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The Rules of the Game

A Century of Hollywood Publicity

ISSUE:  Winter 2013

On September 10, 2012, the gossip sites were whispering: Two stars had been married, in secret, over the weekend, and readers were clamoring for details. Where had the marriage taken place? In front of how many people? Who designed the bride’s dress? What did the ring look like? What did the groom’s ex-fiancée (famous) and ex-wife (even more famous) think of the union? Most importantly, how did the pair manage to evade the public eye?

The wedding was between Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, who’s spent the last decade on the cusp of true stardom. He’s starred in handfuls of comedy films and tried his hat at action hero in Green Lantern, yet never truly broken through to stardom. Even a broken engagement to Canadian singer Alanis Morissette, a two-year marriage to established star Scarlett Johansson, and a very visible friendship with former co-star Sandra Bullock hasn’t elevated him to bonafide stardom. Despite being named People’s “Sexiest Man” of 2010, he is, as many gossip readers have termed it, “beige.” Boring. Unremarkable. For Reynolds to become a star, he would need two things: a genuine hit (a popular “text”) and a compelling personal life (“extra-textual” gossip). 

With his new wife, he may have found one of those things. Lively broke into acting with a role in the ensemble teen movie The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), establishing herself as an aggressively sexual, albeit precious, bombshell. True fame came with Gossip Girl. The CW series has never enjoyed massive ratings, but from the beginning, the combination of wealth + sex + beautiful bodies + New York’s Upper Crust has yielded media attention disproportionate to its ratings. Critics never heralded Lively’s acting skill, but she certainly had the body for Hollywood success. Her GG character’s fashion forwardness became her own, attracting the endorsement of the notoriously picky fashion maven Karl Lagerfeld. 

Lively began dating her GG co-star and onscreen love interest, Penn Badgley—which, as Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart could tell you, is the quickest way to make your romance as high profile as possible. They dated for a few years, weathered thousands of paparazzi shots, and as Gossip Girl began to wind down, Lively began her film career: a mumbling prostitute in Ben Affleck’s The Town; a brief, highly documented fling with Leonardo DiCaprio; then off to play Reynolds’s love interest in Green Lantern. Last summer she was at the heart of a steamy love triangle—and the center of the marketing campaign—for Oliver Stone’s messy Savages (2012). Lively went from Traveling Pants to Chanel seemingly overnight. As they say in the business, “girl can run that game.” 

But Savages was a dud. Gossip Girl is hobbling into its final season. Dressing fabulously can only provide so much interest. 

What, then, are two long-aspiring, almost-there stars to do? Have a secret marriage.

When it comes to publicity moves, a secret marriage is perhaps the most brilliant: You appear as if you’re avoiding publicity at the very moment you double interest in the event. You appear humble, private, and exclusive, even as you generously release information. Instead of one magazine cover, you get weeks’ worth; instead of one story, you get dozens of them, each divulging a newly discovered detail. One day there’s a lovely, blissful photo of the pair embracing post-wedding; the next there’s a close-up of the ring. 

Beige becomes brilliant. 

Reynolds’s marriage to the notoriously publicity-reticent Johansson had always been under the radar. With her career and success, Johansson didn’t need gossip to fuel her stardom. But now, with Lively and Reynolds both keen to keep their images visible until a new hit can justify their stardom, a secret wedding does the trick. 

Of course, Reynolds and Lively did not make these decisions. Lively doesn’t “run that game.” Her publicist does. Or, more precisely, the phalanx of her publicist, agent, manager, and stylist, working with Reynolds’s own publicity “team,” do.

To be clear, Reynolds and Lively are not wholly without agency. They probably do love each other, want to be married, even want a quasi-private wedding. But the fact remains: They are stars, and stars are constantly engaged in the publicity game. And in that game, no move is without consequences.

While the primary objectives of that game endure—achieve fame; maintain fame; profit from fame—the rules have changed. The transformation of the studio system, the subsequent transition to “freelance” Hollywood labor, and the rise of digital technologies have fundamentally altered both basic and advanced strategies for “winning” the publicity game. 

Is the game more difficult today? Certainly. But in order to understand why—and the consequences of this level of difficulty—we have to go back a hundred years, to the earliest days of the Hollywood “movie colony.” 

Act One: Surveying the Field

Apocryphal myth places the beginning of Hollywood stardom in 1910, when producer Carl Laemmle planted a fake newspaper story concerning the death of “The Biograph Girl” that effectively made that girl, Florence Lawrence, into a household name. Before, stars were known only by their studio-given, anonymous nicknames: “The Girl with the Curls” or “The Girl with the Dimples.” Yet, as several film historians have pointed out, star names were certainly known before that time; in the nineteenth-century theater, stars (Sarah Bernhardt, for example) were consistently employed to hype new attractions. In short, Laemmle did not create stars. Instead, Hollywood stars were the cumulative result of a gradual yet steady release of information concerning those who appeared on the screen.

