“A Star Is Born is a Hollywood story of, by, and for its people. It has the usual preface, attesting to the fictional quality of the characters and incidents depicted, but it is nonetheless the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that isHollywood. That, in itself, guarantees its dramatic interest, for there is no place on this twentieth-century earth more fascinating—not even that enchanting make-believe republic which James Hilton called Shangri-La.”
Thus read The New York Times April, 1937 review of William Wellman’s drama A Star is Born (1937), and Frank Nugent’s words could scarcely be more on target.
A Star is Born may be almost 80 years old, but in many ways, it still retains a formidable place amongst the definitive “Hollywood on Hollywood” films. From Wilder’s noirish satire Sunset Blvd(1950) to the grim surrealism of the Cohen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), William Wellman’s original version of A Star is Born is every bit as unflinchingly lacerating of what had already become the blackened, rotting soul of the Hollywood dream factory. Unlike Hollywood itself, this film, as with its successors, is every inch aware of what it is and more importantly, why it is.
The mere fact that the film opens, and closes, with a page from its own script is a red warning light to the viewer NOT to expect any smoke and mirror majesty here.
George Cukor directed the first incarnation of the now oft-told tale, What Price Hollywood? (1932), had a hand in this 1937 script, and directed its Academy Award winning 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason. The latter is perhaps the best known version, and I daresay the best loved, and with good reason. (Garland’s show-stopping “The Man Who Got Away” alone is worthy of repeated viewing.)
And while I admire Cukor’s artistic flourish and am a sucker for that MGM high gloss, I much prefer the stripped down, no-nonsense, necessary roughness of Wellman’s version. Although filmed in Technicolor (one of the earliest “modern” feature dramas using the process) the subject matter is in no way manipulated to capitalize off of the new medium. The look is quiet, muted, and real (you’ll find no electric green Sherwood Forest here) and it possesses an unquestionable masculinity and straightforward direction (which made Wellman’s pre-codes such salacious fun) that make this less a Hollywood entertainment and more a human interest piece. But the ace up the sleeve, without question, is the fact that the real star of the 1937 A Star is Born, with appropriate irony, the fallen (matinee) idol Norman Maine, portrayed by a raw and intensely human Fredric March.
Cukor’s 1954 picture goes out of its way to ensure that the star is, unquestionably, in every way, Judy Garland. (As it very well ought!) It is every bit the farm-girl-made-good Esther Blodgett’s story. James Mason, compelling as the self-desctructive Norman Maine, is still overshadowed by Garland’s tour-de-force. Not to chip away at the merits of Janet Gaynor (the formidable actress who won the first ever Academy Award in 1929 for her solid performance in F.W. Murnau’s SUNRISE), and Gaynor is a determined little dervish in this film about the Hollywood make-believe machine, but this is Fredric March’s picutre, hands down.
March is refreshingly real. A charming and handsome rogue, to be sure, who lights up (I daresay, electrifies) every scene he’s in, while still managing to be enough of a regular Joe to make him instantly accessible. Because in order to make this story work, he must be. We must believe every word he says, every move he makes—every laugh, every tear. It is not so much we must believe he’s any great actor—Norman Main really isn’t—but we must believe that he is flesh and blood. A Hollywood film intending to take on its own must be nothing less than honest.
Norman proposing to Esther at a boxing match.
After hijacking an ambulance and driving it down Wilshire Blvd in a drunken stupor (Today’s TMZ would KILL for that kind of shit), March turns up at a party, relatively sober. “I’ll be ready for the curtains when the time comes,” he tells his long-suffering producer, agent and friend. (A solid Adolphe Menjou.) “And when I do—here is my epitaph.” March hands Menjou a token reading “GOOD FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY”
Slam-dunk. In a five minute period, March has shown us that 1.) He doesn’t take himself seriously, 2.) He’s gotHollywood’s number, and 3.) He’s a devil-may-care bad ass.
Minutes later, March is escaping his shrill, shrewish girlfriend and finds a rescue in cute little Janet Gaynor, a struggling extra who is waitressing the studio party to make a buck. He’s a delicious flirt and makes an immediate conquest of Gaynor. Not only is it great fun to watch March work his playful, mischievous charm on Gaynor (he forces her off the company clock by smashing all of the dishes in the kitchen) we believe that Maine still has an element of control in his life and career. His alcoholism has not yet rendered him a total write off and it is this strong, confident sense of self that we identify with and joins us to his ensuing internal struggles.
We all know the story—even in 1937 is was Drama 101, Plot A. The besotted Norman Maine sees a star in Esther Blodgett, born again as Vicki Lester, and kick starts her acting career, the trajectory of which skyrockets to superstardom just as Maine’s own career begins to crumble.
