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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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.