Sunday 13 June 2010

The Star (1952)

Director: Stuart Heisler
Star: Bette Davis

Bette Davis was somewhat wasted in June Bride, effectively playing the love interest for Robert Montgomery, as a woman who has to wait until the end of the film to quit playing career woman for her husband and follow him around the world to do his every bidding. Yeah, Bette Davis. You read that right. This is vaguely similar but the character she plays and the angle the film takes are vastly different because here she has a role that she she can sink her teeth into. She's the star of the title, Margaret Elliot, who has faded from glory but aches to return to the lofty heights she once occupied. It's impossible not to compare Davis with Elliot because the two have much in common but Davis managed to do what Elliot couldn't: succeed when 'the fresh dewy quality' has gone. 'If you're a star, you don't stop being a star,' she tells her daughter but she knows that's it isn't true. The movie industry is a tough one but it's toughest on its leading ladies.

This story is tough from moment one as the attractive but hardly fresh and dewy Maggie walks past her own estate sale, held to raise money for her creditors rather than her. She even pulls down her sunglasses to look at her younger and far more glamorous self on the advert outside and we can't help but see the difference. She knows there's a difference too but she doesn't think it matters, as she soon explains to Harry Stone, her agent, who's there to buy some of her stuff. 'One good picture is all I need,' she tells him and she even knows which one: The Fatal Window, based on a book she loves and which she once had an option on. He can't get through to her that she's just not being realistic but he buys her a coffee anyway. He's polite and he's patient but he knows full well that he can't get her this role because Maggie is 40 (or more) and the character is 18 so that means his new ingenue Barbara Lawrence instead.

The story is melodramatic but it has a grounding that continually fascinates because we know some of this is real and we can't help but wonder about the rest. Sure, we run through all the expected stuff as Maggie hits rock bottom. Her daughter Gretchen lives with her ex-husband and his new wife and children in their mansion, even though she'd prefer to live with her mother. However her mother doesn't even have an apartment any more as she's down to her last few bucks and can't pay her rent even though it's apparently to her family. She'd set them up in business and in life but they don't want anything except her money, hardly a new story but still a biting one. She even takes a drunken drive through Hollywood, alternating swigs from a bottle with the sort of commentary you normally hear bus drivers telling tourists. She's talking to her Academy Award though as she drives on to the mansion he bought for her.

She's locked up for the night, of course, prompting lurid headlines the following day, but she's gone by then, bailed out by a mechanic named Jim Johannsen because she'd done him a favour once and because he loves her. It turns out that the favour wasn't really a favour, because he only became her leading man in Faithless because she wanted to piss off the actor who turned it down and make the next person she met a bigger star than him, but he doesn't care. He loves her anyway and promptly takes her in when she discovers that the locks have been changed on her apartment and has nowhere else to go. Johannsen is believably played by Sterling Hayden, even though he was eight years younger than Bette Davis. Its only a supporting part because this film is all about The Star, but it's an important one that's needed to provide the grounding that she isn't even aware she needs. 'Listen to your ego. It's all you have left,' he tells her.
It would be easy to compare this with Sunset Boulevard, made only two years earlier and also centered around a fallen star aching for a comeback. 'I hate that word,' says Norma Desmond at one point. 'It's a return, a return to the millions of people who have never forgiven me for deserting the screen.' Margaret Elliot doesn't have anywhere near that disconnect from reality, but she's just as blind to the likelihood of a comeback. Eventually she gets an opportunity, in The Fatal Window no less, though she has to take a screen test and finds herself cast as the much older sister. 'I've been managing directors for years,' she tells Jim as he helps her practice the scene and sure enough she promptly changes everything. She makes the older sister a lot younger, plays with her wardrobe, redoes her makeup. She even has them move the key light. She honestly believes that she can use this test reel to land the part of the younger sister.

In fact she's so sure, or needs to convince herself so much, that after shooting the reel she goes on a shopping spree, starts looking at houses and begins planning the publicity. She notifies the papers. Of course it backfires horribly. The real turning point of the film comes when she views her test reel and realises that she just isn't the young coquette any more and attempting to play one is simply grotesque. We watch her watching herself in a very powerful scene and it all hits home hard. As Joe Gillis says in Sunset Boulevard, 'There's nothing tragic about being fifty. Not unless you try to be twenty-five.' To hammer the point home, she ends up at a party, where a writer explains why he'd like her as the lead in a film he's written. She would play herself, more or less, a star who can't look down for fear that she'd fall from the pinnacle. She asks him where the sympathy for the character is and he replies that the emotion is pity not sympathy.

Yet again we can't help but compare Bette Davis with Margaret Elliot. At this point Bette was 44 years old, certainly not the young ingenue she once was, and so was in much the same situation that her character was in. It isn't much of a stretch to suggest that the film the writer wants Elliot for is this one, The Star. Maggie runs almost screaming from the reality, but Bette embraced it and extended her career another four decades, picking up her tenth Oscar nod in the process. Maggie couldn't even play herself, Bette could go a number of steps further and go on to play the startling lead role in another film about a faded star, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It's also notable that Maggie's replacement is Barbara Lawrence, who plays herself. She made a couple of dozen films in just over a decade before retiring from acting to go into real estate, ironically a suggestion Jim has for Maggie here. So really, she's more Maggie than Bette was.
I lost track of the real life references that husband and wife screenwriting team Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert slipped into the script but beyond Bette herself, they're the biggest reason that the film works. I wonder how many Miss Davis improvised. One single conversation references many real situations. 'I was sick of the tripe they were forcing me to play,' she tells Jim, similar to comments Davis made herself about her time at Warner Brothers. Her fortune was lost because she put it into three wonderful pictures that didn't get played, a reference to her regular co-star James Cagney's three indies for Cagney Productions, Johnny Come Lately, Blood on the Sun and The Time of Your Life. 'They said I was box office poison,' she spits, an epithet slapped on many stars, not least Katharine Hepburn. The whole thing is preceded by a comment about a perennial second lead called Ralph Bellows, obviously Ralph Bellamy who famously always lost the girl.

There are more direct similarities between Davis and Elliot, not least that the Oscar she takes for a ride wasn't a prop, it was one of the two she'd won herself. One scene in particular almost epitomises the real Bette Davis for me. It begins innocently as Jim works on an engine outside his house and asks Maggie for a wrench. She turns with a swell of arrogance as if she's about to lash out at him for the sheer effrontery of asking such a thing of a Star, but calms herself and helps out. I've always pictured Bette Davis as that bizarre combination of the diva consumed by her own importance and the everyday girl who is utterly willing to get down and dirty when the need arises that I believe that this scene is going to stay with me, minor though it is in the grand scheme of this film. It may be just another masterclass moment from a great actress but trying to work out whether we're watching Bette Davis or Margaret Elliot is a fascinating game.

There are other people in the film, not that you'd assume that reading this review, because it really does revolve utterly around Bette Davis, just as the world revolves utterly around The Star. Sterling Hayden is the most obvious, but he's just grounding. Barbara Lawrence is obvious too, far beyond her brief appearance at the party because she's been present in at least half a dozen scenes before that, on billboards or doors or in dialogue. This 'introduction' came over halfway through her career so I wonder if the studio felt she needed the push. The biggest name behind Bette is the one playing her screen daughter Gretchen. She's Natalie Wood, three years before Rebel without a Cause and four before The Searchers and while she doesn't get much to do here, she does get a bizarrely prophetic scene on a yacht where her screen mother cautions her not to fall in and drown. That wouldn't happen until Santa Catalina Island 29 years later.

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