The Star Machine's title promises a dishy inside look at the dirty machinery of star-making in the studio era, and a voyeuristic exposé of the rough-and-tumble art of transforming mere mortals with clumsy names, podunk hometowns, and messy personal lives into glistening idols with studio-crafted histories, screen names that pop off marquees, and private lives scrubbed clean of scandal and sin. Unsurprisingly, the most intriguing parts of Jeanine Basinger's doorstop of a tome are the ones chronicling how studios used the base components of stars' lives as mere clay in fashioning glistening cinematic gods. The machinery of pop-stardom is fascinating and underexplored. But the stars hijack Basinger's imagination and her book. After some fascinating early chapters, Machine turns into an endless battery of appreciations of stars Basinger feels have been unfairly maligned or forgotten, like Loretta Young and Deanna Durbin. A more honest title might be A Bunch Of Stars I Think Are Great.
Basinger's book ties together stars and machinery by exploring how actors rebelled against, collaborated with, or opted out of a studio system intent on typing them into a narrow set of roles. Durbin, for example, was doomed to forever play the perky, problem-solving upstart, while Errol Flynn was typecast as a dashing, rakish lover and man of action. Basinger has some penetrating insights into the way macho stars of the past used irony and distance to separate themselves from their often-ridiculous films, creating a sneaky subversive bond with their audience. But too often, the book gets bogged down in unedifying film-by-film recaps of thwarted or glorious careers.
Much of the primal appeal of moviegoing stems from watching beautiful people in sexually charged scenarios, and it's disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But there's something disconcerting about film scholars who obsess over a favorite star's erotic appeal. Machine could easily trim 50 pages of fat just by editing out every loving description of how amazing sex symbols like Tyrone Power look in their perfectly tailored costumes. (Of course they look good— they're fucking movie stars.) Machine's epic length (more than 600 pages) speaks less to a broad, expansive vision than to a stubborn unwillingness to edit judiciously. It would benefit from more critical analysis and much less starstruck, fangirl ardor.