Apr 21, 2014

Janet Gaynor, A Star is Born

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At the tender age of 22, Janet Gaynor forever cemented her place in film history by becoming the first lady to be named Best Actress by the Academy Awards. She had amazed Hollywood with her triumphant triple-threat batch of performances, so it's almost perfect that she'd headline A Star is Born, seeing as she was quite literally a star born only ten years prior. As the small-town girl who dreams of becoming a movie star and who eventually takes Hollywood by storm, even winning her own Oscar within the context of the film--you watch Gaynor in that famous scene at the Academy Awards, standing up at the podium and giving her acceptance speech while clutching her real life Oscar in her hands...and it's hard to deny that in that very moment on celluloid, her career had officially come full circle. Now, I say that it's almost perfect casting because despite the perfect similarities between the artist and the character, I don't think Gaynor was a skilled enough actress to make the superficially written Esther truly flourish.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-04-13at62625PM.jpgAs I've previously mentioned, A Star is Born is a very simple treatment on stardom and alcoholism. But despite the screenplay's misgivings, I have to give it kudos for being ambitious. "Ambitious" is an adjective I cannot use for Gaynor however, who turns in a oddly tranquilized performance that is uncomfortably devoid of any zest or luminary star power. Gone is that lively ingénue energy Gaynor possessed in Sunrise, Street Angel, and Seventh Heaven--this never feels like a performance from an actress who is hungry to prove herself, which makes it especially peculiar given that the character she's playing is exactly that for half the film. In fact, Gaynor is frustratingly lackluster in this film--I'd watch her and be entirely uninterested, as if I was watching some sort of required viewing assignment for school. Much of this is due to the fact that she plays Esther as a polite, sugar-sweet girl, which, while appropriate for the character before she becomes a successful movie star, begins to feel a little out of place once Esther hits the big time. So even in the latter half of A Star is Born, I still feel like I'm watching a gentle, doe-eyed everyday person and not the fabulous Star in which the title of the film is advertising. There's a point in the movie where a man exclaims that, "her voice is a symphony! her very walk is enough to drive men mad!" The imagery given here is supposed to evoke some sort of sexy screen goddess and yet Gaynor is so far from that. Vocally she's got an interesting speaking voice that bundles lines a little strangely when she's got a lot to say, and the pacing of her delivery can be a little discombobulated at times. Physically she's a merely a cute little lady with girlish looks and charm but never a carnal creature that would drive "men mad". I wondered if Gaynor is the type of actress who would have what we consider as traditional "star power". Of course, she is a movie star in the most literal sense, but she doesn't radiate the potent allure you'd expect from Bette Davis or Joan Crawford or Barbara Stanwyck, and it's almost as if she knows that, as she hardly seems confident when she's onscreen. There's an entertaining sequence where Esther is waitressing a Hollywood event and tries her best Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, and Mae West imitations in order to impress the executives at the party. Gaynor does a pretty good job (this and her final scene in the film are the only times I felt she was really letting loose), but it got me thinking: Garbo, Hepburn, and West are some pretty powerful presences onscreen. Those are big, larger-than-life movie stars who command attention and Gaynor, as lovely and adorable as she can be, is downright meek in comparison. So the second half of Esther's characterization, that wherein she becomes a major star, isn't fully registered by Gaynor either because she neither changes the girl-next-door act nor does she innately possess that full-on movie-star magnetism. And in the end it all feels like Esther's story is more about the misadventures of a faithful wife than it is about a girl who becomes a star. Faithful long-suffering wives are dull, and frankly so is this performance. The film and Gaynor's work in it sort of serves like a wink-wink ode to her successful movie career. However, for a movie that is supposed to be revolving around her, she's pretty overshadowed by co-star Fredric March, and she also doesn't really have much to offer when stepping up to the plate either.


  1. I actually LIKE the film. And I'm fine with the screenplay, as I love the idea behind it (the "story").

    But yes, if I remember correctly, the performance lacks hunger.

    1. I actually did like the film! It's a much more interesting watch than say, Captains Courageous or Emile Zola. I just think it was a little too simple and could have been a lot better than it was.

      And I initially thought I might like Gaynor more as I haven't seen any of the Star is Born remakes to compare her work to, but alas...

    2. I have actually seen all 3 and... overall... I prefer this one. I just had issues connecting with the '54 one.

      From the performance perspective, clearly Judy, but you would've guessed that by now. :)