Classic Hollywood – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Sheesh, What’s It Take to Make a Teenage Heartthrob These Days? Mon, 05 Jul 2010 13:00:54 +0000

Amidst the fever pitch of Eclipse fever, I’ve found myself deep in microfiche archives of 1950s Photoplay. During the post-war period, the gossip industry was attempting to reconcile itself to a rapidly changing Hollywood.  The studio system was slowly collapsing; there was a brand-new, brash legion of television personalities; existing stars increasingly refused to play by the rules that governed appropriate behavior (including submission to the fan magazines) during the studio era.  Many, including Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Janet Leigh, and Tony Curtis, continued to cooperate fully with the fan magazines, “writing” articles and granting full access to their personal lives.  Yet other newly minted stars refused to play the star-making game.

These stars – Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in particular – forced the fan magazines to alter their approach.  In classic Hollywood, these stars would have been fodder for cheesecake profiles: “What Marlon Looks for in a Girl,” for example.  But Photoplay and other mags had to negotiate the fact that Brando had no taste for “glamour girls,” hated Hollywood, laughed at criticism of his “dungarees” and “moccasins without socks,” and even pleasured in stymieing the best efforts at turning him into a heartthrob.  When approached to appear on the cover of Life, he laughed “Now why would I want to do that?”  Louella Parsons, Elsa Maxwell, and Hedda Hopper were forced to devote their columns to explaining why, exactly, a young, handsome, talented man wouldn’t want fame, a beautiful young wife, and a Cary Grant wardrobe.

I can’t help but see the same tension at work in efforts to promote this summer’s most viable leading man – Robert Pattinson, star of Twilight: Eclipse and (industry fingers-crossed) a newly bankable star.

Pattinson, like Brando, is allergic to publicity.  He may resemble a 19th century romantic poet, but he’s clumsy, has an awkward sense of humor, and goes off on esoteric tangents in interviews. He publicly admitted to rarely washing his hair.  He makes fun of his pasty, unchiseled physique.  When Seventeen asks him the last thing he bought at the store, he replied, “toilet paper.” When Details put him on its cover this Spring, declaring the British actor the face of the “Remasculation of America,” he explained that he was “allergic to vaginas,” voiced his “delight” in lymphatic filariasis, and, concerning the near-violence that breaks out when he appears in public, declared “I find it really funny—if I got shot, I would literally be in hysterics. I would be like, ‘Are you serious? Jesus Christ, get Zac Efron!  He’s got more social relevance than I do.’ ”

One might argue that Pattinson’s refusal to publicly confirm a relationship with co-star Kristen Stewart in fact ups his heartthrob quality: he keeps his fans just this side of fulfilled, hoping for the fantasy of their romance or the bliss of having Pattinson/Edward Cullen for themselves.  But a skilled heartthrob would know how to milk KStew/RPatz, tipping off paparazzi during their romantic beach getaways and “just happening” to get caught walking out of a engagement ring store.

Pattinson’s lack of heartthrob ‘skillz’ are especially obvious when contrasted with his smooth, six-packed co-star, Taylor Lautner.  In Twilight, Lautner’s werewolf  alter-ego, Jacob, is positioned as Edward Cullen’s polar opposite; in the star universe, Lautner is Pattinson’s inverse as well.  Where Pattinson is reticent, awkward, and British, Lautner is confident, cool, and so very American.  His every appearance and word is carefully choreographed to elicit maximum girl squee-age; he has a mega-watt and super white smile and takes himself very seriously.  He truly is “The Teen Tom Cruise,” which is just another way of saying he’s the latest in a long line of stars, from Rock Hudson to Cruise himself during his heyday, who knew how to let Hollywood do its star-making work.

Pattinson plays the role of teen heartthrob poorly, but that certainly doesn’t mean that he won’t be a star.  Rather, the media – whether in the form of fan mags, gossip blogs, glossies, or academic blogs like this one – will be forced to grapple with why, exactly, someone who seems to do such a shoddy job at being handsome, princely, or even normal has nevertheless attracted the unadulterated devotion of millions of fans.

The answer, in part, is that some teen heartthrobs are products of what people think girls and women should like.  The Jonas Brothers, Zac Efron, Taylor Lautner.  And others, including Pattinson, like Brando and Dean before him, touch on something that we didn’t even realize that we necessarily liked.  Something odd and unexpected, something nostalgic or novel, something charismatic or comforting, or, as Hedda Hopper described Brando, “pure man,” whatever that may mean in a particular cultural moment.  So instead of thinking of what a weird heartthrob Pattinson seems to be, perhaps we should reconsider what many thought true of the tastes and desires of today’s heartthrob-hungry girls.


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The Warner Archive Program and Hollywood History Fri, 12 Mar 2010 16:47:33 +0000 A month ago Sony announced that it was laying off 450 employees, most of them in the home video division, due in part to recent declines in DVD sales. The Wall Street Journal notes that last year was the first since 2002 that the film industry made more money at the box office than through home video.

In the last decade, the profitability of the DVD sell-through model turned studio vaults into goldmines. This was a boon for students of American cinema, as even obscure films like Midnight Mary (1933) and Second Honeymoon (1937) received expensive digital restorations and were accompanied on DVD by bonus features like documentaries, historian commentaries, and contemporaneous cartoons and newsreels. The classics divisions of Warner Bros., Fox, and Sony in particular have helped to expand the classical Hollywood canon and educate audiences about Hollywood history.

Today, consumers’ shelves are full and major retailers have either gone under (Tower, Sam Goody) or stopped stocking classic titles (Best Buy). In an effort to squeeze the few remaining dollars out of the home video market, studios have begun selling DVD-R copies of library titles that are burned on-demand. Warners has led the way with its Archive program, and Universal and MGM have followed, if somewhat tentatively, via Amazon.

These programs have been beneficial in one important respect – sheer quantity. In an example of “long tail” retailing, Warners has made available nearly 500 films in the last year alone. Historians and fans alike now have access to films that would have never received a retail store release, like the “Dogville” shorts. It’s possible that the bulk of the WB, MGM, and RKO libraries will be available in just a few years, making these programs unprecedented research tools for film historians.

However, this distribution system also reinforces the diminished visibility and accessibility of classic Hollywood in the marketplace. Previously, Warners released its classic films to retailers in boxed sets where films cost $5-$10 each. Warner Archive discs, in contrast, are sold a la carte for $20 each. They are not available via brick-and-mortar stores, or from Netflix, which refuses to stock DVD-Rs. Under this new system, consumers are much less likely to take a risk and “blind buy”, meaning there is much less chance that hidden gems will find an audience.

By limiting access to these discs, Warners cannily positions them as “rare”, which increases their value as commodities and allows the studio to sell them at a premium. Warners targets DVD collectors with their “Insider” program, even as they strip away the aspects of DVDs that appeal to that audience. Archive discs, typically sourced from old video masters used for television broadcast, are often inferior in audio/video quality – this is especially noticeable on today’s huge HD sets. They also lack any special features that might analyze the films or provide historical context.

The manufactured-on-demand (MOD) model represents a way for studios to retain some of the value of their libraries in the midst of DVD’s inevitable decline. It allows them to cut production costs (no expensive restorations, no special features, no unsold product taking up warehouse space) while also raising prices. The “less for more” policy risks alienating collectors, but Warners claims the program has been extremely successful. Unfortunately, with few classic movies justifying the expense of a Blu-ray release, it appears likely that the less familiar (and potentially more interesting) nooks and crannies of Hollywood history will remain hidden to most. Then again, there’s always Turner Classic Movies…


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