The 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".

It 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.

One 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."

Over 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."

After 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…pure soap opera."

 

After 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.

Gretchen 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."

After 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 drunk!"

With 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.

 

Jim 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.

After 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".

Jim 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."

Jim 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."

"It'll never be over!"

"I once though you were a woman, but I was wrong. You're nothing but a career!"

 

Margaret 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."

Still 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.

Jim 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 sure is.

Margaret's 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.

"Take 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!"

 

Her 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.

The 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.

Full 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.

Margaret 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.

 

Her 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".

Margaret 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" phase.

A 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.

Margaret 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 loves her.

 

Davis 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.

Whether 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 out do.

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