Movie Stars: Actors as Auteurs (Garbo, Cagney, Bogart, Crawford, John Wayne)

The perspective of auteurism has led to a series of studies of stars as auteurs, namely, individual actors who were in control of their screen image and career.

The British scholar Richard Dyer has proposed a classification of movie stars in terms of the role that they have played and the control which they have had over their screen images and film careers:

1. Actors who totally controlled their image, such as Fred Astaire or Joan Crawford.

2. Actors who contributed actively to their screen persona, such as Marlene Dietrich and Robert Mitchum.

3. Actors who were just one disparate voice, one force, among several others in their image construction, such as Marilyn Monroe.

4. Actors who were totally the product of the studio machine, such as Lana Turner.

The extent of power that movie stars possess, and how they exercise (or not) that power can be determined by decoding their screen images, and deconstructing them as auteurs of their films.

Some stars have literally scripted and/or actually directed themselves in films, bu playing the dual role of director and actor.  Take, for example, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Mae West, Jerry Lewis, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Warren Beatty.

However, stars serving as just one force in their film has been a more common phenomenon, since that voice is not limited to matters of performance and costume but may also affect other aspects of the filmmaking.

James Cagey as Auteur

In his book, James Cagney, The Actor as Auteur, Patrick McGilligan aims to demonstrate that Cagney was the author of his films. According to him, under certain circumstances, an actor may influence a film as much as a writer, director, or producer. Some actors are more influential than others, and there are few performers whose acting capabilities and screen personas are so powerful that they embody and define the very essence of their films. If actors are responsible only for acting, but are not involved in other artistic decisions, then they are more of passive icons, manipulated by writers and directors. But actors who influence artistic decisions (casting, writing, directing) and demand certain limitations on the basis of their screen personas may be regarded as “auteurs.” When actors become so important to a production as to change lines, shift meaning, influence the narrative, and signify something clear-cut to audiences, despite the intent of writers and directors, then their acting assumes the force and integrity of an auteur.

For McGilligan, Cagney’s films made with Lloyd Bacon, William Keighley, Roy Del Ruth are all similar to each other, and more like Cagney’s other films, than films by those directors with different stars.

But McGilligan doesn’t provide the specific aspects of Cagney’s performance, character, and narrative structure, and his statements are vague. He singles out one quality of these directors’ films, such as “spontaneity” (a characteristic of Bacon), “a polished emphasis on action and dialogue” (Keighley), and “urbanity” (Del Ruth).

Garbo’s Case

In Sex In The Movies, the British critic Alexander Walker has examined the various forces in the production of Greta Garbo as a screen idol and movie stars. He argues for a model in which Garbo was only one out of many factors in creating her screen persona, along the studio under which she was in contract, her power in choosing screen roles and vehicles, her ability to recommend or to determine the directors with whom she wished to work.

Garbo, like other actors, was defined by some certain given features, physical attributes, such as her her appearance (her feminine, photogenic face, her rather masculine body, broad shoulders, muscled legs), her spiritual face, and her natural inclination for dramatic and pessimistic temper.

However, Garbo was just one of several collaborators who created her screen persona and total impact, particularly director Mauritz Stiller, who gave her the name Garbo (meaning “wood nymph” in Swedish), and cinematographer Willian Daniels. As is well known, Stiller had discovered her in Stockholm and shaped her performance style in line with his own idea of her. And Daniels was Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, an expert cameraman and master of light and shadow, who worked on all but two of her sound films at MGM.

The construction of Garbo’s screen image took place within the elaborate but specific system of the studio system, and MGM in particular, where Garbo is known to have had huge battles over the type, range, and quality of the scripts assigned to her.

John Wayne

In my book, John Wayne and the American Way of Life, I showed that Wayne was a powerful creative influence on most of his movies after John Ford’s Stagecoach, and particularly after Howard Hawks’ Red River. Wayne’s carefully planned theatrical entrance sets the tone for the entire movie, and his distinctive voice and delivery, cold eyes, and ironic smile shaped the meaning of his films as much as the written scripts. In the last two decades of his career, Wayne became the auteur of his films, which expressed his own vision of life rather than that of the screenwriter or director he worked with.

Since Hollywood has always emphasized “movie stars” above other elements–especially in the 1930s and 1940s during the Golden Age of the studio system–for Dyer, the study of movie stars as authors belongs to the study of the Hollywood production system itself.

It is therefore possible to establish continuities and transformations either in the totality of a star’s image, or in discrete elements such as costume, acting style, screen roles, and iconography. But continuity in stars’ public image does not necessarily prove that they are responsible for it. Who is responsible, and to what extent they are responsible for the continuities in Marilyn Monroe’s screen image. The star herself, or the studio’s publicity machine, trying to satisfy public’s expectations.

Note:

This essay was revisited on October 8, 2020.