The Acceptable Weinstein.
A determined young woman moves to Hollywood to become a star, and – after she hooks up with a famous actor – does. Proving that it’s all about Who You Bang.
A STAR IS BORN is one of those films that seems deeper than it is. The basic plot is as stated above – a starstruck girl gets her big break after sex with an established star – but it seems like a Pygmalion story (though it’s not about a man who creates an ideal and falls in love with it) or maybe a Prometheus fable (though it’s not about a man who bequeaths gifts and is punished for it), because we tell ourselves that it has to have more meat for it to have carved such a pedestal for itself in Hollywood canon, or for it to have been remade at least three times directly (and its story elements plagiarized countless times indirectly). But it’s a satirical dramedy that is pretty shallow.
And even the film’s depiction of its strong female character is undermined by the fact that she only becomes a star through the intercession of a man.
Movie opens meta, as we see a Final Shooting Script of the screenplay A Star Is Born, opening to the first page FADE IN:
We read: “Isolated farmhouse of the Blodgetts at midnight…” and meet 20-something Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) as she enters the house after a night out at the movies. We are then assaulted by the swishiest theatrical acting this side of GONE WITH THE WIND, as Father asks her, “How was the moving picture tonight?” (The moving picture? Oh, you mean the movie, you dated people!) Whereupon Esther overacts her love for the cinema, melodramatically asserting she “wants to be somebody!” – a star herself one day (by gum!), while Mother chides Esther to know her place: “Get yourself a good husband and stop mooning about Hollywood!” Because in those days of parents looking like grandparents, men wearing hats, and dames in soft-focus, that was the ceiling for women: a man.
Esther’s booming-theatrical-voice Granny warns her, “For every dream of yours that comes true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak!” and surreptitiously gives Esther cash to travel to Hollywood. (Esther’s parents simply disappear from the movie, apparently not having an opinion on her disappearance, nor any part of her future success.)
Esther arrives in a Hollywood Montage, marveling at the footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre: Jean Harlow, Harold Lloyd, Shirley Temple, Eddie Cantor – you know, all those names that Millennials know and love. She also sees the name “Norman Maine,” a big star in this fiction. She tries to get film work, a casting agent telling her, “Your chances are 1 in 100,000.” She replies, “Maybe … I’m that one.” The corn level is rising and won’t stop.
An out-of-work assistant director named Danny (Andy Devine, a renowned That Guy) is a sexless neighbor, who takes Esther out platonically, getting her a job at a swank party as a waitress, where she Meets Cute – Norman Maine the actor (Fredric March); drunk, disorderly, and attracted to her for no reason other than she’s hot. I mention this point because in all the upcoming versions of this film, the Established Star comes upon the Talented Hopeful displaying her talent, and is drawn to that talent as well as the beautiful woman it resides in, rather than just being a drunk hitting on a dame – which is how this encounter reads. Yes, Esther does do some good impressions of famous actresses while serving the guests (made up of writers, directors and producers), but Norman doesn’t see her displaying this talent; he is simply attracted to her spinner bod.
Keep in mind that Hollywood was run by The Studio System in the 1930s, where a movie studio would sign directors, writers and all major filmmaking personnel to a contract, and they would work for that studio exclusively. That was the only way to get work in the biz. (Which explains how Danny could be an “out-of-work” director. He was not signed to any studio, or his contract ran out at one, and they didn’t renew it. He couldn’t just make movies independently – that facility did not exist!). Thus, Norman’s studio is headed by Oliver Miles (Adolph Menjou), who is frazzled at Norman’s drunken antics, which are losing his studio credibility and money, as more people refuse to work with Norman.
March takes the level of swishy theatrical acting down a notch, which is a pleasant relief, yet he doesn’t play a drunk very convincingly. His performance is too sensible: He turns up at the swank party supposedly sloshed, yet he is impeccably dressed, clean suit, neat bowtie, hair Brylcreemed back, scampering down stairs athletically, speech clear and cogent – I mean, was this considered mad bad and dangerous drunk in those days? I got two words for you: Nicolas Cage.
Norman gets Esther a screen test with the studio, numerous aides prod and poke at her with makeup, lighting, costumes, walking lessons, speech doctors, and after a publicist (Lionel Stander, another That Guy) writes a fake razzle-dazzle origin story for her, they rename her Vicki Lester… while it is subtly shown Esther and Norman gravitating to being an item.
Vicki Lester eventually stars alongside Norman Maine in the studio’s next movie. The reviews are exceptional – for her, while reviewers treat Norman with derision, although I must ask: Were the director and editor slacking on their jobs for the finished film to display anything less than Norman at his best? Were they not funded well enough for ample coverage, to cobble together a powerful performance in the final cut?
