Films about Hollywood, its stars and its has-beens are a perennial favorite sub-genre in the cinema firmament, perhaps because the cruelty that is stardom is over practically before it begins. Hollywood’s unquenchable thirst for the youth market has sacrificed many a well-known personality in favor of the ‘next best thing’ that quite often has turned out to be anything but; the shelf life of today’s celebrity even more fleeting and obscure than the tenures afforded yesteryear’s star. In life, both the highs and lows are mitigated by what comes in between; the mediocrity of banal day-to-day existence somehow managing to fill the gaps and more readily stabilize the joys with the sorrows. This luxury is subverted in the cultural that is Hollywood; a crass, workaholic purgatory for the gifted where even the most resilient and talented can fall from grace and frequently do. That tumble is as delicious as folklore, primarily because we all know how real the back stories are; our enchantment to see it all go to hell rather disgustingly subhuman, marking the same vial impulse that sells tabloids at the supermarket; the very essence of stardom becoming an anathema to life beyond the camera. Still, the mythology - that virtually any unknown can suddenly have the warmth of the spotlight (without the pall of its glare) upon them with just the right opportunity and press agent - endures.
The flipside is, of course, that nothing lasts forever – or rather, shouldn’t: fame and fortune least of all. The one enduring edict in Hollywood has always been ‘art imitating life’. Yet, for the famous – time - that forgiver of most sins quietly tucked into our private catalogues of regret - never entirely cleanses the palette for the camera-worthy. Worse, it is just as apt to remind the star of an irrefutable fact: age robbing us all of the people we once were; or rather, the people we thought we were and had hoped to become. There are no second chances in life. But in stardom there remains only one act – the top. The irony, that in becoming public spectacles stars find no solace in their public stature, is compounded by the notion that once placed upon the proverbial pedestal the object of affection is either meant to be deified or pelted with the spoils of jealousy to be torn down. The six degrees of separation between our star-gazing and these self-destructing supernovas, already stamped with an expiration date that no amount of publicity can salvage, makes for interest of a different, more nefarious kind.
Once a star has slipped from the top the clawing of the quicksand begins; the embarrassing ritual of the comeback in full swing. To remain on top is not only impossible – it is quite simply implausible. Few, like Joan Crawford and Judy Garland have succeeded, but arguably even theirs was a price too hefty to pay: Crawford with substandard parts in some God awful pictures that all but destroyed her well-established screen image as the elegant movie queen distilled into ‘Mommie Dearest’; Garland, in her tireless migration to the stage after the movies gave her the boot for good that ultimately paved the way for her premature death at age 47. Even the promise of ‘name above the title’ status is no indication of a career’s longevity; the measure of talent a feebler barometer still. No – stars are a dying breed even before they’ve begun to live; tortured by the constant reminder that their moment is simply that, yet naïve enough to believe what has happened before – and to some far better people and talents - will never happen to them.
All of these precepts are at play in Stuart Heisler’s The Star (1952); an often heartbreaking, frequently vial and thoroughly de-glamorized Hollywood back story, arguably imbued with more truth than fiction; the implosion of its fictional star, Margaret Elliot (Bette Davis) gleaned from Hollywood’s own rich history in self-destructive personalities. Made independently by producer Bert E. Friedlob and later distributed by 2oth Century-Fox, The Star is often misinterpreted as a thinly veiled story about Bette Davis’ life. Although Davis had been considered something of a has-been just prior to 1950, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950) had given new life to her sagging career. Her post ‘Eve’ movies were arguably of varying quality; the parts strictly character and much too frequently capitalizing on Davis’ larger-than-life personality rather than contributing to the advancement of her career. Bette Davis was forty-two in 1952 and easily looks ten years older playing this grand dame in steep decline with all the tragic pity of a woman who knows too well what it’s all about.
For Margaret Elliot has stepped through the looking glass of fame. Gone are the offers, the throngs of adoring fans waiting to see her pictures; the big house that typified success sold, her producer/hubby moved on to greener pastures with a new wife and his own fashionable digs uptown. Even as Margaret peers from behind a pair of dark glasses at a large placard advertising the auctioning off of her personal effects she cannot fathom that this is only the beginning of the end with much more humiliation to follow. Margaret’s daughter, Gretchen (Natalie Wood) simply adores her. But she has been forced to live with her father and his new wife, Ruth (Katherine Warren) who doesn’t think much of Margaret’s all-consuming quest for the spotlight.
