Friday, August 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "A Star Is Born"

"A Star Is Born" has been made into three movies: the 1937 original starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March (which is the one I'm reviewing here); a 1954 musical version with Judy Garland; and a 1976 rock 'n' roll version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. In all three the basic story is the same -- a fading star falls in love with a young up-and-comer, and resents seeing their star eclipsed.

In the 1954 and '76 versions, there was no question that the woman was the star of the picture. But in 1937, it was Gaynor whose career was fading, while March was in the midst of a long and distinguished career. By 1938, Gaynor's run as a Hollywood star was effectively finished, much like the character of Norman Maine. This film, directed by William A. Wellman, starts with the Gaynor character as the focus, but the story's emphasis shifts more and more to her husband as time goes on.

"Star" is a decent picture, but not the masterpiece it's made out to be. There were long stretches in the middle where I was fairly bored. I found it interesting, though, for its cynical and bleak portrayal of the Hollywood biz. It's essentially a critique of the star-making machine that ruled during the Golden Age of the 1930s and '40s, from the very people who were perpetrating it.

Esther Blodgett (Gaynor) is determined to be a star, but is warned by her grandmother that holding onto a dream so tightly often leads to heartbreak. To want something so badly, you must be willing to sacrifice everything for it. Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou), a big-time producer, gives her essentially the same advice. In her case, it's her relationship with Norman Maine (March) that withers.

The producer is depicted as a fairly benign figure, operating at the whim of whatever he thinks will generate the most publicity for the studio. As the film opens, it's Norman Maine. But when the light of Esther -- renamed Vicki Lester for her showbiz moniker -- begins to eclipse Norman's, the supposed old friend is quick to give him the boot.

The most depraved figure is the studio publicist, Matt Libby, played by Lionel Stander. I must confess that I only knew Stander from his role as the crony Max from that awful "Hart to Hart" television series, when he was an old bear of a man. It's hard to even think of a guy like that being young.

Libby sees everything through the prism of publicity, including how to stage the marriage of Norman and Esther/Vicki. He's furious when they sneak off for a quickie wedding at a remote town hall, rather than the big shindig he had planned. The Libby character also comes off as a Jewish caricature.

March gives a fine performance, especially toward the end after he becomes a sad-sack has-been, moping around and trying to hold onto the tattered shreds of his dignity, and stay off the booze. Considering how he starts out as a dashing, rapscallion gentleman drunk and ends up as such a pathetic figure, the film is also notable for tackling alcoholism in a scathing way.

This was my first Janet Gaynor movie. She has Betty Boop features -- exceedingly round face, tiny bow-tie mouth and big, puppyish eyes. I doubt a woman with that sort of face could make it as a star in Hollywood these days. Christina Ricci comes close, but her career hasn't exactly been gangbusters lately. Today's female stars tend to be have beautiful but bland faces. I think I prefer the old Hollywood days, when faces with character were the ideal.

3 stars

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