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.

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