If nothing else, the Kardashian Empire shows us just how much celebrity culture has changed since the golden age of Hollywood. Anne-Marie Petersen, the author of a very popular column at the website The Hairpin on “celebrity scandals” has collected some of her favorite pieces into a book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood, and the result is a history of the Iron Fist that ruled the world of celebrity for decades: the studio system. In the days of yore, stars both reviled and relied on the studio system to protect them from themselves. Today celebrities build their image (and some, their international brand) largely on their own, with the help of managers, entourages, and mom-agers.
Beginning with the Silent Film era and working through profiles of Jean Harlow, Gable and Lombard, Bogie and Bacall, Judy Garland, Dorothy Dandridge, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean, it’s sobering to realize just how many of these lives ended tragically. As Roxie Hart chirps in Chicago, the audience needs the actor and the actor needs the audience “because none of us got enough love in our childhood. And that’s showbiz, kid.”
Some stories are more tragic than others. Petersen writes that Judy Garland was perpetually branded “the ugly duckling” by the studio-system, the press, even her own mother, and the label was one that stuck for the rest of her life. Garland was too fat, too young; and when she came into maturity and got married against the studio’s wishes, she was pressured into an abortion, as Petersen reports, before she’d even had a chance to tell her husband. Dorothy Dandridge, whose chapter follows Garland’s, is a similar case, with one major difference. “Dorothy Dandridge was black.” As she fought for complex roles that would depict her as a well-rounded human being rather than a sex object, Dandridge was met with outright racism, and died of an overdose on antidepressants at the age of 42. Montgomery Clift, who was most likely gay, drank himself to death. As Petersen writes, it was perhaps not his sexual identity but his identity as an actor that killed him. As he scribbled in his journal, “How to remain thin-skinned, vulnerable, and still alive?”
By now it’s obvious that celebrity has little to do with talent and more to do with symbolism. Some of stars profiled in this book were so representative of a time that their very iconography subsumed them whole. This idea comes in the form of one James Dean. Depressed by constant comparisons to Marlon Brando, standing for those “too young to serve in the war,” James Dean managed to get three remarkable performances on film before killing himself in a high-speed crash in his new Porsche Spyder at the age of 24. Rebel Without A Cause went on to gross $4.5 million, an astounding figure at the time, and Dean was nominated for a posthumous Oscar for East of Eden. “Dean became something of a visionary,” Petersen writes. “And it was this vision of America, as unsettling as it was, that resonated and made his death meaningful.”
Some of the profiles collected in this book feel a bit out of place, like Mae West (though her sexuality was provocative, she really was without scandal, per se) and Marlon Brando—other than jumping the shark in later life, he mostly just refused to play by the studio rules. But that doesn’t make either of those pieces less entertaining or less interesting to read. Anyone curious about popular culture would be hard pressed to find a collection of such fantastic anecdotes and Hollywood lore, including one about Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift that is just too lovely to be fake. Petersen, who holds a Ph.D. on the history of the gossip industry from the University of Texas, understands celebrity culture in a highly intelligent way. By reading her book, there’s hope for the rest of us. If only instead of brushing off the seemingly inane, we asked ourselves but why is this person famous? What does he or she stand for? We might learn something about ourselves.