A Star Is Born (1954) and The Heiress (1954)

Dir. George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford

Dir. William Wyler. Starring Olivia de Havilland, Miriam Hopkins, Montgomery Clift

A Star Is Born stands as a sort of caduceus, a mere movie entwined by the serpents “joyous star vehicle” and “anthropological document.” On one hand, this is Judy Garland’s last stand. “The Man That Got Away” is a better song and a more intimate performance than the film’s answer to the ballet from An American in Paris, “Born in a Trunk.” (In one later scene, Garland does An American in Paris without the sets, which is as much a minimalist rejoinder to that fad as anything else.) “Born in a Trunk,” for its part, gives Garland ample opportunity to belt the name of the town most suited for belting in the English language: Pocatello, Idaho. Nothing sounds as good loud as /o/ and /Ə/ do; no one sounds as good doing it as Judy Garland. Esther Blodgett (Garland) becomes Vicki Lester with the same kind of speed that Frances Gumm became Judy Garland, and we are meant to draw a comparison between the two. Perhaps if Frances had been discovered when she was an adult with more experience, she might have turned into the well-adjusted, grateful, and basically stable adult that Vicki is. As it was, Frances was discovered far earlier, is to this day a standard-bearer for unreliable actors, and died from an overdose at forty-seven.

The might-have-been of Judy Garland is part of this movie’s sad pull, perhaps as arresting as any single element of A Star Is Born. There are little hints that not everything is all sweetness and light in Esther. Twice she puts her hand to her hair in “The Man That Got Away,” and both times the gesture is more fraught with meaning than any of her other gesticulations. The first time it puts her bangs up high in the air, which makes her look, frankly, crazy; the second time, when the song is nearly over, it smooths her out a little bit, makes her appear more calm and collected while the song itself simmers down. But on the whole, especially as Esther becomes Vicki and is reborn as a star, she is a basically normal person; here is cinema as wish-fulfillment for the stars and not the audience.

On the other hand, this is a movie which is probably more about male shame during the 1950s than it is even about the rise of Esther Blodgett. Matt Libby (Jack Carson) has been unappreciated and condescended to for many years as Norman Maine’s (Mason) PR man. He is as much Norman’s handler as he is anything else, although Norman, as one would expect of someone who needs a handler, does not take well to it. Our first looks at Libby are basically sympathetic as he tries to locate and then corral Norman, who is blind drunk backstage at an event he’s supposed to appear in. He becomes increasingly unsympathetic, though, culminating with his rage after Ernest and Esther get married privately, shutting out the fabulous publicity the studio could have wrung out of their nuptials. When Norman’s contract is bought out by the studio—the head honcho, Oliver (Bickford), says to Norman that the days when an actor could go on a bender and hold up production are long gone—Libby seems to be ten feet tall, no longer weighed down by his alcoholic anchor.

At the racetrack one day, he runs into Norman at the bar and immediately begins needling the down-and-out actor. Sixty years later, it’s fascinating to see which comment causes Norman to snap: it’s the one about living off his wife. (In another blow to Norman’s masculine pride, Libby knocks him down quickly and easily while a crowd gathers around the former household name.) Norman is picked up on a drunk driving charge towards the end of the movie, and even that isn’t played for shame as much as the fact that Norman is out-earned by Vicki. Norman crashes the Oscars, coming up on stage during his wife’s acceptance speech to boozily proclaim to the assembled execs that he badly needs a job; that moment is heartbreaking, but it is not as shameful as the fact that Norman is out-earned by Vicki. Nor do I think the cruelty of that shame is that Norman worked harder to make her a name-brand actress than he worked on his movies. Primarily, what is wrong with Norman is that Vicki is perfect. She is as forbearing as Portia, as devoted, and by the end as willing to inflict great wounds on herself to prove how strong her feelings are. (What she “hates” about Norman, as she admits to Oliver, is not even that she cannot trust him, but her feeling that his failures reflect on her more greatly. She could not, in that very mid-century way, tame her husband’s worst habits with her femininity or her prudence.) As a movie star she is just as perfect, because the singing voice that drew Norman in from the first time he heard it has the same effect on everyone else. If everyone prefers Vicki to him, he cannot blame them, for she’s more worthy of preference. And yet, for all of the indignities piled on Norman’s masculinity—not excepting a style of suicide more recently depicted on the silver screen by Joan Crawford than Frederic March—these are all fixed by a single statement from Vicki in front of an expectant crowd: “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” She has as many as four names to choose from, and she opts for the one that does the most work for that late husband who’s got himself on a slow current to China.

