Today we reminisce about
The Star (1952)
Directed by Stuart Heisler
Starring: Bette Davis, Sterling Hayden, Natalie Wood
* Published specifically for The 4th Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by Crystal at In The Good Old Days of Hollywood *
Margaret “Maggie” Elliot (Bette Davis) was once the greatest, most celebrated actress in Hollywood. She won an Academy Award for her efforts and led a glamorous lifestyle that was envied by many. More recent times have been tough for Maggie, however, as trends are changing in and around Tinseltown with new faces appearing on the horizon and no interesting movie roles coming the way of a middle age has-been who has been labelled as box-office poison. In addition to this, her personal life has been in shambles since getting a nasty, costly divorce from her husband who left her for a younger woman. The situation has left her in financial ruin with all of her personal effects being auctioned off to pay her looming creditors and having to live in a cheap bungalow where she is facing eviction.
Her agent has tried to help her by advancing her money but is at the end of his rope with her, refusing to lend her anything more. He suggests that she ask her ex-husband, John, for help as he is now a big star and morally owes Maggie for all the years she supported him while he was a no-name actor. Despite initially hesitating to do so, she decides to pay him a visit. She takes the opportunity to visit her teenage daughter, Gretchen (Natalie Wood), who has been living with her father, stepmother and half-siblings since her mother has been unable to provide a proper housing situation. The visit with her daughter is slightly tense because Maggie continues to act as if she is at the top of her game, too embarrassed to admit the truth about her faltering career. Even more aggravating is the confrontation with John’s second wife, Peggy, who insults Maggie for attempting to get more money from him. Peggy tells Maggie that she deserved to lose John because he did not like coming in second to her.
After her difficult visit at her ex’s home, Maggie heads back to her bungalow where her landlady delivers the news that if she cannot pay her rent soon that she will be evicted. Although her landlady sympathises with Maggie’s situation, she is being heavily pressured by the management to give her the boot. Not being able to do anything about it that evening, Maggie heads in to her place only to find her sister and brother-in-law waiting for her so that they can get their monthly stipend. Not giving any care to the fact that she is flat broke, Maggie gets very angry at them and throws them out but not before she gets a chance to bring up all the expenses that she has paid for them over the years. Fed up with everything, Maggie takes her Oscar statuette and proclaims that they will go and get drunk together. This goes as planned but in the process, she is arrested for drunk driving and put in jail, spending the night there until she is bailed out the next day.
A former bit actor by the name of Jim Johanssen (Sterling Hayden) is the one who puts up Maggie’s $250 bail (about $2500 in today’s money). Jim had met Maggie some years back and she had gotten him a role in a small film with plans to make him a really big star. He had never forgotten her kindness – or the fact that he had fallen in love with her – and wanted to help her out the best he could. When they head to Maggie’s bungalow, they discover that she has been locked out after the management company read the papers about her arrest. The landlady was able to salvage some of her clothes and personal possessions before the locks were changed, for which both Maggie and Jim are grateful. With no other place to go, Jim takes her back to his home located at a shipyard that he bought with money from his G.I. Bill. She takes a few days to rest and keep her mind off of her troubles, helping Jim with his work and doing fun little things like going to the zoo. Jim is happy to have her there and encourages Maggie to start making a life for herself outside of the motion picture scene. With a little encouragement, she lands a job at a department store in the lingerie section and all goes well until she is recognised by two impolite older women, prompting her to run out. She heads directly to her agent and demands that he get her a role in an upcoming film titled The Fatal Winter. Against her best efforts, Maggie just cannot stay away from Hollywood.
Can Maggie possibly make a comeback, even in a role that she considers to be beneath her? How will Jim feel about this and will the revelation of his romantic feelings have any effect?
Background: Another subchapter in the Bette/Joan feud
The film’s screenplay was written by Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson*, a husband and wife writing team, who had gotten their starts at MGM. Both had been publicity writers for the studio, later working on Broadway plays and feature length films. Prior to writing The Star, they had written the screenplay for the 1951 film On the Loose which also starred their daughter, Joan (screen name Evans).
