…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
I’m beginning to believe that the 1950s were not exactly kind to Bette Davis. After the brilliant success of her turn as Margo Channing in All About Eve (for which I personally feel she should have won a third Oscar), Ms. Davis fell into the lackluster trap of making films that only heightened the fact that she was aging and no longer showcased the fact that she still had some acting chops in her. She almost became a parody of herself, which is a sad situation for an actress of her caliber and past experience to drop into. It wasn’t until the 1960s hit that she started gaining solid kudos again in campy films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (for which she was nominated for Best Actress) and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte – but even by that point, it seemed the best material she could choose for herself was just that – CAMP. Her two previous Oscar wins (for 1935’s Dangerous and 1938’s Jezebel) had come early in her career, solidifying the fact that the 1930s and 40s were perhaps her more successful years and making this film – for which she garnered her ninth Oscar nomination, even more strangely poignant.
The Star is one of the earlier campy forays the fabulous Ms. Davis ventured into. Watching this film – again – it struck me that it might possibly have been a sad case of art imitating life. It is the story of once-famous screen actress Margaret – aka, “Maggie” – Elliot (Davis), who is at the end of her rope financially and career-wise. With barely a penny to her name and no solid film projects in the making after a successful earlier career – which even netted her an Oscar – Maggie is desperate, lonely, and flat-out miserable. Living in a small apartment, she has barely enough room to take in her daughter (a teenage Natalie Wood) by a previous marriage, leaving her frequently to the custody of her ex-husband and his new, snobbish wife. Her annoying sister and brother-in-law are not paying back the generous loans she granted to them, arriving on her doorstep month after month with hands outstretched for more. After a particularly dramatic confrontation with them, Maggie grabs her Oscar and takes him out for a wild drinking binge which lands her firmly in the slammer, screaming to the guards, “Don’t you know who I am???!!! I’m Margaret Elliot!”
She is bailed out of jail by a hunky admirer, Jim Johannsen (Sterling Hayden), whom she at one time cajoled into starring in a picture that turned out to be a flop. He takes her back to his home at the shipyard where he now works and encourages her to turn a new leaf. When she fails to maintain a job as a department store sales clerk under an assumed alias, she manages to secure a screen test through her agent. Unfortunately, it is for the role of ‘the frumpy, older sister’. The test falls flat when she foolishly auditions with a light, carefree, and flirtatious manner that goes against character type, hoping to change the director’s intent and secure the role of the lead – a sexier, younger ingenue. She is devastated when she reviews the screen test reel (which is actually one of her best acting scenes in the film), and it is not until she meets a screenwriter at a Hollywood party that she is finally confronted with the puffed-up myth she has created around herself as a star. As the writer describes for her the role of a has-been, delusional actress who is to pitied for denying herself the right to be a woman, first and foremost, Maggie’s eyes are opened. In a peculiar and almost too quick “a-ha!” moment (in light of her bitchy, stubborn behavior previously in the film), she recognizes the life she has not allowed herself to live because of her dreams of continued grandeur and runs back to Jim’s arms – with the audience’s understanding that she is ready to finally move on, in love and ‘to hell’ with a career in the movies.
Taken at face value, this movie doesn’t invite much heavy introspection. It is, however, an interesting look at the vanity of a show business career – and the inevitable pratfalls fame wreaks. Oscar nomination notwithstanding, it is not one of Davis’s finer performances, although at this point in her career, and after pitch-perfectly playing the fading theatre star losing roles to younger ingenues in All About Eve, she had this character down to a T. Maggie is written too tirelessly bitchy, which may be purposeful, but it takes a lot to make you feel sympathetic to her. Davis’s constant mugging and slouching about in her typical feisty manner doesn’t allow much levity. Sterling Hayden comes across as a muscular piece of scenery, rather doltish and nondescript, even with the set-up of Jim acting as the sage voice of reason for Maggie. His acting barely registers. The two don’t share a whole lot of chemistry, and that may also be because Davis comes off onscreen as so much older than Hayden (and in fact, she was 8 years older). The film also seems to wrap up a little too abruptly (see my note above regarding Maggie’s sudden “a-ha!” moment), leaving you feeling as if you followed this movie for almost an hour and a half, only to have the entire cast and crew tire and want to be done with it, so they wrapped it up within a matter of minutes. I did get a chuckle out of Maggie’s drunken driving with her Oscar perched on the dashboard, however. No one could scream and holler like a mad old martyred banshee like Bette Davis.
Overall, the film scarcely resonates and is now viewed – justly so – as one of Davis’s lesser-revered works. She lost the Oscar to Shirley Booth, who reprised her successful stage role in the film production of Come Back, Little Sheba. Davis would go on to garner a tenth and final Best Actress nomination in another piece of camp – a more deliciously twisted performance as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962).