Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: A Star is Born

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: A Star is Born

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

The films in this series are being viewed in a spectrum, stretching from the joyful ribbing of Singin' in the Rain to the lethal if still humorous darkness of Sunset Boulevard. Though useful, this method is hardly foolproof; and it's difficult to judge how one film "hates" Hollywood more than than the other. For example, The Bad and the Beautiful is cynical but not tragic, while A Star is Born seems to me a tragedy without real cynicism. But A Star is Born does escalate the questioning of Hollywood, both purposefully and inadvertently. Like the two previous films, it ultimately celebrates Hollywood, though it does go about as far as possible in the other direction without tearing down the institutions of the movie business.


I had never seen A Star is Born before tonight, unlike the other films in this series. However, I did see the 1937 original, which bears almost exactly the same story. At the same time, it is not a musical, and was written and directed by William Wellman in his trademark style of economy and efficiency. Starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor as, respectively, a drunken actor in decline, and the rising star he marries and is ultimately eclipsed by, it provides a perfect description of the rise-and-fall storyline, Hollywood style. If that version is the description, George Cukor's 1954 remake is a meditation on the same themes...it takes the simple but affecting story and stretches it out to 3 hours, adds musical numbers, and lavish widescreen photography and ultra-modern 1950s set design. Judy Garland's performance adds new pathos to a role that has inspired three generations of experienced actresses to relive their ingenue days: Gaynor, Garland, and Barbra Striesand (who appeared in the 1976 version) were all in their thirties with at least a decade of professional experience under their belts when they played the rising star.

Garland was not the oldest of these actresses (that honor belongs to Striesand) but she was the most experienced - having been a child actress deeply involved with Hollywood since the late 30s. That past shows in her understanding of Vicki Lester's pain, as well as the professionalism that she's always able to summon as a cover. Vicki's pain stems from husband Norman Maine whose self-destructive alcoholism is ably conveyed by James Mason. Mason is a good choice, because his erudite diction serves to both highlight and paper over his immense insecurities: he's a gentleman at times, but also someone who is self-aware but has no self-control. Norman Maine provides the film with its primary dilemma: what is stardom worth, and is it an institution that should be celebrated? By playing Vicki's rise against Norman's decline, letting us see the good and the bad simultaneously, the film plays out this dialectic.

Finally Norman - and the film - act to defend and justify stardom and the Hollywood system that perpetuates it. Norman, who seduced Vicki into expanding her dreams and becoming an actress, has now degenerated into a pathetic shell of his former self, lying in bed as his wife vows to put aside her hard-won career for him. Knowing that this would be wrong, he commits suicide by "going out for a swim" and never returning. It looks like an accident, and Vicki continues her career in her husband's honor. Is this act of martyrdom a noble sacrifice? Or would Vicki and Norman have been happier living out their marriage in privacy? What was the greater problem - Norman's alcoholism, or the studios and star system which facilitated it?

A star is born, and a star burns out, but the film takes the former trajectory as its title. Why? It certainly doesn't seem to be ironic. Yet its portrayal of Vicki's behind-the-scenes suffering and Norman's collapse at the Oscars (that industry sacred cow) is unflinching; nor does the film miss a beat in demonstrating how closely Norman's career insecurities are tied to his drinking. There's also a mournful sense of lost simplicity and the phoniness of stardom. The movie opens with a gala event, much like Singin' in the Rain, but here the scale is gargantuan and intimidating, the fans are more aggressive, and the stars more aloof. Vicki and Norman's relationship will play out against this artificial environment.

Norman's proposal and Vicki's teasing rebuttal is secretly recorded by a film crew and played back on the set - their insecurities and doubts amplified for the cackles of their industry peers. When they do decide to tie the knot, they must seek permission from the studio boss. When, like a benevolent father, he gives his blessing, the publicist leaps in with all kinds of conditions as to the size and press coverage of the wedding. The two stars sneak off to elope in a town office, and - though they've escaped studio oversight this once - the jail cell behind them provides an apt analogy for their condition. They are prisoners in a gilded cage, which makes it all the more poignant to see them cast off their chains, however briefly, and marry under their real names - Esther Blodgett and Ernest Sidney Gubbins. The homely dignity of their little union suggests a necessary escape from the phony world of press agents and studio heads. Yet in the end, A Star is Born embraces the prison Vicki and Norman tried to flee.

Norman has killed himself, and an old friend of Vicki finds the widow locked away in a room, prepared to grieve forever. He reminds her that she has a benefit to attend, that Norman's gift to her was her fame, and that she should use that gift and stand tall. She goes to the gala event (much like the one which opened the movie) and announces herself onstage as Mrs. Norman Maine, for which she receives a standing ovation. Though tacking towards an anti-stardom position, in its final scene the film embraces the star system and its power to immortalize and ennoble even the dead. This is due, in part, to a respect for professionalism - something Vicki has and Norman does not. It's what allows her to survive and succeed; several musical numbers extol the theme of "putting on a happy face" and one of these numbers even occurs immediately after Vicki has wept about Norman's condition.

I suspect the movie may be more critical of Hollywood than it realizes, but it also isn't fair to completely ignore its overt celebration of the star system. Still, something real has been lost by the film's ending. Vicki Lester may have presented herself as Mrs. Norman Maine, revealing what she feels to be her true identity, but what ever happened to Esther Blodgett?

Previous: The Bad and the Beautiful
Next: In a Lonely Place

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood starts here.

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