacLaine's skills as an actress. She was able to use her facial expression and her body movements "to imply more than she stated" (p. 68), but we do not gain an understanding from this recommendation. How, structurally, does the sacrifice of Ginny the child-whore serve to reinforce certain attitudes about male privilege and power? Both MacLaine, who wrote about the role in her autobiography, and Erens the deferential critic, treat the character of Ginny the prostitute not as a victim, but as a pure spirit. The actress' own perception of the role is cited, again granting her the ultimate authority on herself: "She knew how to love. To me, that's all important." (p. 68) However, this saccharine additive is qualified when the biographer momentarily engages the star in a kind of dialogue if not debate:
But both the star and her critic seem intent upon preserving the image of the female, either as a loving creature, or as a tomboy, in this film about a prostitute who is shot trying to shield her protector-husband from the bullets of her ex-client boyfriend! The fact that MacLaine's opportunity to be in this film, and to star with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, had a great deal to do with her propitious connections with the Rat Pack, makes the analysis just that much thinner.
It is not enough to praise the modern star for acting in films that deal with "the complexity of adult sexual relationships." (p. 86) The fact that this study looks neither at the ideological aspects of the narrative conventions, which are instead naturalized as detailed stories, nor at the economic implications of prostitution as they relate to class, ethnic, and female stereotypes, leaves the "complexity" intact, if not further mystified. Many of the prostitutes played by MacLaine are French, Japanese, or simply working class women who cannot make a sufficient wage as elevator-girls. Surely we need to question the appropriateness of the comic potential that this star brings to these characters, perhaps as part of her capacity to be free of "conventional ladylike behavior," which is seen in this book as a sign of versatility and thus a woman s chance to be free. The adaptability of the narrative film is infinite, and the conventions which brought us aggressive careerist women in the forties, or bland blondes in the fifties, can do wonders with the spunky but dumb working girl whose willingness to charge for her services tells more about the commodification of sex than about the liberation of women.
Erens' deference to MacLaine the woman and to the roles that constitute her work insures that she remain among the stars; she is not understood as a professional in her life, nor as a worker in her film personae. We do not get close to her as a woman with considerable energy and even good will, because this account suggests that those traits become her market-value as a new kind of star. We are not allowed to fathom the real complexity of what the culture industry does to promote and prostitute the second sex — and to keep it that way.
1. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, trans. H.M. Parshley, Bantam Edition (1949 orig., NY: A. Knopf-Bantam, 1970), p. 529.
2. Hetaire is defined as the feminine form of the male word in Greek for comrade or companion (hetairos). "One of a class of highly cultivated courtesans in ancient Greece" (Webster's Third New International Dictionary, 1976).
3. De Beauvoir, p. 533.
4. Ibid., p. 533.
5. Ibid., p. 537.
6. Ibid., p. 537.