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  • Beyond the Looking Glass: Narcissism and Female Stardom in Studio-Era Hollywood by Ana Salzberg
  • Sara Bakerman
Beyond the Looking Glass: Narcissism and Female Stardom in Studio-Era Hollywood, by Ana Salzberg, New York, Berghahn Books, 2014, 206 pages, $90.00 (hardcover) ISBN 978–1-78238–399-4

Ana Salzberg's Beyond the Looking Glass: Narcissism and Female Stardom in Studio-Era Hollywood accomplishes the ambitious task of writing film history through the lens of psychoanalytic theory. Emphasizing the [End Page 67] star-actress as "a living subject rather than a static icon," this volume seeks to interrogate such figures' relationship to the cinema screen's image of the ideal (3). Viewing stars in both on- and off-screen contexts, Salzberg invites the audience, alongside the actresses themselves, to scrutinize the fan-star relationship in theoretical terms.

Maintaining compellingly in the introduction that the narcissism of stars and star-hopefuls is central to the perpetuation of Hollywood mythology, Salzberg crafts a unique argument that recasts the historical narrative of material culture, star image, and publicity in terms of female subjectivity and long-term popular culture. She cites such landmark scholars as Hortense Powdermaker, Richard Dyer, Mary Ann Doane, Laura Mulvey, Edgar Morin, and even Sigmund Freud, demonstrating a thorough and extensive knowledge of both core theoretical principles and American cultural history. The theories invoked here are broken down and explicated in ways that are – importantly – understandable and clearly in the service of a central argument. In this sense, the book is useful for students of history who do not often engage with theoretical discourse, while at the same time engaging for media scholars who prefer historical texts steeped in abstract philosophical methods.

The introduction to this volume is successful in establishing a case for applying a strictly theoretical methodology to classical film history. Focusing on such iconic stars as Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Marilyn Monroe, as well as famous films about women, Mildred Pierce and Leave Her to Heaven (both 1945), Salzberg is able to cast a wide net with her approach. Each of these chapters – eight, to be exact – takes on slightly different kinds of cinematic femininity, and, more importantly, each represents a different mode of fan/star engagement with such images.

That being said, the quantity of the subjects represented in Salzberg's chapters occasionally comes at the expense of quality, or at least depth, of the analysis. Chapter One, "Garbo Talks: Expectation and Realization," is among the best of the eight, taking into consideration several of the Swedish actress's films alongside her commonly mythologized screen image to theorize the "anxieties of transition" in the historical shift from silent to sound film (18). This is followed by a chapter on Katharine Hepburn that makes some interesting interventions in the discourse surrounding Hepburn's notable performance as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940). However, this chapter seems too brief for Salzberg to really dig deep into the theoretical aspects of the performance; much of the analysis here is bogged down by lengthy exposition of the plot and descriptions of specific scenes in the film. This problem recurs in most of the chapters, and while each one presents refreshingly original, theory-minded histories of specific stars and screen figures, they fight for space and time in this fairly brief volume.

Chapter Four, which discusses Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth in relation to the restrictions of the Production Code, is more successful than the three previous ones, mainly because it includes more extensive historical research. Centering on the "conflict between censorship and sensuality," Salzberg analyzes in psychoanalytic terms the specific language of the Production Code's guidelines as they pertain to the presentation and objectification of the female body (79). This section also hints at a broader theoretical argument regarding the status of female performers in the film industry of the 1940s and later that is never overtly established but nevertheless compelling. The fifth chapter, "'Wherever There's Magic': Performance Time in Sunset Boulevard (1950) and All About Eve (1950)," extends these notions of gender and performance in Hollywood to the meta-narratives of these postwar productions. Salzberg prefaces this chapter with a brief...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9922
Print ISSN
0360-3695
Pages
pp. 67-69
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-29
Open Access
No
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