Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bette Davis meets Joan Crawford ten years early

I've mentioned in the past how Joan Crawford's later movies, starting with Mildred Pierce but definitely continuing to things like Flamingo Road, This Woman Is Dangerous, and Queen Bee, feature a more "strident" Crawford, whose acting seems to be more forced and over-the-top, in a way that's unintentionally hilarious. You can see her and Bette Davis do this routine together in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. But ten years before Baby Jane, you can see the same sort of acting from Davis in The Star, which is airing on TCM tomorrow morning at 8:15 AM.

Bette Davis plays the titular star; really, who else could possibly be the star of a Bette Davis film? This star, named Margaret Elliot, is even more of a former star than the Margot Channing she played in All About Eve. The good roles are no longer coming; and Margaret is in debt, living in an apartment where she's behind on the rent and having a lot of her personal effects auctioned off. It doesn't help, either, that Margaret lost a lot of her money helping out the rest of her family, including her sick mother and a sister used to living the good life. Indeed, the sister still wants her monthly check from Margaret and doesn't believe that Margaret is in fact broke. To top it all off, her daughter (Natalie Wood), now living with her father and step-mother, is still telling everybody how mom is going to get a big role in a prominent movie. After a visit from the sister turns into a raging argument, Margaret decides to go on the mother of all benders, taking her Oscar for a ride with her. (Davis is said to have used one of the two actual Oscars she won as the prop Oscar for this scene.) Davis winds up crashing her car and getting booked for DWI.

Who bails her out? Not her manager; Margaret has already been taking advances from her manager. Instead it's Jim Johannsen (Sterling Hayden) who, it turns out, is a man from Margaret's past. Fifteen years earlier, he had done some work at the Hollywood estate where Margaret was then living. She repaid him by using him as a tool to try to get back at the studio bosses: she had him cast as the male lead in her next picture, which promptly flopped, ending Jim's acting career. He was thankful for this, as he really preferred to do other things anyhow, such as boat building. Jim, in fact, went into business building boats, and has a moderately successful operation going, and after bailing Margaret out, he takes her to the apartment above the shop so she can sober up and get better. And maybe he just has a flame for her, too.... The rest of the movie involves a conflict between Jim, who seems to want Margaret to retire and settle down, preferably with him; and Margaret, who obviously thinks she can still be a star, and not just a character actor.

Bette Davis and Sterling Hayden are an unlikely copule, and that helps to make large portions of The Star an unintentional laugh fest. You have to wonder how much of the stuff going on here might also have been going on in real life. Davis had, if memory serves, ended her contract at Warner Bros. not too long earlier, and was now, post-Eve, in a difficult marriage with Gary Merrill and playing roles that were either not as big (Phone Call From a Stranger or The Virgin Quen), or in pretty dire films (Storm Warning). Davis tries -- good God does she try -- and it makes the movie compelling watching. Like quite a few other movies from the 1950s, The Star is one of those films that's not great by any stretch of the imagination, but is a hell of a lot of fun.

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