Films on Stars: A Star Is Born (1937)

2 06 2010

I successfully defended my dissertation yesterday and am now officially a PhD! Well, still have to make some minor revisions and actually file the dissertation with the graduate school, but really it’s done! Let’s celebrate with a blog post instead of doing said revisions!

I’ve had an idea for a series of posts on how stars and stardom are depicted on film. Much of the initial scholarly work on stardom focused on film stars, unpacking how the images projected on screen are reconciled with the private off-screen individual behind those images. Despite the ever-broadening category of media stardom, I think film stars still hold a more dominant place in the pantheon of A-list stars compared to music, sports or television stars. Given this privileged place in understanding stardom as a cultural force, I’ve been interested in exploring how films represent the phenomena of fame and stardom that is so central to the functioning of the movie industry. How are stardom and the idea of “the star” constructed in films? How does one “become” a star and how have these stories of achieving stardom changed over time? What are we, the audience, to learn about stardom from watching these films on stars?

I do not include bio-pics of existing stars in this category (at least at this point) because I am more interested in how Hollywood represents the general concept of stardom and celebrity , not its re-telling of actual or allegedly actual events. That said, it is clear that some of these films I have in mind are directly influenced by the life of a particular star, even if not explicitly framed as a bio-pic. Reading the actual star’s story into the film may add an extra level of pleasure, but is not the core of the story. A film like 1954’s A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland could be (and will be) covered because even though it speaks to many “real” aspects of Garland’s stardom, it is not explicitly presented as a bio-pic. But the excellent TV mini-series Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows would not be relevant because it is explicitly about Garland’s life and career. Though I urge you to rent it, as Judy Davis is amazing as Garland. Anyway, it’s a somewhat muddy sort of distinction at this point, but one I hope to further develop as I discuss more films.

I begin with the original version of A Star is Born from 1937. The film is directed by William Wellman and stars Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Though the 1954 Garland remake is probably the most well-known version (there’s a third version from 1976 starring Barbra Streisand (!!) that is high on my Netflix queue), this original is quite engaging, even if it is not a musical.

Centered on the story of Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester’s rise to the heights of fame as a parallel to Norman Maines ‘ decline, the film offers some interesting insight on stardom, particularly within the Golden Age of the Hollywood Studio System. There’s a decent plot summary here, though I’ll be giving an overview in my discussion below as well (consider this your spoiler alert, if such things are important to you). So what does this film tell us about stardom?

1. Stardom is about authentic desire and drive, not necessarily talent

Esther Blodgett is a girl from a small town in the Midwest who, like many young girls, dreams of making it big in Hollywood. We aren’t shown that she possesses any clear talent for acting, rather that she is steeped in movie/fan culture and aspirations of Hollywood stardom. She regularly attends movies and reads fan magazines despite her mother’s protests that such things are frivolous wastes of her time. She says, “I want to be somebody,” connecting the idea of stardom (and the public adulation it commands) to cultural value. She is nobody and will be nobody if she stays in this little town. But going to Hollywood is a chance to really find herself and achieve her inner-most dreams. The narrative of the film asserts that she becomes a star because she really, really wants it.

We see this authentic desire again and again throughout the film. When Esther first visits a casting agent and is met with the harsh reality (hilariously posted on a sign in the office) that chances of making it in this business are “1 in 100,000” she exclaims, “But maybe I’m that one!!” The film doesn’t dwell on the need for talent as a prerequisite for being “that one,” allowing us to assume she can act because she’s in the movies. The film even goes so far as to award her an Oscar, though mostly as a chance to show how she has eclipsed Norman rather than to demonstrate her innate talent. Talent is perhaps related to her drive, but it is not itself at the heart of her stardom.

But Esther, in true pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps American Dream rhetoric, also recognizes that the dream alone is not enough. She must work tirelessly and diligently to achieve it. Her grandmother, the only one in her family who believes in her, gives Esther money to move to Los Angeles. In some dialogue taken straight from the American Dream handbook, Grandma reminds Esther that you only get what you want if you work hard and don’t complain. This money is a start, but Esther must do the work to become the star she believes she is. The combination of the dream and the willingness to work to achieve it is the underpinning of Esther’s deserved rise to fame. She tells the casting agent, “I haven’t much experience, but I don’t really think that matters if you’re willing.” The audience sees little evidence of her acting talent, but we know she is really a star because she is sincere, authentic, and properly embodies the American work ethic.

2. Even the hardest worker needs a little luck

The narrative of the film does recognize that Esther’s hard work alone can’t make her a star. She tries and tries to land a role and is going broke from the effort. Taking a waitress job at a fancy Hollywood party to pay the bills, Esther imitates various stars (Hepburn, Garbo) to try and get the attention of the various studio players who are attending the party. They largely ignore her, but she does get the attention of movie star Norman Maine, who is immediately taken with her. Again, it is not Esther’s talent but her sincerity and drive that gets Norman’s attention. Norman’s own star is fading and he is becoming a somewhat bitter and jaded alcoholic until he is rejuvenated by Esther’s inner light. They begin a romance. More importantly, he uses his (dwindling) influence to help her get her foot in the door at his studio, only to find her rising star quickly eclipsing his own.

