A Star Is Born: How Esther Found Vicky Lester

IS THE PRICE OF STARDOM A BROKEN HEART?

We tend to think of this film as the most symbolic version of the Hollywood dream, powerful enough to have been remade several times. But before A Star Is Born, there was What Price Hollywood? (1932), a George Cukor drama about an aspiring actress who meets an influential director while serving drinks at a Hollywood party and eventually becomes a star. There are many ingredients here that were to be used by William Wellman and Robert Carson when they wrote the story for this film.

Perhaps one reason why A Star Is Born has become more of a classic is that a movie about Hollywood glamor really needs that look.

In North Dakota, a farmer’s daughter grows up dreaming of becoming a Hollywood star. This isn’t the future that the Blodgetts imagined for their Esther (Janet Gaynor), but her grandmother was also young once and gives her money she’s been saving so she can go to Hollywood and give it a try. In Tinseltown, Esther tries to find work as an extra but learns that so many others have come up with the same idea that the casting agencies are no longer looking for talents. Some time later, Esther gets a waitressing job at a party where one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Norman Maine (Fredric March), is attending. She gets his attention and Maine becomes enamored with the young talent…

Based on real-life Hollywood stars
Norman Maine is perhaps the typical Hollywood star, the kind that becomes famous all over the world, but is too much of a party animal and can’t handle the consequences of what happens when audiences no longer love him as much as they used to. The character was allegedly based on several real-life Hollywood stars who also had a problem with alcohol, including John Barrymore. The relationship between Maine and Esther (whose name is changed to Vicki Lester, which sounds more like a star than Blodgett) was reportedly also inspired by the marriage between Barbara Stanwyck and comedian Frank Fay; it followed a similar trajectory with the male star’s fortunes fading as those of his wife shoot into the stratosphere.

We follow the attempts to create ”Vicky Lester” and her career, as well as the marriage that follows between her and Maine, initially intended to boost both stars. Gaynor and March, both Oscar winners at that time, likely had no problem connecting to their characters and are touching and terrifically entertaining (she even gets to imitate a few Hollywood stars here and there). Gaynor’s last scene has become a powerful and moving tribute to the man who helped her get where she is now. The film is at its most compelling examining the cost of fame and how frail male egos handle adversity. Maine’s life changes, and his alcoholism makes nothing easier, but he still understands that time has come for him to take a step back and let his wife have her day in the spotlight.

Among the supporting cast, Andy Devine and Lionel Stander stand out as a bumbling assistant director and a shark-like press agent.

This really is a first-rate melodrama from a director who also made a great screwball comedy the same year, Nothing Sacred. In 1937, William Wellman knew how to wring the best out of his cast. As for technical innovations, A Star is Born looked glorious in Technicolor, I’m sure. The film is now in the public domain and if you go looking for it online, you’re likely to find a copy in bad need of restoration. Released on Blu-ray a few years ago, it is nevertheless bound to disappoint now. That’s not fair – after all, this film about façade and glamor has a look that should have been better taken care of.

A Star Is Born 1937-U.S. 111 min. Color. Produced by David O. Selznick. Directed by William Wellman. Screenplay: Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson. Story: William Wellman, Robert Carson. Cinematography: W. Howard Greene. Music: Max Steiner. Cast: Fredric March (Norman Maine), Janet Gaynor (Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester), Adolphe Menjou (Oliver Niles), May Robson, Andy Devine, Lionel Stander.

Trivia: Barrymore was allegedly considered for the role of Norman Maine. Remade in 1954, 1976 and 2018.

Oscar: Best Original Story (the film also received an honorary Oscar for its color cinematography).

Quote: “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” (Gaynor’s last line)

Last word:I have in my father’s file an inter-office communication that he wrote to Selznick the day after Selznick said he didn’t want to do [the film]. He wrote a very diplomatic letter – my father was not the most diplomatic person – but he did the best he could trying to talk Selznick into giving the idea a second chance. Then my father went to Irene Selznick, who was L.B. Mayer’s sister, and she liked the idea. She told my father, ‘David and I are going to Honolulu on a vacation … There will be pillow talk.’ Now my father always thought pillow talk ruined more movies than it helped, but it worked. When Selznick came back from his vacation he called my father at his office and said, ‘You know I’ve been thinking about that story of yours Bill, I think we should give it a try.’ And sure enough they did.” (William Wellman, Jr., Movie Maker)

 

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