There is quite a bit of folklore surrounding the origin of The Star’s story and certain ensuing events. It has been suggested that Albert and Eunson based the character of Margaret on Joan Crawford who, at the time, had been a very dear friend to them for many years. In fact, they had named their own daughter after Crawford and appointed her as godmother. Bette Davis was purportedly extremely interested to play the role after learning that it had been modelled after her “arch rival”, seizing the opportunity to poke fun at Crawford’s expense. Crawford herself had initially been unaware of her friends’ intentions, only finding out about it after the release. In return for this humiliation, Crawford is said to have aided her then 17-year-old goddaughter Joan with secretly marrying her beau without her parents’ consent.
After so much time and without much evidence, it is hard to say what is truthful and what has been exaggerated for dramatic purposes. Nonetheless, there is no harm in trying to dig a little more into the dirt. First and foremost, I must admit to being a dedicated Joan Crawford fan which, in return, does not make me turn a blind eye to all of her doings. No one is perfect and the fact that I appreciate her as an artist does not mean I condone her personal behaviour. I will say that much of the negativity surrounding her legacy should be taken with a grain of salt as she was not there to defend herself against accusations made after her death.
In the early 1950’s, Joan Crawford was still under contract with Warner Bros. Studios. She made The Damned Don’t Cry for them in 1950 as well as Harriet Craig as a loan-out to Columbia Pictures. A year later, she completed Goodbye My Fancy for her home studio. All three films were relatively well-received though were by no means runaway box-office hits. 1952 brought a mixed bag that would see Crawford breaking her contract with WB all the while celebrating another Oscar nomination for Best Actress. This Woman is Dangerous is considered even by Crawford to be a terrible picture while Sudden Fear is considered to be a refined film noir, its appreciation by film critics maturing as the years pass. When The Star was released in December 1952, Crawford was by no means at a low point in her career and was far from being a desperate starlet. She would go on to make Johnny Guitar in 1954, a Nicholas Ray-directed film that is considered by some to be one of the greatest of all time. She would continue on as a leading lady well into the end of the decade, still working steadily throughout the 1960’s before bowing out from the big screen in 1970. It seems that Margaret and Joan did not have a great deal in common professionally and even less so personally.
Crawford’s friendship with Albert and Eunson did not end because of the film but rather as an after-effect of her helping Joan to privately marry. The following is taken from Chapter 2 of her autobiography, A Portrait of Joan: The Autobiography of Joan Crawford –
Joan and Kirby had their wedding license for months when they dropped by my house one evening to discuss their problems. Katherine thought I wanted to play the almighty Cupid. It was for Katherine’s sake as much as my namesake that I wanted these youngsters to be married in a home setting with someone close, rather than have them takes off for a marriage mill in Reno. I called a judge, called Katherine, and Joan and Kirby were married that evening in my living room. It has been a good marriage, they have two darling babies. But Katherine has never forgiven me, and that’s sad, because I’ve missed her.
When it comes to Davis’ motivations for accepting to star in the film, it is harder to come by the real reasons for her decision. There have been rumours, however, stating that it was Davis herself who decided to base Margaret Elliot on Joan and to do so in the most uncomplimentary fashion possible. One thing that you could always count on with Bette Davis was a snappy, bitchy attitude, even in the final months leading up to her death. She was far less snarky when physically around people though, probably because her small stature did not permit her much in terms of defending herself. When watching this film for the first time over a decade ago, I never once got the impression that she was impersonating Crawford and even less so after my latest viewing. I do, however, see a sprinkle of Margot Channing added to a lot of bloated melodrama. As with most chapters in this never-ending feud of Old Hollywood divas, I find a lot of it to be rubbish that was encouraged by studio publicity departments back then and that has been rekindled in recent years to make a few bucks. The only thing that I can say to any budding classic film fan is to just ignore this vendetta and focus on these two grand actresses’ amazing body of works.
