Director Stuart Heisler, of some good television and screen work such as “The Glass Key”, fashions a rare moment for Bette Davis, unheard of for other stars. A major star would only ever be seen in a supermarket or department store on a magazine cover. That’s as far as they step into the real world. But as Margaret Elliot, formerly of great fame and fortune and now of desperation to get back into the spotlight, Davis heads up on the escalator, obviously on location at a department store as her character seeks a job. A humiliating step for someone fond of lavish parties, big mansions, and wealthy-looking cars, only because she had the dough to do so.
Now she wants a role that will bring her back up to the top, even as actresses like Barbara Lawrence become the flavor of the town. Young, younger, youngest-over-18. That’s what brings in the money. America wants youth that doesn’t remind them of themselves and there’s no place in the changing industry for Elliot, though she is determined. Very determined. She even goes so far to assure her worried daughter (Natalie Wood) that her day has come once again. She starts shooting a new picture in three weeks. It’s all a lie of course but what’s a mother to do when her daughter’s playmates at a high-falutin’ day camp tease her about her mother’s below-the-ground status in a finicky industry? What Heisler and screenwriters Katherine Albert and Dale Eunson attempt is a film just a touch lighter than “Sunset Boulevard”. But where “Sunset” completely enveloped us in an insane world created by a truly faded star, “The Star” has our eyes and minds darting about, wondering just how thick the melodrama is. It doesn’t only come from the music, but also from times where Davis looks too desperate, as if to give her character more depth. “The Star” also has some questions that line the rest of its minutes on screen, such as how exactly any actor or actress could hope to survive in the real world if the day came when they weren’t so widely accepted. Or is it that unlike Elliot, they’ll have enough money squirreled away so they can keep on living in their fantastic dreams?
Watching her attempt some sort of comeback is Jim Johansson (Sterling Hayden), who once starred opposite her in “Faithless”, who only performed in that film due to Elliot’s anger at a leading man who bowed out. She vowed to make the next man who came along an actor who would be even better than he and she got Jim, christened Barry Lester for the movies, a name that he hated. Hayden’s work depends squarely on each film. He doesn’t have a wide-ranging arc of talent that makes even the worst of his films better. In a tough film noir like “The Asphalt Jungle”, he has it perfect. But in “The Star”, his expressionless eyes don’t give off much of a performance. He’s just the dedicated soul, wallpaper for the drama ahead. Other supporting players like Natalie Wood are just grist for the grinding mill that is Elliot’s life. They’re there, but they can’t be too “there”.
“The Star” is certainly far different from what Bette Davis had before, roles in “The Letter”, “Now, Voyager”, “Mr. Skeffington” and others. In fact, all of these are included in the Bette Davis Collection DVD set, as a sharp comparison of her roles or separately, if that’s your bag and game. Even the DVD is fairly odd. Possessing the requisite trailer, always important for older releases like these, there’s also a featurette, “How Real is the Star?” One thing you’ll never know outside of the words of documentary filmmakers is why certain people are chosen for interviews on these discs. When it comes to documentary filmmakers, we know. Their works have the people they need because they reflect the topics they want to cover. Pick any documentary. You wouldn’t find Bozo the Clown in “Hoop Dreams”. So why in the heck is Carol Kane featured in this brief spurt of words on how Davis was still an appealing box-office draw, even with having starred in “The Star”? Oh sure, she admires Davis and her work, but so do countless other actresses I’d wager. Looking at author Boze Hadleigh’s books on amazon.com, it’s understandable why he’d be featured. Besides covering the gay side of Hollywood, he also wrote about celebrity feuds and one of the most famous, at least from the perspective of a Hollywood outsider was that between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, though a few souls here are quick to poo-poo that, considering Davis to be the one who didn’t quite like Crawford, while Crawford admired Davis. It got to the point, as one of the mentions, that the news of their feud was so relentless that they likely started to believe what they read. Feh. At least we got “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” out of it.
“The Star” is good for that one Saturday night or some kind of gathering among friends, a mini film festival to feature movies with unexpected appearances by actors who you wouldn’t think would be in those kinds of films. Start with this one for sure. Then go for Frank Perry’s “The Swimmer”, featuring Burt Lancaster in the title role, based on a short story by John Cheever. That one will knock the hell out of you just as much as you might have been wide-eyed over Faye Dunaway’s performance as Joan Crawford in “Mommie Dearest”, also directed by Perry. Believe me, those kinds of films are out there. Just look toward the ends of various actors’ careers or even in the middle. Idiosyncrasy is never dead in Hollywood. It’s just in the wrong place.