The ghosts of the past surround Maggie. Yet even they are unable to convince her of the folly of her present predicament. Virtually penniless, she meets her one-time agent, Harry Stone (Warner Anderson), not above picking through the remnants of her estate auction for an ornate lamp his wife Phyllis (June Travis) had always admired. Stone attempts to talk some sense into Margaret but it’s no use. She’s desperate for a part – and not just any – but the lead in ‘The Fatal Winter’; a property once optioned for her but now in the studio’s hands and being considered for the new face in town – Miss Barbara Lawrence (herself).
Returning home bitter and confused, Maggie gets another wakeup call when Mrs. Adams (Kay Riehl), her landlady explains that the apartment company she works for is about to evict her for owing two months rent. Meanwhile, inside awaits an even more abysmal prospect: sponge-relatives Roy (Herb Vigran) and Faith (Fay Baker) who have been drinking from Maggie’s trough for years and are awaiting their monthly check. “Can’t you get it through your head?” Maggie admonishes the pair, “I’m broke! Stone cold broke!” Faith challenges the notion. So Margaret reminds her of the $40,000 she paid to set the pair up in business and the support she’s been providing bimonthly; money for the couple’s twins and to furnish them with good times and also to pay for Roy’s operations – expenses that would have sunk the pair into the red long ago, but were willingly subsidized by Maggie until even her bottomless well has run dry.
The world is closing in on Margaret. But things get much worse when she decides to go on a binge; racing through the darkened streets in her car still clutching her Academy Award and rambling to herself about the bygone era that seemed so impenetrably prosperous not so very long ago. The booze gets the better of Maggie and she is forced off the road by a police squad car; taken to the drunk tank overnight; her caustic shrieks alerting other inmates to the fact that she is…or rather ‘used to be’ Margaret Elliot. The papers have a field day, the scandal front page news that threatens to wreck Maggie’s relationship with her daughter. But help materializes in the form of strapping Jim Johannsen (Sterling Hayden). A while back Jim was a struggling actor desperate for a part when Margaret demanded he be cast as her leading man. She did it out of jealousy and spite for a lover who had discarded her. But Jim only knows that Maggie gave him his big break. Now he’s hoping to return the favor.
Acknowledging that his career would not be in the movies, Jim has since set up a prosperous boat repair shop on the wharf. After bailing Maggie out from jail he moves her few pitiful things into his place on the water; hardly fashionable, but home nonetheless. Jim also encourages Maggie to start anew, to give up the movies and try her hand at something else; perhaps a sales girl’s position behind the counter. Fudging her résumé and using her real name - ‘Mortensen’ – Margaret gets a job at May & Co. But the tenure is short-lived when a pair of old biddies finds out who she is and proceeds to make a spectacle of their discovery. Margaret has had enough. She admonishes the crones for their sass and storms out, barging into Harry’s office to demand that he set her up for the plum part in ‘The Fatal Winter’. In fact, a similar thought has already crossed Stone’s mind – not for the lead, but for the role of her older sister. Driving Maggie to the studio, Harry pleads with the production chief, R.J.Somers (Loren Raker) to at least consider Margaret for the part. He agrees to a screen test only; Margaret racing back to Jim’s on nothing better than the ether of promised success, having already spent her salary advance on presents and a new dress to celebrate.
Jim is concerned that Maggie has jumped the gun, but she wants him to put on his new suit so they can hit the clubs and go out to dinner and dancing. The next day Maggie shoots her screen test – avoiding any and all advice from her young director and doing things her own way – presumably because she knows best what’s right for her. The test is made and proves to be a disaster, but only upon screening it for herself does Maggie concede what a terrible mistake she has made. The parade that was her monumental stardom has passed her by. It’s over, and now even she knows it.
Distraught and forlorn, Maggie drives back with Harry to his house; Phyllis putting her to bed with a sleeping pill. But later she awakens to hear sounds of a party coming from downstairs. Margaret attempts to navigate the room to the front door. But Harry pulls her aside and introduces her to an assistant director who informs her of an upcoming feature he is doing; then proceeds to basically describe the plot of ‘The Star’ to Maggie; that of a faded movie queen tragically unable to grasp the notion her career is over. At long last recognizing what a terrible fool she has been Maggie leaves Harry’s party, hurrying to collect her daughter from her estranged husband, before returning to Jim’s embrace at the wharf.