In the earliest days of cinema, little information was available. Audiences just talked about how well the actor was able to convey what was happening in the story with few subtitles and no sound. “Was he a good actor?” was another way of asking “Did the movie make sense?” The names of the performers were inconsequential. Soon, however, audiences began to construct a sort of makeshift continuity between pictures: The girl in that film, for example, is the same actor as the girl in that other film. To ascribe some sort of coherence, fans began writing to studios, requesting the names of the “players,” as they were then called. 

The name was the first layer of information made available to fans; information about a star’s life was the second. And the first fan magazines emerged around this time to provide it: Motion Picture Story and Photoplay in 1911, with dozens more each passing year. At first, these magazines only provided information that related directly to the way the actor appeared on screen—his or her “picture personality.” But around 1913, they began to release information about the star’s extra-textual life. Conveniently, these stories often confirmed that stars were exactly who they appeared to be on screen. For example, if an actor always played a dashing hero, then stories would confirm that he was, in fact, a dashing hero in real life.

As cultural critic Richard deCordova explains in Picture Personalities, this extra-textual information became a new site of “authenticity.” In other words, stories about a starlet’s private life provided readers with access to her authentic self. She may have been performing on film, but what she did off-film, that was real. In today’s terms, media outlets report that George Clooney, whose picture personality is that of a handsome, charismatic, yet hesitant to commit man-about-town, replicates those characteristics in his “real” life, gallivanting about Lake Como, switching beautiful girlfriends every few years. The extra-textual information ratifies and authenticates his overarching image; the “real” Clooney is in fact all of the things he is in, say, Ocean’s Eleven. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, that coherency is at once pleasurable and reassuring.

In the 1910s, the fan magazines made a tremendous amount of money by providing that same sort of sense. Editors and writers became crucial players in the publicity game before the parameters of the Hollywood “star system” had even been codified. The star images from this period were at once seamless and blight-less. What their filmic appearances, studios, and magazine stories said they were, they were: moral, American, and hardworking. 

But in September 1921, silent-film comedian Fatty Arbuckle, then the highest-paid star in Hollywood, was charged with rape and manslaughter after a young starlet, Virginia Rappe, fell ill at a party hosted by Arbuckle and died four days later. Arbuckle’s arrest and trial for rape made it clear that the old way of producing stars and their images was no longer sufficient. Yet it wasn’t as if the stars of Hollywood were suddenly out of order, throwing larger parties, doing harder drugs. Rather, the means of covering up and spinning that information had become less effective. It’s one thing to “spin” high-profile divorces, as the studios and fan magazines did in the case of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford in 1920, into tales of “true love” and companionship. It’s quite another to neutralize an arrest for rape. 

But what hurt Arbuckle—and the rest of Hollywood—wasn’t the specifics of the charges against him, which, as three trials would prove, were not enough to convict him of any crime. If we think of scandal as an event that challenges the status quo, then the scandal was not the allegation of rape, per se, so much as what the trial revealed about Hollywood: “shocking” details of the “gin jollification” party at which the crime was alleged to have taken place, along with evidence that such parties were very much the norm. 

If the studios didn’t change how information about stars was generated, mediated, and distributed—in essence, change the way Hollywood publicity worked—stories like Arbuckle’s could lead to their downfall. If details of a star’s private life had seemed authentic before, these “hidden” details seemed to offer an even more authentic, however unseemly, portrait of the star. 

Amidst a nationwide push to regulate and purge various industries of nefarious elements, censorship seemed inevitable. Censorship would have proved a costly distribution disaster, with separate cuts of films to fit dozens of different censors on the state and local level—unless, that is, the studios got rid of the problem first. 

Act Two: Regrouping

In 1922, the studios formed the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), tasked, amongst other things, with “reining in” the stars. The MPPDA and its head, former postmaster general and upright Presbyterian Will Hays, would attempt to deflect moral indignation against the stars, Hollywood, and the ugly truths they wished covered up. Hays arranged for all Arbuckle’s products to be removed from circulation, effectively blacklisting the star, despite his acquittal. 

In blacklisting Arbuckle, Hays was performing damage control. But he was simultaneously developing strategies for containment of future scandals—strategies he was able to test in January 1923, when beloved star Wallace Reid died from symptoms of withdrawal from narcotics. 

In a brilliant move, Hays, Reid’s studio, and Reid’s wife worked to change a narrative about addiction to narcotics into a “genteel” and cautionary tale of “morphine dependency.” As Mark Lynn Anderson explains in Twilight of the Idols, a complex series of machinations, revised statements, fan-magazine testimonies, and even a cautionary docu-drama starring Reid’s wife and son worked to distance Reid’s addiction—and its causes—from the studio system. It wasn’t a low-class “junkie” problem, but a good ol’ fashioned morphine addiction—and a “teachable” moment against the vagaries of drug addiction in general. It was a work of discursive brilliance, and a testament to Hays’s growing mastery of the publicity game. 

With Hays’s encouragement and facilitation, the studios began to set up infrastructures that would nip potential scandal in the bud, obviating the need for damage control. One of the first, highly publicized gestures was the institution of strict morality clauses in all star contracts. These morality clauses were often for show, as stars violated them constantly—just never publicly. Yet they were a means for Hays and the studios to show that the stars had to abide by the rules the rest of the nation set for them. It was a powerful, if hollow, demonstration of star regulation. 

