Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Rants on The Star (1952)

I remember reading an interview with Dustin Hoffman in Entertainment Weekly some time ago where, in whiny, excruciating detail, he had the balls to complain that actors his age had a hard time finding good roles. Yes, let's all feel bad for poor 72-year old Dustin Hoffman who not only had an ace supporting role in a David O. Russell film a couple of years back but also works as steadily as actors half his age in big films with name directors. And let's not forget that, at the age of 45, he had the male lead in a little romantic comedy called Tootsie opposite a much younger Jessica Lange. I was so outraged by his audacity and stupidity that I commented about the article to my mother and added something to the effect of "Yeah, like women past the age of 35 have it so easy."

The reason I bring this is up is because the role of aging actresses in a Hollywood that values youth and beauty over talent is the subject of Stuart Heisler's The Star. The film is best remembered as the one that earned Bette Davis her 9th (or 10th, depending on your view of the legitimacy of the Of Human Bondage write-in vote) of 10 (or 11, for the same reason) Oscar nominations, but it actually has some interesting points to make about actresses past a certain age. There's a scene where has-been actress Margaret Elliott (Bette Davis) is testing for her comeback role, the dowdy older sister of the main character. A montage shows the makeup artists applying the old age makeup on Margaret, grimacing to herself in the mirror. Eventually, she wipes all of that off and begins to "young up" her look and the role in the misguided hope that the producers will see her test and think that she can still play the young ingenue. Of course, it's the wrong move and she ends up completely bombing the test, but this scene brings up something deeper about Hollywood's place for 40-something actresses. Once a female star has finished her ingenue years and gone through her "peak" years, what does Hollywood do with these talents? Why, stick them in the "older sister" role (think Angela Lansbury after earning back to back Oscar nominations in '44 and '45) or, worse, the mother to an actress maybe 10 years her junior (Teresa Wright in The Actress). Margaret's attempt to make her role sexier may have been the wrong choice for that film, but she reveals a glaring truth when she tells the director, "Women of 42 these days don't have to look ready for the old ladies' home."

Bette Davis, as usual, is nothing short of fantastic in a role that she normally could have done in her sleep. The bitchy eruptions are classic Bette, but there's one in particular when she cuts down two pompous old hens in a department that comes off almost as coy and sly the way she sneaks up behind them and starts quietly before exploding over them. Then there are two quieter scenes in the film that really got to me in unexpected ways. The first is when Davis walks by her former home which she had to sell due to financial hardships. She's drunk by this point and not making much sense, but she sees this house and quietly, yet slowly, mutters, "Going...going...gone" before breaking down in tears. I don't know how she did it, but they way she pathetically uttered those lines affected me, too. The second scene is when Davis is watching her screen test in the projection room. Up to this point, she had believed everything was going well, but once the film gets going, Davis comes to realize that her performance was complete and utter shit. The most noteworthy thing about this moment is that Davis does all this with just her face, slowly revealing to us what we've known all along. To think that after 20 years in the business Bette was still showing us new and unexpected things really boggles my mind.

With a sharp script and terrific lead performance, you would think The Star would be remembered more than it is. Well, it probably would be if someone had actually bothered to direct this thing. Stuart Heisler doesn't really have a point of view or anything interesting to say with the camera--in most scenes he just follows Davis around as she moves across the screen--so the film just kind of sits there waiting for Davis to do something. It seems like he's too afraid to actually direct Davis so he just shoots around her, forgetting that there are other decent actors in the film. Sterling Hayden was so one-note he might as well have used auto tune while Natalie Wood was shrilly and cloying in a role that was obviously suited for someone much younger than her. Maybe if Davis and the studio had gotten a director who could actually direct, this film might have become worthy of a double bill with Sunset Boulevard and not just a in-bred second cousin to that Wilder classic. C


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Aaah. Don't be so hard on poor Dusty. He does need a good role...moving on to the star though. That drive with her Oscar is always memorable...and no write-in Oscars are ludicrous.

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