Film professor researches how female stardom links to American views on immigration and ethnicity

Thursday, October 25, 2001

Born in Michigan, Kathleen Morrison didn't seem to be the epitome of any ethnic group in America. That changed in 1917, when she signed with Fine Arts, director D.W. Griffith's silent film company. Morrison chose to focus on her Irish heritage — so much so that she changed her name to Colleen Moore. Playing the stereotypical sweet Irish lass, she went on to become one of the top silent film stars of the 1920s, commanding a salary of $1 million a year. Moore's stardom is an example of how the ethnicity of white European-American actresses historically played a key role in the mythology of American identity and nation building, says Dr. Diane Negra, a University of North Texas assistant professor of radio, television and film. More recent ethnic film stars symbolize the promise of American multiculturalism, Negra adds. Negra discusses Moore and five other actresses in her new book, Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, which grew out of her dissertation for her doctoral degree. "When I was in graduate school, I became interested in women's popular culture and the importance of stardom within it," she says. "At the same time, attempts to understand whiteness were starting to take place in the humanities. I was intrigued by how whiteness operates as a form of social power in Hollywood, and how actresses were understood and defined by their ethnicity." She points out that "whiteness" doesn't necessarily mean skin color, but rather social approval and power in American culture. "In the 1920s during Colleen Moore's career, Irishness was an acceptable form of whiteness, but it had not been acceptable 50 years earlier," she says. Negra spent six years conducting research for her book. She says she was surprised at how often ethnic personas were used in Hollywood, even during the early years of film. "We often assume that when an actor or actress from another country arrived in Hollywood, he or she left behind his or her ethnic identity and adopted an Americanized name," she says. "That was the case for some, but many others actually elected to amplify their ethnic identities, as in the case of Colleen Moore." Off-White Hollywood presents case studies of three different eras of Hollywood films — silent films from the 1910s and ‘20s, studio films from the 1930s and ‘40s and contemporary films from the last 25 years. Negra focuses on two stars from each era — Moore and Polish star Pola Negri from the silent era, Norwegian skating star-turned-actress Sonja Henie and Austrian-born Hedy Lamarr from the 1930s and 40s, and Italian-American Marisa Tomei and Cher from the modern film era. Of the six stars, Cher is the only one without a distinct European ethnic heritage. Negra says she chose to include her because "she represents something more typical of modern film culture." "Cher has never denied her mixed ethnic heritage, and today, there's more acceptance in Hollywood of claims of ethnicity than assimilation into American culture," she says. "She was one of the first actresses to take on ethnic roles at will. In Moonstruck, she was an Italian-American. In The Sonny and Cher Show, she played up her Native American heritage." In addition, Cher was also one of the first actresses who crossed different entertainment media through her long career, becoming first a singer and television star, then an Academy award-winning actress, Negra adds. For the silent and 1930s and 40s eras discussed in Off-White Hollywood, Negra says she focused on comparing an actress who was considered very girlish and innocent with an actress considered more mature. Colleen Moore's sweet "girl next door" image was much different than that of Pola Negri, who usually played the seductive "vamp," Negra says. "The ‘vamp' is a female caricature tied to new immigrants. In the 1910s and 20s, there was tremendous social and political concern about immigrants from Eastern Europe, and the ‘vamp' stereotype seems to imply that these immigrants had a different morality and ‘family values' than Americans," she says. "By characterizing Moore as the girl-next-door and Negri as the vamp, Hollywood inferred that some immigrants are better than others." Sonja Henie was also a Hollywood example of an acceptable immigrant. After winning gold medals at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympic games, the skating star signed a contract with 20th Century Fox and became a hit in light musicals. In almost all of her films, she played a young ethnic woman who was naïve about romance, and her skating was a part of every film. Henie's career, however, could not be launched as early as Moore's or Negri's because the coming of sound had changed the nature of film, Negra says. "The silent film era had a number of performers with thick accents, but that didn't matter in the silent medium. In sound cinema, accents required explanation, and that meant that foreign-born actors and actresses got fewer roles," she says. "Sonja Henie had not mastered English when she came to Hollywood, and still had a very strong accent after learning English, so she did not make films in which her Scandinavian identity was not part of the plot." Hedy Lamarr's less prominent Austrian accent, however, worked in favor of her roles as a young, sexy woman, Negra says. "She often played unspecified ethnic roles, and her European exoticism was balanced with Americanization," she says. "Her accent was an element in her roles, but she was not as finely tied to one sort of characterization." Negra says she chose Marisa Tomei to represent the modern film era because she, like Cher, represents the changing function of ethnicity in American culture. "Marisa Tomei represents the desire to reclaim an ethnic heritage," she says. "In some roles, she plays up her Italian-American roots, but she's also played different regional U.S. roles." Tomei's Academy Award-winning role in My Cousin Vinny, for example, was that of a New Yorker with an Italian name, "but she was more distinctly a New York native than an Italian-American," Negra says. Like Cher, Tomei has taken various ethnic roles, including that of a Cuban in The Perez Family, she adds. Negra says she hopes Off-White Hollywood will give readers the change to learn more about the careers of some female stars while thinking twice about the function of stardom in American culture. "Not only have stardom and Hollywood roles tended to reflect different types of whiteness and ethnicity in America, but they have also defined America's relationship with Europe," she says. "Sometimes we think of Europe as a place of culture that is better than the United States, and sometimes we see Europe as inferior and beneath us. Hollywood stars became ways of reflecting those views."

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