Hortense Powdermaker: Controversial and Outdated

This article put me in a bad mood. First of all, what cruel parent would ever name their child “Hortense”? “Hortense Powdermaker” looks like a name out of The Onion or… Matilda. I had never read an anthropological study of Hollywood before, but unfortunately found this one to be dated and dull. The section on the geography of Hollywood, comparing it to a village was completely irrelevant because of the book’s age.

“You squirts better skedaddle!” Hortensia, Matilda (1996)

Some aspects of Powdermaker’s reading were, in fact, relevant. On page 29, she writes, “the making of movies is a highly collaborative enterprise, in which no one works alone”. This is still true 65 years later. The film industry is still collaborative, and each group depends on each other, but the vagueness of Powdermaker’s study on these peoples’ relationships is detached and does not read as realistic by today’s standards.

Another point that is extremely dated is the sentence: “Although the production of movies, with its reliance on gossip columns and its lack of stability, is unbusinesslike in many ways, at the same time it has some of the characteristics of the assembly line” (Powdermaker 30). I’m sorry, WHAT? The production of movies relies on gossip columns?? So without the existence of gossip columns, no movie could ever have been made? She doesn’t even back up this point at all. Did assembly lines rely on gossip columns too? It makes no sense.

Upon further research, movie production never relied on gossip columnists in the 1930s and 40s, but movie publicity and popularity may have relied heavily on gossip columnists, since they were recruited by the production companies to set to spread word about actors, production, and the movie itself, before it was released.

I found interesting the pseudonyms used by Powdermaker in the backstories of the producers and directors (all men) of the time. She calls the producers “one of the very important controls in Hollywood” (111) and compares them to foremen of factories. The chapter continues rather controversially, saying “the creativity of most producers is rather debatable” (112), and criticizes them of “sink(ing) so much money into trying to get a movie out of (a story) that they are compelled to go ahead, even after it is obvious that the story is no good or not suitable for a movie” (114).

mr mediocreThis controversy was probably what sparked the tension regarding privacy in the backstories of “Mr. Rough-and-Ready”, “Mr. Mediocre”, “Mr. Persistence”, and “Mr. Scoop”. For example, maybe Mr. Rough-and-Ready didn’t want his audience to know that he made himself a background extra in his own films (“On each picture he walks across the set at least once taking a very minor part” (117). Or perhaps “Mr. Scoop” didn’t want his audience to know his identity because he got his ideas for movies from newspapers, magazines, and radio, which is not really cheating, but more borrowing for inspiration.

There are several recent movies specifically based on newspaper and magazine articles. The Bling Ring, for example, was inspired by an article on VanityFair.com with the same plot. Saturday Night Fever (1977) was based off of an article in New York Magazine that followed the disco culture of NYC from the point of view of one young man from Brooklyn, and this inspiration was not revealed until 20 years later. A Nightmare on Elm Street is also based on a series of newspaper articles about a series of deaths from the LA Times. So maybe things haven’t changed so much since 1950…just kidding.


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