The irony is, it is not concealed that The Studio System made Esther a star (Hollywood was under no illusions it was an exclusive club that people had to conform to), so that same System that created the fantasy of Vicki Lester Talented Ingénue should be working to continue the fantasy of Norman Maine Great Actor, right? It is implied that whether Esther was an innately talented person or not, the System and its contractual embrace would birth a “star” no matter what. That’s what it was designed to do. The end result is ticket sales. And when Norman and Vicki look out over her hordes of screaming fans, he muses, “A star is born.” Because that’s exactly what the endgame always was.
Co-written and directed by William A. Wellman (THE PUBLIC ENEMY), I think the intent of A STAR IS BORN is misunderstood over cultural changes and its many remakes: the latent “star” never worked her way through the ranks, or earned her place in the limelight – she was placed there by the System, and held her ground due to being talented as a coincidence. (Maybe a better name would’ve been A STAR IS MADE.) We get the distinct impression that anyone can become a star, through the molding of Hollywood. And if you want to believe Esther’s talent was instrumental in her success, well then the movie tells you that she only crashed through the impenetrable walls of the Studio System because she made the right hookup with the right guy. She was getting Weinsteined before Weinstein even existed! All this movie leaves out are the number of blowjobs she had to give.
Norman marries Esther on the condition that he becomes dependable, reliable and stops drinking. Shyeh royt. Her career takes off and his stalls. A reviewer larks, “If Maine swam across the Pacific, the papers would keep it a secret!” As it happens, Maine does try to swim across the Pacific…
While Esther/Vicki is busy on benefits, publicity appearances and – ahem – moving pictures, Norman is reduced to staying home and taking phone messages for her, while a leading man that we simply hear of as “young Pemberton” keeps taking his roles. (Why does Vicki keep coming home in her movie costumes that she wore for the day? Like the filmmakers are trying to convey she’s coming home from a hard day at the office and her office happens to be “moving pictures.” So childish. As if Liz Taylor went home dressed as Cleopatra, or Charlton went home dressed as Moses.)
Vicki Lester wins the Best Actress Oscar. (In 2017, we are at the 90th Annual Academy Awards. In this film, it is the 8th — yes, the EIGHTH!) Norman interrupts the ceremony, drunk. We know he’s drunk because now he’s acting theatrical, and his bowtie is undone (how uncouth!). Still not slurring his words, Norman berates the Academy, pooh-poohs Vicki’s Oscar and asks to receive a Worst Actor Award (long before Adam Sandler and Pauly Shore – although, if you insist, dude, that’s a pretty piss-poor portrayal of a “drunk”). Movie ensures that Norman does not say one bad word against Vicki, so as not to come across as jealous or petty. It’s purely a case of alcohol mixed with Brylcreem.
Back in those days, no one had yet conned the public into believing alcoholism was a “disease” (AA was founded in 1935, two years before this movie, so we can assume they didn’t have the throat-grip on society that they have now; and the Betty Ford Center was way in the future of 1984), so they put Norman in some kind of rooming house with muscly interns to “dry out.”
After drying out, Norman visits a bar for a ginger ale, where he runs into the That Guy publicist from the studio, and we are shown a good representation of how the Studio System worked. When Norman says something like, “…for old times’ sake, between friends,” Publicist gets rankled, “I never liked you – I got you out of jams because I had to!” That was the Studio System’s hold on him as an employee: he sold his soul to the studio and had to be loyal to all its stars and situations, no matter the ethics, writing glowing press on everything Studio-related (although I’m not sure the average modern nudnik with a digital video studio and YouTube channel would even notice this scene except for the punching).
They fight. Norman disappears for days. Appears in court, after having crashed his car, drunk (though he still has his tie on!). Vicki bails him out in a stupid scene totally divorced from court reality…
Home again, Norman overhears Vicki speaking to Oliver on wanting to put her career on hold to take care of him. He doesn’t want to be her ruination, and opts to walk into the Pacific Ocean at sunset. (Or maybe he was trying to swim it, I dunno…) There seems no compelling reason why Norman would commit suicide for Vicki. He had very little characterization, no backstory, and there were never any real demonstrations of his love. Everything he did for Vicki’s road to stardom could have been interpreted as cultivating panty. So it seems an excessive and gruesome way to end the story. How about just driving to Nebraska?
Big Mouth Granny turns up in Hollywood out of nowhere, to say I Told You So, and to convince Vicki to continue her career. Suddenly, even Granny is walking the red carpet and giving maudlin speeches to an interviewer about biding your time and eventually you’ll Make It. What a load of corny crap! Is this what the movie has devolved to? Platitudes?!
We live in a world where men’s hats have been replaced by man-buns, where the cinematic experience has been replaced by media platforms, where women no longer define themselves by the men they cleave to, so Vicki’s first words at her next premiere, her final words in the film, are hard to decipher: “Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” One last tribute to her husband? One last reminder of his greatness before moving forward? A dame just being a dame? Heaven forbid this was meant to signify that she was – ironically – her own woman!
Only with the upcoming remakes can this final greeting be put into context. For now, we are left to make of it what we will, as we see the last page of script for the movie, down to FADE OUT.
A star is corn.