The studios were thus able to reassert innocuous stories of the stars’ home life and conspicuous consumption as a sort of “false bottom” of their image. In these early years of the studio system, winning the publicity game simply meant shortening the playing field, making the shadowy, sex-tinged sidelines officially out of bounds. 

Act Three: Rule-Making

To ensure that those shadows stayed out of bounds, the studios employed a sprawling collection of publicists, copywriters, and hundreds of others whose primary concern was producing and maintaining palatable star images. 

Under the studio system, “making” a star was a straightforward process. First, scouts discovered a performer—on the streets, on the vaudeville circuit, on the stage—and brought her to the studio, where she underwent photo and sound tests. If she passed muster, the studio would sign her to a seven-year contract with various options according to performance and popularity (or lack thereof). 

Once contracted, the so-called “glamour factory” began transforming the raw goods into stars. Contracted players attended elocution, swimming, etiquette, singing, dancing, and dozens of other classes; teeth were straightened, hairlines corrected, hair color altered. The actor would be tested in a number of roles, working to find a romantic pairing or genre that fit his/her look and skill set. Once a particular persona (the “girl next door,” the “vamp”) was decided, various departments worked to create an extra-textual image to reflect it: a new name, a slightly altered background, an appropriate wardrobe, an accent, a hairstyle. Studios then expected stars to adhere to their prescribed images on-camera and off. Barbara Rush, for example, was required to “always look like a lady,” while Anita Ekberg “should look sexy, although her blouse musn’t be cut too low.”

According to oral histories provided by former Hollywood workers and collected in The Glamour Factory, studio publicists would spend the day visiting the set, taking notes on potential narratives, and working with stars to create elaborate backstories, filled with “puffery.” As one former contract player explained, “If you had a farm, it was an estate. If you had a field, it had to be full of horses.”

With backstories and future narratives crafted, the final step of the process began: distribution. A copyeditor examined and corrected publicist copy, which was then passed on to the “planters,” who would strategically place tidbits and longer narratives in the trades, a gossip column, or a national newspaper or magazine, working to heighten interest in the star and his/her extra-textual life. All interviews with the stars were conducted under the supervision of publicists, who would ensure that the stars would remain on point in their answers. Whether the stories profiled the stars at home, at work, or at play, the photographs were always perfect, as were their storybook lives.

But studios could also use publicity to discipline an unruly star: According to oral history, “a recalcitrant actor would read in the gossip columns that he was misbehaving, or that his fans were becoming annoyed, perhaps even that his wife was thinking of a divorce. If the pressure was great enough, the actor usually capitulated.” In this way, control of the publicity game meant the studio not only controlled the public perception of the star, but also kept the star, and his potential power, in check. 

In order for the game to run smoothly, however, the studios had to have cooperation from those who were providing the information to the audience. If this was, in fact, a publicity game, then the stars were the players, the studio teams were the coaches, the MPPDA was the league commissioner, the fans were, well, the fans, and the gossip columnists and fan magazines were the announcers, providing play-by-play.

Some of the gossip columnists were moralizing and cloying (Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper); others were witty and manipulative (Walter Winchell). Despite the columnists’ past moral indiscretions, they forwarded a rigid understanding of upright moral behavior, bluntly scolding those who dared step out of bounds. If a star did misbehave, his or her sin could only be absolved through an exclusive tell-all in which the columnist would explain, justify, and excuse the star’s behavior. In today’s publicity game, Barbara Walters and Oprah Winfrey approximate the same function. 

A plant in a gossip column was always good, but the studios and publicists recognized the fan magazines as “the greatest star builders that ever existed.” A magazine cover or feature could introduce an actor to millions of devoted readers overnight, and few magazines worked harder to promote performer images than Photo-play, the most successful of the magazines and the paragon of the genre. 

Photoplay established the standard by which all other fan magazines would be measured, set apart by its distinguished writers, exclusive interviews, detailed film reviews, beautifully drawn covers, and didactic editorials in support of the Hays agenda and the cleaning up of Hollywood.

As part of this clean-up process, on March 31, 1930, the studios pledged to adhere to the rules set forth by the Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, governing acceptable content onscreen. But the agreement was informal and non-binding, and the MPPDA had no means of formally enforcing it. Thus commenced a period in film history, commonly referred to as “Pre-Code,” that spanned the four years between the introduction of the Code and its enforcement in 1934. The vast majority of films produced during this period adhered to the spirit of the Code, but a few dozen highly visible (and popular) films—featuring the Marx Brothers, Mae West, gangsters, and “kept women”—flaunted the Code, depicting and/or strongly suggesting sex out of wedlock, prostitution, gang activity, violence, and drug use. Even as stars portrayed characters who challenged the boundaries of acceptable behavior, the studios persisted in maintaining their images, especially those of women, as moral exemplars.

