Lightning in a Bottle in Triplicate: Complicating Originality Conventions in Star Studies


  • Tamar Hanstke Undergraduate Research Opportunities (URO)/UBC


Richard Dyer’s (1979) seminal work in the star studies field cemented originality and individuality as key components of successful star images in the golden age of Hollywood. What his work did not address, however, are the many examples of Hollywood studios attempting to replicate star images that had recently found great success at another studio. While many of these imitations never attained the same popularity as the original star, there were some exceptions, and my research analyzes the careers of three such actresses from the 1940s who achieved great popularity despite being frequently criticized as copies of each other: Veronica Lake, Lauren Bacall, and Lizabeth Scott. Through a close analysis of their representations in 1940s fan magazines, I seek to challenge Dyer’s theory that a star must be a unique individual to find a devoted fan-base. Firstly, I examine how Lake’s early popularity arose from her iconic ‘peekaboo’ hairstyle, yet originality ultimately hindered her success when fans began to view herdistinguishing feature as a silly gimmick, leading to her early retirement from acting. Secondly, I reveal how Bacall’s star image was built off of and remains intrinsically tied to her real-life relationship with Humphrey Bogart, supporting Polley’s (2017) theoretical framework for the “star couple” as distinct from Dyer’s concept of the individual star. Thirdly, I show how Scott never found any kind of original identity for herself, yet her imitative qualities themselves have allowed her to develop a cult reputation that has kept her legacy alive to this day. Over the course of these case studies, I evidence the pivotal role fan magazines played in affirming the authenticity of Hollywood stars for a mass audience of filmgoers. Through thesecounterexamples to Dyer’s foundational theories, I prove that Hollywood’s star system did not just create objectively unique personalities, but also manufactured replica stars who, with the help of fan magazines, were able to use imitation to their advantage, uncovering innovative new ways to manifest their underlying individuality. I finally connect this conclusion to the contemporary era, in which countless burgeoning talents seek popularity through replicating the successes of their already-famous idols. In this, these future icons are greatly influenced by tensions between originality and imitation in crafting their modern ascent into life as one of those heavenly bodies known as film stars.