* Eunson’s date of death is noted as having occurred in 1970 in the book Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers (pg. 77) although in reality, he died in 2002 per a New York Times article.
Bette Davis & Thoughts on the Film
Just two years before The Star was made, Bette starred as Margot Channing in 20th Century Fox’s All About Eve. The role is one of Bette’s most celebrated and certainly one of the most iconic pop culture-wise, still garnering admiration from the masses. Despite the film being a huge critical and box-office success, Bette’s career puttered along until the end of the decade and although she continued giving fine performances, none of her subsequent work in the 1950’s earned her much recognition. Her last collaboration with Fox would be 1964’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, her fifth film completed for the studio which was also a sequel of sorts to 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The latter film would garner Bette her 8th and final Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in addition to her two wins for 1935’s Jezebel and 1938’s Dark Victory. It is indeed impressive to see that she received such distinct recognition over a period of 3 decades, particularly when one considers the sheer amount of other talented actresses from that time.
Bette’s performance as Margaret Elliot is very satisfactory but is definitely not one of her best roles just as the film itself is entertaining though not a stand-out production. She was quite comfortable in physically changing herself for a part such as transforming from an ugly duckling into a swan such as in Now, Voyager. Appearing more aged for a part did prove itself difficult at times, such as for Mr. Skeffington, but by the time that Baby Jane came along and Bette was well into her 50’s, she started to have a bit of fun with it. This is quite understandable considering how difficult it was to reach a certain age and suddenly be considered too old for meaty, leading roles. When Bette filmed The Star, she was 44 years old and sometimes appeared to be older though that was likely done on purpose as the character was in dire straits both personally and financially. It is unlikely that someone in those circumstances would appear bright and fresh to an outsider.
Her romantic pairing with Sterling Hayden was not quite believable though it has much less to do with age (he was 8 years her junior) than with chemistry. Margaret was crabby with Jim right from the start, even after he paid her $250 bail (nearly $2500 in today’s money) and offered her support. It would have been better had the filmmakers given us a look into Margaret’s past when she at the top of her game and those redeeming qualities that Jim fell in love with were also obvious to the audience. Because of this, I find that it is more difficult to garner sympathy for her and even less to think that she deserves a nice guy like Jim.
Hayden was still early in his career when he did The Star, having taken a long break from the motion picture business in the 1940’s to serve in World War II. He had entered the movie business on a whim and had not planned on staying in Hollywood for longer than he had to. Much like his character Jim Johanssen, Hayden was an avid sailor who skippered many schooners and who felt completely at ease on the water. Jim loathes the appeal of Tinseltown, much preferring the natural beauty of California and pointing out to Margaret that there is so much richness outside of the Hollywood scene. His casting added a lot of appeal to the film and is one of the reasons that it makes it so watchable today.
Films about the downfall and misfortune of once grand, ornate movie stars were not a new thing when The Star came out and will continue to be relevant as long as movies are being made. Before Margaret Elliot, there was Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard and not long after there was Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon. The possibility of one getting their fifteen minutes of fame is quite easy in this day and age of internet communication. I think that it is important to keep films like this available to current and future generations as a reminder of history and perhaps as a lesson of self- and financial-preservation. Although The Star is low-budget and has not been re-mastered, it has its good moments and is a film that I would definitely recommend to check out if you have not already done so.
When Margaret goes to visit Gretchen at her ex’s house, she notices some marks on her daughter’s face. Gretchen refuses to say how she got the marks to which Margaret responds, “You must have had a fight with your boyfriend”. Obviously, the discussion of domestic abuse has become far more taboo a subject with time, not to mention that is now recognised as being criminally prosecutable. Beyond this worry is that Gretchen appears to be no older than 12 or 13 years old by the way she speaks and dresses. Wood herself was 14 at the time of filming. What were they thinking!?