TV Book Club: A chat with Christine Becker, author of It’s The Pictures That Got Small

The next book in our TV book club is It’s The Pictures That Got Small by Christine Becker. We’re lucky enough to know Christine, and we asked if she would be willing to answer a few questions in advance of our first discussion of her book. Graciously, Christine agreed.

For a bit of background, Christine is an Associate Professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Film, Television, and Theatre department. She has taught classes on film history, television narrative and aesthetics, and media stardom. She’s written about acting in the contemporary sitcom, and her next project is about British television and its various contexts.  Christine is also the force behind the website News for TV Majors, an invaluable resource for anyone looking to keep up-to-date on TV news and reviews. That site also hosts the infamous Good TVeets, a collection of funny and insightful tweets about TV from Christine’s Twitter feed. Speaking of, you can follow Christine on Twitter at @crsbecker.

This Was Television: What drew you to this topic?
Christine Becker: It started as a paper for a class in grad school. I took Tino Balio’s Hollywood in the Age of Television course at UW-Madison, maybe my second or third year there. A fascination with stars was what really led me to study film in the first place, so in the context of this class, I was curious about what movie stars did once TV arrived. Then when I started doing research for the paper and found that almost nobody had looked at that (just bits and pieces here and there), I saw it as a major untapped area of research. And then I had so much fun writing that paper, it seemed natural to continue digging deeper.

What did you find most interesting in your research?
There was a point when I got stuck with the manuscript, didn’t know where to go with it. I think this was after the diss stage but before the book stage, when I wasn’t sure what argument to go with (the diss didn’t have an argument; it was just a collection of facts, and the book needed to be more than that). I ran some basic ideas by a friend of mine who’s a screenwriter and has been in Hollywood for decades, and he gave me this great reply. He said that being a working film actor is a brutal business and that anyone who succeeds at it for more than a few years has to have incredible guts and savvy, plus a lot of luck and plenty of greed, and that all of them pay a price in their personal lives to make this public life work. That got me thinking about how these stars I was studying were real people with real lives and real conflicts, not just pretty people whose images turned me on. So what I ultimately found most fascinating was the idea that a star’s decision about whether or not to do TV was fraught with very practical tensions and uncertainties, and I tried to shift my argument toward that, tying together individual stars’ motivations with industry machinations.

How has the relationship between film stars and TV changed? Are there any contemporary parallels?
The greater fluidity of crossover between film and TV is a big difference today (though I think my book gets at some of the roots of that in the conclusion). And yet, there’s still a lingering difference between film stardom and TV stardom, and I think it still does affect a star’s image in some way to move from film to TV. That’s a running TCA (Television Critics Association) joke, right, that the first question for any previously established film actor doing TV is about what made them decide to do TV. And “the decision” is still often sold in terms of legitimating acting as authenticity, that they turned to TV for better roles or more genuine characters or more of a challenge. So I do think some of the arguments in the book still echo stuff going on today.

Do you have any favorite stories/anecdotes that didn’t make it into the book?
There was a bunch of personal stuff about Faye Emerson that couldn’t make it. I interviewed her second husband, Skitch Henderson, and he had some great stories about her volatility (often due to drinking too much) and her boldness. He described a bar fight she got into when she dropkicked a guy giving her crap (kicked him square in the chest, if I remember correctly). The vividness of descriptions like that really seemed to connect with her decision late in her career to give up TV stardom and move to Majorca and just not deal with anyone’s shit anymore. I had more amazing Betty Hutton stuff too.

One of my diss committee’s criticisms of the manuscript was that I didn’t have a story of failure in it, it was all about stars who successfully made the transition. So in the revision stages, I sought out a failure. Betty Hutton was one who intrigued me, but I couldn’t find any research on her (as is common with failures). But one day I happened to think of checking eBay, and lo and behold, there was all manner of Betty Hutton memorabilia for sale, including really personal stuff, like jewelry and dresses. I sent a query to the seller, and it turned out to be her personal caretakers selling this stuff. She was still alive, but was broke and living in an assisted living center, and needed to sell things to pay her rent.

