The star system was the method of creating, promoting and exploiting stars in Hollywood films. Movie studios would select promising young actors and glamorise and create personas for them, often inventing new names and even new backgrounds. Examples of stars who went through the star system include Cary Grant (born Archibald Leach), Joan Crawford (born Lucille Fay LeSueur), and Rock Hudson (born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr.).
The star system put an emphasis on the image rather than the acting, although discreet acting, voice, and dancing lessons were a common part of the regimen. Women were expected to behave like ladies, and were never to leave the house without makeup and stylish clothes. Men were expected to be seen in public as gentlemen. Morality clauses were a common part of actors' studio contracts.
Studio executives, public relations staffs, and agents worked together with the actor to create a star persona and cover up incidents or lifestyles that would damage the star's public image. It was common, for example, to arrange sham dates between single (male) stars and starlets to generate publicity. Tabloids and gossip columnists would be tipped off, and photographers would appear to capture the romantic moment. At the same time, a star's drug use (such as Robert Mitchum's arrest for marijuana possession), drinking problems, divorce, or adultery would be covered up with hush money for witnesses or promises of exclusive stories (or the withholding of future stories) to gossip columnists.
In the early years of the cinema (1890s–1900s), performers were not identified in films. There are two main reasons for this. First, from the perspective of actors who were trained in the theatre, they were embarrassed to be working in film and feared it would ruin their reputation. Silent film was thought of as mere pantomime and one of theatre actors' main skills was their command of their voice. Theatre actors were also ashamed to be in films because early films were aimed for the uneducated working class. Film was seen as only a step above appearing in carnivals and freak shows. Second, from the perspective of early film producers, they feared that actors would gain more prestige and power and demand more money if they were named.
Thomas Edison and the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) forced filmmakers to use their equipment and follow their rules, since they owned the patents of much of the motion picture equipment. The MPPC frowned on star promotion, although, according to research done by Janet Staiger, the MPPC did promote some stars around this time.
The main catalyst for change was the public's desire to know the actors' names. Film audiences repeatedly recognized certain performers in movies that they liked. Since they did not know the performers' names they gave them nicknames (such as "the Biograph Girl", Florence Lawrence, who was featured in Biograph movies). Audiences began to want movie stars.
Producer Carl Laemmle promoted the first movie star. He was independent of the MPPC and used star promotion to fight the MPPC's control. Laemmle acquired Lawrence from Biograph. He spread a rumor that she had been killed in a streetcar accident. Then he combated this rumor by saying that she was doing fine and would be starring in an up-coming movie produced by his company, the Independent Moving Pictures Company (IMP).
The development of film fan magazines gave fans knowledge about the actors outside of their film roles. Motion Picture Story Magazine (1911–1977) and Photoplay were initially focused on movies' stories, but soon found that more copies could be sold if they emphasized the actors.
Also, precedents set by legitimate theater encouraged film to emulate the star system of the Broadway stage. Broadway stars in the late 19th century were treated much like film stars came to be treated by the middle of the 20th century. The main practitioner of the star system on Broadway was Charles Frohman, a man whom Zukor, Laemmle, Mayer, Fox and the Warner Brothers emulated and who later perished in the Lusitania sinking.
Moreover, the star system existed in forms of entertainment before the cinema and may be tracked back at least to P. T. Barnum in the mid 19th century, who developed a system of promotion for his "Museum of Freaks" and later his Greatest Show on Earth circus. Barnum's biggest stars were Jenny Lind, Tom Thumb and Jumbo.
From the 1930s to the 1960s, it was common practice for studios to arrange the contractual exchange of talent (directors, actors) for prestige pictures. Stars would sometimes pursue these swaps themselves. Stars were becoming selective. Although punished and frowned upon by studio heads, several strong-willed stars received studio censure and publicity for refusing certain parts, on the belief that they knew better than the studio heads about the parts that were right for them. In one instance, Jane Greer negotiated her contract out of Howard Hawks' hands over the roles she felt were inappropriate for her. Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis both sued their studios to be free of their gag orders (Davis lost, de Havilland won). After completing The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe walked out on 20th Century Fox and only returned when they acquiesced to her contract demands. The publicity accompanying these incidents fostered a growing suspicion among actors that a system more like being a free agent would be more personally beneficial to them than the suffocating star system. In 1959 Shirley MacLaine sued famed producer Hal Wallis over a contractual dispute, contributing further to the star system's demise. By the 1960s the star system was in decline.
The conspiratorial aspect of the studio system manipulating images and reality eventually began to falter. By the 60s and 70s, a new, more natural style of acting ("the Stanislavski Method") had emerged, been mythologized, and enshrined; and individuality had been transformed into a treasured personal quality. With competition from TV, and entire studios changing hands, the star system faltered and did not recover. The studio system could no longer resist the changes occurring in entertainment, culture, labor, and news, and by 1970 the star system had disappeared.
The phenomenon of stardom has remained essential to Hollywood because of its ability to lure spectators into the theater. Following the demise of the studio system in the 1950s and 60s, the star system became the most important stabilizing feature of the movie industry. This is because stars provide film makers with built in audiences who regularly watch films in which their favorite actors and actresses appear.
Contemporary Hollywood talent agencies must now be licensed under the California Labor Code, which defines an agent as any "person or corporation who engages in the occupation of procuring, offering, promising, or attempting to procure employment for artist or artists.":167 Talent agencies such as William Morris Agency (WMA), International Creative Management (ICM), Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and many more started to arise in the mid-1970s. CAA represented the modern agency, with new ways of marketing talent by packaging actors, agencies are able to influence production schedules, budgeting of the film, and which talent will be playing each particular character. Packaging gained notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s with films such as Ghostbusters, Tootsie, Stripes, and A League of Their Own (three of which star Bill Murray). This practice continues to be prominent in films today such as Big Daddy, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy, and Billy Madison (all of which star Adam Sandler). The ease of selling a packaged group of actors to a particular film ensures that certain fan groups will see that movie, reducing risk of failure and increasing profits.:167–180