While the majority of fan-magazine articles toed the studio line, a growing number either countered or satirized efforts on the part of the studio to project wholesome star images. Motion Picture and Modern Screen started hinting at personal and potentially scandalous information about the stars, while Photoplay exclaimed “Lupe [Velez] and Johnny [Weismuller] were Lovers” and why (fourth wife Virginia Bruce) “Had to Leave John Gilbert.” Various Photoplay articles and cartoons over the course of 1931–1933 lampooned Marlene Dietrich’s image as a doting mother, and the August 1934 issue of Modern Screen included an article, “How Long Will Hollywood Protect Harlow?” suggesting an affair between Jean Harlow and another actress’s husband. With these stories, the magazines were not only providing counter-narratives to those of the studio but also ridiculing studio publicity in general. 

In June and July of 1934, however, under tremendous pressure from the National Legion of Decency, the MPPDA created the Production Code Administration (PCA) and empowered it with the ability to enforce the Code. In practice, enforcement meant that exhibitors could cancel any film against which there was “a genuine protest on moral grounds.” A month later, Hays, afraid that censorship efforts would still use “racy” fan-magazine content as ammunition, commanded that all future fan-magazine articles be supervised and censored by the studios.

The studios backed the decree by threatening to cut their advertising—the magazines’ primary source of funding. The magazines were furious, but recognized that a sustained détente served no one. On August 15, the editors of the leading magazines met with studio publicity heads, did a bit of negotiating, and signed a pledge to rid their magazines of “false and salacious material.”

Publicity departments would provide writers with a list of approved and innocuous titles, and all interviews with stars required the supervision of a studio publicist. Writers would hang around the publicity department, hoping to overhear something that was somehow juicy enough to interest their editors … yet not too juicy, lest it set off Hays and the studios. The writers were stuck: The official studio line was banal and boring, yet any unsanctioned reportage would not only curb their access to the stars, but most likely get them fired. 

If a fan-magazine author dared to go behind the back of the studio and interview a star “off the lot,” studio executives threatened the stars with their morality clauses, which explicitly prevented stars from participating in unapproved interviews. As Anthony Slide explains in Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine, “[This] aspect of the morality clause was more ruthlessly applied than in other areas dealing with more outrageous behavior” such as drinking, “fornicating,” and drug use. Put differently, drunk driving or a wild night on the town could easily be covered up and neutralized—MGM in particular was known for its “fixers” and security personnel, who were “not above using bribery to keep an indiscretion secret.” Yet unsanctioned publicity was outside of studio control and, as such, exponentially more dangerous. Once released, it could circulate and profoundly alter the meaning and, consequently, the value of the star. Neither the studio nor Hays would stand for it. 

By ensuring that writers would never have unmediated access to the stars, the studios were effectively regaining their mastery over the flow of information, and, by extension, the meaning of their stars. Yet with time, the strictures loosened. In January 1939, Photoplay published “Hollywood’s Unmarried Husbands and Wives,” which broadcast that several upstanding star couples—including Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck—were living “in sin.” The issue sold out immediately and naturally infuriated the stars’ respective studios, which forced the stars to marry and demanded an apology from the magazine, granted in the next month’s issue. Never again would the magazines dare cross the powers-that-be so blatantly—at least, that is, until the transformation of the studio system in the 1950s. 

Ultimately, the publicity game during the so-called “golden age” of Hollywood was in-house and immaculately orchestrated. All who participated—stars, studios, gossip columnists, MPPDA heads—shared the same goal: keep the images (if not the actual actions) of the stars clean, and keep the audiences buying them, both literally and figuratively. 

Under the studio system, the boundaries, rules, and players in the publicity game were clearly delineated. Those boundaries and rules may have been periodically challenged, but it was a game, like most, with clear codes of conduct. Break those codes, and the consequences were clear: No one else would play with you.

Act Four: Expanding the League

By 1940, tensions between the stars and studios were running high, with James Cagney, Carole Lombard, Katharine Hepburn, and Margaret Sullavan all feuding with their respective studios. Olivia de Havilland, angry with the “mediocre scripts” offered by Warner Bros. following her Oscar-nominated role in Gone with the Wind, was repeatedly placed on suspension. Suspension was the studios’ means of enforcing contracts: When a star violated her contract in any way, including refusing to appear in a film, she was placed on suspension. If she was suspended for three months, then those three months would be added to the length of her contract. This arrangement seems logical, but some studios were using it to prolong contracts indefinitely, purposely placing stars in films so bad that they were compelled to refuse them.

De Havilland filed suit against Warner Bros. in California Superior Court, citing anti-peonage laws that prevented contracts enduring over seven years. In 1944, the court found in de Havilland’s favor, and while her courtroom victory did not end studio control over stars, it marked the first in a series of shifts that would transfer power formerly vested in the studios into the hands of the stars and those who managed them. Stars began to go freelance, relying on their agents to leverage power over the studios. With the Paramount Decree of 1948, the big five studios were transformed, forced to divest themselves of their exhibition arms. 

But even before 1948, they were preparing for change. With audience numbers already dropping in 1947, the big five studios realized that their massive studio lots, weighed down by hundreds of salaried below-the-line talent and expensive stables of stars, were no longer cost effective. Some studios sold off props; nearly all severely cut the number of actors, both stars and supporting, on contract. Only MGM sustained a stable on pre-war levels, with eighty stars still on contract in 1949. When the studios released their stars, the newly vital talent agencies were there to take their place.

And here’s where the industry was reborn. While agents had long existed in Hollywood, most studios forbade their presence on the lot, fearing their intervention with studio activity. But many stars, increasingly frustrated with recalcitrant studio policy, employed agents, who helped stars still on contract—including Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Judy Garland, Gregory Peck, Joan Crawford, and Jimmy Stewart—renegotiate for greater autonomy. 

As more stars began to acquire the service of agents, they also turned to personal publicists, then called press agents. During the 1930s, the studios discouraged or banned stars from contracting personal press agents. When Davis renegotiated her contract with Warner Bros. in 1943, it stipulated that she could hire a press agent to help with fan mail but not “for the purpose of arranging for interviews or giving statements to the press.” Crawford had a similar clause in her 1944 contract with Warner Bros. but violated it, hiring a press agent to help make Mildred Pierce (1945) a monster hit. 

Warner Bros. would later move to curb Crawford’s press agent, fearing overexposure. The symbolism, however, remained. Stars were gradually taking the publicity and management of their careers into their own hands, hiring independent contractors to perform functions previously fulfilled by the studios. Suddenly, it was as if every player had his own personal coach, trainer, and masseuse. The parameters of publicity play were expanding, and the game slowly began to resemble something quite different. 

There were fewer players on the field, and every one of them had a coach. Sometimes those coaches cooperated with each other; other times they worked against each other. The league commissioner was obsolete, and nobody seemed to be listening to the rapidly aging announcers. It was big-ego chaos, and one of the most fascinating periods in the history of Hollywood publicity. 

The first public play in this newly defined field came in the form of a high-profile marijuana arrest. In 1948, Robert Mitchum was hot stuff: He was coming off of a string of successful films, with a contract shared by independent producer David O. Selznick and RKO. But on September 1, he and B-list starlet Lila Leeds—a woman most definitely not his wife—were arrested for possession of marijuana. The police declaration was chilling: “We have reason to believe there is an ‘inside ring,’ right inside the film industry, supplying a large number of narcotics users.”

Mitchum declared his career over. But he was the first since the early 1920s to weather a scandal this grave in public—and he was still a contract player. He cooperated with Selznick and RKO’s efforts to rehabilitate his image, allowing Photoplay to publish apologetic narratives with his byline, pleading with the public to allow him another chance at both acting and fatherhood. When Mitchum was released from jail, he reentered his career, going on to tremendous success throughout the 1950s. Even as the game was changing, and the means of the all-encompassing cover-up were becoming less effective, it was still possible for those with traditional coaching to succeed. 

But two years later, Ingrid Bergman would flaunt the code of conduct so flagrantly, and with so little remorse, that she threw herself out of the game. Bergman had always been reticent to submit to the Hollywood star-making machine. When Selznick brought her to Hollywood from Sweden, she refused to undergo the typical image conditioning. Selznick thus constructed her as the “Nordic Natural”—a sort of anti-image that was, of course, an image in and of itself. 

When Bergman’s affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini came to light, she refused efforts to cover it up or blunt the backlash. “People saw me in Joan of Arc and declared me a saint,” she said, “I’m not. I’m just a woman, another human being.” Despite attempts on the part of her press agent to contextualize Bergman’s behavior, her lack of cooperation only aggravated her transgression. Bergman was denounced as an “instrument of evil” on the floor of the Senate, and her film with Rossellini, Stromboli, disappointed. Bergman also committed the cardinal sin of lying to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper about her pregnancy. According to film historian Adrienne McLean, when the news was later “scooped” by Hopper’s arch-rival, Louella Parsons, “Hopper’s enmity knew no bounds.” Bergman retreated to Europe, her American film career effectively over. 

Mitchum played by the old rules and survived; Bergman tried to break them and was thrown out of the game entirely. But she also made those rules visible—and opened them for questioning. As more stars took the freelance route, they worked with savvy press agents to free up the playing field and normalize different styles of play. Marlon Brando exemplified this new breed of Hollywood star: unfazed by scandal, seemingly unconcerned with publicity, and focused on acting.

Brando’s legend is well known: After blazing his way across Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire, he transplanted himself to Hollywood, reprised his role in Streetcar, and won four nominations for Best Actor in as many years. Brando also made it clear that stars no longer had to abide by the old rules: He signed no contracts, loathed the fan magazines, and slighted the gossip columnists. He stayed out late playing bongos in jazz (read: black) clubs, he wore “dirty dungarees,” he dated “normal girls.” He was a publicist’s nightmare, but he was all the more fascinating for it. The magazines continued to cover him; his films continued to succeed. 

