Films on Stars: Inside Daisy Clover  (1965)

24 08 2011

Inside Daisy Clover starts off as a typical sort of film about the empty promises of fame and the machinery of Hollywood. When we meet Daisy Clover (Natalie Wood) at the start of the film, she’s a raggedy tomboy who lives in a ramshackle trailer with her mother and sells autographed photos of the stars on the boardwalk (many of which she simply signs herself). Oh the glamour of Hollywood, but it seems so out of reach for seventeen year old Daisy Clover!

The whole rags-to-riches theme is common in 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 discovered. She has the appropriate hard luck story: father abandoned the family, mother is mentally unstable and basically relies on Daisy to survive. They live in poverty and under threat from the police because of her mother’s gambling. But instead being a typical sort of Pollyanna attitude about her life that typifies melodramatic heroines in these situations, Daisy is explosive and angry. She yells and spits and lashes out physically at those who cross her. Her rather butch appearance is also uncommon for these sorts of films, but is important to what happens later…

Natalie Wood as Daisy Clover

Her Hollywood dreams are somewhat undefined, but she apparently sent a record of her singing to a producer. Interestingly, we don’t actually see her sing, we just find out about it when the producer, Raymond Swan (a suave Christopher Plummer) sends a limo down to the boardwalk to pick her up. It seems like a set up for the the typical moment Hollywood loves to portray where the heroine’s true talent helps her escape from her harsh life and get the fame she truly deserves. But as we already know, Hollywood is a business and fame is really just an empty promise because it forces you to change who you really are in order to achieve it.

This point constantly driven home by Swan, who is a cynical and jaded Hollywood insider. After their first meeting, Swan says to Daisy, “Incredible as it may seem, I’m going to make something out of you…Money.” What Swan sees in Daisy is “a certain mixture of orphan and clown that always packs them in.” He femmes her up with new hair, clothes and, importantly, demure mannerisms in a Pygmalion like transformation. She has something special, but Swan knows she must also conform to the feminine standards of Hollywood. He basically orchestrates her whole life towards this goal. This includes allowing her mother to be insitutionalized and claiming that she is dead so that the tabloids won’t discover the truth and ruin her carefully crafted image as “America’s Little Valentine.”

The “new” Daisy Clover

The constructed image and made up biography is a familiar theme to stardom films, but this being the 1960s, Inside Daisy Clover gets particularly dark in its portrayal of Daisy’s fame. She thinks that fame and money are going to make her happy and solve her problems, but, surprise!, they really only make things worse. Her true self keeps pushing against this constructed facade, demonstrating that fame is a sacrifice or, as Swan puts it “Fame does have its obligations.” The problem is that boardwalk Daisy simply cannot be contained by America’s Little Valentine.

The machinery of fame and Hollywood is revealed at the outset, and though we do see Daisy sing and perform after she signs with Swan, the idea that her talent is not enough is made clear throughout the film. I find the musical numbers alternately boring and weirdly surreal in that 1960s sort of way (also, apparently Wood’s singing was scrapped in favor of an overdub from a session singer). They do fit with the themes of the film…the first is “You’re Gonna Hear From Me” that both demonstrates her talent and promises (threatens?) us that she WILL BE FAMOUS! Also, what’s up with that hat?

The other, “The Circus Is A Wacky World,” tells us “the circus ain’t what it’s supposed to be” and “isn’t real.” Do you see what they did there? Here’s the first appearance of the song as Daisy films a new movie that is apparently about clowns or something.

Tellingly, it is while Daisy is recording audio overdub of this song during post-production that she has a massive mental breakdown…but more on that to come.

To add to the illusion that is Hollywood, Daisy starts a relationship with fellow actor (and fellow Swan protegee) Wade Lewis played by a smoking hot Robert Redford. Seriously. Brad Pitt wishes he was ever this sexy.

