Critical dialogue
In defense of stars

by Patricia Erens

from Jump Cut, no. 21, Nov. 1979, pp. 25-26
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1979, 2005

Sarafina Kent Bathrick in her review of my book The Films of Shirley MacLaine raises several provocative questions, including a proper approach to the star system and classical Hollywood cinema, the purpose of feminist criticism, the function of stereotypes within the Hollywood narrative, the relevance of star studies, the concept of stars as role models, and the American success ethic. I shall address myself to these issues.

Before discussing individual issues, I feel it is necessary to approach the subject of audience. Central to Bathrick's reactions is the expectation that The Films of Shirley MacLaine would be a critique aimed at film scholars, when in truth the book was written for a popular, non-film orientated public with the hopes of providing some perspectives along with the prerequisite plot summaries. It falls into that category known as "the films of…" Like genre films up until recent times, the species has never been held in high esteem. I believe that Bathrick was hopeful of a self-reflexive film book and was disappointed to find a genre film book instead. Many of the theoretical issues raised by Bathrick are not dealt with because of the limitations of this type of work. Other issues pertaining to feminist interpretation are a matter of differing positions. So to the matters at hand.

Despite the low reputation of the star study, I believe that like auteur and genre studies, there is much to be gained by viewing an entire opus, unified in this case by the appearance of one performer. On one end it tells us much about the creation of a screen persona; on the other, it reveals considerable information about latent aspects of our culture.

In The Films of Shirley MacLaine I attempted to do both with greater emphasis on the former aspect. Before rescreening the films I already held certain notions. MacLaine had played a considerable number of whores and prostitutes. The question posed was how had these images changed over the years, how were her interpretations different from those of other actresses in similar parts, and what characteristics constituted the MacLaine persona (the person on the screen).

In dealing with the body of work produced by MacLaine between 1955-1973, certain themes emerged which I felt were telling about the star in particular and about the place of women in American society. In film after film (ARTISTS AND MODELS, ASK ANY GIRL, MY GEISHA and THE GAMBIT, to name a few), there emerged a pattern of masking and unmasking. A female character is introduced (Shirley MacLaine), events occur, she finds it necessary to adopt an alternative image or personality (usually at the instigation of the male protagonist), and eventually she sheds her false image and reverts to her original (genuine) self. I felt this pattern represented something very strong in the MacLaine persona, a pull towards self-determination. I also felt that the pressure to mask and to assume artificial identities reflected the situation of women, a kind of schizophrenic split which resulted from the way women were treated in American society.

"The films exposed the false dichotomy that had always existed between what male society expected and envisioned woman to be and what she really was." (1)

Closely allied with the theme of masking is the prevalence of multiple roles in MacLaine films. These occur in such works as WHAT A WAY TO GO and WOMAN TIMES SEVEN. This pattern is another manifestation of splitting referred to above. Unfortunately, in her review, Bathrick did not touch on this aspect of the study, a point that I feel is central to my work.

The first major objection which Bathrick raises seems aimed at MacLaine the public woman, or at least at my presentation of her in the book. In the first sentence of her review Bathrick questions my emphasis on MacLaine's "infinite capacity for action" as her "single most important personal and professional attribute." She queries the image of the "self-made dynamo."

Before addressing myself to the "truth" of my presentation and the merits or limitations of such characteristics, I should comment on three distinctions: I shall call them Shirley MacLaine, MacLaine, and Shirley. These equate to the screen image which is carried from film to film with some, but not total, consistency; the public woman written about in newspapers, magazines and books; and the private woman, who few have come to know. The Films of Shirley MacLaine deals with the first two.

Bathrick was quite right in sensing that she was reading about a star. Herein lies some of the confusion. It was never my intention to present the "real" (private) MacLaine. My book deals with the actions of a public woman. The question raised is why would a seemingly intelligent, independent-minded actress play dumb, dependent women on the screen. The fascination lies with the discrepancy between the public woman and the screen persona, a disjuncture which I believe does not become neutralized as Bathrick has stated, but rather reflects the same schism already noted in MacLaine's movie roles. The relationship between star and image needs to be examined. I feel that the enormous gap which existed between the on-screen/off-screen image in MacLaine's early films represents a form of repression and suppression and that the films of the last decade, made when she had increasing control over her career, demonstrate a healthy shift. These works will be treated in the last section.

