By Alan Hurst
It’s never listed near the top of Bette Davis’ film achievements but The Star (1952) is nonetheless one of the unsung (albeit campy) gems from a period when Hollywood was really starting to turn the focus on itself with a series of films showing the highs and lows of the movie business.
Others from that period include the noir classics In a Lonely Place (1950) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), Vincente Minnelli’s melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the wonderful Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the best version of A Star Is Born (1954), and even the slight comedy Susan Slept Here (1954). The Star isn’t in the same league as some of those films and, if it does veer towards camp both with Bette Davis’ performance and some of the dialogue, it’s still an entertaining and incisive look at what happens when stardom slips away for an actress in an industry focused on youth.
Davis plays the fictional Margaret Elliot, an Academy Award winning actress who is not getting the good parts anymore. She now finds herself without work, living in a small apartment and faced with having to auction off her belongings. Divorced, her daughter (Natalie Wood) lives with her ex-husband and his new wife, while she’s left on her own supporting her greedy sister, brother-in-law and mother. Very quickly Margaret loses out on another major role, drinks too much, gets in her car with her Oscar placed on the dashboard and drives drunkenly around Beverly Hills. She ends up in jail and is rescued by a former co-star (Sterling Hayden) who now builds boats. They fall in love, he tries to talk her into forgetting about Hollywood and stardom and she gets a job at a department store but quits when she can’t handle the gossip. She does get another shot at Hollywood with a screen test for a supporting part in an A production. But she blows the test by trying to vamp it up so they’ll consider her for the lead instead. She heads back to Sterling Hayden for a happy ending.
There is no question that the story is cliched, but it certainly is watchable thanks to Davis and the fact that director Stuart Heisler keeps the action moving.
Davis is at her most “Davis” in this film and what I mean by that is the mannerisms that she was able to reign in when she had stronger material are unrestrained here. Watch her in the drunk driving scene as she sloppily holds the steering wheel, swigs from a bottle of booze, and points out all the movie star homes to the inanimate Oscar statue on the dashboard. This is Davis at her worst, but also her best – it really is a Davis caricature, but there’s really no other way to play such a trashy scene. Davis seems to know it, so she goes for broke. The result is both riveting and hysterical.
Davis’ best scenes are when you see the character not facing reality and holding out hope for a comeback. You see that the addiction of Hollywood and stardom are like heroin to this character and she’s hungry to get it back. Davis is actually quite touching in communicating the character’s blind desire and need.
Another favorite scene occurs in the department store where Davis’ character works briefly. Her shame at being recognized is heartbreaking, but then her hurt turning to anger at the horrible comments she overhears is perfect. She lets the gossipy two old matrons have it in no uncertain terms – and it’s cathartic for the audience and the character.
Davis really has the film to herself, despite some decent supporting work from the very handsome Hayden has her lover and some nice scenes featuring a very young Natalie Wood.
The Star was written by Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson as a vehicle for Lucille Ball, but this was before I Love Lucy and no one would finance the picture with Ball in the lead. The writers were friends of Joan Crawford and they supposedly based some of the unflattering aspects of the character on Crawford. The friendship was waning when the film went into production so there was no chance Crawford was going to do it, so Davis jumped at the chance to “play” Crawford on screen – particularly Crawford’s obsession with being a movie star. The writers do show some strong insight into the innate drive to achieve and maintain stardom.
This film came out a couple of years after Davis’ career peak with All About Eve in 1950. It netted her some decent reviews and a ninth Oscar nomination, but it didn’t set the stage for a resurgence of her film career. That would have to wait another 10 years until the release of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). What it did do was provide fans with the over-the-top Davis that they loved and imitators with some scenes ripe for parody.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.