Bette Davis works more than just her eyes in The Star (1952),
creating a powerfully human portrait of an actress unable to deal with growing older.
Near the end of Stuart Heisler's The Star (1952), a screenwriter (Paul Frees) looks across the room at a crowded Hollywood party and points out a woman he says has the perfect face. At that stage in the film, it's no surprise when the shot changes to reveal the object of his admiration is Bette Davis, playing washed-up film star Maggie Elliott. As in even her weakest films, her face is one of the picture's saving graces, often creating layers of meaning that go beyond anything the script could suggest. Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings (1976) is a wretched mess of a picture except when she's on screen. Then it turns into a heartbreaking consideration of the ravages of age. In some of her early Warner Bros. films, when the studio tried to treat her as just another leading lady, her characters fairly pop off the screen with a supernatural energy that makes the films more about a powerhouse actress chomping at the bit than whatever sorry plot she was stuck with.
The Star is the best of her attempts to follow-up on the success of All About Eve (1950). As a woman fighting against the crushing reality that she's grown older in a Hollywood that only values youth and sex appeal, she's electric, even if the script keeps getting in her way. After she leaves an auction of personal effects that's only going to pay off her creditors, she has to deal with her freeloading sister and brother-in-law. The scene starts well enough, with her trying to explain her financial situation to them and point out that a lot of her lost fortune went to helping them. Davis plays this with sincerity and a touch of wit (the way she widens her eyes to feign innocence while dropping hard truths is one of the best weapons in her bag of tricks and gives lie to the claim that she couldn't play comedy; I mean, what the hell was All About Eve?). But then she has to blow up at them, and the whole situation starts to feel phony. Davis is too powerful, too much a force of nature, for us to believe anybody could take advantage of her as they have. And though she's an expert at delivering rants (in 1934's Of Human Bondage, her verbal attack on Leslie Howard is downright horrifying), she can't do it if the lines aren't there, and in this film, they're not.
Right after her sister and brother-in-law leave, however, she pulls off a surprising little bit of acting that jolts you back into the character's reality. She angrily sweeps her makeup table clear and then grabs her arm. It's a little thing, but it sums up her character's plight perfectly. She's too old for gestures like that. Through the course of the film, Maggie has to learn that she's also too old for the leading roles she used to play.
Later in the film, her agent manages to land her a screen test for a supporting role as the young leading lady's older sister, a downtrodden farm wife. Convinced she should be starring in the film, she plays the scene as if she were a young sexpot. When the agent takes her to the studio to find out how things went, she gets one of the studio's editors to screen the test for her. We don't see much of the test (we've already seen her filming it). Instead we see her face as she watches it and realizes what a fool she's been. Her response is riveting, and it paves the way for the film's denouement. Unfortunately, the scriptwriters then decide to give her lines. They're not needed, and given that we've already seen everything we need to see in her face, they seem ludicrous.
When Frees pitches his script to her at the party, which triggers her final crisis, the writers manage to stay out of her way for once. The film he pitches is basically the one we've just seen, about a star unable to adjust to aging. Unfortunately, the script then has him go for some kind of high moral. The woman's problem is that she's been so busy being a star that she's forgotten how to be — gasp! — a woman. It's not just that the idea is dated. After watching Davis power her way through the film for slightly over an hour, it's downright insulting. What's wrong with being a star if you can also deliver on her level? Her marriage may have fallen apart (because her actor-husband couldn't take her being more successful), but she has a daughter (Natalie Wood) who adores her and has even won the heart of a former co-star (Sterling Hayden) who bails her out when she's arrested for drunk driving. Even while still trying to rebuild her career, she would seem to be doing pretty well for herself by the film's patriarchal '50s standards.
That either-or proposition, that a woman can be either a star (read success) or a woman, was the one flaw in All About Eve. The scene in which Davis' Margo Channing evaluates her supposed failure as a woman is much better shot than anything in The Star, but I remember women hissing her big speech when I saw the film in a revival house in the '70s. Of course, All About Eve has a lot more going on than that one idea, and I don't think anybody watching it seriously believes that Margo is going to stay retired for long after she marries Bill. The Star, however, seems to be built around the proposition that to achieve success as a woman Maggie has to give up everything else, and Davis' powerhouse performance gives the lie to that idea.
Hayden and Wood are the only actors in the film who are really a match for Davis. It's not that the rest of the cast is bad. It's filled with reliable character actors like Warner Anderson as her sympathetic agent and Minor Watson as the studio head who agrees to give her a screen test, but they don't have a lot to work with. Hayden's character is more developed and parallels his off-screen life. He was doing work on Maggie's house when she spotted him and had him tested for a film in which they ended up co-starring. Since the war, he's given up acting to run a small shipping business (Hayden always preferred sailing to acting). Their scenes are like a meeting of old and new Hollywood — the studio-bred Davis taking on the young independent Hayden. She knows enough to share the focus with him. I wonder if Davis also realized that, as was the case with other aging stars like Joan Crawford, she needed a leading man with Hayden's craggy masculinity to make her love scenes believable duets rather than ludicrous solos.
She really connects with Wood, as well. The younger actress was 14 at the time. That's considered the awkward age for child actors, though we may all wish we had been that awkward at her age. She's gangly and effusive, but with her big eyes and her strong focus on Davis she seems a better mother-daughter match for her than Davis' own biological off-spring (the film made the two lifelong friends, while the less said of Davis' daughter at this point the better).
