How divas were lost in Hollywood history

In the old days, actresses could retain their mystique through careful control of their image. Not any more, says Geoffrey Macnab

What ever happened to Kirsten Dunst? The American actress's recent screen career underlines how difficult it is to be a movie star in a digital world.

Two of her most recent films, the raucous comedy-drama Bachelorette and Lars von Trier's apocalyptic Melancholia were released first on VOD (video-on-demand) in the US. It is fitting, although not very flattering to her, that Bachelorette should have become a No. 1 hit on iTunes at just the time that Robert Aldrich's caustic thriller What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) is being revived. (Marking its 50th anniversary, Aldrich's classic is being shown in a restored print at the London Film Festival this month.)

"Women old enough to know better act like horny sailors on leave, absorb mass quantities of alcohol and drugs, and generally behave horribly," complained USA Today about Bachelorette. The more serious problem for Dunst, though, is that when your movies are watched first on laptops and TVs rather than in cinemas, your mystique is bound to be compromised.

No one is suggesting that Dunst is yet in the same doldrums as Baby Jane Hudson, the one-time child-star turned hectoring harridan, who torments her sister in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Nonetheless, Dunst's case illustrates how completely Hollywood has been transformed since the heyday of female stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson and Greta Garbo. These actresses may not always have controlled their careers but they were ferociously protective of their screen image.

Dietrich, for example, was (as her New York Times obituary made clear) "a thorough professional and perfectionist, expert in make-up, lighting, clothes and film editing." Having been tutored by Josef von Sternberg, who discovered her and directed her in films from The Blue Angel to The Scarlet Empress, she knew exactly how to project glamour on screen.

Garbo, meanwhile, had her own cinematographer, William H. Daniels, who used filters and side lighting to make her close-ups as striking as possible. Her hermit-like existence once her Hollywood career was over helped her retain an air of mystery.

As for Joan Crawford, she grew up dirt poor but, once she became a star, went to extraordinary lengths to live up to her fans' expectations. In an interview with the American writer Studs Terkel, she revealed that on a typical publicity tour, she changed costumes five times a day and travelled with 36 matching bags and gloves.

"It gives you a responsibility to be to them [the fans] whatever they want you to be," she told Terkel in his book American Dreams: Lost and Found. "It's quite a responsibility, dear friend. You get on your mettle. You get a little taller, you stand on your toes."

It's easy to mock the vanity of Hollywood's aging divas. As What Ever Happened To Baby Jane and Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard make very evident, the one-time stars led wretched lives, forever peering back into their pasts. Norma Desmond, the forgotten star played by Gloria Swanson, isn't exactly a role model to emulate. Nonetheless, as she so famously put it as she remembered the silent era: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."

The problem for Dunst's generation is that these stars don't have "faces." If their movies are being watched on laptops and TVs rather than the big screen, they become just yet more talking heads. When sadistic celebrity gossip sites publish pictures of them getting drunk or taking their garbage out, fans are reminded very forcefully of how earthbound they now are.

The fans have long had a sneaking interest in the dark side of the industry. From the Fatty Arbuckle controversy in the early 1920s (when the popular comedian was charged with murdering the actress Virginia Rappé) to the deaths, suicides and illicit affairs covered in scandal sheets like Confidential ("uncensored and off the record"), the private lives of the stars have always been pored over in exhaustive detail. The popularity of Kenneth Anger's muckraking Hollywood Babylon books underlined the fans' interest in prurient yarns about the misbehaviour of their idols. However, countering this worm's eye view of the business were the films the stars actually made. Whatever allegations Anger made about Crawford's misdeeds and dubious career choices in her early years, we could see her up on screen in Grand Hotel or Mildred Pierce. Even late in her career, in a film as curdled and vicious as Baby Jane, she retained the glamour and arrogance of a real movie star. With a contemporary tabloid idol like Lindsay Lohan, the balance isn't the same at all. She hasn't made enough movies to distract from the constant stream of unflattering stories about her private life.

It's obvious that many contemporary actresses yearn for the glamour they associate with an older Hollywood. That's why so many are playing stars from that era. Lohan's new film Liz & Dick, in which she stars as Elizabeth Taylor opposite Grant Bowler's Richard Burton, premieres on American television next month. Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman recently started shooting Grace of Monaco, a biopic in which she stars as Grace Kelly. Last year, we had Michelle Williams' virtuoso turn as Marilyn Monroe in the British-made My Week With Marilyn. Sienna Miller is shortly to be seen as Tippi Hedren in The Girl and Scarlett Johansson is playing Janet Leigh in the new film Hitchcock.

What is equally clear is that these contemporary stars will struggle to emulate the power and charisma of Davis, Crawford, Monroe, Kelly, Hedren et al. on screen. This isn't to do with their ability. They are mostly fine actresses. Their problem is that the machine that helped create the older stars is broken. Keira Knightley is fortunate in having a cinematographer (in Seamus McGarvey) she works with regularly both on films like Anna Karenina and on her Chanel ads. Nonetheless, the armies of publicists, make-up artists and technicians who helped mould stars like Davis and Crawford have long since disbanded. Notions of what constitutes glamour have changed too. Outside pop promos and advertisements, the highly stylised lighting, camerawork and make-up that characterised Dietrich's collaborations with von Sternberg would seem jarring and odd to audiences today. The roles that stars are taking has changed too. After all, portraying a coke-snorting, hard-drinking party girl (as Dunst does in Bachelorette) isn't quite the same as playing Queen Christina. Greta Garbo's movies didn't premiere on VOD – and she never had to share the screen with male strippers either.

'What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?' screens at the London Film Festival, 18 & 21 October

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