Long history of real and manufactured box-office-boosting off-screen romances
Long before tabloids and tabloid-wannabes took over as the purveyors of entertainment “news,” throughout the decades the studios themselves have publicized idyllic off-screen love stories, whether real or manufactured, featuring the stars of their latest releases. Not infrequently, those had the tacit or not-so-tacit consent of the actors in question; invariably, they were eagerly swallowed by a gullible (i.e., wilfully stupid) general public.
That strategy goes all the way back to the early silent era, when in the 1910s the likes of Francis X. Bushman (the 1925 Ben-Hur's Messala) and Beverly Bayne romanced on screen and off – though the eventual revelation that Bushman was the married father of five kids didn't help his image any.
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell: Studio manufactured romance
In the late '20s and early '30s, Fox (not yet 20th Century Fox) used on-screen lovebirds Charles Farrell and (first Best Actress Academy Award winner) Janet Gaynor in a series of romantic melodramas and light comedies. As a box office incentive of sorts, studio publicists and the fan magazines came up with a Farrell-Gaynor off-screen love affair as well. Never mind the fact that the two were not lovers: Farrell eventually married silent film actress Virginia Valli; Gaynor, who at one point was attached to Warner Bros. contract player Margaret Lindsay and later became an intimate companion of Broadway star Mary Martin, retired from films after marrying costume designer Adrian. [Photo: Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven.)
In the early '30s, in order to both lift the sagging popularity of former superstar Ramon Novarro and boost the rising popularity of new contract player Myrna Loy, MGM manufactured a romance for the couple, then starring in Sam Wood's The Barbarian. Neither Novarro, who was gay and determined to keep his love/sex life under wraps, nor Loy, who was having an affair with (married) producer Arthur Hornblow Jr., was pleased.
When it comes to those sorts of rumors, nothing has changed in the last eight or nine decades. Gee, could two performers play love scenes in a movie without actually falling in love with one another? Not according to the tabloids and their “news feeders.” Will it help the box office of their movies? Well, let's say it definitely won't hurt it. (See also: “Hollywood Scandals: Errol Flynn / Roman Polanski / Charles Chaplin.”)
Recently, Oscar contender Bradley Cooper dismissed rumors that he was dating his Golden Globe-winning and fellow Oscar contender Silver Linings Playbook co-star Jennifer Lawrence. Not that long ago, it was the turn of Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis, whose alleged affair was buzzed about right at the time their 2011 romantic comedy Friends with Benefits came out. (The following year, Timberlake married Jessica Biel.) Not to mention the Robert Pattinson-Kristen Stewart to-do mentioned elsewhere on this site. And so on.
Privacy concerns: It's all about one's public image
Now, one key difference between what we see today and what was published during the Studio Era is that the movie fan magazines weren't tabloids. They generally plugged the studios' products – i.e., the movies, the stars – according to the dictates of the studios' own p.r. machines and/or the stars' own publicists. Some stars of yore, much like Jodie Foster at this year's Golden Globes, might claim in interviews that they prized their privacy, but most of those same people gladly discarded that fiercely protected possession when aspects of their personal lives could be used as self-promoting tools.
At other times, they quite willingly gave it up when the “private” issue was deemed professionally unthreatening. Examples of the private and public spheres becoming one range from Vilma Banky and Rod La Rocque's Marriage of the Decade in the late '20s to Joan Crawford's various child adoptions. Late in life, the ever-so-private Katharine Hepburn wrote a bestselling book of (conveniently selective) memoirs, while just a few years ago Jodie Foster herself openly talked with More magazine about her role as a mother.
In other words: if private matters were/are detrimental to a person's public image, they should remain private. If not, everyone should know about them. In that regard, public figures are truly no different than private ones. Back when the studios controlled access to their players (and had the all-too-willing support of the local police and government officials), it was easy to maintain that sort of balance.
From Elizabeth Taylor in the 1950s to just about everyone and everything else in the 2010s: The tabloidization of journalism
Despite the sensational coverage of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle's rape/manslaughter trial and of the (still unsolved) murder of director William Desmond Taylor in the early '20s, the tabloidization of entertainment news would go mainstream only in the '50s, probably as a consequence of the decline of the Studio Era – at its height from the mid-'20s to the early '50s – and the emergence of Confidential magazine and its imitators. (Note: Ingrid Bergman didn't have a studio to back her up in the late '40s, when she became a Hollywood pariah following an extra-marital affair with Roberto Rossellini.) [Photo: Elizabeth Taylor.]
The precursor of today's vicious online and supermarket gossip rags, Confidential mockingly implied that Liberace was gay, insinuated that hunk Tab Hunter and sultry Lizabeth Scott were also gay (Scott sued), and revealed sexual encounters (whether true or made up) involving the likes of Maureen O'Hara and Dorothy Dandridge (both O'Hara and Dandridge also sued). [See also: “Sex Scandals and Politics at the Movies.”]
Elizabeth Taylor: Tabloid fodder
In the late '50s, gossip rags kept their writers and their readers busy with the Debbie Reynolds / Eddie Fisher / Elizabeth Taylor triangle, which in the early '60s evolved into the Eddie Fisher / Elizabeth Taylor / Richard Burton / Sybil Burton quadrangle. Since then, tabloids (and the paparazzi, named after a photographer / celebrity parasite found in Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita) have become a media fixture.
In fact, whether on television, online, or (in the past) in print, the tabloids have been as good as – at times better than – the Old Hollywood studios at manufacturing and perpetuating the celebrity of pop stars. Don't fool yourself, Elizabeth Taylor's lasting fame has less to do with A Place in the Sun; Giant; Suddenly Last Summer; or her Oscar-winning star turn in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? than with the scandal-boosted Cleopatra – the biggest blockbuster of 1963 – and the ensuing tabloid attention that helped to fuel global interest in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie pairings of the '60s and that throughout the decades have kept Taylor in the dementia-prone public's consciousness.
Who's to blame?
Certainly not Elizabeth Taylor. Some have blamed media producers and/or the big conglomerates that control them for the near-total tabloidization of entertainment journalism – or rather, of journalism, period. Personally, I find that both unfair and dishonest.
If most news today consists of tabloidized, sensational, dishonest reporting, that's merely because most people today want to be fed that sort of shit. If the (vast) majority of news consumers the world over weren't shiteaters, shit purveyors would go out of business. See, it's all about market forces – and a large dose of hypocrisy – at work.
Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell in Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven photo: Fox publicity image.