The Star is perhaps the cruelest of all Hollywood ‘true to life’ movies; the ilk begun all the way back in the 1930s with the original A Star is Born (1937), but more recently played as grand guignol in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) and soon to be resurrected anew in George Cukor’s masterful 1954 remake of the former. Yet Wilder’s movie, with its emphasis on a ravenous mad woman seducing a young screenwriter to his ultimate doom is more artistic than factual, while both versions of A Star is Born merely play to parallel tragedies: getting – and not getting – what you want. Yet in both instances the patina of glamour surrounding the imploding couples stays relatively unchanged. Hollywood is still quite elegant. It’s the people living there that have eroded and become flawed. Not so in the case of The Star which almost without fail paints a picture of a wholly unsympathetic and unflattering enclave of sycophants catering not only to the success of stars but also encouraging – even hastening - their debacle that will inevitably follow, callously looking away as the inevitable wreck occurs. The Hollywood depicted in the movie is not glamorous at all; its real exteriors looking aged and gritty, its streets commonplace and absent of that moneyed kilowatt magic and klieg light aura of excitement usually ensconced to help perpetuate and propel the fantasy.
The characters that populate the movie, with the exception of Jim and Gretchen, are an unscrupulous lot; even Harry and Phyllis, who insidiously placate Maggie with good intentions perhaps, but do her no favors when they attempt to settle her accounts or calm her down with a well-timed narcotic to knock her out for the duration. In fact, The Star is probably much closer to the truth of Hollywood and owes a lot more in its tone and execution to Nicholas Ray’s In A Lonely Place (1950) than the reigning mythology about Hollywood is willing to acknowledge; its doors slammed shut on the outcast; splinters of wood from the very best doors imbedded like quills that wound the pride and half starve the ego. No, when Hollywood’s through with you, you’re through.
It takes Margaret Elliot the entire 90 minutes to figure this out, but when she finally does she is arguably a far more fulfilled woman than before; stripped of her iconography but secure in the knowledge that she hasn’t sacrificed everything for her art. She still has Jim and Gretchen. They are the important people to whom she will always remain a famous personage; not to the studio, or even the fans who continue to gawk with a rather obsequious contempt over how far the mighty have fallen.
The Star is not Bette Davis’ finest hour – not by a long shot. The film is directed with a rather heavy-hand by Stuart Heisler; Otto Ludwig’s chop-shop editing inextricably fading to black or cutting away in the middle of scenes and making mincemeat of Ernest Lazlo’s starkly lit cinematography. And yet Davis is selling the film as few of her generation can. She’s beleaguered and fragile, and a tower of octane-fueled bitterness ready to explode in all the right places. Our empathy is ultimately with her. Sterling Hayden makes a rather excellent love interest for our careworn and very tarnished angel – his rough-hewn, square-jawed masculinity, but with an understanding heart, exactly what the doctor ordered for our Miss Elliot. Natalie Wood is getting a little too long in the tooth to play the ingénue. Her bright-eyed ‘my mother is the greatest’ act doesn’t really wash with her more adult figure. It passes, but just barely.
In the last analysis, The Star is rather incompetent film-making but with a more than competent star at its helm; one capable of pulling the whole load and miraculously elevating the material above itself. The film is compelling because of Davis. Without her it falls apart. In her prime, Bette Davis was one of arguably only two female titans (the other being Joan Crawford) who could command a picture on sheer presence alone. While The Star’s assets are undeniably all rolled up in Davis’ performance, this remains quite enough to see the picture through to its optimistic end. The thing works because Davis is working overtime to keep the enterprise afloat. There isn’t any celebrity today who can do as much.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is disappointing. The B&W image looks faded and worn and gritty beyond what it ought with film grain inconsistently rendered and looking quite digitized at times. There’s a thick characteristic to the image; and a slight boosting of the mid-range tonality that renders Ernest Lazlo’s already noir-styled lighting much too sharply contrasted. Age related dirt and scratches are everywhere. I am not entirely certain what gracious whim of fate has landed The Star – originally distributed by Fox – in Warner’s stable, but whatever the reason the elements used in this mastering effort are decidedly not first rate or arguably even first generation and have not been given the necessary clean up. The audio is mono but adequate. No hiss or pop. We’ll accept it, although the audio is virtually unremarkable in every way. Extras include a brief featurette – How Real Is The Star?– and theatrical trailer. Not a great Bette Davis movie, but one worth a second look. Pity, that the glance is marred by an imperfect transfer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)