This is the best picture I could find, but trust me, Redford kills it in the hotness department

Anyway, Wade, like Daisy, is forced to be something he’s not in order to fit the Hollywood mold and make lots of money for Swan. In her first act of rebellion against Swan, Daisy falls in love with Wade. The two stars get married, and Wade promptly runs off to New York. Swan reveals to Daisy the truth about Wade, which is he “prefers men” and is a lousy drunk. In fact, according to Swan, Wade really only took up with Daisy as part of his ongoing attempts to hide his homosexuality. Swan facilitates an annulment after only one day to keep Daisy’s image from being tarnished more than to protect her feelings. Furthermore, Swan uses this as further proof that he should always be the one in control.

All this leads to Daisy having massive breakdown while recording audio for that wacky circus song. It’s pretty spectacular, but I can’t really find any quality clips of it. Regardless, she freaks out and physically lashes out like the old Daisy. Swan sequesters her in her beach house and calls in doctors so she can recover out of the public eye (“the world holds its breath as you hold yours”). Swan demands that either she be certified as insane (just like her mom!) so he can collect the insurance on her or that she get her ass out of bed and back to work like the commodity that she is. In case we forgot, money is all that matters in Hollywood. Here’s where the movie gets awesome and really distinguishes itself from other stardom/Hollywood Dreams films.

SPOILER ALERT: Daisy gets out of bed all right. Just watch the last scene of the film:

She doesn’t just walk away from her Hollywood life and self. She burns it down and declares war! But that is the end! So this movie pushes up against the control of Hollywood in some pretty intense ways at the end, but stops short. What will she do? I demand a sequel!

In today’s celebrity culture, she’d probably go on a media tirade about Swan, make some crazy YouTube videos or write a page turning tell all. Then she’d be discredited as an addict and end up on Dr. Drew’s show. But Daisy wasn’t an addict or doing drugs in the film. She just couldn’t take the constraint of being America’s Little Valentine and that Hollywood was a wacky place. I could have done with one less musical number and more Hollywood comeuppance at the end, but this is definitely one of the blackest takes on stardom I’ve come across so far.


Films on Stars: A Star Is Born  (1953)

10 01 2011

Stardom, and particularly the more media-based “celebrity” side of stardom, is typically understood as a feminized phenomenon. The overwhelming emphasis on images and the bodies that are the bearers of those images, not to mention the (at least contemporary) emphasis on the private and “real” person behind that image aligns the concept of stardom with the private and domestic sphere most associated with women. The vast majority of stars studied by scholars are women, and the ones most often torn down by tabloids for our voyeuristic pleasure are women. This is not to say men are not stars, but the condition or perhaps more crucially, the pathology of stardom and the tragedy of fame damage is feminized across academic and popular discussions of stars.

I revisited the classic film about the Hollywood star machinery (and my personal favorite), A Star Is Born starring Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester. There’s no one better to play out the tragedy of stardom than Judy, whose own star image is tightly bound to her personal struggles as a result of her child and adult stardom (see here for a brief overview). These struggles are essential to her stardom, and are vital to understanding what makes this role/film such a perfect star vehicle for Garland.

This version of the film differs in several important ways from the 1937 version I previously discussed. It paints a somewhat different version of what it takes to be a star in Hollywood, likely because it was made at a time when the studio system was losing its power and, particularly since Garland and her star image baggage are involved, that system been exposed as a soul crushing factory not simply a dream machine.

