After Mary Pickford, a doll-faced Hollywood star under a tangle of blonde curls, divorced her husband in favor of her dashing co-star, her many admirers and the tabloid press revolted. She replied: “I now realize my mistake. I have learned now that I do not belong to myself.” It was 1920, and since, there has been nearly a century of Hollywood stars learning they do not belong to themselves. They belong to the public; they belong to their images; they belong to the larger force that makes them a star (sparkling font, little lightbulbs in the shape of the letters). Only in the face of a mishap does it seem that each generation of celebrity learns — wide-eyed and betrayed and betraying — that their actions are amplified, in forever echoing scandal.
This is the story that opens Anne Helen Petersen’s first book, Scandals of Classic Hollywood (out today), which covers celebrity gossip from 1905 to 1955 through a dozen or so disgraces. The essays follow iconic stars (Mae West! Lauren Bacall! Judy Garland! Marlon Brando!), along with their glimmering personas and the rumors that might have undone them. Did Clara Bow sleep with a whole football team? Was Jean Harlow killed by her own hair dye?
Petersen received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas, where she wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry; she brought her writing to a general audience with a column for the Hairpin and now contributes to BuzzFeed. She speaks readily about the hydra of star-making forces, with affection for some tabloids (Us Weekly: “a wily one”) and genuine disappointment in the pabulum state of the celebrity profile. The Cut talked to her about the world of gossip, past and present.
Your book looks at the past, but your recent work for BuzzFeed focuses more on contemporary stars. Is there anyone that you want to profile?
Connie Britton. I can do a piece without her, but I just wanna be near her, because so many people have reported that that feeling of charisma really does waft off of her. The other person I want to write about, in anticipation of Wild coming out, is Reese Witherspoon. I think she is doing really interesting things with her image right now. She seems like less of an ice queen. It started with that tape of her at the DUI arrest. Then more things that have just been challenging what had previously been a pretty airtight image. Part of me wonders if that is a conscious decision to make her more likable in anticipation of Oscar season, because this role is very much in the running. She’s very, very savvy. I don’t think anything she does is on accident. I don’t think she got pulled over on purpose, but I think that everything since then has been conscious.
When it comes to changing her image, do you think an actress today deals with similar constraints to the women in your book? Do they find themselves pigeonholed based on sexuality, as either hot girls or an ugly ducklings?
Some people play the ugly-duckling card. Younger Taylor Swift played it. But now she’s transitioned into this other part of her role.
Joan Crawford in the 1930s started her career as the sexiest of all flappers. She was called a hey-hey girl. And then she turned into the very serious married woman, who was self-sacrificing and a perfect mother. And then she turned into this noir femme fatale. And then she turned into a parody of herself. Successful stars, ones whose careers have lasted more than a decade, are ones who can adapt their image to fit with whatever the understanding of femininity and sexuality is at that time. This [strategy] is clearly seen in Miley Cyrus as well. Britney Spears’s image hasn’t changed; that’s a contrast. I think she is so exhausted by the process that she’s resistant to participating. She’s just not interested.
You’ve written that Angelina Jolie has a “perfect game” with her image control. Do you think she’s the most extreme example of star persona transformation? She kept vials of her lover’s blood, and now she’s an international diplomatic maternal superstar.
She’s able to have all of those meanings coexist at the same time. It’s not like people have necessarily forgotten. It’s that she’s built that narrative on top of that old foundation.
Has anyone else done that? Is she the exception that proves the rule?
Joan Crawford really did say, [something like], “That girl is gone.” There wasn’t that same sort of coexisting. I say this in the Angelina piece, and I actually really mean it: I think that it’s not just image play; I think that she grew up.
As humans do.
Usually in images they’re trying to paper over what that person had been. Because Jolie is so resistant to publicity manipulation, you are able to see those different selves all at once. And we, in real life, are all simultaneously the person that we were ten years ago.
Scandals of Classic Hollywood is available September 30.
This interview has been edited and condensed.