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The star system was the method of creating, promoting and exploiting stars in Hollywood films from the 1920s until the 1960s. Movie studios would select promising young actors and glamorise and create personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. Examples of stars who went through the star system include Cary Grant (born Archibald Leach), Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur), and Rock Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.).

The star system put an emphasis on the image rather than the acting, although discreet acting, voice, and dancing lessons were a common part of the regimen. Women were expected to behave like ladies, and were never to leave the house without makeup and stylish clothes. Men were expected to be seen in public as gentlemen. Morality clauses were a common part of actors' studio contracts.

Studio executives, public relations staffs, and agents worked together with the actor to create a star persona and cover up incidents or lifestyles that would damage the star's public image. It was common, for example, to arrange sham dates between single (male) stars and starlets to generate publicity. Tabloids and gossip columnists would be tipped off, and photographers would appear to capture the romantic moment. Tabloids reported stars' drug use, drinking problems, divorce, or adultery.


In the early years of the cinema (1890s–1900s), performers were not identified in films. There are two main reasons for this. First, from the perspective of actors who were trained in the theatre, they were embarrassed to be working in film and feared it would ruin their reputation. Silent film was thought of as mere pantomime and one of theatre actors' main skills was the command of their voice.

Thomas Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) forced filmmakers to use their equipment and follow their rules, since they owned the patents of much of the motion picture equipment. The MPPC frowned on star promotion, although, according to research done by Janet Staiger, the MPPC did promote some stars around this time.

The main catalyst for change was the public's desire to know the actors' names. Film audiences repeatedly recognized certain performers in movies that they liked. Since they did not know the performers' names they gave them nicknames (such as "the Biograph Girl", Florence Lawrence, who was featured in Biograph movies). Audiences began to want movie stars.[1]

Producer Carl Laemmle promoted some movie stars,[2] He was independent of the MPPC and used star promotion to fight the MPPC's control. Laemmle acquired Lawrence from Biograph. He spread a rumor that she had been killed in a streetcar crash. Then he combated this rumor by saying that she was doing fine and would be starring in an up-coming movie produced by his company, the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP).

The development of film fan magazines gave fans knowledge about the actors outside of their film roles. Motion Picture Story Magazine (1911–1977) and Photoplay were initially focused on movies' stories, but soon found that more copies could be sold if they emphasized the actors.

Also, precedents set by legitimate theater encouraged film to emulate the star system of the Broadway stage. Broadway stars in the late 19th century were treated much like film stars came to be treated by the middle of the 20th century. The main practitioner of the star system on Broadway was Charles Frohman, a man whom Zukor, Laemmle, Mayer, Fox and the Warner Brothers emulated and who later perished in the Lusitania sinking.

Moreover, the star system existed in forms of entertainment before the cinema and may be tracked back at least to P. T. Barnum in the mid 19th century, who developed a system of promotion for his "Museum of Freaks" and later his Greatest Show on Earth circus. Barnum's biggest stars were Jenny Lind, Tom Thumb and Jumbo.[citation needed]

Decline of the star system

From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was common practice for studios to arrange the contractual exchange of talent (directors, actors) for prestige pictures. The star system found new stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando, and James Dean.[3] Stars would sometimes pursue these swaps themselves. Stars were becoming selective. Although punished and frowned upon by studio heads, several strong-willed stars received studio censure and publicity for refusing certain parts, on the belief that they knew better than the studio heads about the parts that were right for them. In one instance, Jane Greer negotiated her contract out of Howard Hawks' hands over the roles she felt were inappropriate for her.[citation needed] Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis both sued their studios to be free of their gag orders (Davis lost, de Havilland won).[4][5] The publicity accompanying these incidents fostered a growing suspicion among actors that a system more like being a free agent would be more personally beneficial to them than the suffocating star system. In 1959 Shirley MacLaine sued famed producer Hal Wallis over a contractual dispute, contributing further to the star system's demise.[6] By the 1960s the star system was in decline.

The conspiratorial aspect of the star system manipulating images and reality eventually began to falter. By the '60s and '70s, a more natural style of acting "the Stanislavski Method" started. With competition from TV, and entire studios changing hands, the star system faltered and did not recover. The studio system could no longer resist the changes occurring in entertainment, culture, labor, and news, and by 1970 the star system had disappeared.

Contemporary stardom

The phenomenon of stardom has remained essential to Hollywood because of its ability to lure spectators into the theater. Following the demise of the studio system in the 1950s and '60s, the star system became the most important stabilizing feature of the movie industry. This is because stars provide film makers with built-in audiences who regularly watch films in which their favorite actors and actresses appear.[7]

Contemporary Hollywood talent agencies must now be licensed under the California Labor Code, which defines an agent as any "person or corporation who engages in the occupation of procuring, offering, promising, or attempting to procure employment for artist or artists."[8]: 167  Talent agencies such as William Morris Agency (WMA), International Creative Management (ICM), Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and many more started to arise in the mid-1970s. CAA created new ways of marketing talent by packaging actors, agencies are able to influence production schedules, budgeting of the film, and which talent will be playing each particular character. Packaging gained notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s with films such as Ghostbusters, Tootsie, Stripes, and A League of Their Own (three of which star Bill Murray). This practice continues to be prominent in films today such as Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Billy Madison (all of which star Adam Sandler). The ease of selling a packaged group of actors to a particular film ensures that certain fan groups will see that movie, reducing risk of failure and increasing profits.[8]: 167–180 

See also


  1. ^ Basinger, Jeanine (2007). The Star Machine. NY: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 18. ISBN 978-1-4000-4130-5.
  2. ^ Stanca Mustea, Cristina. "Carl Laemmle." C Laemmle In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. retrieved 21 July 2021
  3. ^ Star System retrieved 20 July 2021
  4. ^ "'Feud' Proves Bette Davis Is Empowering AF". Romper. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  5. ^ Lang, Brent (2020-07-27). "How Olivia de Havilland Took on the Studio System and Won". Variety. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  6. ^ Hanrihan v. Parker, 19 Misc. 2d 467, 469 (N.Y. Misc. 1959)
  7. ^ Belton, John (2008-11-10). American cinema/American culture. McGraw-Hill. p. 120. ISBN 978-0-07-338615-7.
  8. ^ a b McDonald, Paul, and Janet Wasko. The Contemporary Hollywood Film Industry. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2008. Print.