In this version, Esther’s talent eclipses her drive to achieve stardom. She works as a singer and does whatever it takes to have the opportunity to do what she loves, but, unlike Janet Gaynor’s Esther/Vicki, her drive is towards the pleasure of her talent, not the achievement of public recognition for it. She has to sing because that’s who she is, not because she is ultimately gunning for the top of fame mountain. Though Norman Maine first heard her sing at a Hollywood benefit, it is her performance of “The Man That Got Away” during an informal jam session with her band that makes him realize her potential. The use of the talent itself is the end, and any fame or recognition that comes with it is just gravy, really. If you need confirmation of Garland’s tremendous talent, look no further than this iconic performance. I’m such a sucker for all the Judy singing mannerisms, and you get them all here…watch for the hand through bangs for emphasis moment:

In Gaynor’s version, we don’t get much on-screen evidence of Esther/Vicki’s talent. Instead, we get a lot of evidence that she is willing to be a good soldier and do the work necessary to become a star in the Hollywood system. In Garland’s, we are constantly reminded of it in numerous musical numbers that show her talent as innate, not something she must craft and package for Hollywood. But, of course, such innate talent must be shared with the public!

In both films, Norman, who is already a Hollywood star, serves as a guide/Svengali who guides Esther into the realm of stardom, but the 1953 Norman (played by James Mason) helps Esther realize that her talent can get her so much more. He tells her that listening to her sing is like hooking a fish or watching a prize fighter…full of “jabs of pleasure” that go beyond the constructed nature of his Hollywood life (the jabs of pleasure I get from hearing James Mason deliver this speech in his iconic cadence makes this one of my favorite moments of the film). He says, “you’ve got that little something extra” that makes a star and dares her to dream bigger than her current dream of just getting one hit song on the radio and then retiring on that glory. He knows she can be more because she’s not simply a studio produced commodity. She’s got something more, something, it seems, they cannot take away from her and will make her famous without any studio machinations.

That Norman wants to bring her into Hollywood stardom is ironic because he hates his life as a Hollywood star. He hates the lies and the fabrications of the publicity department. He hates the way you have to play the game to get anywhere. So it seems strange that even as he feels he has been crushed by Hollywood, he wants to bring this pure and innocent talent into the maw of the machine. Perhaps he thinks the purity of her talent will protect her? After all, he has her take off the fake nose, caked on makeup and blonde wig that resulted from her pre-screentest makeup session. This returns her to her true self and lets her talent, not her constructed beauty, shine through. This, not incidentally, is a key tie to Garland’s MGM experience and her own frustration with never being the stereotypical Hollywood Glamour Girl.

What’s interesting about this film as a depiction of stardom is that the female star is the one who has it together and whose talent actually grounds her in her real self instead of transforming her into nothing but a false image. Even as her star rises, she does not give in to the excesses of fame, remains her real “girl next door” self at heart, and finds her true love in Norman. Compare this to other films I’ve reviewed in this series where the female star either falls into debauchery or is unable to fulfill her true feminine self in relationships.

Here, it is Norman whose stardom produces pathology in the form of alcoholism, depression and his eventual suicide. Of course all this impacts Esther/Vicki, as she is crushed as she watches Norman fall apart. As with other cautionary tales of stardom’s excesses, a tragic personal life lurks just below the glamorous surface of life as a star, and perhaps Esther not entirely successful as a wife because of her stardom. But in this case, it is really Norman who falls victim to the excesses and who is ultimately responsible for these problems. Stardom has corrupted him even as it has fulfilled her. Esther, ever the dutiful wife, recognizes that Norman somehow needs the adulation of stardom in ways she does not, saying “Love isn’t enough for him.” She is grounded by her private and personal relationship with him, as well as by the pleasure of doing what she loves. She does not fall victim to any of the excesses of Hollywood because she already has real love and real talent to remind her who she really is. Norman, on the other hand, does not recognize such anchors. As Norman’s career is eclipsed by Esther/Vicki’s and he is eventually let go by the studio, he becomes a washed up and tragic victim of the Hollywood system.

Though this film does turn the feminized version of pathological stardom on its head, it’s not exactly a feminist dream. Vicki is the long-suffering wife who struggles to put her husband’s needs ahead of her own. She sees Norman as the architect of her stardom, downplaying her own talent and hard work to do what she does. That Norman’s fame is fading at the same moment hers is rising acts to emasculate him. He has become Mr. Vicki Lester, the partner who stays home and cooks dinner, a terrible fate for a former matinee idol.

