The Star System is the most famous part of The Studio System. In this system the stars were employees of the studio that they were working for and were bound to them in contracts. Promising, attractive young actors, or sometimes just an attractive looking girl on the street which was the case with Lana Turner, would be signed by the studios after a screen-test. Then they would build an image around them that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with how that person was in real life. For instance Marilyn Monroe was made to be ‘the blonde bombshell’, Rock Hudson was ‘the perfect man’ and Marlon Brando was ‘the mysterious rebel’. That Rock Hudson’s real name was Roy Fitzgerald and that he was gay, didn’t really matter to the studio as long as the public believed in the image they had created for him.
A lot was done to maintain these images. Contracts often had morality clauses, in the hope that it would keep the actors from using drugs, committing adultery and other indiscretions that could ruin their image. Men had to behave like gentleman and woman had to behave like ladies. Therefore they always had to dress properly and women had to have their make-up on every time they left the house. Of course there were gossip journalists in those days too. But if the studios came across a story that didn’t please them, they would just pay them not to write about it or they would promise a scoop on another star. For instance, when Confidential Magazine wanted to run an exposé about the secret homosexual life of Rock Hudson, his agent disclosed information about the criminal past of another client, actor Rory Calhoun, to stop them from printing the exposé about Rock.
But that wasn’t all. Studios also chose the movies that the stars made and would sometimes ‘lent’ out their stars to other studios. If a star refused to appear in a movie that was chosen, they were suspended for a period of time.
Actors often felt ‘owned’ by the studios and were frustrated that they did not have the ability to choose their own work. As early as 1919 four major movie stars, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, started their own company United Artists so they could be in control of their own careers.
Elizabeth Taylor, a product of the studio system since age nine, always hated the system. Since her teenage years she refused to talk to the head of her studio MGM and she called her public image ‘revolting’. She left MGM in 1960. She wasn’t the only one who abandoned the studio that made her a star. Marilyn Monroe left Fox and would only come back on her terms. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis both sued their studios to be free of their contracts. Stars wanted to be independent and in control of their own career and image.
Slowly but surely The Star System fell apart and by the 1960’s it was over.