Oh, winter. Ah, howling wind and careful stepping through yesterday’s detritus as the snow, once so gleaming, turns into dirt-sullied slush. And after dark, when things get bitter and the stars have lost their glitter, it becomes treacherous beneath unsteady feet. We’ve had a storm here in New York and I’m cozying inside in that half-melancholic February nostalgia one can savor when forced into quietude.
I’m as pure as the driven slush, Tallulah Bankhead once said, and having watched the original Selznick-produced A Star is Born (1937), one gets the feeling that it was only family money that allowed her such honesty–which otherwise was and is rare in a business built on selling dreams. A Star is Born, which is showing on TCM this week in an orgy of Selznick produced gems, is all about Hollywood, and about the sweet poison of success. It is playing on Valentine’s Day–which is perfect because that’s the very day I first saw it. I was in college, visiting a boyfriend in Boston for Valentine’s weekend. He had to work so I stayed in his apartment, rustled my hangover a meal, and killed some time. On the tv there appeared the soft pastels of early technicolor–and, with wonderful lack of fanfare, A Star is Born began. (I applaud the abruptness with which 30s movies often begin and end– no goddamn arty images or bloated scrolls of laudatory credits–they just bloody well get on with it.)
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) in a snow storm, returns home with her movie magazine, and is taunted by her family for her big dreams of becoming an actress. Her grandma takes her aside, gives her a sockful of money, and tells her to hit the next bus for Hollywood. Dreams are good, says grandma, they tell us who we are.
The purest technicolor pastels are reserved for when Esther reaches Hollywood. She meets Norman Maine (the superb Frederic March), a huge star, when she’s cater-waitering at a tony mansion. It’s pretty clear from the off that he has a thirst for booze and a taste for small town cuties with big big eyes. But this one–well, this one he falls for.
So the myth-making commences. Norman takes her to the head of the studio, who naturally is awfully, awfully nice (!) and insists on Esther for his next picture. The studio publicist cringes at the sound of her name; “Blodgett?” he says, finally giving a name to that stuff which appears between your toes after a long run on a summer’s day. The makeup artists try giving her Dietrich brows and a Crawford sneer. . .it’s hopeless. How about–say here’s an idea–how about having her look natural? Norman Maine coaches our girl, she tries to help him lay off the sauce, everything’s dreamy in that short-lived way of the movies–and when the movie is released the public likes her! Dove-breasted ladies leaving the cinema remark to one another, “You can tell she’s a good girl.”
Unfortunately, no one’s talking about Norman. Not anymore.
And as success arrives in Esther Blodge–sorry, now Vicky Lester’s–life, we see it draining from Norman’s like fluid from a bedside IV bag. And equally naturally, all the people Norman’s pissed off over his last decade of starlet-chasing and bathtub-boozing, do their damndest to kick him on his way down. But no one damages him quite as much as the stunned Norman damages himself.
So naturally, he and Vicky marry.
Ai Ai ai. If you’re one of the twelve people on the planet who haven’t seen this movie in one version or the other (two remakes so far, the 1954 one into which Judy Garland sank her genius and her self-pity, and the 1976 crap-fest from which one imagines Kris Kristofferson emerged scarred from the death-grip of Streisand’s acrylics), you really should watch this one. It’s the real deal; beautifully filmed, fabulous script by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell, and real insider events from the Hollywood of the time. Not only is there so much history in this film, there is the kind of irony that Selznick wouldn’t later have appreciated. He savored it in his films–the early ones, when he was still the Golden Boy of the town, still married to Irene Mayer, when his uber-agent brother Myron was still alive. Later Selznick’s sense of irony softened into the sort of maudlin mysticism which must’ve given his pal Ben Hecht chronic hives.
This film remains a touchstone in Hollywood–there’s a slapping good Oscar scene in it–and Eastwood, our pal from last week, was going to re-make it with Beyonce. On October 12th, however, she backed out and there’s been no further news since. But this story will be re-made, again and again, whether it’s filmed or not. It’s in the town’s DNA. Kind of interesting to think, though, of who would be good in the Eastwood version. . .
How’s this for an assignment, should you choose to accept it: Watch the original movie and you tell me! I think Jennifer Hudson would be good, but then I do dig a Chicago girl who can belt.
In a few days I’ll write again, listing some dishy and, of course, morally instructive yet salacious examples of how this movie drew upon and also informed the lives of the people in the business at the time. ‘Cause that’s how I roll. Meanwhile, set back and enjoy the picture, just like Norman and Vicky.