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Cinematic Gazing ‘Beyond the Looking Glass’

Ana Salzberg’s newly published monograph, Beyond the Looking Glass: Narcissism and Female Stardom in Studio-Era Hollywood, takes a closer look into the private and public personas of classic Hollywood’s female stars. Following, the authors shares more about her subject and offers a fresh glimpse of the “narcissism” of the female star.

 

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What drew you to the study of the female star in classic cinema? And what inspired you to research and write on this topic?

 

One of the remarkable things about golden-age stars is that you meet them virtually everywhere these days: Turner Classic Movies, DVD box-sets, biographies, bio-pics – not to mention their digitally animated counterparts in commercials. On a very immediate level that we all – not just researchers – experience, old Hollywood has new life.

So in that spirit, what interested me was revisiting some of the critical questions that surround the female star – specifically ideas about narcissism and the spectator’s relationship to the ideal feminine, as pioneered by feminist scholars. Simply, how can we think about the relationship between the real and the ideal – and how did the classic star herself negotiate that relationship? And in what ways does new media transform our understanding of these golden-age figures?

 

Did any perceptions on the subject change from the time you started your research to the time you completed the book?

 

It was fascinating to see how Hollywood itself – as both a physical space and “a state of mind,” to use anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker’s words – began to emerge as a kind of character in the book. From the beginning of the project, I wanted to explore how key historical moments (the transition from silent movies to talkies, the imposition of the Production Code, the dissolution of the studio system) influenced the representation of the narcissistic woman as such; but what became equally intriguing were the stars’ individual relationships to the “state of mind” that was golden-age Hollywood – and how that relationship impacted persona and performance.

 

How do you think the idea of the on-screen/off-screen presence factors into stars’ lives today?

           

With celebrities’ use of Twitter and Instagram, and the ubiquity of the paparazzi, it sometimes seems that on-screen performances have to practically compete for attention with life off the screen. But it’s interesting to consider this hyper-immediacy as part of a broader tradition, rather than a never-before-seen phenomenon. For example, think about the fan-magazine confessionals and tell-alls (however studio-mediated) from Hollywood’s early days – not to mention the sensational items in gossip columns. There’s a great story about Greta Garbo checking to see if she had been mentioned in magazines and newspapers, before returning those that had not profiled her. How different is that, really, from modern-day stars talking about Googling themselves, or counting Twitter followers?

 

Who is one iconic figure featured in one way or another in your field of research, living or dead, for whom you have particular admiration and why?

 

It was a privilege to research in-depth all of the actresses featured here, as well as to work so closely with their films. I did, however, feel strongly about having Ava Gardner on the cover. Her on-screen impact captures perfectly that interplay between the otherworldly and corporeal explored by the book, and the richness of her off-screen world continues to fascinate (as we can see by the popularity of the Ava Gardner Museum in her hometown of Smithfield, North Carolina!). Like the other classical stars in this study, Gardner has both a cinematic existence and a cultural after-life that deepens with each new biography, documentary, and even YouTube fan tribute. But speaking off the record, as a fan, I think she is just brilliant in The Killers.

 

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Ana Salzberg is a lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Dundee. She received her PhD in Film Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and has published on pre-Production Code cinema, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and stars including Rita Hayworth and Grace Kelly.