In a key scene, the two lovers stand close to each other on a moonlit balcony at the Sunset Strip’s Café Trocadero, watching the intoxicating bright city lights blink and beckon at them from below. Hollywood belongs to Esther now. He’s losing his grip. And he knows it.
Although it is a moment of melancholy, March never plays such moments (and there are quite a few) with even a trace of self-pity. When he tells Gaynor there on that balcony “you can’t throw away a life the way I’ve thrown away mine,” he is not looking for comfort. Rather he is manning up to his mistakes. He wants no excuses made for him. He wants only to believe that loving Gaynor can atone for his wrongs.
And for a while it looks as though it might. As Norman and Esther “wa-hoo” their way through a colorful countryside honeymoon, there is a moment of foreshadowing that, let’s be honest, we’ve been expecting for quite some time.
When their camping trailer breaks down and Maine must seek local assistance, “I’m Norman Maine,” March tells a local bumpkin. “Who?” Gaynor chides him for it, and it’s all very funny. But a fleeting shadow of sincere worry flashes across Maine’s tense dark eyes.
And that darkness never quite goes away as it ushers in the film’s second act. This is, after, Hollywood. What business has happiness there?
Released from his contract not long after returning from their honeymoon,Maine finds himself a casualty of his own excesses. A high-risk liability whom the studios won’t touch. And while the grand melodrama is meant to be Gaynor’s emotional struggle to keep her marriage together (which Garland nails in Cukor’s ’54 version) it is Fredric March who dominates every frame of the second half.
Although Norman Maine’s actual battle with alcoholism is definitely more visible and much more developed psychologically in the 1954 version, Wellman’s version benefits and strains slightly from the economy of its compact runtime. We do not get to see the problem develop as profoundly as we do with Mason’s character, we are simply more or less expected to accept the fact of it.
This is another testament to March’s performance, as nothing about this admittedly oversimplified approach to a deeply complex issue feels in the least bit forced or false or rushed.
Reduced to taking press messages for his superstar wife as an unemployed househusband, branded a has-been by everyone in town, Maine’s growing internal torment is casually signaled when he tells his wife that he’s not hungry for dinner and that he’ll just go and “fix himself a drink.”
Fade in to the Academy Awards banquet where Vicki Lester, riding a high wave of popularity, wins the Oscar for Best Actress. Her acceptance speech is interrupted by the abrupt, drunken appearance of her husband who, when is attempted to be quieted by Lester, inadvertently strikes her across the face. The audience gasps. So do we. And March’s realization of what he’s done is quietly devastating.
The spiral is fast. In spite of a stint in rehab, Hollywood’s ugly two-faced nature seems hellbent on keeping Maine miserable. The seemingly reformed Maine orders a ginger ale at the Santa Anita racetrack. But after being ignored by former industry “friends” and given a callous, berating verbal beating by his former studio press agent (“fix-it” man) Libby, Maine is again humiliated in public by losing his temper and punching Libby in the face.Maine needs a drink. And from then on Maine simply doesn’t stop. How can he?
It is impossible to tear your eyes away from March and, even though the end result is as plain as the stache on Menjou’s face, we are so deeply invested in March’s performance that those final tragic moments are, every time, gripping.
When he makes up his mind to sacrifice his life so that his wife doesn’t have to sacrifice hers, March tells his wife goodbye, I love you, by dropping a line he used on their first date. There, with a deep, dusky orange sunset glowing in their beachfront window, he asks Gaynor “mind if I take one more look?” And we crumble.
Perhaps the mere fact that, for the final 10 minutes of the film March is no longer on screen that Gaynor truly gains momentum. The disgusting display at Maine’s funeral (Gaynor’s veil being ripped off by fans has been widely attributed to an incident involving Norma Shearer at her husband Irving Thalberg’s funeral) shows how very little indeed Hollywood has changed in these seven decades. Gaynor carries on with her career, as her husband wished and in truth, died for, and attends her first premiere postMaine’s death at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.
Upon seeing her late husbands footsteps, immortalized there in courtyard cement, she nearly collapses. But soldiers on, and when asked to say a few words to her fans listening over the radio, speaks those five, gloriously unforgettable words: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
It is one of the most famous endings in Hollywood history.
And when the camera fades, it does so, once again, to a page of its own script:
ESTHER AT MICROPHONE
Hello, everybody … This is Mrs. Norman Maine.
The ovation is tremendous. CAMERA MOVES TO A BIG CLOSEUP OF ESTHER. Tears are starting down her cheeks. She looks out past all this crowd, this confusion, this uproar, to some distant point of her own. The music swells up.
The epilogue smacks of Shakespearean tragedy— the screenwriter’s typewriter taking on the voice of a veritable Prince of Verona. Only this time the “tale of woe” is not of “Juliet and her Romeo,” but rather of Hollywood– that thinly veiled misanthrope.