“C’mon, Oscar,” says Bette Davis in The Star (1952), clutching one of her own golden statuettes from the 1930s. “Let’s you and me get drunk!” It’s just one of the moments in her portrayal of Margaret Elliott, a washed-up movie actress, in which Davis imbues fiction with a touch of her own personal reality.
Ordinarily, Davis wasn’t an actress who lived a part or harnessed her own experiences for a character. One of her directors once observed that for all her intensity in front of the camera, when Davis heard, ‘Cut!’, the histrionics switched off in an instant. While she often lacked restraint, she never lacked discipline. Even in her biggest moments, explosive and theatrical, Davis was in command, her artistic choices deliberate, her emotions artificial. In contrast, the same director commented, Joan Crawford lived her roles deeply, the energy and feeling of the scene carrying on long after the cameras had stopped rolling. The role of Margaret Elliott in The Star had been written as a deliberately cruel portrait of Crawford and Davis relished the opportunity to depict her rival unflatteringly on screen. Ironically, however, Davis ended up revealing more of her own self in The Star than in any other role of her career. “My trouble,” confessed Los Angeles Times critic Philip K. Sheuer after watching Davis play Elliott, “was that I was unable to separate the two.”
Biographers have labelled Davis’ performance “blatant self-caricature” and have ranked it among her more unwise career moves. And for many classic movie fans, it’s a performance that languishes in the shadow of her galvanizing work in All About Eve, regarded as a mere echo that earned Davis an undeserved ‘after-glow’ nomination from the Academy. Her work in The Star is often dismissed as one of her florid, mannered performances, entertainingly camp but not to be admired.
But Davis’ performance in The Star merits reappraisal. The movie condemns Elliott for her obsession with youth and fame, for being a star rather than an artist. And in playing her, Davis eschews movie star vanity and reminds us of her artistry. It’s not Davis at her boldest or most iconic. And it’s certainly not Davis at her most thrillingly audacious. But it is Davis at her most compelling, giving a performance fiercely committed, deliberately crafted and unswervingly honest. “I have always felt,” Davis remarked two decades after the film’s release, “The Star was very underrated by critics and the public.”
Over forty, Margaret Elliott has lost the “fresh, dewy quality” of exciting Hollywood newcomers and is no longer a box office draw. The film opens with her at a low ebb, wandering dejectedly by a public auction of her personal effects. Cut loose by the studios, Margaret backed herself in a trio of independent features, each a flop, and lost everything. Forced to relinquish possessions, Margaret nonetheless clings to ambition with a zeal both frightening and delusional. “One good picture is all I need!” she implores her agent.
And Margaret will do anything to secure the role she believes will put her back on top. At a screen test for a supporting role as the heroine’s drab, middle-aged elder sister, Margaret makes last-minute adjustments her make-up and costume to appear more alluringly youthful. And then she performs the scene like a flirtatious ingenue, ignoring the text and oblivious to her disastrous miscalculation. Convinced the test footage will land her the leading role she covets, a part twenty years too young for her, she ruins any chance of appearing in the film. Her test is risible. Her actions would be comic if they weren’t so pathetic. She looks a fool. “The story is about a movie actress who almost destroys herself by her determination to keep at the top, by her desire for power,” explained Katharine Albert, co-writer of The Star, in a piece for the January 1953 issue of Modern Screen magazine.
In an early production meeting, Stuart Heisler, director of The Star, described Margaret as, “a silly woman.” His leading lady swiftly retorted, “She is not silly. She is sick.” Davis understood Margaret. She’d seen dozens of actresses behave like her, consumed by the illnesses of vanity and ambition, clinging to their youth and desperate to remain the brightest in the Hollywood firmament. Katharine Albert knew them too. She’d been a writer for Photoplay and later worked in the publicity department at MGM. She’d become such close friends with Joan Crawford that she’d named her daughter after the star and asked her to be the child’s godmother. Following, a spectacularly bitter falling out, Albert poured her observations of Crawford into the screenplay of The Star, skewering many of the actress’ worst traits and indulgent behaviours. “Stars have a costume for everything,” Albert explained to Modern Screen. “Costume in which to be interviewed. Costume for going to the studio. Costume for story conferences.” Crawford was always in costume, always on set, always performing. The role of Joan Crawford, movie star, was one she played every waking moment no matter who she was with, always conscious of her appearance, and constantly trying to impress, intimidate, charm, cajole or manipulate,. This became Margaret Elliott’s defining characteristic. “[She] was Crawford,” confirmed Davis in a later interview. “I wasn’t imitating her, of course. It was just that whole approach of hers to the business as regards the importance of glamour and all the offstage things.”
