Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Star (1952) * * *

Margaret Elliot (Bette Davis) was once one of Hollywood's great stars, but as she ages into her 50's, both her career and her life have reached rock bottom. An actress who once knew the heights of fame as an Oscar-winning movie queen is forced to confront the depths of defeat. Bankrupt and washed-up, she lives in the past without accepting the reality of her age and her own demanding nature. Drowning her sorrows in alcohol and self pity, Margaret is in serious denial about herself.

She hasn't worked for several years, her marriage has fallen apart, her former husband has custody of her pre-teen daughter Gretchen (Natalie Wood), and she's running short of money. Margaret's agent Harry Stone (Warner Anderson) can't get her a part, and isn't willing to lend her the money to pay her bills. When they learn that Margaret is all but penniless, her sister (Fay Baker) and brother-in-law (David Alpert) turn their back on her, and Margaret's landlady Mrs. Adams (Kay Riehl) threatens to evict her. One evening in downtown LA, Margaret runs into her agent outside of a storefront auction house. Her possessions are being sold to the highest bidder and he's just purchased a gaudy candelabra that used to belong to her. "Be a scavenger," she wails to him, "Pick my bones."

Margaret heads over to the mansion of her wealthy ex-husband John Morgan to tell his new wife Peggy (Barbara Woodell) a thing or two. "You threw yourself at him," she harangues, "You told him how bad I was for him, that I was too busy with my career, that what he needed was a real wife." Then, she rolls her eyes and snorts, "Ugh…pure soap opera."

Peggy: Is it money? Do you want more from John?
Margaret: More money? I never asked Johnny for money.
Peggy: He's given you $2500 over the past two years.
Margaret: Well, I gave him $ 25,000 when I divorced him so he could marry you.

Margaret goes upstairs to visit with Gretchen. "My six months with daddy was up on the sixteenth," she helpfully reminds her mother, "I was wondering when you'd come for me." Margaret makes up excuses because she can't afford to take care of her own child. Gretchen has been busy defending her mother's professional honor by beating up any of the neighborhood kids who call her mother a has-been. Margaret tries to save face and says that she's starting a new movie soon, "If you're a star, you don't stop being a star."

Margaret: Haven't you ever cried because you're happy?
Gretchen: No.
Margaret: Well, you see, some people cry when they're happy and laugh when they're mad.

After tucking her daughter into bed, she heads home to her small apartment. Despite Margaret's financial situation, her ungrateful sister and brother-in-law ask for their monthly stipend. "Can't you get it through your thick skulls that I'm broke!" she bellows, "Dead, flat, stony broke!" After throwing them out, she picks up her Academy Award and goes on a bender."Come on, Oscar--let's you and me get drunk," Margaret says to the Academy Award itself, which she cradles bitterly. With her Oscar on the dashboard and a drink in her hand, Margaret drives through the affluent neighborhood that she used to call home. "Going, going, gone," she tearfully reminisces before being arrested by police and thrown in the jail drunk tank, saying "You don't seem to know who I am!" The next morning, Margaret is bailed out by an old industry acquaintance, Jim Johannson (Sterling Hayden).

Jim Johannson put up bail because she did a "swell thing" for him once: "I go out to repair your bathhouse and ten days later I'm playing opposite Margaret Elliot in Faithless." Despite the fact that it was "the worst picture ever made", he's eager to return the favor and give her a helping hand. He urges Margaret to leave Hollywood behind, and offers to care for her if she'll have him. After she is evicted from her apartment, Johannson takes her back to his place, a comfortable apartment that overlooks the shipyard he owns and operates. When she awakens in his bed, all her troubles come flooding back to her. Margaret's night in jail has made the morning papers. She quickly makes a call to her daughter to explain the previous night's misadventures, "Mother was at the jail getting atmosphere for her new picture," she claims.