So while she experiences real love and personal connection, Norman’s experience with fame leaves him unable to fully reciprocate. He becomes increasingly distant and unable to connect with her because of this public and private emasculation. Norman overhears Vicki say she will leave the business at the height of her career in order to take care of him and kills himself in order to let her thrive. Such moments of self-sacrifice are hallmarks of melodrama, but are typically undertaken by female characters. Norman’s self-sacrifice could be read as the ultimate emasculation, perhaps demonstrating the stardom as a feminized phenomenon that destroys masculinity. However, the narrative quickly recuperates Norman’s masculinity when Vicki re-emerges into the public eye after mourning Norman’s death by introducing herself to her public not as Vicki Lester, but as Mrs. Norman Maine.

In the end, stardom still produces tragedy for both men and women. The idea that stardom is still a feminized phenomenon holds up in this film, but is applied to both men and women. Not exactly progress to see that man’s downfall framed as having to give up the public life for the private/domestic sphere as his wife achieves in the public sphere. But the fact that the female star is fulfilled (mostly) by her work, does not turn into a drug addicted mess and is able to balance her public and personal life (until Norman falls apart) is a unique view on the condition of stardom.

As a side note, rumors circulated about a year ago about a remake of this film starring Robert Downey Jr and Beyonce. No. Just no.

Films on Stars: All About Eve 1950

25 09 2010

Has it really been almost a month since my last blog post? Starting the new job and teaching three courses has got me in a constant whirlwind of course prep. Finding time to do research related things, let alone write blog posts, has been tough. The fact that my blog hasn’t been updated in quite some time is always gnawing away at the back of my mind, especially since there’s still a lot that I want to cover. I’m reminded of Walter Winchell, who said he had to constantly be working to “feed the maw” of his column. Of course, I’m not trying to write a daily column, like Winchell did, but if he felt overwhelmed in the old media days, imagine what he would think of Twitter. Which reminds me, I am tweeting a bit more often, so you can always follow me there (erin_meyers) for small tidbits of pop culture goodness.

On to today’s topic! The 1950 Bette Davis classic, All About Eve. Much has been written on this wonderful film, which I re-watched a few weeks ago, and here I’ll focus, naturally, on how the film depicts stardom. If I was to create a “canon” of films about stardom (which I suppose I am with this series), this film would be near the top, along with the two versions of A Star Is Born, as the definitive word on classic era stardom. In the film, we are presented with both the process of achieving fame (in ways both deserved and nefarious) and the fading of a major star. Basic plot summary from IMDB here. My quick version: Bette Davis plays Margo Channing, a diva theater star whose talent has brought her fame and admiration. She is introduced to a devoted fan, Miss Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), who becomes her assistant and eventually (and diabolically) works to usurp Margo’s fame and her boyfriend, director Bill Simpson. The seemingly naive Eve is, spoiler alert, actually working the angles at all times in order to secure fame and fortune for herself.

So on one hand, the character of Eve presents us with a view of stardom as something entirely constructed. It’s not that Eve lacks acting talent, as we are shown that she is quite talented. Rather, it’s that she is actually “acting” at all times, being what you want her to be in order to get ahead. She doesn’t leave her acting on stage and become a “real” person, she is always putting on a facade. Eve wants to become a star like Margo, or, more accurately, to become Margo in both public and private.

This is a particularly gendered view of stardom, because Eve’s ascent to fame rests on constructing an idealized version of a feminine self to get what she wants. She initially plays the shy ingenue, a small town girl who dreams of acting on the stage. But she is ultimately revealed to be a schemer who manipulates everyone and will stop at nothing to get what she wants. In a fun twist at the end, the now famous and revered Eve meets her biggest fan, a young woman who wants to be just like her idol, just as Eve did when she met Margo. The aging female star is always going to be threatened by, as Margo says earlier in the film, “a new, younger version.”

