Thursday, April 16, 2015

Scandals of Classic Hollywood by Anne Helen Peterson (2014)

In my other life, I am a film scholar in the making. I am (slowly!) writing a postgraduate thesis on stardom and classical Hollywood. I was familiar with Anne Helen Petersen from her column Scandals of Classic Hollywood on the Hairpin and her blog Celebrity Gossip Academic Style (which now appears to be defunct), so when I saw this book on Netgalley I could not request it fast enough. Gossip! Scandal! Stardom! Hollywood! All of my favourite things. I was super chuffed to receive an ARC and started it straight away. And, then... Well, let's just say there's a reason it's taken me six months to write this review.

Scandals of Classic Hollywood is about the scandals that occurred during Hollywood's classical era (about 1910-1960). Petersen argues that scandals occur when actions of a star violate the status quo. Using an understanding of the star as an embodiment a particular way of life that resonates with the public, scandals occur when this embodiment is in some way disrupted - for example, when "Saint Ingrid" Bergman had an affair with a married director and got pregnant out of wedlock, the scandal was not so much her actions but how her actions violated her star image. All good so far. I agree with that completely and there are some good things about this book. The scandals that Petersen discusses are well selected and very interesting. All of them are entertaining to read about and were very scandalous at the time. She also brings light to some really important events in film history that shaped the film industry and how movies were made but are very little known about outside film studies, like the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. This is a good thing.

But (there's always a but!) this book has some really big negatives as well. Basically, Petersen is a really sloppy writer. Focusing on the Arbuckle scandal, Petersen describes his off-screen life as "a page straight out of a Dickens novel" before using examples that demonstrate that she has in fact never read a Dickens novel and doesn't understand what she is referring to. She says "Arbuckle was the star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck, which is part of the reason the studios were so threatened by him." What studios? How were they threatened, since you've just told us that studio Paramount gave him an awesome deal and "championed him as a master director, with an artistic touch." What about Charlie Chaplin, Arbuckle's contemporary who was also a star-director-producer powerhouse long before the age of Clooney and Affleck? Also, "age of Clooney and Affleck"? What does that even mean? What about Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, all of the other ones before Clooney and Affleck? Petersen is implying that Arbuckle was the kind of star that wouldn't be seen again for eighty years but, although this makes the story sound better and more scandalous, it's just not correct. Statements like that abound throughout the whole book and are very frustrating for a knowledgeable reader who knows that the truth is being manipulated for to make the story sound better (which, in all fairness, it does).

The thing is, Anne Helen Petersen has a PhD in film studies. One of her supervisors was the famous film scholar Janet Staiger. This kind of academic sloppiness is either plain laziness or domenstrates a complete lack of respect for her readers. Petersen has said that her book was not "legit" in academia because she got paid to write it. I suspect it was more that it demonstrates really poor scholarship. It's absolutely entertaining and a ripping read but so was Kenneth Anger's Hollywood Babylon. It would be perfect to read by the beach on a holiday but read with a grain of salt. Two and a half stars.

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