3. The necessary role of the Hollywood star machine

Part of the “work” of stardom for this film is submitting to the Hollywood machine. Esther undergoes a series of physical and personality makeovers to mold her into a particular type that serves the needs of the studios. The studio wizards change her name to the more appealing Vicki Lester and refine her all-American look to fit a more glamorous Hollywood standard. Thanks to Norman’s influence, she lands a role in his latest film as his love interest (convenient!). Studio press agent, Matt Libby, is a central part of this machinery, as his job is to make sure both Vicki and Norman look good in the press. When they decide to marry, he sees it as an opportunity for positive publicity and wants to plan a huge splashy wedding that is more Hollywood production than meaningful moment for the couple. Here we start to see the pitfalls of fame, that your true self is often usurped by the persona constructed by the studio.

Despite these public image makeovers, Esther/Vicki maintains her authentic private self throughout. She is still a sweet, small town girl who is working hard at her dream of stardom. Even when she has it, she never forgets those who helped her along the way and always looks to the future. She presents Vicki Lester to the world, but keeps Esther Blodgett for herself and for Norman in their private life. By staying grounded in her true self but doing the work of stardom as asked by the studio, she becomes a wildly successful and adored star. But also starts to overshadow her husband…a narrative point often literally depicted in the mise-en-scene.

Esther/Vicki overshadows Norman

4. “Every dream has a price”

More wise words from Grandma that ultimately come true for Esther/Vicki. Norman is our cautionary tale about fame damage throughout the film. Though once a major matinee idol, he has lost his star power, descended into alcoholism, and no one wants to work with him anymore. He let fame get to his head and no longer had the necessary inner drive or dedication to hard work necessary to be a star. Though we don’t see his rise to fame, it is implied that his authentic talent and drive were once at its core. But he has squandered it in pursuit of the glamorous and false trappings of fame.

Throughout the film, Norman is presented as box office poison whose career is only briefly revived by his romantic and professional relationships with Esther/Vicki. As an existing star, he serves as her guide through the rocky waters of the industry and, as her husband, urges her to stay true to her authentic self lest she end up like him. Yet even these associations eventually threaten to bring down Esther/Vicki because Norman is ultimately damaged goods. When she tells the studio producer that she wants to take a break from filming (in other words, stop doing the necessary work of stardom) in order to spend more time with her troubled husband, Norman commits suicide by drowning in the ocean. He sacrifices himself in order to let Esther/Vicki go on as the (bigger) star she was meant to be. It is a melodrama, after all.

The return of Grandma to comfort the mourning Esther/Vicki reinforces the warning that dreams have a price but that staying true to yourself will help you achieve true greatness. Her arrival (after being absent for the entire time Esther/Vicki has been in Hollywood) reminds Esther/Vicki of her authentic small town roots and girlhood dreams, thus giving her the strength to continue to be the star that she was destined to be.

Grandma warned you every dream has its price! Now she is moving into your Hollywood mansion!

In the end, this version of A Star is Born tells us that stars are BOTH made and born. Esther/Vicki possesses the necessary authentic desire and drive to reach her goal of being “somebody.” She deserves fame not because she has talent, but because she has moxie and heart. Her stardom is a natural part of her authentic self that merely needed to be discovered and honed by the industry. She certainly had to sacrifice (her family back home, her relationship with Norman, and, indeed, Norman himself). The glamor of Hollywood is revealed as false, but Esther/Vicki’s stardom will endure because she has seen through that façade and remains true to her dreams and her self.




6 responses

4 06 2010
An Admirer

First, congratulations, Dr. Meyers! A little bird tells me you were a cool customer during your defense.

A random thought came to me as I read this (which perhaps has been extensively discussed elsewhere), but what is the role of tragedy in the construction of stardom? I mean, yes, the High Price of Fame and all that (sacrificing family, love etc.); but is there a lustre added by suffering, something adorning (or constituting) superstars like Marilyn Monroe that makes them shine even more brightly?

5 06 2010

Thanks! Must have been an owl that told you. 😉

Tragedy is important to stardom. We love to watch them rise and we love (maybe even more) to watch them fall. There’s a lot of work done on the idea of “fame damage” that relates to the ideas you raise. Basically, that fame will inherently destroy the individual with the very trappings it uses to lure them (glamor, public adulation, etc). So we love Marilyn because she is beautiful, sexy, desirable, glamorous, etc. But those very traits ultimately part of her undoing, which is tragic and compelling at the same time.

There are films and stories of stardom that have happy endings, but I think more focus on this sort of “fame will destroy your true self” perspective. Which is interesting because it still portrays fame as something you would want. Hmmm…more on this to come, I’m sure!

6 06 2010
An Admirer

Oh, “fame damage” – I love this term! And yes, as you say, the “tragic and compelling at the same time” combo gets at it perfectly. I’ll look forward to an upcoming post by you about the loss of the “authentic” self through the pursuit (and pursuits) of fame :o).

6 06 2010

To be fair, I didn’t coin the term “fame damage.” Saw it first in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond’s collection “Framing Celebrity.” They have a whole section of essays devoted to that idea. But I do think it is a very important way to look at celebrity.

31 10 2010
Buck Teeth :

looking for celebrity gossips is the thing i do each day, i love to hear the latest celebrity gossips “”

24 08 2011
Films on Stars: Inside Daisy Clover (1965) « What the What?!

[…] films about stardom, but Daisy Clover offers something unique. Unlike the Esther Bloggett (both the 1937 Gaynor version or the 1953 Garland version), she’s no plucky heroine or good girl just waiting to be […]

%d bloggers like this: