Performing Stardom

Curator's Note

A tendency has appeared across several recent films whereby we see stars playing actors who – during overtly performative moments – allude to elements of their star persona. I wish simply to raise a few thoughts on three varying forms of this tendency, suggesting its reliance on both modernist and postmodernist ideas on the interchangeability of the actor/spectator positions. Juliette Binoche’s performance in Haneke's 'Code Unknown' (2000) and her two performances for Kiarostami ('Shirin' and 'Certified Copy' [both 2010]) exemplify the Brechtian lineage of the "verfremdungseffekt" in cinema. Using direct address, these performances confront the spectator with close-ups of Binoche’s iconic image, detaching us from the diegesis in differing but nevertheless related ways. Each moment a reflection on the ethics of spectatorship, Binoche becomes a surface for the realigning of the active/passive duality of actor and spectator through the method of alienation. Despite its stylistic difference to the aforementioned example, Folman’s 'The Congress' (2013) uses the semi-fictionalised persona of Robin Wright to continue this self-reflexive concern with star persona. In the ‘scan’ scene (whereby she allows the studio to digitally replicate her body for future use) a polemic is staged on the ethics of performance in ways similar to Haneke’s and Kiarostami’s ethics of spectatorship. Focus is again given to the star as star – doing what stars do. Yet in its concern for mobilising the corporeality, affectivity and authenticity of this quasi-biographical star concept, this performance draws upon Artuadian ideas of immersion. While Binoche’s iconic image directs us away from the narrative, Wright’s is used to further embed the spectator into this bizarre world. The third form departs from the modernist spectator to what Kristeva deemed representative of an inherent otherness: the intertextual performance of stardom. Of course, as Richard Dyer claimed, all star images are intertextual (1986: 3); but the ‘permutation of texts’ (Kristeva, 1980: 36) in Iñárritu’s 'Birdman' (2014) are, I think, constitutive of the film’s technical achievement. This is initiated by Keaton’s career as reference point; but these permutations abound. Anxious to attain recognition as an actress, Naomi Watts’s ‘Lesley’ reprises ‘Betty’ (from Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive' [2001]). The surprising, heated moment she shares with co-star ‘Laura’ transports the spectator to ‘Betty’s’ relationship with ‘Diane’ – one of the most iconic lesbian relationships (or perhaps, ‘lezploitations’) in recent cinema history. Binoche’s confrontation, Wright’s immersion and Watts’s quotation all provoke a dialogue with the spectator from the stage of the star.


Thanks James, this is such a rich commentary on the intertextuality of contemporary stardom. I wonder about the gendered nature of all this and to what extent this is specific to female stardom? All the actresses you refer to are woman over 40. I was also wondering to what extent the specific nature of the star personas of Binoche/Wright/Watts relates to the three tendencies you identify? This also makes me think of Scarlett Johansson's performance in Under the Skin. I'm curious: which of the tendencies you identify, if any, do you see ScarJo's performance as the alien seductress relating to?

Great post and good follow-up comments, Tanya! I like what you're calling attention to here with your question about ScarJo's performativity. I feel like this sort of star performativity is not necessarily tied to this contemporary moment. We can see this performativity in many early films in which actresses are playing characters who are also acting (regardless of whether they are playing characters who are actually actors). I'm thinking here of Bette Davis's performance of an actress in All About Eve but also her performance of deception in films like Deception or The Great Lie. These seem to be moments that are calling attention to the nature of acting and performance as such. There's something about watching a great star perform a character who is performing that seems to ask the spectator to think critically about the constructed nature of the image and this is something that has roots in studio-era stardom (and before, I'm sure).

Thanks so much for your even richer response, Tanya! First, I have to agree about the centrality of gender here. We might note how different the formal and thematic operations are in Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION or SOMEWHERE: both films about male actors, using distancing techniques, but in very different ways to the Binoche films. In the films I mention, 'woman' is a construct under scrutiny as much as acting in general, the stakes of which perhaps signals a political dimension: it draws attention to the confines of the woman's 'role' and the way it 'should' be played. I think the age issue ties in here too. In each of the films mentioned, it's clear that each woman has reached a kind of crisis moment; that a particular kind of action is supposed to be taken relating to their integrity or something like that. It speaks very much to what I believe Laura Mulvey has been saying in her revised discussions about Hitchcock (in talks she has given between 2013-2014 in the UK and US). That is, certain ideas about femininity are being staged, only to be unsettled and opened up for debate. I don't have much to offer on the particularity of each star besides my thoughts on the intertextuality of Watts However, I would reiterate Catherine Wheatley's comments (in 'Michael Haneke's Cinema' [2009]) on Binoche's extra-cinematic function, whereby (again channelling Mulvey's recent comments) Hitchcock-style casting occurs, locating the spectator in a liminal space between the celebrity of the star and the 'quality' of the star. Wright's performance of stardom hinges totally on the emotional, using the quasi-biographical narrative as a way of heightening the emotional impact. It's not really trying to affect us in a melodramatic way; it instead seems to stage those immersive tropes. She effectively embodies the fringe actress: a once-great potential, now disposable. This is tragic, but also utterly strange and synthetic Finally, on ScarJo (which is a great term by the way!), I think this is very relevant even if not directly about acting in the sense that I frame this piece. She is of course performing. She has also, of course, been handpicked for her star purchase. Watching UNDER THE SKIN, don't we wish Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn starred in such a visionary, probing film? ScarJo is a present-day screen siren that has had her star femininity deconstructed in a way we would surely love to see more often. Thanks again for the comment. Offering up gender as an issue is a really useful way of showing how this tendency provides a frame for a lot of potential debates.