Margo presents us with a different view of fame as a gendered phenomenon, one in which female stars (no matter their claims to talent) are always deficient and always replaceable. Margo’s fame is genuinely presented as rooted in her talent as an actress. She is a success because she is good. The cost of this talent, however, is her inability to have successful relationships. She does have a loyal friend in Karen (Celeste Holm) and a devoted boyfriend, Bill, who is also her director (an interesting merging of her private and public self), but generally treats them poorly and takes them for granted. This diva attitude is tied to her performance of stardom…she has to act the part of the star and put on the facade to “be” Margo Channing. She is unable to find her “real” self, and the fact that she is getting older and losing her grasp on her fame means she’s losing the facade as well. Of course, this “real” self is framed as a more properly feminine woman, one who is essentially the opposite of the boozy, brash and snarky Margo.

Again we see the price of fame: that the female star is unable to maintain personal relationships because of a deficient femininity brought on by public fame. Margo must give up the public life of the star in order to be a “proper” woman and to actually find happiness with Bill. In this scene, she finally drops the facade of “Margo Channing” and admits that stardom has kept her from true (feminine) happiness.

Margo’s awareness of her deficiency is rooted in her recognition that she is getting old, and even though she was never exactly framed as a great beauty because her fame came from her innate talent, an aging (female) star is a fading star. She describes herself at one point as “an old kazoo with some sparkles.” Eve can replace Margo as a star and as a woman because she is younger, more beautiful, and therefore more desirable. Everyone else fails to see this point, but Margo is keenly aware of it, as evidenced in this fabulous scene:

The fact that she can be replaced with a younger model means that she will have nothing. That’s the price of fame, and only Margo as the female star is able to see it. But she’s not going down without a fight, and the film is based around the idea of female competition between Eve and Margo. Margo is admonished at one point for not recognizing what she has and instead focusing on what she is “losing” to the younger Eve. Bill says, “You have every reason for happiness but take every opportunity to let that kid turn you into a hysterical screaming harpy.” This version of femininity is most undesirable, both on a private and public level, and Margo’s struggle is she is losing her place in both. Her fame has made her a pathological female who is unable to maintain any part of her life. This clip is long, but this scene perfectly encapsulates the problem of the female star and also the awesomeness of Bette Davis:

In the end, Margo does give it up and learns to be “real,” in part through the exposure of Eve’s facade and realization of the importance of her personal relationships (see the monologue in the first clip above). Margo essentially “recovers” from fame through more proper femininity. Eve, on the other hand, is betrayed by her false facade of femininity because, in the end, fame has not brought her happiness. In fact, since she is presented with the new, younger model in the form of her biggest fan (the same way she met Margo), we are told that the cycle of female stardom is simply going to begin again. Eve will get old and hard, and the new model will take her place. But unlike Margo, Eve does not have any personal relationships, as she simply used people rather than connected with them. So the moral is that she will ultimately get her punishment without any hope for redemption through a return to proper (read: authentic rather than constructed) femininity.

Films on Stars: My Favorite Year (1982)

31 08 2010

It’s with great pleasure that I include My Favorite Year in my Films on Stars series, as it is one of my favorite movies of all time. I have no idea how old I was when I first saw it, but the movie, and its hilarious lines, were a mainstay in my house as a child. I have probably seen it dozens of times and could probably recite most of it from memory. I recorded it on Turner Classic Movies the other day not because I immediately thought of it for this series, but just for the pleasure of revisiting a favorite of my youth. Imagine my surprise when I realized it is clearly about stardom and fame damage, albeit from a comedic rather than melodramatic perspective. It also works well as an example of a film about stardom that centers on a male star, which does not seem to be the norm.