As an anthropological document, I would shy away from taking quite as much away from The Heiress which is set in antebellum New York City, than I am pleased to divine from A Star Is Born. Like A Star Is Born, The Heiress is primarily about a woman at the turn of her life. Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is the daughter of a widower doctor (Ralph Richardson) who compares her unfavorably to the mother she little remembers. This unnamed wife was beautiful, graceful, charming, and witty. Catherine does not quite have any of these qualities, and so she remains unmarried despite looking a little old for that by the standards of her time. (A line late in the film suggests that she is about twenty, or a little older; de Havilland was over thirty and not likely to pull that off.) The expectations of a woman of means are made clear, particularly those virtues aligned with obeying one’s father. Catherine’s aunt, Lavinia (Hopkins), has license as a widow to be a little flirtier and more forward than the average woman; her performance, whether dancing with a flamboyant dancer or faking an illness, is the gabby, endearing performance Hopkins made a name with when she was de Havilland’s age. In five or ten years, maybe, her antics will be unseemly and she will be sent off to dignity school, but at present she is facilitator, matchmaker, reminiscer. It is Dr. Sloper’s will that Catherine will leave her embroidering table and begin to show some of these virtues that her dead mother embodied; ergo, it is Aunt Lavinia’s task to prod and prompt Catherine at parties.

And as in A Star Is Born, the film about the role of women inevitably must consider the role of the men accompanying them. Catherine’s first suitor ever, Morris Townsend (Clift), is handsome and attentive. He also happens to be basically without money, nor does he seem much interested in doing the things which help someone become wealthy. He used some small funds to travel across Europe and expand his horizons—a phrase used contemptuously often as not—but did not put those funds to business interests or some other investments. Most damning of all, he did not offer the money to his sister, who has five children and no clear means of support herself. For Dr. Sloper, the signs point clearly and unambiguously to a fortune hunter, a role that no man can respectably fill. The signs are just as clear to the viewer, although one is inclined to give Morris the benefit of the doubt as merely careless rather than conspiratorial. His thumbs are too expressive when he gestures his sadness to Catherine, who sent him off for claret and was shanghaied into a dance she didn’t mean to be shanghaied into. He waits too patiently for a woman whose father has taken her to Europe for six months so she can forget about him. He even invites disaster in one scene. I would not marry your daughter without your blessing, he tells Sloper.

Obviously, each of these can be explained away: any fool can have expressive thumbs, a yearly income like Catherine’s is well worth six months’ wait, and gamblers go all-in all the time. The Heiress is not the sort of movie that is frequently brought up as “ambiguous,” which is probably proof that it is. One could quite easily watch the film from either Dr. Sloper’s or Catherine’s perspective, and it would make perfect sense either way. Watching it in either direction, though, makes it very clear that Morris is a lover, not a provider. If he and Catherine were to marry, it would not be long before Catherine’s inheritance would be the sole income for the family. Morris never can hold a job down, can never rise up the ladder, and his propensity for dabbling would almost certainly be a waste of money in the long term.

As a star vehicle, one can hardly refer to The Heiress as “joyous,” although it does feature some of Hollywood’s better actors arranged to perfection by William Wyler, who is unmatched as an arranger of dolls in his dollhouses. In The Heiress, frequently de Havilland but sometimes Richardson will be placed in the lower corners of the screen, making them feel unnaturally close to us while we watch. I have a particular fondness for this shot, which puts Richardson in the foreground and the embroidery in the background, like the ghost of his daughter’s dull virginity hanging on his shoulder like a meticulously planned Mephistopheles.

De Havilland, who will die someday (although there’s no proof of that), will probably be remembered best for two of her performances from the late ’30s. If Hollywood is to be trusted, though, her most praiseworthy period was the late ’40s. Three times in four years she was nominated for Best Actress, and she won twice, for To Each His Own and The Heiress. She is very good, and gives us a little more range as we move through the picture. Hopkins is charming; Clift is not overburdened with work, although I think there is a little bit of his customary genius in the aforementioned ambiguity of his performance. Only Richardson seems to fit badly in the film, although I think the reason has less to do with him than it does with his age. Less than fifteen years older than de Havilland, it’s difficult to believe him as her father. Really the movie cries out for Charles Laughton in that part, but therein lies the problem: he played the role of “difficult father against his daughter’s marriage because of his own marriage” in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, when Richardson was just breaking into the cinema.


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