Screening Classic Hollywood: “The Star” (1952)

This film follows in the tradition of such films as Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve, movies that expose the terrible toll that Hollywood stardom takes on those enmeshed within the system, particularly female stars. This film sits at the confluence of several important influences: Davis’s star text, competing and sometimes overlapping genres (the “star” film, the maternal melodrama), and the impending decline of the old studio system.

The film follows Margaret Elliot (Davis), as she struggles with the reality that her once-bright star has quite thoroughly faded. After a drunken night on the town, she is saved from her downward spiral by an old co-star, Jim (Sterling Hayden), and she sets out to reclaim her stardom. Upon realizing that Hollywood has no place for her other than as an object of pity and scorn, she ultimately goes back to Jim and the happy domestic partnership he represents.

Davis is the sort of star who evince hardbitten strength and heart-wrenching sadness in quick succession, and for that reason, I think, dwell deserves her reputation as one of the finest actresses to have ever graced the silver screen. Margaret Elliot seems a bit of Margot from All Above Eve (the names are eerily similar), Charlotte from Now, Voyager, and even a bit of Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. Like Norma, she loses sight of what is by focusing on what was (as Jim bluntly tells her). Beset with her failures as a star, she lashes out at everyone around her, her view of the world coloured not just by her previous persona, but also by the films in which she starred.

Margaret’s fundamental crisis is, of course, that Hollywood has no place for her, now that her youthful innocence has been worn away by the years and a film industry that is always in search of the next new thing, the next youthful visage to display on the big screen. The only parts available to a woman of her age are either spinsters or harridans, both of which will subject her to the scorn and pity that she loathes (rightfully) with a vengeance.

There’s a certain sparseness to the film’s design that renders Davis’s performance so heightened as to verge on the histrionic. She knows the part she is to play, and she does it TO THE HILT. This isn’t a bad thing, actually, since this film lacks the baroque opulence of a Sunset Boulevard or the corrupt decadence of All About Eve. Instead, we are treated to the cold, rather sterile and stifling spaces of the prison and the department store, spaces in which Margaret is well and truly lost. Ultimately, she finds that she cannot endure the sort of abuse and folly that she encounters from two surly customers at the department store. Confronted with this brutal world, it’s small wonder that Margaret periodically bursts out in fits of rage and frustration.

The Star reveals the extent to which Hollywood as an industry remains dominated by the men–studio heads, agents, directors–even as it is the female stars who continue to draw in the audiences but have no real power or longevity. Like so many films of this type, The Star ultimately comes across as a conservative text, one which reminds women of the domestic imperative, of the inevitable price that women must pay as they age if they choose the world of a professional rather than as a domestic goddess.

At the same time, however, it also threatens its own ideological coherence. It is Bette Davis, after all, who dominates the screen, pushing her co-stars (especially Sterling Hayden and Natalie Davis, who plays her daughter) into near-irrelevance. This might not be the best movie Davis ever starred in, but she plays the part so fully and completely that she more than deserved her Oscar nomination. Unlike her character, she wasn’t afraid to play an aging woman who was the victim of scorn and pity, but her genius is that she imbues that role with pathos and a human dignity that a lesser actress would never have been able to attain. In doing so, she helps to lay bare the hypocrisy and fickleness of Hollywood and proves, once again, that she was a star indeed.

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Mourn on the Fourth of July: The End of America and A Frail Hope for the Future

There was a time, not so long ago, when I was going to publish a blog post entitled, self-indulgently, “Confessions of a Reluctant Patriot.” It was during the last summer Olympics, and I felt so positive and full of hope, buoyed by the possibility that we might, at last, be on the right track as a country. Sure, there were still some things that needed to be done, but it seemed as if there was still a lot of hope, that we could make a better world if we just tried had enough.

Whatever remained of that feeling has been well and truly obliterated.

It’s been buried beneath the screams of children forcibly separated by their borders, by the tectonic shifts in global policy that have left America alienated from traditional democracies and allied with dangerous autocrats, by the systematic unraveling of pretty much every progressive policy gain gained in the last 20 or 30 years, from labor rights to civil rights for people of color to abortion rights to LGBT+ rights. The announcement last week that Anthony Kennedy is retiring from the Supreme Court–which will almost certainly usher in a terrible new era of judicial reversals–just put the final nail in the coffin of my optimism.

And the worst part? WE’RE NOT EVEN HALFWAY THROUGH THIS ADMINISTRATION.

I’m afraid, folks.

I’m afraid that the backlash we’ve all been feeling these past two years is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better. But honestly? The thing I feel even more than fear is despair, and to me that’s even more unsettling. It suggests that there is no real hope for a brighter future, that human history writ large is not one march toward a  progressively better state of being, that instead a relentless cycle of ever-greater defeat.

And it’s not just that the Republicans have proven themselves completely unwilling and incapable of anything remotely resembling human compassion or empathy, it’s that the Left continues to devour itself. Sure, there is a lot of blame to be handed out to party leadership, but it’s important to remember that they have the thankless (and possibly impossible) task of trying to corral a very unruly party. And it seems that nothing they do is able to please everyone, a symptom, I suppose, of a democratic society riven by such insurmountable differences that it’s hard to imagine a way forward. And for those on the Left, who have grown tired of waiting for the revolution, it does seem at times as if the leadership is ineffective at best and obstructionist at worst.

Obviously, as someone who is radical in philosophy, I sympathize with the frustrations. But we have also reached such a crisis point in our country that we have two choices: we can either contribute to the implosion of the Democratic Party and hand the keys to the kingdom to the GOP, or we can find common ground with those of more moderate persuasion, seize back control of local government, and hopefully begin to claw our way back from the edge of absolute annihilation.

Because make no mistake. The GOP has made it abundantly clear that they are willing and able to capitulate to all of the darker strains of the American psyche that we have struggled for so long to banish. The retirement of Kennedy means that Trump, and his lackeys in the Senate, will be able to nominate a justice who would continue the assault on the most vulnerable members of our society. And let me tell you, their voters will LOVE them for it. The remaking of SCOTUS has been one of the Republicans’ most reliable means of getting out the vote, and when they can show that they’ve actually managed to make good on at least this one campaign promise, they’ll be able to turn their voters out in even greater numbers.

This is going to require A LOT of work, however. It’s going to require getting off our asses and going to vote in every election (which, of course, is going to be easier for some than for others). It’s going to require radicals being willing to accept that not everyone is as radical as they are, just as it’s going to require moderates to recognize when radicals sometimes have their finger on the pulse of the electorate and actually have ideas that are good for everyone.

In other words, it’s time to rediscover the essence of what it means to be a Democrat. Don’t try to burn it all down and start from some third party. Bruised and battered as it may be, the Democratic Party still has the infrastructure we need, and the established politicians know how to write policy. We need to accept that maybe, just maybe, a total burn-it-all-down mentality is more destructive than it is helpful, and that the cost for such a mentality is often disproportionately born by those who are already disenfranchised.

This is going to take a little something from everyone, and we have to recognize that those of us who are radical/progressive/liberal share more in common with one another than with those on the far right. We have to learn how to make the most out of those alliances, to build a future that’s brighter for everyone rather than just the privileged few. We have to learn to build coalitions, to craft policy, to combine the best of the idealist and realist branches of the progressive movement. Only then will we be able to move forward into a better world.

So, while I mourn for an America that seems to have passed forever into the history books, I stubbornly hold on to the possibility for what the future holds. It’s not too late for all of us, if we’re willing to put in the work to make it so. The arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice, but only when we do everything in our power to help it. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.

Happy Birthday, America.