Good as Hayden and Wood are, however, they're very much supporting players, simply in terms of screen time. The film is all Davis, and she more than justifies the investment of 90 minutes. She always claimed this was one of the best scripts she was offered in the '50s. She did The Star after turning down Come Back, Little Sheba (1952) and lost the Oscar to Shirley Booth's whiny, masochistic performance. She would later regret that decision, but I think she made the right choice. Lola is too downtrodden a character for her. In fact, most of the prominent roles for women in her age range (think 1952's Sudden Fear or 1956's The Bad Seed) were such victimized creatures she wouldn't have worked in them. The only role she could have really sunk her teeth into was Serafina in The Rose Tattoo (1955), which, appropriately went to Anna Magnani, an actress often referred to as "the Italian Bette Davis."
Even beneath Charles Schramm's impressive scar makeup, Liza Minnelli has the eyes of a star in
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon.
Liza Minnelli's follow-up to her Oscar-nominated turn in The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) is far from her best film. It has all the flaws of Hollywood's attempts to get "with it" in the late '60s and early '70s. The editing and storytelling are choppy, the plot goes nowhere, and the sound recording is awful. At times the characters seem to be talking from inside a meat locker. There were directors who could make things like that work. Robert Altman turned the meandering narrative into an art form in films like M*A*S*H (1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and his masterpiece, Nashville (1975). But for Otto Preminger, who did some of this best work in tightly plotted films noirs like Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), it all seems just so much affectation. If it weren't for a few performances, the picture would hardly bear looking at.
After decades of seeing Minnelli turn in strong performances as everyone from Sally Bowles to Lucille Austero on Arrested Development (not to mention her unjustly neglected turn in Stepping Out), it's tempting to say any view of her performance in Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is colored by hindsight. Certainly the character, as written, is a little too self-consciously quirky (another trait of '70s screenwriting). Junie Moon is a carefree young woman who's been scarred when a date turned out to be deranged and poured battery acid on her face. In the hospital, she befriends Warren (Robert Moore), a gay man confined to a wheelchair following a hunting accident, and Arthur (Ken Howard), an epileptic incorrectly diagnosed as mentally challenged since childhood. They decide to set up housekeeping in a tumbledown shack near the Massachusetts shore.
As they face a series of crises brought about by insensitive neighbors and a landlady (Kay Thompson) who seems to have wandered in from some Italian horror film, the script frequently calls on Minnelli to go from zero to 60 in an instant. And the flashback to her disastrous date turns her into such a manic party girl you may wonder if they didn't undercrank the camera for those scenes. She's all over the place. But when Minnelli has to connect with another actor, she really looks at them. Those wonderful, Margaret Keane eyes of hers carry a lot of focus and intensity. It may be jarring when she has to jump to a big emotional effect, but once she's there, she's totally committed. Even when the character puts on airs, there's nothing phony about her. For the moment, at least, she believes in her affectations. And she shares her mother's gift for surprising bursts of wit that temporarily undermine the more sentimental moments. She holds off going for the obvious tug on the heartstrings, saving the big emotional punches for the film's end.
Minnelli provides an emotional center for a film that doesn't seem to have a consistent acting style. The script by Marjorie Kellogg (adapting her own novel) seems to draw its notion of gay men from some community theatre production of Noel Coward. Moore has a series of plummy lines to deliver, which he does as though playing to the back row of the balcony (he was primarily a theatre director, most noted for the original off-Broadway production of The Boys in the Band). In contrast, Howard is beautifully naturalistic as Alan, even during stylized flashbacks to his tortured childhood, when he was bullied and sent to a home for mentally challenged children (these are the best flashbacks in the film; the other figures look like two-dimensional, black-and-white ghosts, which is truly disorienting). His character is immensely appealing, as is James Coco as a lonely fishmonger who falls for Minnelli, even though he realizes she's drawn to Howard. And Anne Revere, who had worked for Preminger in Fallen Angels and Forever Amber (1947), has two lovely scenes as a hospital social worker. Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon was her first film in almost 20 years, after being blacklisted in the '50s, and she's lost none of her authoritative sincerity.
Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon is also rather challenging from a political standpoint. 1970 doesn't seem that long ago for some of us old farts, but it's shocking to hear Moore called a "queer" and a "cripple," Howard's seizures referred to as "fits" and the terms "retarded" and "feeble-minded" thrown around in reference to his childhood.
There's also a reminder of how far the screen has come (or likes to think it has come) in dealing with sexuality. When Coco treats Minnelli's chosen family to a weekend at a seaside resort, Moore hooks up with a hotel employee (Fred Williamson) who appears to be turning tricks on the side. The two flirt so much you're waiting for something to happen. But during a night out, Williamson takes Moore to a black nightclub, where they pick up two African-American women. Williamson takes one off into the sand dunes, while the other seduces Moore on the beach. No wonder Williamson tears up the group's hotel bill. After leading Moore on like that, he's got to come across with something. For a gay audience, however, the whole plot line is another case of getting screwed by the film without getting kissed.
Yet there's still something strangely compelling about the picture. It's as if Minnelli were holding together the meandering plot and plethora of acting styles by force of sheer will. Because the picture was shot in the Northeast, it's filled with great, if underused theatre actors like Ben Piazza, Leonard Frey, Nancy Marchand, Clarice Taylor and Julie Bovasso. The whole thing is framed by shots of Pete Seeger walking through the woods as he sings his "Old Devil Time." The scenes represent Preminger's most relaxed work in the film. There's a faux symbolism to the piece; the lyrics saying "No storm nor fire can ever beat us down" seem to point up the resilience the characters strive for. But while Seeger's on screen, the film is just there. We get to sit and appreciate the beauty of the woods, the authenticity of his singing and his great weathered face. And somehow it doesn't matter that the picture doesn't really get anywhere, as long as it comes back to him.