The Star Machine is the third book I've read by Jeanine Basinger, and for someone who doesn't read a great deal of books about Old Hollywood (at least not as much as some), I've found I really enjoy her writing in particular. She totally knows her stuff about film, but she writes almost like a really smart blogger than a university professor, which she is.
You get a sense of her through her books: her life, her history with film, the things about them she values, even her sense of humor. Her books give you an education for sure, but it's one filtered through her specific experiences. In a way, it's within the same ballpark as what I do here, only she's way smarter about film than me.
Oh, and she has some pretty famous students: Michael Bay, Joss Whedon, Akiva Goldsman, Martin Scorsese's daughter Domenica, among others. They talk about her in this THR article from a couple of years ago.
Machine is about how the old studio system, from the dawn of the sound era onward, took the actors in their films and made them stars. In a way, it's a rather sobering account: Basinger emphasizes the business side of show business, the way the studios took a given actor's on-screen persona, crafted films to match that persona, and sold it to the public through the media. The studios regarded stars the way GM regarded cars: as product, and they treated them as such - but they gave them fame, fortune and a sort of immortality in return.
Basinger provides examples of the machine at work, profiling the careers of not only A-list stars, but supporting players, actors who found stardom later in their lives, stars created to fill the void left by World War 2, stars who were, to put it kindly, less glamorous than others, even child stars. We see actors who worked with the system and those who rebelled against it, actors who strove to make quality material and those who provided light escapist fare.
Basinger understands their appeal. She writes critically about why a Tyrone Power or a Lana Turner were marked for stardom, and how the machine shaped their careers, but she never forgets the audience's perspective; indeed, it's crucial to that understanding, and she is as much a part of that audience as the reader. She never forgets that either. She also does a brief comparison at the end with today's stars, free of the studio system but with a different set of obstacles.
The Star Machine provides an intimate understanding of what it meant to be a star in Old Hollywood that's both terrifying and mesmerizing. It's a very unique film history book.
Also by Jeanine Basinger:
I Do and I Don't