1950's were a difficult time for Bette Davis. After her career defining
role in All About Eve (1950) and before the box-office success
of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1961), the quality of
the work she was offered declined. Davis herself referred to the
decade as her "ten black years".
was during one of those "black years" that she starred
in the camp-tastic Hollywood exposé The Star (1952),
a low-budget drama about an aging actress who is desperate for a
comeback. It's certainly not one of Davis' more subtle performances,
but she got an Oscar nomination out of it anyway.
evening in downtown Los Angles, Margaret Elliot (Davis) runs into
her agent (Warner Anderson) outside of a storefront auction house.
Her possessions are being sold to the highest bidder and he's just
purchased a gaudy candelabra that used to belong to his client,
"Be a scavenger," she wails about the crystal monstrosity
that would make even Liberace cringe, "Pick my bones."
coffee they discuss the news that a producer is finally moving forward
with The Fatal Winter, a project Margaret was once (during
her better days) very interested in. "One good picture is all
I need," she assures him, puffing away on a cigarette as if
her life depended on it, "They can't put me out to pasture."
being told that she no longer has that "dewy quality",
Margaret heads over to the chi-chi mansion of her wealthy ex-husband
to tell the new wife a thing or two. "You threw yourself at
him," she harangues, "You told him how bad I was for him,
that I was too busy with my career, that what he needed was a real
wife." Then, she rolls her eyes and snorts, "Ugh
that premium display of undiluted Bette Davisness, Margaret goes
upstairs to visit with her pre-teen daughter Gretchen (Natalie Wood).
"My six months with daddy was up on the sixteenth," she
helpfully reminds her mother, "I was wondering when you'd come
for me." Margaret comes up with excuses because she can't afford
to take care of her own child.
has been busy defending her mother's professional honor by beating
up any of the neighborhood kids who call her mother a has-been.
Margaret tries to save face and says that she's starting a new movie
soon, "If you're a star, you don't stop being a star."
tucking her daughter into bed, she heads home to her tiny apartment.
Despite Margaret's obvious financial situation, her ungrateful sister
and brother-in-law ask for their monthly stipend. "Can't you
get it through your thick skulls that I'm broke!" she bellows,
"Dead, flat, stony broke!" After throwing them out, she
picks up her Academy Award (Davis used her own award as a prop)
and goes on a bender, "Come on Oscar, let's you and me get
her Oscar on the dashboard and a drink in her hand, Margaret drives
through the affluent neighborhood that she used to call home. "Going,
going, gone." She tearfully reminisces before being arrested
and taken down to the police station where she's thrown in the drunk
tank, "You don't seem to know who I am!" The next morning,
Margaret is bailed out by an old industry acquaintance.
Johannson (Sterling Hayden) put up bail because she did a "swell
thing" for him once. "I go out to repair your bathhouse
and ten days later I'm playing opposite Margaret Elliot in Faithless."
Despite the fact that it was "the worst picture ever made",
he's eager to return the favor and give her a helping hand.
she's been kicked out of her apartment, Jim takes her back to his
place, a comfortable apartment that overlooks the shipyard he owns
and operates. When she awakens in Jim's bed, all her troubles come
flooding back to her. Margaret's night in jail has made the morning
papers. She quickly makes a call to her daughter to explain the
previous night's misadventures, "Mother was at the jail getting
atmosphere for her new picture," she lies. Yep, Margaret is
definitely "Going, going, gone".
tries, in his own down-to-earth way, to use the boat engine he's
working on as an analogy for the downward spiral that Margaret is
facing. But she's content on mulling over the ghosts of her former
career, "I was sick of the tripe they were forcing me to play,"
she tells him, a sentiment Davis herself was familiar with, "They
said I was box-office poison."
gives her a harsh, but realistic, life assessment. "You're
confusing what was with what is. It was swell while
it lasted. But now it's over."
never be over!"
once though you were a woman, but I was wrong. You're nothing but
slaps him and runs out on the only person who gives a damn about
her. At a drugstore she tries to buy some sleeping pills, but steals
an expensive bottle of perfume instead. She then returns to Jim
and confesses. "What's the matter with me? Going, going, gone."
in a confessional mood, she tells him that it was no favor to get
him the lead in Faithless. When a distinguished leading man
refused to play opposite her, she swore to get even by making the
next man she saw a big star.
takes it all in stride and suggests that, since she has it, she
put on some of the fancy perfume. Oddly, it doesn't have any scent.