For those of you unfamiliar with this film, you can read a more detailed plot summary here or watch the trailer on TCM’s site here. Set in the early days of television, freshman comedy writer Benjy Stone (Mark Linn-Baker, better known as Cousin Larry to fans of 80s sitcoms) must ensure matinee idol Alan Swann (played by the superb Peter O’Toole) shows up for his guest star appearance on a popular sketch/variety comedy show. Swann is a thinly veiled reference to movie lothario Errol Flynn, down to the heroic swashbuckling roles he plays in his films and this scandalous reputation as a ladies man off-screen. But he is also an unreliable drunk, so Benjy must babysit him to make sure he shows up, sober, to all rehearsals and for the live broadcast of the show.

Swann’s on-screen persona, like Flynn’s, is the epitome of masculine movie star glamor. He is handsome and debonair in an innate and natural way. He simply doesn’t even have to try to charm people. Female audiences swoon over him and male audiences, especially super-fan Benjy, look up to him as a courageous and heroic ideal of manhood. This sort of fame and devotion has allowed Swann to, as he himself says, “get away with murder” in certain contexts. Here’s a moment that encapsulates that movie idol charm and how it relates to his off-screen ladies man persona:

Fame seems to have given him everything he could possibly want. This is actually presented as the “problem” with fame because it ultimately robs him of the “real” things in life: real relationships and family. His life is a series of meaningless flings with women who want the Alan Swann they see on the screen, and, he says, “no matter what I do, I never fulfill their expectations.” He is keenly aware that he is a facade created by the studios. Late in the film, he tells Benjy his real name is Clarence Duffy and that his whole life, from his name to his lifestyle, was created by the studio. He is an image, and is increasingly lost in that image without any connection to his “real” self. To cope, he drinks and cavorts with women, simultaneously living up to his image and distancing himself even more from his real self. He tells Benjy he “can’t tell where the bogus [self] ends and the real one begins.” He’s sick of everyone allowing him to get away with whatever he wants (including his boorish behavior when he’s drunk) simply because he is famous, but doesn’t see the way out of it. He doesn’t know how to NOT be Alan Swann and just be Clarence Duffy.

His loneliness and fear of his real self is most evident in his (seemingly self-imposed) estrangement from his daughter, Tess. In his life as Alan Swann, everyone wants a piece of him, and he is usually more than happy to oblige. But when he goes to Connecticut to see Tess, he can’t even get out of the car because he is afraid of what she thinks of him. O’Toole’s face conveys so much in this scene:

This is all very serious, but I swear this is a comedy! And, as a comedy, the treatment of Swann’s fame damage and loss of “real” self to his “reel” self is not quite as serious as in, say, A Star Is Born. Swann’s drunken escapades are certainly played for humor, like when he tries to help Benjy win the heart of co-worker K.C. Downing by rappelling into her parents’ apartment on a fire hose. This move is straight out of his swashbuckling movies, as he can’t separate himself from them, and he nearly kills himself in the process. The contradiction between “real” life and “reel” life in this scene pure comedy gold, not a crushing melodramatic moment. This is clip is a bit long (6 minutes) and not the best quality, but the scene is hilarious and a good example of Swann’s fame damage in action.

I also think that because this is a comedy, we get a solution to the fame damage problem in the form of a happy ending. We are left with the sense that Alan Swann, though his experiences with Benjy, finally finds his real self, reconnects with his daughter, and generally becomes a happy (and presumably sober) person.

After having a breakdown at the thought of doing live television (the sketch show is, after all, live and Swann is used to the multiple takes of Hollywood movie making), Swann finally admits that he is scared. He says, “I’m flesh and blood, life-sized! I was never the silly goddamn hero!.” But Benjy refuses to let him get away with it, for once, saying “I can’t use you life-sized! I need my Alan Swann’s as big as I can get them…You couldn’t have convinced me the way you did if you didn’t have that courage inside.” Okay, a little schmaltzy, but that’s comedy wrap ups for you. Regardless, it is this realization that he DOES have an innate courage and specialness that makes Swann recognize that he is more than “just” a silly goddamn hero and that his “real” self matters too. He saves the day on the show and, as we learn in a voice over, goes back to see Tess and “this time, he knocked on the door” and is greeted with open arms.