Brando effectively told Hollywood that he didn’t want to play their game—he was just fine playing by himself, making films that mattered to him, acting as he pleased. But something startling happened: Instead of leaving him be, the game expanded to include him. Brando proved that there was more than one way to negotiate stardom. Which isn’t to say that many stars didn’t still rely on traditional forms of image control and management: Rock Hudson’s manager, Henry Willson, kept a veritable “man stable” of stars, finding wholesome-looking men, renaming them (“Rock,” “Dack,” “Tab”), and selling them as paragons of postwar masculinity. But as the studios became desperate for sure-fire hits, they relied increasingly on established stars, who could then leverage enormous salaries and a share of the profits with no need for a long-term studio contract. 

If stars going freelance and the steady rise of television weren’t enough, a brash, incendiary publication—and its immediate success—effectively set fire to the playing field. This magazine, cleverly named Confidential, promised to “[tell] the facts and [name] the names”—who was having sex with whom, who was covering up hidden pasts, who was secretly flaunting societal rules. 

Confidential threw out the publicity playbook. Unlike the fan magazines, which maintained symbiotic relationships with the studios, Confidential could afford to anger the stars, studios, and agents—it didn’t need them. Instead, editor Robert Harrison recruited a phalanx of busboys, hairdressers, aspiring actors, ladies of the night—the underclass of Hollywood—eager to report on the doings of the stars. 

Like the best gossip, it spread like wildfire, quickly reaching an audience of over 4 million an issue. As Humphrey Bogart famously quipped, “Everybody reads it, but they say the cook brought it in the house.” The magazine hinted at Liberace’s homosexuality, told the tale of “Robert Mitchum … the Nude Who Came to Dinner!” and promised to reveal what happened “When Lana Turner Shared a Lover with Ava Gardner.”

Confidential was no innocuous tabloid. It was dangerous to the studios—a point driven home when Harrison acquired hard proof of Rock Hudson’s homosexuality and threatened to publish it. A star could weather a dope charge, could deal with an affair. But in 1950s America, revealing that America’s leading heartthrob was, in fact, gay—it would’ve not only pulled Hudson’s career asunder, but spoken truth to the implicit lies of star production. Hudson’s manager engineered a deal, offering a story concerning Rory Calhoun’s juvenile delinquency if Harrison buried the Hudson evidence. The Calhoun story ran, and Hudson’s secret was safe—until an AIDS diagnosis forced it into the open thirty years later. 

Harrison could publish anything he wanted—given it treaded the fine line of libel—and answered to no one. He was outside what had been a closed system, and he was making solid money illuminating its crumbling infrastructure.

Confidential was eventually defanged following a high-profile “Trial of 100 Stars,” which forced Harrison to sell off the magazine and, by extension, put a stop to the “investigatory” profiling of stars. But for six years, it terrorized Hollywood, even as it doubled the publicity playing field. Before, publicists and gossip outlets could only play with positive information, bandying it back and forth, no matter how insipid and tired. Given the decades-long success of the tabloids, it was no surprise that audiences would consume scandal. What was novel, then, was that scandal didn’t ruin a star’s career: For the vast majority of stars featured in the pages of Confidential, the hint of scandal did not tarnish their overall value. The maxim “all publicity is good publicity” was still a stretch, yet the rules of acceptable star behavior were clearly in flux. 

As Confidential declined, the newly oriented fan magazines ascended. As freelance stars had little obligation to cooperate with the magazines, desperate editors began to co-opt the most successful of Confidential’s tactics, exploiting the Elizabeth Taylor–Eddie Fisher–Debbie Reynolds love triangle and the melodrama that followed. While some blamed the hoopla over the filming of Cleopatra—Taylor nearly dies from pneumonia; Fisher rushes to her side; Taylor cheats on Fisher with co-star Richard Burton—for a publicity cloud that eclipsed the film, the publicity was the film’s best advertisement. Twentieth Century Fox couldn’t force Taylor not to cheat: She was a freelance star. They couldn’t force Burton not to seduce her: He, too, was freelance. They couldn’t cover up the evidence, because they were gallivanting in full view of dozens of Italian paparazzi. 

So, after a bit of hand-wringing, they ran with it. 

This tentative embrace was a culmination of changes: the move to freelance, the re-arrangement of the studio system, the rise of Confidential, the decline of the fan magazine and traditional gossip columnist. But it marked a new, negotiated understanding of how to win the publicity game. Under the studio system, it had been possible to control the entire narrative—but again, that was a closed system, with all parties in cooperation.

As the number of celebrity-focused outlets proliferated, so, too, did the paparazzi providing material for their pages. By the early 1980s, the fan magazines were gone. In their place: People, the National Enquirer, and Entertainment Tonight, all trafficking in the lucrative business of “personality journalism.” Some of these outlets functioned as publicity lapdogs, gladly disseminating publicist-generated propaganda. Others, such as People, prided themselves on journalistic integrity, checking sources, and objective reporting of celebrity news, alternating cloying profiles of courage with distanced reviews of celebrity scandals already in the news. 

Some publications rose, others fell. Yet the publicity game stayed largely the same, save the growing importance of “super-publicists,” such as Pat Kingsley, responsible for the delicate crafting and crucial silences of Tom Cruise’s image through the 1990s and early 2000s. 

But in the early 2000s, the publicity game experienced a gradual yet fundamental paradigm shift: It went digital.

Act Five: Upgrading to Digital

Digital technologies—the Internet, digital photography, streaming video—have fundamentally changed the publicity game. It’s not a question of picture quality or aesthetics; rather, it’s a matter of volume. Put simply, digital tech makes it possible for an average paparazzo to take tens of thousands of pictures and for various web publications to post those photos at little to no cost. Suddenly, anyone with a digital camera and an w connection could be a paparazzo, and anyone with a modicum of web design skills could be a gossip blogger. The industry, in effect, went amateur—forcing the stars, after a handful of very public, obsessively documented breakdowns, to further professionalize and expand their own publicity management. 

There were other factors, including the renaissance of Us Weekly, now a mainstay of the celebrity gossip landscape. But Us was not always People’s slightly glossier, slightly gossipier cousin. It languished for more than two decades as Jann Wenner, publisher of Rolling Stone, tried to find a format that would work. It was part Entertainment Weekly, part Premiere, sometimes weekly, others monthly, always struggling. 

But in 2002, newly hired editor-in-chief Bonnie Fuller changed Us’s game plan, embracing the most successful and attractive components of the tabloid. Under Fuller, Us found a midway point between fawning and mean, between sickly sweet and sarcastic. She recognized celebrities as something unique, but at the same time humanized them in a way that made it easy to invest in their personal lives and problems. 

Fuller instituted myriad changes, but the most important was a simple feature: “Stars: They’re Just Like Us!” Fuller claimed that “nobody likes to read,” at least nobody who buys a gossip magazine. She thus used pictures—lots of them—to tell mini-narratives. A picture of a star pumping gas spoke volumes about that star’s relatability, accessibility, and “realness.” 

Photos of stars going grocery shopping, taking out the trash, and picking up after their kids were not the typical provenance of paparazzi photographers, who usually only wanted shots of stars doing something odd or scandalous. But Fuller understood that these quotidian photos were cheap, and could be procured en masse. The more the feature caught on, the more paps started stalking stars—not just at premieres or on dates, but in their daily lives.

A tremendously lucrative market for unsanctioned celebrity photos rapidly developed. By 2005, this market reached a fever pitch: Paparazzi were hiding in trash cans, renting helicopters, causing fatal car wrecks. They were so voracious that Los Angeles passed a “Stalkerazzi Law,” promising stiff fines to those who crossed the line into celebrities’ private spaces, both literal and virtual—making it an offense to take pictures or sound recordings of a person “engaging in a personal or familial activity under circumstances in which the plaintiff had a reasonable expectation of privacy […] regardless of whether there is a physical trespass.” 

With seemingly round-the-clock surveillance, it became increasingly difficult for a star, especially one living within striking distance of Los Angeles or New York, to hide. 

Between Us and the newly ascendant gossip blogs—Defamer, Perez Hilton, and dozens more—exponentially more “voices” were trying to “speak” the meaning of the star. But the task was still tenable: One just needed a meticulous, game-minded publicist and a compliant star. Damage control was possible: If a star messed up, a story could still be killed with promises of a future exclusive.

What changed in recent years, then, was the ability to control the narrative. Aggressive paparazzi, dozens of online outlets, and a hunger for unposed, “everyday” photos made it nearly impossible to control the number, and tone, of voices speaking the star’s meaning. Disheveled on a morning walk, drunkenly stumbling to the cab, scolding kids in the park—it made stars seem “more like us,” but it also made them seem less like stars.

The rules of the game had clearly changed—but no one really knew what these new rules were, or how to play by them. And as with any game that switches rules with players on the field, a sort of chaos ensued. 

If a star attempted to play by the old rules, he was ridiculed, lampooned, or labeled as old-fashioned. Tom Cruise imploded his career, firing Kingsley and replacing her with his sister, who allowed the hoopla surrounding his courtship of Katie Holmes to reach a fever pitch. But unlike in other high-profile star courtships, this wasn’t positive press: Between Cruise’s couch-jumping and the gossip blogs, he’d made himself the butt of the nation’s joke. Cruise wasn’t the only one to misplay the game: Michael Richards, Mel Gibson, and Alec Baldwin all self-destructed, largely thanks to the investigative, Confidential-style tactics of the upstart website TMZ. For these stars, audio and video were just as damning as a photo, and spoke volumes of the “real” star hiding beneath the public exterior. 

Which isn’t to say that all the stars were floundering. Angelina Jolie, for example, weathered what could have amounted to a career-sinking scandal, adroitly handling the publicity surrounding the filming of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, co-star Brad Pitt’s subsequent break-up with “America’s Sweetheart” Jennifer Aniston, and the revelation of Pitt and Jolie’s relationship and co-adoption of a daughter. A photo of Jolie and Pitt playing with Jolie’s adopted son, Maddox, on the beaches of Kenya, made the pages of Us Weekly and broke the news of their relationship wide open. In a blurry paparazzi photo, taken from hundreds of feet away, the couple seemed altogether oblivious to the presence of a photographer. 

In the years since the photo went public, many have argued it must have been staged: How could a paparazzi have been on the very Kenyan beach as the couple? Perhaps it was chance; more likely, it was arranged. Jolie, Pitt, their teams—they understood that the relationship would go public soon. Why not control the means, and tone, with which it was released? 

But the real brilliance wasn’t getting ahead of the story. It was releasing it using a mode (paparazzi) and aesthetic (unposed, grainy) associated with access to the “authentic” star. The less posed and manipulated the photo, the more true it seemed. The photo not only suggested that Pitt and Jolie were together, but that they were a family. 

Since 2005, the Jolie–Pitt publicity machine has endured endless suggestions of the couple’s demise, the adoption of son Pax, the birth of three biological children, an engagement, and numerous new films. They are among the most photographed stars in the world, yet the story of their images remains under their control. Remarkably, Jolie operates without the assistance of a publicist. Whether or not she receives P.R. from elsewhere—her agent, Pitt’s publicist—matters less than the fact that her lack of a publicist makes it seem like she’s not playing at anything. 

It’s ironic, perhaps, that the most successful publicity is that which elides its very existence. Yet in an age of seemingly constant mediation, we’ve become wary of anything—a photo, a story, a narrative—that seems overly manipulated.

That sentiment has led a host of celebrities to embrace “direct” publicity, using Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr to communicate, seemingly without mediation, to their fans. Ashton Kutcher, one of the first stars to embrace Twitter, declared it a means of taking back his own paparazzi: When he posted intimate pictures of then-wife Demi Moore, he effectively cut out the middleman. Taken to its logical extension, this style of direct publicity could hypothetically render the paparazzi obsolete. After all, who needs a picture of a celebrity running from the camera when you could have shots from within the bedroom? 

The rise of celebrity social media has not, in fact, put the paparazzi out of business; the fascination with “authentic” access to celebrities has only grown, as clearly evidenced in the case of Beyoncé Knowles. Beyoncé and husband Jay-Z have led a relatively private existence given their status as hip-hop royalty: Their wedding was shrouded in secrecy, and when Beyoncé gave birth to daughter Blue Ivy, they rented out the entire floor of the hospital. 

Working with their publicity team, however, the pair evinces tremendous social-media savvy, vividly manifest in Beyoncé’s Tumblr, which was revealed, with much fanfare, in April 2012. The Tumblr is a veritable public-relations masterpiece, intermingling photos and video of the couple’s private life, exotic vacations, and life “on the job.” The photos are gorgeous, but bear distinct resemblance to the aesthetics of an Instagram, taken with a smartphone. They’re playful, seemingly unposed, even blurry. They look, in other words, like the photos you take of your own friends and family. These photos, posted on Tumblr—a site usually reserved for personal expression—communicate intimacy, authenticity, immediacy—all the things that traditional publicity is not. 

This type of direct publicity has become the most effective means of establishing and texturing star image. Sure, many celebrities employ “ghost Twitterers,” most have little to do with the design of their web presence, and some even employ professional leisure photographers to take seemingly candid personal photos. If you look hard enough, the evidence of publicity manipulation slowly comes to light. What matters, however, is that the pleasures garnered from direct publicity are such that they discourage scrutiny. There are Rihanna’s Instagrams nestled beside those of your friends; there’s Alec Baldwin tweeting next to your coworkers. Stars: they’re just part of your circle of friends. 

We’ve gotten used to disbelieving what we see on the news, in the movies, and on television. But social media still seems to offer an authenticity that even the most mediation-weary of consumers can believe. These social-media-savvy stars are still doing tremendous amounts of image labor: Each tweet, each photo helps establish them not only as “real,” but a certain type of real, a new type of celebrity that appeals to a new type of fan. 

Which returns us, of course, to the case of Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds. A secret wedding communicates, at least on its surface, that the two are not trying to play the game at all. It’s not that they’re too good for it—a feeling one gets from the likes of Natalie Portman. It’s that, at least for this moment, they didn’t want to exploit it; they wanted something private, intimate, special, authentic. 

And if you, the gossip consumer, believe that, then Lively and Reynolds’s publicity “play” has been successful. Even as more photos emerge, even as a planned collaboration with Martha Stewart Weddings comes to light, they’ve still encouraged you to believe that the wedding, and the decision not to publicize it, was not one of a long stream of calculations on the part of both stars and their teams. The game has been reconfigured once again, only this time, the new rules make one thing clear: The way to win the publicity game is to look like you’re not playing at all. 


Removed image because it was from Corbis.


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William Eaton's picture
William Eaton · 9 years ago

Excellent and valuable piece. I find myself coming back to it again a year later. I encounter so many young writers who want to write about celebrities as if they were "people" -- as if we were able to know them in the way we might know a neighbor. There needs to be a better understanding of how these celebrity-people are created. Best, Wm. Eaton, Zeteo


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