Thanks Staci. I agree, we can't and shouldn't tie the origins of self-reflexive performance to the contemporary moment (although I think it would be interesting to hear ideas on what the issues framing that contemporaneity would in fact be - is there something in the world in the past 15 or so years that demands self-reflexive performances more so than other times?) Instead, I think it's useful to (like you) note that there is a continuity here; that this isn't a new newfangled idea by any means; and that it arguably has as much to do with a formalistic repetition of certain marginal conventions as much as anything else. Nevertheless, that it does persist in contemporary cinemas that seem to depart in so many ways from classical styles is fascinating, I think.

Hi James, A very interesting thread. I'd like to pose your question to Staci a bit differently: what is it about contemporary film (or contemporary culture) that makes us assume that, in contrast with the past, there is something different about self-reflexive performance in the past 15 years? I am thinking about the wealth of self-reflexive performances in older films, going back to Show People with Marion Davies who plays a fictional star who meets Marian Davies; or the numerous comedian comedies where stars like Bob Hope break the fourth wall to reflex upon their own persona or, as often happens, comes across Bing Crosby; or the kind of self-reflexivity in the performances of Swanson in Sunset Boulevard and Garland in the remake of A Star Is Born; and so forth. I know you agree that this is a longtime convention but I am intrigued by the question of its being continuous and an inescapable inflection of movies about movies, especially when they are implicated in the Hollywood mystique, or discontinuous because there is something about the 21st century that demands such self-reflexivity. In my own research I have found the former to be the case insofar as I would argue that the genre--and I working with the back studio picture as a genre stretching from silents to the present day--demands such self-reflexivity as a means of validating is representation of moviemaking as authentic and true. Perhaps what is newer is that movies NOT concerned with moviemaking or Hollywood now plays with such self-reflexivity?

Thanks for both of your follow-up comments. I wouldn't want to rush to say that, as James suggests, that there's something in the past 15 years that 'demands self-reflexive performances more so than other times.' Rather, I would prefer to call attention to the different industrial contexts that produce these performances. Steven points to self-reflexivity in the back studio picture. The Hollywood studio-era back studio picture is not reflexively calling attention to the same sort of back studio as a contemporary back studio picture, I'm sure. I think it might be productive to consider the way that self-reflexive performances are utilized at different industrial moments in order to consider the version of Hollywood which they are reflexively calling attention to. This is just to say that it's important to not privilege this moment over another moment or ask "why now?" but, rather, it's important to look at the specific circumstances which produce such depictions.

Fascinating post, James, as indicated by the dynamic discussion that's followed. I would join in by connecting this conversation to our comments about Steven's post, about "art" cinema's use of self-reflexivity to distinguish itself from "Hollywood" cinema. Although I haven't seen 'The Congress' (but based on that clip, will rush to do so), it's clearly referencing contemporary studio movie-making and, I'm guessing by the ominously sci-fi inflected tone and mise-en-scene, predicting a rather dystopian future that lies ahead -- for actors especially. (At the same time, Keitel's story looks back to the "cinema of attractions," probing the ethics of spectatorship vis-a-vis the film-as-freakshow analogy.) While self-reflexive performance is not exclusively the province of contemporary cinema, the examples you provide seem indicative of art cinema's attempt to distinguish itself from contemporary trends in Hollywood-style/mainstream cinema, both as a means of sustaining its own star system (through iconicity and intertextuality, as you note) and of offering the spectator an experience that is both immersive and "true." Another example that comes to mind is Olivier Assayas' just-released 'The Clouds of Sils Maria,' in which Binoche plays an actor much like Binoche, and Chloe Grace Moretz plays a movie-star much like (co-star) Kristen Stewart. The film stages an ongoing debate over the supposed truth of "serious" art (represented by the theatre) versus the possibility of taking so-called Hollywood hokum (represented by a superhero/sci-fi blockbuster) seriously. In so doing, the film offers itself up as a reflexive-yet-immersive middle road.

Thank you Steven and Maria for these wonderful contributions. I think Maria's reference to the new Assayas film is useful since it clearly demonstrates the persistence of cinephilia in film itself - an ever-present in art film since the French New Wave. And I think it's also very interesting to contextualise CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA in the contemporary cinematic climate. It is very clearly to do with issues regarding the state of Hollywood and its artistic, auteurist opposition (mainly from Europe). Again, we can say this is certainly not new, but the terms of the conversation (while not novel) have certainly changed somewhat. This brings me to another form of historicization. If we are saying that there is nothing new in recent usages of this style, we are rejecting the way societies and cultures change over time. In the Binoche, Wright and Watts examples, we have performances that are certainly in dialogue with their own contemporary technologies, cultural and artistic climates. Thus, what I termed 'a dialogue with the spectator' in CODE INCONNU, SHIRIN, THE CONGRESS and BIRDMAN is not ONLY a dialogue on the continuing pleas for recognition of cinema's authenticity (even at a time of its 'death'). Rather, it's the beginning of a dialogue that can open outward towards a number of possibilities. We've seen this with Tanya's comments on gender: performing stardom is a catalyst for a multitude of contexts beyond film itself.

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