As a side note, Swann’s breakdown is also makes a distinction between talent-based stardom and media-based stardom. He is afraid to do live television and perform in front of an audience and says “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!” Any talent he may have believed he had has been overshadowed by his persona, leaving him unsure of his ability to actually do the work of acting. Being a movie star is not the same sort of work, from Swann’s perspective. It sort of happens to him, rather than him being an active agent in creating it.

Though I chalk this happy ending up to the fact this film is a comedy, I think there are also some gender implications here. The male star can overcome fame damage and rediscover his true self in ways we haven’t seen in the other films I’ve discussed. His daughter, apparently, instantly forgives him for being an absentee father and he goes right back into a happy family life. Compare that with the failed attempt to forge a real family or relationship in A Star Is Born or The Rose.

The male star’s fame damage, in this case his drinking and womanizing, are played off as essential, if not endearing, elements of his appeal as a star. His private life exploits help elevate his star status, not diminish it. Though there is clearly still damage, he is never abandoned by others (like Rose is) nor does his damage alienate people (he can always smooth talk his way back). It’s a much more private failing compared to the public downfall we saw in The Rose, for example. He is never humilitated and shamed by his behavior, and even frankly answers Benjy’s uncle’s question regarding a paternity suit and laughs off a newspaper report of him swimming naked in a fountain with a girl he met at the Stork Club. Compare that to the “brave face forward” of Vickie Lester after her husband’s suicide in A Star is Born.

Of course, maybe Swann gave up the public life to become a father, we don’t know. But I think the film leaves us with the sense that fame can be a problem and can make one lose sight of what is really important for a false sense of entitlement and attention. But fame and movie stardom also gives audiences (personified by Benjy) something to aspire to and dream about. It also can enable the star (Swann) to find his true inner strength by appealing to the very star image that seemed to trap him. He can still be “Alan Swann from the movies” because he always was that courageous person on the inside…he just lost track of it for a while. In other words, some people are still destined to be stars, but may need a little help staying grounded.

Films on Stars: The Rose 1979

18 07 2010

Some say love, it is a river…. You’re probably familiar with Bette Midler’s hit song, The Rose. It’s a fabulous tear jerker of a song, but it actually has very little to do with the film that shares its name. (As a side note: the abundance of videos of Midler doing this song live as well as countless other people (both famous and not) doing covers of it has made it extremely hard for me to find clips of the movie on the old internets. People LOVE this song). It plays over the end credits and does, sort of, reflect some of the themes of love and loneliness from the film. But I think the song’s lyrics end on the hopeful note that love, though at times difficult, can save someone from sadness and loneliness, which is the complete opposite of the ending of this film. Ultimately, The Rose is about my favorite theme of stardom narratives, fame damage.

It’s Bette Midler’s film debut, and she knocks it out of the park as the hard living rock star “The Rose” (Mary Rose Foster) who is obviously a thinly veiled reference to Janis Joplin. Like other films I’m considering for this series, The Rose is not a bio pic of Joplin, nor of Midler, though it certainly draws heavily on existing knowledge about the public and private selves of these two female stars. This is a great film about stardom because it combines the public performances (in a series of raucous and satisfying concert performances by Midler as “The Rose”) with the behind-the-scenes look at the machinery of fame, and the damage it does to Rose herself. Fame is appealing, but it is ultimately a hollow drug that has some serious consequences. Here’s the trailer for the original theatrical release:

This narrative of stardom presented in this film is quite different than the one I discussed in the original A Star is Born in which drive and authentic desire to be a star was more important than talent. In The Rose, Rose’s fame is firmly rooted in an amazing, and almost uncontrollable, talent. The scenes of Rose as her on-stage persona “The Rose,” are intense and full of passion. She has this innate talent inside that will not be denied and that must be shared with the world. But, as we know, stars are not confined to their public performances. It is not simply that she is a great singer that she has achieved fame. Instead, that talent offers a strong base for the development of the rockstar persona that catapults her from “just” a singer to a star.

