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In the wake of the implosion of such media darlings as Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, a number of commentators have nostalgically bemoaned the passing of the old studio system that once protected stars from themselves.
“These are women who are clearly out of control because the studio system is over,” opined cultural critic Camille Paglia in a US Weekly interview. “The studio system guided and shaped the careers of the young women who it signed up. It maximized their sexual allure by dealing it out in small doses and making sure you don’t have — what it has become here — a situation of anarchy.”
Yes, that might be what the studio system, in its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, tried to do, but as author Jeanine Basinger demonstrates in her newly published “The Star Machine,” not even a powerful studio like the old MGM could protect a really wayward actress.
Basinger describes the way the star system was supposed to work: the talent searches, the screen tests, the physical makeover, the invention of new names and biographies, the slow buildup through publicity shots and column items, the screen debuts in supporting parts — all leading to the creation of a full-fledged movie star.
But sometimes, despite the studios’ best efforts, a star undercut the system. As a case in point, Basinger points to Lana Turner.
Today, Turner’s story is inevitably linked with the notorious killing of her lover Johnny Stompanato, knifed to death by the actress’ daughter Cheryl Crane in 1958. But Turner’s offscreen adventures had damaged her career well before that.
Discovered as a teenager, Turner compliantly turned herself over to the studio system. Her discovery by The Hollywood Reporter founder Billy Wilkerson instantly passed into legend: Wilkerson was said to have spotted her sipping a soda at Schwab’s Drug Store, though the site has long been debated, and Basinger opts for Currie’s Candy and Cigar Store.
A natural screen presence even though she had no training as an actress, Turner found a mentor in producer-director Mervyn LeRoy, who eventually would take her with him to MGM, which became her home studio. Born Julie Jean Mildred Frances Turner, she was allowed to keep her last name once she adopted Lana as her new moniker. Turning her into a young, sexy ingenue was more a matter of grooming and costuming than the more extreme makeovers given some starlets.
But her offscreen adventures soon threatened to define her image. At 20, she eloped with Artie Shaw, but the marriage lasted just four months. (Shades of Britney!) Becoming a fixture at Hollywood nightspots, she became known as “queen of the nightclubs.” (Shades of Paris!) Caught up in an affair with Tyrone Power — they were the Brad and Angelina of their day — she made headlines when she skipped the set of “Green Dolphin Street,” forcing the production to shut down, to spend a weekend with the actor. (Shades of Lindsay!)
The media of Turner’s day might not have been instantaneous, but the fan mags and the newsreels were relentless in reporting her misadventures. Writes Basinger, “Since MGM couldn’t control her or her bad publicity … the studio just let it happen.”
As a result, her roles grew more limited. More and more, she was cast as the bad girl; then the glamorous movie star; then, particularly after the Stompanato slaying, the troubled mom. “The little girl who was a fizzy vanilla soda,” Basinger sums up, “became a champagne cocktail and then a frozen daiquiri.”
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