Margaret is a performer offstage, a manipulator. The screen test is only her grandest and most misguided scheme. She constantly performs – for her agent, for her ex-husband’s new wife, for relatives, and for her handsome new lover. She assumes the part of the grand movie star, imperiously over-emphasising words, exaggerated and arch in her gestures. In later years, Davis herself would give such performances, chewing the scenery in her own unsubtle bids for attention, especially when called upon to play grotesquery. Bette Davis in an eye-patch was never going to be nuanced. But when Davis leans into Margaret’s grand dame moments, when she goes for broke, flashing her eyes, slamming doors and driving around Beverly Hills drunk with an Oscar statuette on the dashboard, it’s not Davis out of control, desperately needing the constraining influence of William Wyler or Joseph L. Mankiewicz. In these scenes, Davis gives uncomfortable life to her character’s shameless theatrics. She risks opprobrium to unflatteringly portray a movie star who acts off screen as much as she does in front of the cameras. She does so with insight, admirably unafraid to make Margaret’s insincerity and grandstanding uncomfortably convincing. As always, Davis the actress has no qualms about appearing ugly or unpleasant so that her characterization was truthful. The excesses are Margaret’s, not Bette’s.
In depicting Crawford’s offscreen theatricality, however, Davis did also channel many aspects of herself. When we watch her play the commanding Margo Channing in All About Eve, we imagine Davis is revealing herself on screen. But in truth, it’s a façade of exposé. Davis wasn’t Margo, a refined stage thespian throwing parties for the martini social set and inclined to weary introspection and bitter melancholy. It is Margaret, a strident workaholic, tough, bristling, and often demanding, who more closely mirrored the career driven Davis. In Margaret’s outbursts, we see Davis’ raging frustrations with studio executives, her numerous fractured marriages, her volatile relationships with directors, and her own ruthless hunger for plum roles, for a comeback, for a third little gold man. Playing Margaret, she gave us as much Davis as she did Crawford. But Davis didn’t shy away, either from the role or from playing it with such gusto. “It’s a damned strong part,” she said to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. “Why shouldn’t I play it?”
And it wasn’t a one-note part. The one person for whom Margaret doesn’t perform is her young daughter, played by fourteen-year-old Natalie Wood. Amidst a whirlwind of self-absorbed play-acting, the scenes in which Margaret spends time with the daughter she has neglected in pursuit of cinematic immortality are moments of quiet respite. They give Davis an opportunity to modulate her work, to put Margaret’s contrived mannerisms and confected histrionics in sharp relief, underscoring how they are themselves a performance. She delivers these scenes with maternal grace, her work beautifully delicate. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in her career, Davis provided a glimpse of her private life at the time of a movie’s filming.
“I once thought you were a woman,” Margaret’s lover tells her, “I was wrong. You’re nothing but a career!” While the film offers Margaret a stark binary choice between movies and womanhood, Davis at the time of shooting The Star was balancing a resurgent post-All About Eve career with marriage and motherhood. She and husband Gary Merrill lived in a rambling, old house in unfashionable Hollywood. Visiting for a script meeting, Katharine Albert recalled the actress receiving guests wearing “an old shirt of Gary Merrill’s with the tail hanging out over purely utility shorts. And no make-up at all. Not even lipstick.” Here was no movie star always in costume, always on set, always performing. Crawford would never receive guests in such attire!
