Gay Icons: Bette Davis (Part 4) inThe Star
The Star (1952)
A year or so after her great comeback in All About Eve, Bette Davis played fading movie star Margaret Elliot in this fascinating study of an actress broke and on the skids. Filmed on the cheap and in less than a month around Los Angeles, The Star earned Davis another Best Actress nomination and is a really perceptive study of movie stardom and its consequences.
Co-starring a hunky Sterling Hayden and a young Natalie Wood playing Davis' daughter, The Star chronicles the downfall of a once proud movie queen. Except for a too hasty happy ending, the film is pretty gritty as it shows Davis' character facing bankruptcy, grasping relatives, and the loss of her career. As the budget for this film was so small, director Stuart Heisler relied on real Los Angeles locations to help give the film its authentic flavor. The locations for Davis's apartment (North Crescent Heights in the current gay hub of West Hollywood), Natalie's home (Orange Drive in Hollywood), and the May Company (now part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) are still there almost 60 years later.
Basically a one woman show, Davis has a number of bravura scenes. After she throws out her money grubbing sister and husband, she grabs her Academy Award and places it on the car's dashboard screaming, "Come on Oscar, let's you and me get drunk." She then drunkenly drives through Hollywood, pointing out stars homes. "And on your left is the home of that rising young star Mitzi Gaynor. How young can you get?" Davis’ down and out character soon gets a sales job at the May Company. Upon being recognized and criticized by two older women, Davis screams at "having to wait on a couple of old bags like you."
The highlight of the film is Davis being asked to test for the supporting role of an older sister, and instead trying to win the glamorous lead part by changing her makeup and playing the scene in a totally sexual way. This scene is great watching poor Davis on her knees scrubbing the floor while she flirts with a character named Garth, making a fool out of herself as she plays a part meant for someone twenty years younger. When she sees the test the following day and realizes what she has done, the look of horror on her face is great.
The happy ending is pretty weak. Davis’ character realizes that her career is not that important, picks up her daughter, and rushes off to hunky Sterling Hayden. But nevertheless, The Star is worth seeing for Davis at her volcanic best. It is also a treat to see a young Natalie Wood just a few years before Rebel Without A Cause.
Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were both up for the 1952 Best Actress Oscar but lost to Shirley Booth who recreated her Broadway hit Come Back Little Sheba. It would be a ten-year drought for Davis as the good parts dried up (just like in The Star.) Finally, she and Joan Crawford came back with a vengeance in Whatever Happened To Baby Jane in 1962, which became a surprise small hit and earned Davis the last of her Oscar nominations.
Davis lost the Oscar to Anne Bancroft for The Miracle Worker. But in a delicious twist, Bancroft was in New York doing a play and did not expect to win, so she was not present at the Oscars. So guess who accepted it for her? Miss Joan Crawford (who had gotten Bancroft's permission) swept past Davis on to the stage and accepted the award. She also got most of the newspaper coverage the following day. As Joan had not been nominated for Baby Jane, she was determined to be on that stage if Davis did not win. Let's just say that Davis and Joan's already precarious relationship did not improve after that particular evening.
Bette Davis made a lot of other great movies during her Warner heyday, including Now Voyager, The Corn Is Green, and The Old Maid. But if you want to see Davis at her best in the time period of 1937-1952, check out Marked Woman, The Letter, A Stolen Life and The Star. These films represent Davis as the consummate actress. Beyond the mannerisms and overacting seen in some of her later vehicles—which are still more watchable than most current stars' work—these are the real gems in Bette Davis’ career.
Read Mike's tribute to Joan Crawford.