Thursday, February 9, 2012
A STAR IS BORN AGAIN
A number of years ago, when I was teaching English at Elmont Memorial High School, a forward thinking principal, Richard Caliendo, realized that there was a need for a class that would review and discuss the classic films from Hollywood and Europe. I was lucky to have him build a "Little Theater" for me where, on a giant wide screen, I showed Hollywood's best. (Remember, this was just before the advent of the VCR and Turner Classic Films on TV so there was no way of seeing these films in any form). Dr. Caliendo gave me a small budget and with it I booked the greats, Lean's DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, Mankiewicz's ALL ABOUT EVE, Bergman's WILD STRAWBERRIES and Kazan's ON THE WATERFRONT among many others. One of those others was William Wellman's early color film (1937) of A STAR IS BORN, with a screenplay written by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. I must have shown that film hundreds of times and yet I still bought the new blu ray DVD and watched it again this evening. What a truly delightful film with so many brilliant moments! This Hollywood saga tells the story of Norman Maine, an alcoholic actor whose star is slowly falling, and Vicki Lester a youngster from out West whose star is on the ascent. In a magnificent performance, Fredric March plays Maine as a pathetic alcoholic before the Betty Ford clinic and AA, whose self destruction is out of his hands. He cannot stop going back to the bottle when anything untoward happens. The only good thing in his life is Vicki Lester, whom he marries and whose career he nurtures. She is desperate to help him but is unable to do so. The end is inevitable, yet every time I see the film I keep hoping for a different resolution. As you watch the film you keep thinking, "No matter how hard they try, the just don't make them with this kind of care anymore." Case in point; early in their relationship, Norman kisses Vicki goodnight. He is the major star, she, at this point is a nobody. As he says goodnight the shadow of his face covers almost all of hers. He is in control and will be the Svengali to her Trilby. Vicki stays at a seedy Hollywood Hotel called The Oleander Arms. Screenwriter Parker, with no love for Hollywood, names the hotel after a poisonous flower. These and other such touches are no mistakes. They are the small things that enrich this version of the classic story to make it better (at least to me) than the Judy Garland (1954) version, as good as that one was...and it was, or the misbegotten version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristoferson of the 1970's which was simply a vehicle for Streisand. I understand yet another version is in the planning stages, this one an African- American version and I wish it well. No matter how good it will be, it will have to be judged by the fine William Wellman version and that is going to be, as they say, a hard act to follow.
Posted by Jeff Laffel at 7:50 PM