Throughout the film, Rose is acutely aware that it is her rockstar image combined with her talent that really makes her a star. Furthermore, that image must be constantly maintained in order to be read as authentic. She is a constructed commodity who must continue to play the part of “The Rose” in her off-stage life. It is not that Rose and “The Rose” are completely different personae. It is pretty clear throughout the film that her on-stage persona is an amped up version of her real self. This is sense of authenticity (that she is who she seems to be) is crucial to her fame in the world of the film. But the problem is that this constructed and hyperbolic version of herself is threatening to take over and push out any “real” Rose that remains.

"The Rose" on stage: Intensity of talent and awesome fashion sense

In one telling scene early in the film, Rose tells her manager that she needs a break because she “can’t dredge up the sincerity anymore.” She’s falling apart because a) the sheer intensity of her talent is exhausting and b) the incredible effort of putting on the public self both onstage and off is breaking her down. But the machinery of fame is already in motion and cannot be stopped. Her manager tells her they have $3 million in concert dates lined up that simply cannot be canceled because “this is a business, like Chevrolet or Sarah Lee.” Her “real” self and needs have become irrelevant to her stardom and are pushed to the margins for the sake of profit. Though her hard-drinking dood time party girl lifestyle fits perfectly with her public persona, it is also a reflection of her increasing loss of control and loss of her sense of self. Essentially, fame is a trap in which she must constantly perform “The Rose” persona in order to keep the machinery rolling. Though she still has her talent, she had to sacrifice her authentic self in order to be famous.

She is near her breaking point when she meets limo driver Huston Dyer and the two begin a relationship. He becomes her only tie to her real self, as he loves her for who she “really” is, not for the star persona the rest of the world adores. He’s not a part of the machinery of Hollywood and, unlike everyone else in her life, has no personal investment in her image. The narrative depiction of their relationship and its demise is a bit clunky…he leaves her when he discovers that she previously had an intimate relationship with another woman. This really makes very little sense because he was certainly aware of her promiscuous past (a story of her having sex with the entire football team in high school barely phases him) and aware that it was always a part of her larger image as “The Rose.” Dyer leaving Rose over a lesbian relationship seemed a bit forced and really just a chance for the filmmaker to titillate the audience and then punish a woman for stepping outside heterosexual boundaries. But back to the topic at hand…

Why they break up isn’t really important, it’s more that with his departure goes her last connection to her “real” self and to someone who cares about her, not just her image. More crucially, it turns out that the former lesbian lover has resurfaced because Rose’s manager, Rudge, sought her out and brought her back. In other words, Rudge was trying to break up Rose and Dyer because she wanted to take time off from performing to be with Dyer. Rudge knows you can’t stop the fame machine, so he instead removes the thing that was gumming up the works: namely, Rose’s relationship with Dyer. Fame has given her a lot, but also ultimately robs her of what really matters: love. (Look, I never said it wasn’t schmaltzy).

Cut off from her real self by Dyer’s departure and still unable to cope with the constant need to perform her star image, Rose quickly descends back into alcohol and, eventually, hard drugs. She is alone again, no one cares about her beyond getting her on the stage to make more money. She returns to her hometown for a big show, but going home just underscores how alone she actually is. She shoots heroin and does manage to put on the persona for one song, illustrating that despite all the damage, there is still some underlying talent that remains. But then she launches into a speech in which she all but begs the audience to love her, but realizes the cheers of the crowd are a poor substitute for what she has lost. She starts to falter and says “where is everybody going?” (because everyone always leaves her!) and collapses and dies. She had a core of real talent that launched her towards stardom, but the constant need to perform the facade of “The Rose” left her unable to know her real self and unable to form any real relationships. That’s the ultimate fame damage.

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.