For me, Bathrick's objections to MacLaine are hard to comprehend. In recent years women have been encouraged to forego their acculturated tendencies towards passivity; and here is a woman who is ambitious in several directions, whom Bathrick finds inherently dislikeable (or unbelievable). Bathrick calls into question MacLaine's efforts toward writing and producing. Why does Bathrick assume such activities are neurotically motivated (she refers to her project as a "compulsion that keeps her ever-active.")? For me this seems a healthy response for an intelligent woman in the entertainment field who has within her means opportunities to fulfill her creative powers. The move from performer to producer or director has been a common route for many actors (Chaplin, Newman, Redford and Eastwood), and has always been praised as artistic growth. Why then does Bathrick portray this same effort as derogatory in MacLaine's case?

No doubt at the base of Bathrick's reservations is an implicit critique of the whole success ethic. But Hollywood is not a 1930s gangland where only one person succeeds to the top of the apex at the expense of everyone else. Nor is MacLaine's success destructive. Rather it lies in the development of artistic potential. Yes, Hollywood is a commercial industry wherein images are sold, so all the more admirable to find a woman who seeks to control the "selling" of her talent. Bathrick shows an inconsistency when she lashes out against women's victimization in the film industry, sympathizes with their positions as hetaira (actors suffer from this situation, too) (2), and then criticizes their efforts to become anything in life besides fading film stars. In an era when women have fought for the opportunity to achieve on an equal basis with men, I find the objections to MacLaine's success slightly peculiar.

I may reveal a higher than average regard for MacLaine (why else would I write the book?), but I do think some credit is due the woman who came to Hollywood in the mid-fifties when actresses were considered properties and who refused to mold herself into the ready-made star image with cheesecake photos, expensive wardrobes, and a glamorous social life. Certainly MacLaine played a large part in redefining our concept of a "star." Perhaps the new star image was eventually co-opted and merchandised, but the model had changed. Less glamorous, more critical of established traditions and more open to alternative life styles, she provided a healthier image for those women (and there were millions) who looked to actresses as standard bearers. In a later generation, Streisand would reduce annual expenditures on plastic surgery by implying that it's okay to have a bumpy nose — that's the way you were born.

Lastly, with regard to MacLaine's position within the film industry, I feel her aggressive opposition to the "seven-year contract" which bound all performers and her willingness to take action by going to court were positive forces which made a difference in the position of all performers within the system. All this was in the days before the establishment of the Women's Liberation Movement, wherein female solidarity has provided strength and support to many younger, creative women.

I do not fault Jane Fonda for "alienating her public," but at the same time I think that working within the Establishment is not a dirty word. There are many kinds of feminists and certainly MacLaine is free to choose between reformism and radicalism. And it is likely that as a reformist MacLaine did reach a broader audience with her message, "change is possible."

This brings me to one last point with regard to MacLaine, the public figure. Bathrick challenges what she regards as myths. Among these are the following: the "self-taught" star myth, the "natural talent" myth and the "lucky break" myth. In part this needs to be clarified; elsewhere, I am stymied in the face of the facts. Bathrick cites my reference to MacLaine &s "self-educated, self-opinionated, and self-propelled." This sentence, referring in context to her later career, in no way implies that MacLaine was "self-taught," a term proposed by Bathrick. "Self-educated" refers to book learning, not dance training. I think the passages describing the "exhausting physical demands of ballet class (p. 24) should have made that clear. No dancer is "self-taught," just as no dancer I know reached artistic maturity by the pressures of a pushy stage-mother. A dancer has to want to dance and to be willing to put up with physical hardships and social limitations. S/he must find sufficient rewards to make these sacrifices meaningful. S/he must be "self-propelled."

Bathrick raises an eyebrow at the notions of "natural talent" and "good legs." I think that I adequately indicated the long hours of training and daily lessons, which comprise the dancer's preparatory years. But even that is not sufficient for those without the natural propensities, and legs are part of it. I was not creating sexist distinctions. Legs, for both male and female dancers, constitute their equipment, a muscular tool which enables them to stretch longer, jump higher and to be more visible.

As to the "lucky break," I agree that the term sounds like a backstage musical, but from all accounts that seems to be the facts of the case. Compared to other careers, I would say that for a 20-year-old chorus dancer who had spent two years on Broadway to get a starring role in an Alfred Hitchcock film (THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY) was pretty nigh instant success.