“Bette was vitally concerned with her family and her home,” said Albert. “When not actually working, Bette gives Gary and her children her undivided attention.” The couple had three children: five-year-old Barbara, known as BD, two-year-old Margot, and seven-month-old Michael. When not filming, Davis became just another housewife with a poodle-cut hairdo, caring for her children. Motherhood would become infamously fraught for Davis in later years, but throughout The Star, there are windows into Davis’ private life at the time when her children were very young. As she tucks Natalie Wood into bed, warmly patient, soothingly reassuring, and softly affectionate, we see Davis with her own children, relaxed, unprepossessing, maternal. “Her career used to regulate Bette’s actions,” wrote Ida Zeitlin for the October 1952 issue of Photoplay, “Now it’s more likely to be her husband or youngsters. Davis will want to act until she dies. But never again will work be everything – or even the main thing. New human values have stretched her horizons and enriched her life.” Having children, the actress told Zeitlin, was “a big deal, believe me. Exhausting, but I love it!” And in The Star, along with her famous drive and infamous ambition, we can see that love shining on screen.
Produced independently by Bert E. Friedlob and completed in just twenty-four days, The Star was distributed by 20th Century Fox. The film was given an Academy Awards qualifying run in Los Angeles in December 1952, opening widely across the United States early in the new year. Davis’ performance was roundly lauded and swiftly heralded as an Oscar contender. “Davis avoids the brittleness of other roles and saves the heavy histrionics for where they will do the most good,” remarked Philip K. Sheuer in the Los Angeles Times, “This is one of her most sympathetic performances.” The Hollywood Reporter commented, “Davis again turns in an excellent performance, making the character she portrays believable” and Variety proclaimed, “in a tailor-made role, Davis socks over the characterization,” while over at the Los Angeles Citizen-News, critic Richard Lipscomb raved, “[this] may be her finest performance … Davis’ egocentric, exhausted, bewildered performance is masterful.” On the east coast, Bosley Crowther in The New York Times praised her “eloquent and sure” work and opined, “Davis makes [the story] sizzle with stinging sarcasm and feminine fire, so that it gives the illusion of emerging as a shaft of withering light from Hollywood.” Meanwhile Kate Cameron told readers of the Daily News, “Bette’s performance is forceful, as she keeps the attention of the audience riveted on the screen. There is no doubt about it, she is one of Hollywood’s finest actresses.”
Hedda Hopper, Mike Connelly and Sidney Skolsky all confidently predicted an Oscar nomination for Davis, and the actress was indeed included on the ballot for Best Actress. Among the other nominees were Joan Crawford for Sudden Fear and Shirley Booth for Come Back, Little Sheba, a film which Davis had turned down. She later confessed, “I foolishly felt I was not right for the part – the gorgeous vagueness that Shirley Booth brought to the stage role I felt would not ring true with me. I find it hard to believe I turned this part down for such a senseless reason – one of the great mistakes of my career!” Booth was the favourite for the Oscar, but Davis was very much in contention. Many felt she had missed out unfairly for All About Eve two years earlier, while others considered Booth an interloper from Broadway. On the eve of the ceremony, Hortense Morton gushed in The San Francisco Examiner, “It could [be] Miss Davis tripping to the podium, come tomorrow night, after the envelope containing the Oscar award for the best actress of the year has been opened.”
Booth collected the statuette on Oscar night. Davis left empty-handed. Few would argue with the result, although the readers of the Woman’s Home Companion managed to deftly have their cake and eat it too. In the magazine’s ninth annual poll, Davis was voted the year’s top female star, while Booth was given a special award for Come Back, Little Sheba.
Seven decades later, Bette Davis’ portrayal of Margaret Elliott deserves to be better remembered. Crafted with insight and compassion, performed with her customary vitality and fiery passion, yet modulated with moments of delicacy, it is one of Davis’ commanding turns, and also her most revealing. As Crowther observed in The New York Times in January 1953, “the vibrant and nimble Miss Davis climbs inside this difficult dame and throws her about with all the hazard of a broken, storm-lashed electric wire. Violently, she represents the fury and the vengeance of an actress whose career has come to a point of grim transition while she herself will not acknowledge change. But Miss Davis would not be an actress if she could not make something more revealing and meaningful out of the role [and] she definitely gets that something more.”
The Star was released on December 11, 1952 by 20th Century Fox. It is currently available to buy or rent on Amazon and Prime Video.