"It must have been a display bottle," he guesses, "Well,
when you grabbed it you thought it was real. It's the story of your
life isn't it?" Yes, in a wonderfully heavy-handed way, it
real world rehabilitation begins with a refreshing day spent sailing
with Gretchen and Jim. She even gets a "real" job working
behind the counter in a department store. This is probably the worst
idea ever, truly a disaster in the making. Margaret, and Bette Davis
for that matter, don't disappoint. Two gossipy women recognize her
and begin to argue over whether it's appropriate to have a jailbird
working in the lingerie department.
a good look ladies, so there's no doubt. It is Margaret Elliot
and it is a disgrace," she fumes, "Margaret Elliot
waiting on a couple of old bags like you!" She tosses
some lacy merchandise at them and storms out from behind the counter.
"I'm going back where I belong. I am Margaret Elliot and I
intend to stay Margaret Elliot!"
agent manages to get her an appointment to see the producer who's
making The Fatal Winter. Margaret is shocked to learn that
her star power holds less clout than it used too. They want her
to shoot a screen test and she'll only be considered for the role
of the older sister, not the lead.
next day, after enduring the make-up and hair for the frumpy sister,
Margaret ducks into a dressing room and changes her hair and wardrobe
to a more flattering style. When it becomes clear that she's intent
on playing the vamp instead of the aged recluse the part calls for,
the young director attempts to make a few suggestions. But she won't
listen and plays it her own way. During the scene, Davis is playing
it bad on purpose, wonderfully bad in fact. It's so bad, that it
brings to mind her performance as Rosa Moline in the trash masterpiece
Beyond the Forest (1949). After shooting the obviously atrocious
test, Margaret asks for some feedback. "Fine," the director
deadpans, "Your fans would love it." Indeed.
of ego and hubris, Margaret actually believes that the test will
win her the part of the young lead. She buys a new wardrobe and
is eager to go out and celebrate her "return to the screen"
with Jim. "You're going to have a little brother," she
tells her Oscar statuette. But all the excitement has worn her out
and ends up sleeping most of the evening away.
is in for a rude awakening when she settles into her seat inside
the studio screening room to see her test. "Oh it's horrible,
it's horrible," she sobs when she realizes how painfully inappropriate
her performance was. She's ruined her chance for the comeback she
so desperately wanted and shouts at her B&W image flickering
across the screen.
beleaguered agent takes Margaret back to his Bel Air home for a
rest. Davis seems to be spending and inordinate amount of film time
either asleep or passed out, perhaps it's meant symbolize her need
to "wake up".
awakens to the sounds of a cocktail party downstairs. She tries
to sneak out, but ends up chatting with colleagues and overhears
that someone else got the part she tested for. Barbara Lawrence,
the starlet playing the coveted lead in The Fatal Winter,
causes quite a stir when she shows up. You might think that the
character of the young starlet, whose image has haunted Margaret
throughout the film, is fictional. Miss Barbara Lawrence is in fact
playing herself. Though she had a number of respectable films to
her credit (A Letter to Three Wives, 1949, among them) Lawrence's
career never seemed to progress past the "pretty young starlet"
young producer sits with Margaret and tells her about a script that
she might be interested in. If the producer sounds familiar, it's
because he's Paul Frees, the voice actor with a list of credits
a mile long, including feature films and several animated TV shows.
He describes his "Hollywood story" and it's main character,
a delusional actress of Norma Desmond-like proportions. Could he
be telling the pitiful story of Margaret's life? Hmmm.
doesn't need a cartoon anvil to fall on her head. She flees the
party and picks up Gretchen in the middle of the night. They drive
to Jim's apartment where, in a hastily tacked on happy ending, Margaret
literally runs into the arms of the only man who understands and
has said that she based her portrayal of the washed up actress on
her rival Joan Crawford. The script was written by the husband and
wife team Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson, who were long-time friends
of Crawford's. But the story was as much about Bette as it was Joan.
The parallels between Davis' real life and the character she plays
are often eerily similar. Davis had plenty of her own personal and
professional disappointments to draw upon.
she's playing herself or thinly veiled version of Crawford, is beside
the point. The end result is one hundred percent Bette Davis. The
Star proves that no one does a better Bette Davis impersonation
than Davis herself. She manages to employ every tic and mannerism
in her personal bag of acting tricks. The result is a deliriously
over-the-top performance that not even a seasoned drag queen could