Today on the show, Terry is talking with Ty Burr, the film critic for The Boston Globe and author of the new book Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame. Burr talks about the star-making machine of early Hollywood and so as a little prep-reading, I thought I’d highlight this great piece from The Hairpin about Theda Bara by Anne Helen Petersen that really gets to the strange heart of the Hollywood image factory.
This image was unlike any publicity concoction we’ve ever seen. Sure, Hollywood regularly erased stars’ histories, but rarely as boldly, and with such little concern for credibility, as it did with Bara’s. Fox didn’t just give Bara a new name or a new ethnicity, it made her a creature of the underworld. Sure, part of this was just good, old-fashioned publicity playfulness, with the majority of the American public in on the joke. But part of it — namely, the conflation of ethnicity with sexuality and “otherness” — was a manifestation of the Western obsession with “Orientalism,” sometimes known as “white people fetishizing Eastern cultures to reaffirm their own whiteness.” Her success, in other words, was part of a large-scale desire to look at otherness while simultaneously disavowing it in oneself — a complicated psychic process not unlike that of watching most reality television.