As two-thirds of my book deal with the films, I would like to conclude with a discussion of MacLaine's roles within these films, although the majority of Bathrick's comments are focused on MacLaine the public person. Bathrick makes several points. First, she cites my failure to treat the screen prostitute as victim. And second, she raises the problem of Hollywood's depiction of "the independent woman."

That a prostitute is a social victim seems so obvious that it hardly bears stating. More interesting from my perspective was an analysis of the fictional prostitutes who made up the Shirley MacLaine cannon and how these had changed over the years. Broadly speaking, MacLaine's approach to her subject falls within the category of "the whore with a heart of gold." Such a presentation automatically possesses advantages and disadvantages. On the positive side, it tends to humanize the character, foregrounding her individual worth in a non-sexual capacity and eliminating her relegation purely to sexual object. Compared to the blatant misogynist attitudes which are a common feature in crime films and melodramas, the whore with a heart of gold emphasizes society's mistreatment of a basically worthwhile character. On the other hand, such a portrait tends to romanticize the character (a figment of male projection like the Happy Hooker) and to suppress social reality. (2)

I think it is necessary to look at the changes which occur in the Shirley MacLaine roles from SOME CAME RUNNING (1958) to TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA (1970) — her first and last film as a whore — and to the films beyond. During this twelve-year period, MacLaine became an established star and one of Hollywood's top-grossing female actresses. By buying out her contract with Hal Wallis, she also gained control over which films she would appear in. Since 1970 her image has changed. Not only has she refused to play a prostitute, but I believe that in all of her recent films (THE BLISS OF FIRS. BLOSSOM, DESPERATE CHARACTERS, THE POSSESSION OF JOEL DELANEY, and THE TURNING POINT), she has portrayed women whose lives have relevance for modern women. She has also established that actresses over forty need no longer settle for supporting, character roles. It is a welcome relief to see a female who has a wrinkle or two and perhaps an extra layer of fat, but who is appealing and who still commands the title "star." Certainly the John Waynes, Henry Fondas, and Marion Brandos have monopolized that arena for long enough

In SOME CAME RUNNING, MacLaine plays Ginny, a dumb, childlike whore who willingly allows people to use her. In the end, she is rewarded with a bullet in the back. Twelve years later, in TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, MacLaine impersonates a sharp-tongued, revolutionary and whore, disguised as a nun, an equal match for hero Hogan (Clint Eastwood). To a degree this performance reflects another manifestation of masking (although the schism is not as great as in earlier films); and the ending is another variation on "the taming of the shrew." But the dominant characteristics of the image are different. As I pointed out in my book, director Don Siegel had enormous difficulty dealing with an actress who had "too much balls" (p. 160). It is my contention that much of this strength is inscribed in the film text.

This leads naturally to Bathrick's second point, the depiction of "the independent woman," or rather Hollywood's inability to "promote an independent woman as loveable." Bathrick, along with many feminist critics, attacks Hollywood's consistent tendency to recuperate the independent heroine. I would like to challenge this reading.

During the last year some feminist critics have begun to reexamine positions first stated in the early and midseventies, especially by British feminist critics. In a recent article on current feminist film theory, Christine Gledhill elaborates on a comment by Molly Haskell, to wit, that though the independent woman stereotype is

"rejected and humiliated by the end of the film, she has one and a half hours of struggle and self-assertion before this defeat, and it seems possible that aesthetic play with such an image might be very risky for patriarchal ideology." (3)

Gledhill then posits that even classical Hollywood films, with their "seamless" techniques, do not remain static or fixed in the coding system which produced them. She proposes a triple relation for critics to consider (i.e., subject/reader/audience) and develops the notion that even within the traditional film text, there are multiple readings and that feminist consciousness provides the ground upon which new readings are manufactured.

For me, Gledhill's method provides a meaningful approach to the films of Shirley MacLaine in light of the work that I have done. It is not sufficient to conclude as Bathrick does that "the selling out by the strong woman is a systematic way by which narrative film consistently operates." I think individual factors within each film need to be analyzed in context and that we can now begin to assume a more conscious viewer, one who is capable of making these distinctions.


1. Patricia Erens, The Films of Shirley MacLaine (New York: A.S. Barnes & Co., 1978), p. 16.

2. MacLaine comments on this in her description of the making of IRMA LA DOUCE: Shirley MacLaine, Don't Fall Off the Mountain (New York: Bantam, 1971), Chapter 9.

3. Christine Gledhill, "Recent Developments in Feminist Film Criticism," Quarterly Review of Film Studies, 3, No. 4 (Fall, 1978), 490.