Her main caretaker (her legal guardian at that point) wasn’t even a relative, just a fan-turned-friend who had looked after her the past few decades. He told me that she was very giving and naive and that every guy who had come into her life after she became a star took everything he could from her and then left her, so in the end she had just about nothing left, neither financial nor personal. So they were literally going through her attic and pulling stuff out of boxes to earn money for her. (And near as I could find out through researching it, they were legit and genuine, not taking advantage of her.) I asked them if I could interview her, and they said that she didn’t trust anyone and wouldn’t talk to anyone at that point. So then I asked if they’d deliver to her a set of questions I wrote and ask them on my behalf. They did that, but then reported back that they only got as far as one question. “Why’d you do TV?” was that question. “Money” was the answer she gave. Then she apparently said, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.” And that was that.

She’s the one who makes me saddest when I think about these stars as real people with real lives. I think her life was genuinely sad, completely belying her onscreen image, like she had so much sadness to cover up that she had to go beyond happy onscreen to hide it. One last bit: Ethel Winant, casting director, in her 80s when I interviewed her, a spitfire, very pissy, clearly didn’t like her time being wasted. When I told her what I was writing about, she said, “Well, that’s a stupid topic.” I somehow managed to carry on with the interview and write the book anyway.

Some of our readers may not be familiar with the process of writing an academic press book and getting it published. Can you talk a little bit about that?
The book started as a dissertation, so that’s a bit like starting to ride a bike with training wheels. You get a few years where all you have to focus on is that topic, and you (ideally) have an advisor helping to guide you along the way. Then you defend the diss and the training wheels are off and you’re supposed to turn it into a book that someone would want to not only read but actually pay money for. As I said above, my diss was a nice collection of facts, but not all that readable, and it didn’t really have an argument. The next stage is that you propose it to university presses for publication, but I got rejected by most I tried because I just didn’t have much of a hook, and it was an industry analysis-focused book, and not a lot of presses at the time were geared toward that.Luckily, Jeanine Basinger at Wesleyan University Press saw some promise in the original manuscript, and sent me a review letter mostly saying how bad it was, but also saying it could be great if I just added more meat and gave it an argument, and if I could, Wesleyan would publish it. So I revised like a madwoman for a summer (almost literally did nothing but work on the manuscript), and when I was done, she liked it, and that got me a book contract.

In academic publishing, there’s also the matter of finding a press that not only will publish it but is also of a high enough stature for it to add to your status as a scholar (i.e. worthy enough to make a tenure committee happy). Wesleyan Press isn’t top tier, but is legit enough as an outlet for film history and industry studies that it helped me in the end. So academic publishing is about writing a readable book, one that a university press will find of financial and marketing value, and one that can help you climb the academic ladder. Those goals don’t always work together smoothly. It took awhile in my case (ten years from that first class paper til handing in the final book manuscript), but it worked out, even to the point of winning a book award.

Do you think the book appeals beyond that academic-targeted audience?

That’s a tough question for me to answer. Like many academics, I’m insecure about my writing, so my everlasting fear is that the book is boring and dumb. But when I tell people what it’s about, they often get excited, especially older people who remember stars like Betty Hutton and Dick Powell. So I think the stories of the stars and the decisions they had to make can be interesting for a crossover audience. Non-academics probably don’t care as much about the authenticity argument and that jazz — which, of course, was the academic business I needed to get in there to get it published by a uni press to get me tenure — but I think the descriptions of stars and their shows are readable for a general audience. At the very least, I’d love for readers of all types to come away with an appreciation for people like Faye Emerson and Ida Lupino (who I was smitten with after researching her — seriously, I think Mr. Adams and Eve is one of the great unsung sitcoms in TV history).

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