The Star System is the most famous part of The Studio System. It was common practice between the 1920’s and 1960’s and a big part of the success of Classic Hollywood. In this system the Hollywood stars were employees of the studios that they were working for and were bound to them in contracts. Promising, attractive young actors, 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. If they violated these terms, they were suspended without pay or even blacklisted, like Ingrid Bergman was when she became pregnant with a man who was not her husband. Of course there were gossip journalists in those days too. But if the studios came across a story that didn’t please them, they could usually 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.
New actors were initially signed to a seven year contract, but the studio had the option to terminate the contract every six months. Salary was usually between $75-$250 a week, with bonuses for lucrative actors. This proved to be frustrating for stars like Marilyn Monroe, who shot to stardom after a few years, but still made the same salary as when she was a beginning starlet.
But that wasn’t all. Studios also chose the films that the stars made and would sometimes ‘loan’ out their stars to other studios. If a star refused to appear in a film that was chosen, they were suspended without pay 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.
The owners of the studios always felt completely justified in their actions: they put a lot of effort, time and money into their stars. As soon as a new actor signed a contract, they would give them rigorous training in things like diction, posture, manners, dancing and singing. Plastic surgery was often a part of the deal too, which the studio paid for. A background biography was created, which fit the image the studio envisioned for their new star. The press department would arrange for photoshoots and interviews to introduce them to the press and public and so a star would be created. Once these actors were a part of the upper echelons of Hollywood, their studios did everything for them. This went far: from doing their laundry, to finding them homes to live in and even setting up their dates. But this also meant that they were expected to do as they were told. To the studios, a star was a commodity that they had created and that they needed to maintain.
Elizabeth Taylor, a product of The Star 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. More and more stars wanted to be independent and fought to be in control of their own career and image.
Slowly but surely The Star System fell apart and by the 1960’s it was over.