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Camera Obscura 15.1 (2000) 122-161

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Missing Persons and Bodies of Evidence

Ann Chisholm *



Common lore in film history has it that the first film star, Florence Lawrence, emerged, ironically enough, precisely at the same moment she was nowhere to be found. 1 The apocryphal tale that Carl Laemmle orchestrated Lawrence's disappearance in order to secure additional publicity and, in so doing, inadvertently began the star system is not unfamiliar. Likewise, the notion that presence and absence might converge in a relation of mutual implication is not altogether new. What has been overlooked in most histories of US cinema and in most contemporary works on stardom, however, is the fact that the absence of a star's body and the presence of its double or substitute is, and has been, crucial not only to the phenomenon of the film star but also to cinematic production, representation, and pleasure.

Body doubles can be defined briefly as persons whose bodies or body parts are filmed for the purpose of replacing the bodies or body parts of motion picture actors. Body doubles occasionally perform stunt work, but the American film industry has defined and positioned the two occupations quite differently. Although body doubles often are constitutive of pivotal plot points in many films, in the context of US film production they [End Page 123] have been coded as nonessential. Emerging from the ranks of extras, as opposed to those of principal players, they are relegated to the margins of the film industry. Nevertheless, thanks to the efforts of body doubles, Julia Roberts poses as the stunning prostitute (and model for Rodeo Drive fashions) in Pretty Woman (1990), Janet Leigh flails in Psycho's shower sequence (1960), Greta Garbo falls through the ice in the final scenes of Love (1927), and Vivien Leigh returns to Tara. 2

Mapping the nature and functions of doubling, however, is not an easy, straightforward task. In large part, direct references to body doubling are absent from the majority of industry documents available for historical study. Likewise, body doubles often do not receive screen credit for their work and are asked to sign contracts agreeing not to reveal their part in the production of cinematic illusion.

How is it, then, that body doubling can be a historical effect that has been devalued within the US film industry and yet at the same time yields effects that are vital to the industry and to the texts it produces? How can these circumstances be investigated when direct references to body doubling (in terms of its status both as an effect and as a generator of effects) have been ignored and masked in industry records and in film texts? 3

In addition to the obvious strategy of collecting and analyzing the few existing references pertaining directly to body doubles, solutions to the problem posed by this second question regarding their near erasure can be found by interrogating the conditions of their absence in available artifacts. This approach to historical inquiry in turn necessitates circumventing the impulse to define body doubling as a singular, uncomplicated vocation that is the culmination of a series of points leading from the past to the present in the causal chain of history. Body doubling instead can be understood in relation to other functions of the cinematic apparatus that historically have been granted a greater degree of discursive visibility within the US film industry--in relation to the stand-in, the extra, the stunt double, and the star. 4

This study examines cracks and crevices in the narratives of received histories in order to delineate and to understand the [End Page 124] complexities of body doubling, while parsing its functions historically and theoretically. An effect of diverse moments of institutionalization, body doubling has been constructed and positioned in terms of constellations of binary oppositions. The residue of those earlier genealogical moments and relations still clings to the filmed bodies of doubles and simultaneously reveals the means through which these ostensibly secondary and supplementary bodies also function to guarantee the economies undergirding filmic discourse.

At this point, my first question...


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pp. 123-161
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2005
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