Johannson tries in his own down-to-earth way to use the boat engine he's working on as an analogy for the downward spiral that Margaret is facing. But she's content on mulling over the ghosts of her former career, "I was sick of the tripe they were forcing me to play," she tells him, "They said I was box-office poison." Johannson gives her a harsh but realistic life assessment: "You're confusing what was with what is. It was swell while it lasted. But now it's over."

Margaret: It'll never be over!
Johannson: Once though you were a woman, but I was wrong. You're nothing but a career!

Margaret slaps him and runs out on the only person who cares about her. At a drugstore she tries to buy some sleeping pills, but steals an expensive bottle of perfume instead. She then returns to Johannson and confesses. "What's the matter with me? Going, going, gone." In a confessional mood, she tells him that it was no favor to get him the lead in "Faithless". When a distinguished leading man refused to play opposite her, she swore to get even by making the next man she saw a big star.

Johannson takes it all in stride and suggests that, since she has it, she put on some of the fancy perfume. Oddly, it doesn't have any scent. "It must have been a display bottle," he guesses, "Well, when you grabbed it you thought it was real. It's the story of your life isn't it?" Yes, in a wonderfully heavy-handed way, it sure is. Margaret's real world rehabilitation begins with a refreshing day spent sailing with Gretchen and Johannson. Since her movie career option is essentially out, Johannson helps her get a "real" job working behind the counter in a department store. This is probably the worst idea ever, truly a disaster. Two women recognize her and begin to gossip over whether it's appropriate to have a jailbird working in the lingerie department.

"Take a good look ladies, so there's no doubt. It is Margaret Elliot and it is a disgrace," she fumes, "Margaret Elliot waiting on a couple of old bags like you!" She tosses some lacy merchandise at them and storms out from behind the counter. "I'm going back where I belong. I am Margaret Elliot and I intend to stay Margaret Elliot!"

"One good picture is all I need," she says, puffing away on a cigarette as if her life depended on it, "They can't put me out to pasture." Margaret's pleas to her agent finally result in an audition with producer Joe Morrison (Minor Watson), and she holds on to the desperate hope she may have one more chance at regaining her stardom. Morrison is making "The Fatal Winter", and she manages to get a screen test for a part in a film she always wanted to do. Margaret is shocked to learn that her star power holds less clout than it used too. They want her to shoot a screen test for the role of the older sister, not the lead. Offered to be tested for a supporting role in the film, she accepts, believing that if she plays the character as a sexy young girl she will be awarded the top role.

The next day, after enduring the make-up and hair for the frumpy sister, Margaret ducks into a dressing room and changes her hair and wardrobe to a more flattering style. When it becomes clear that she's intent on playing the vamp instead of the aged recluse the part calls for, the young director attempts to make a few suggestions. But she won't listen and plays it her own way. During the scene, Davis is playing it bad on purpose, wonderfully bad in fact. After shooting the obviously atrocious test, Margaret asks for some feedback. "Fine," the director deadpans, "Your fans would love it."

Full of ego and hubris, Margaret actually believes that the test will win her the part of the young lead. She buys a new wardrobe and is eager to go out and celebrate her "return to the screen" with Johannson. "You're going to have a little brother," she tells her Oscar statuette. But all the excitement has worn her out and she ends up sleeping most of the evening away. Margaret is in for a rude awakening when she settles into her seat inside the studio screening room to see her test. "Oh it's horrible, it's horrible," she sobs when she realizes how painfully inappropriate her performance was. She's ruined her chance for the comeback she so desperately wanted and shouts at her b & w image flickering across the screen. Margaret fails the test, told that she no longer has that "dewy quality". When she realizes what she has done, her world comes crashing down on her, self realization sets in, and she confronts what's most important--being a star, or being a woman.

Her agent takes Margaret back to his Bel Air home for a rest. She awakens to the sounds of a cocktail party downstairs. She tries to sneak out, but ends up chatting with colleagues and overhears that someone else got the part she tested for. Barbara Lawrence, the starlet playing the coveted lead in "The Fatal Winter", causes quite a stir when she shows up. A young producer sits with Margaret and tells her about a script that she might be interested in. If the producer sounds familiar, it's because he's Paul Frees, the voice actor with a list of credits a mile long, including feature films and several animated TV shows. He describes his "Hollywood story" and it's main character, a delusional actress of Norma Desmond-like proportions. Could he be telling the pitiful story of Margaret's life? She flees the party and picks up Gretchen in the middle of the night. They drive to Johannson's apartment where, in a tacked on happy ending, Margaret literally runs into the arms of the only man who understands and loves her. He gives her a tender kiss.

This 1950s melodrama is stark and grim, a penetrating study of Hollywood and an aging actress who has problems with work, booze, family, and money, years after she won an Academy Award. Davis has no qualms about appearing as a woman who is aging, as she appears with bags and circles under her eyes and has a somewhat jowly and bitter look. The wardrobe is mostly drab, and the sets are pedestrian. This all works to effect, symbolic of Margaret Elliot's new reality. Sterling Hayden gives a credible performance and a teenage Natalie Wood as Margaret's daughter is adorable in the role.

THE STAR is a great film. Its theme is that careers are important, but not as important as the relationships we have with other people, such as our family and other loved ones. Some people think this is a sexist slant for the movie, but it's a message equally true for men and women who want fame and fortune instead of just enjoying their lives and being with the people they care about. This movie is disliked by some people because they resent the truthful message about those obsessed with the American Dream according to Hollywood.

The cut-rate script and production values betray THE STAR as a product of Davis' post-Warner Bros. films. It does have some sunny location shots of San Pedro, plus a young Natalie Wood before she broke out of child-star roles. But the biggest draw, other than Davis, is the Hollywood behind-the-scenes juice, and the guessing game of how close the material was to Davis' own career. The parallels between Davis' real life and the character she plays are often eerily similar. Davis had plenty of her own personal and professional disappointments to draw upon.

Davis said that she based her portrayal of the washed up actress on her rival Joan Crawford, but Crawford's career was one of the most durable Hollywood ever produced. The script was written by the husband and wife team Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson, who were long-time friends of Crawford's. THE STAR is as much about Davis as it was Crawford. Whether she's playing herself or a thinly veiled version of Crawford, is beside the point. The end result is one hundred percent Bette Davis. This film proves that no one does a better Bette Davis impersonation than Davis herself. She manages to employ every mannerism in her personal bag of acting tricks. The result is a deliriously over-the-top performance from one of Hollywood's best actors.

The cast also includes: Minor Watson (Joe Morrison), June Travis (Phyllis Stone), Paul Frees (Richard Stanley), Robert Warrick (R.J., Actor at Party), Barbara Lawrence (Herself), Herb Vigran (Roy), David Alpert (Keith Barkley), James Anderson (Actor playing Jed Garfield in "The Fatal Winter"), Florence Auer (Old Biddy in Store), Marie Blake (Annie, Stones' Maid), Claire Carleton (Jailbird), Byron Foulger (Druggist), Gil Frye (George, Assistant Director), Sam Harris (Party Guest),Al Hill (Cameraman), John Indrisano (Projectionist), Marcia Mae Jones (Waitress), Lorin Raker (Somers), Frank J. Scannell (Auctioneer), Dorothy Vaughan (Annie's Friend in Department Store), and Katherine Warren (Mrs. Ruth Morrison). Victor Young composed the original music. Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert wrote the screenplay. Stuart Heisler directed.

The 1950's were a difficult time for Bette Davis. After her career defining role in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) and before the box-office success of WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1961), the quality of the work she was offered declined. Davis herself referred to the decade as her "ten black years". It was during one of those "black years" that she starred in the camp exposé THE STAR (1952), a low-budget drama about an aging actress who is desperate for a comeback. It's certainly not one of Davis' more subtle performances, but she received her ninth Academy Award nomination for Best Actresss for her role--but she lost to Shirley Booth in COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA (1952)--a role that had been first offered to Davis.

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