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What Price Hollywood?
1932. RKO-Pathe. Directed by George Cukor; screenplay by Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown. With Constance Bennett, Lowell Sherman, Neil Hamilton, Gregory Ratoff, Louise Beavers
In What Price Hollywood?, a newcomer-on-the-way-up becomes the lover of a veteran-on-the-way-down amidst behind-the-scenes show biz action. Three Star is Borns followed. It's got a snappy, Broadway-nightlife kind of script by a couple of former newspapermen. In many ways it's a lot like Bombshell, right down to the opposition between vulgar-but-genuine Hollywood types on the one hand and high-society snobs on the other. There's lots of Hollywood iconography: the aspiring actress works at the Brown Derby and goes to a premiere at Graumann's Chinese; there's the story conference around the swimming pool, the obligatory track down the main street of the studio lot, the sound stage, the screening room. . . has any industry had its factory floor and manufacturing processes so thoroughly documented as have motion pictures?
How can a film about Hollywood not be self-referential? What's striking about What Price Hollywood? is its use of a well-known and extraordinarily glamorous star as the humble outsider, the aspiring actress with whom we are supposed to identify. Constance Bennett often played shopgirls and other "common" types, rather improbably, but when she plays a girl who wants to be in "pictures," and who swoons over photos of stars who are her real-life colleagues, we've entered the world of recursion.
As the movie opens, Mary Evans (Bennett) pores over fan magazines. She carefully dresses, makes up, and poses just like the actresses she's reading about. In an extraordinary shot, she turns to a photo of Gable and Garbo in a clinch (from Susan Lenox, apparently), folds back the half of the page showing Garbo, and presses her own cheek against Gable's. She looks at herself and Gable in the mirror and growls "I lawv you, my daahling" in a Garboesque voice.
On one level, this is a nicely-imagined piece of behavior, just what a movie-struck young woman might do in the privacy of her room. On another level, it's a right-off-the-bat reminder that a movie about movies means images within images. We may think we're seeing a posed publicity photo of a star next to the real face of a fan, but we're actually seeing two stars, both posed, both photographed--Bennett as untouchable to us as Gable is to Mary Evans, if not more so. Two sets of fan-star relationships, one inside the other. (Does this make Gable a super-star?)
Throughout this sequence, Mary's gaze alternates between the magazine and the mirror. She constantly checks her appearance against that of her idols.
This photograph-mirror opposition recurs, movingly, at the end of the picture. This time it's Max Carey, the director who has discovered Mary but destroyed his own career by drinking and carousing. Just before he kills himself, he sizes himself up in Mary's bedroom mirror. He looks awful--you seldom see an actor in a movie look this uncompromisingly old and haggared. On the dresser is a photo of Max in better days, dramatically lit, handsome and smiling. Like Mary earlier, Max looks from photo to reflection and back again. There's real disgust in his face. You could say he's disgusted at what a wreck he's become, and that's certainly true. But I'd submit that he's also disgusted, and very weary, as he confronts the gap between Hollywood's glamorous, carefully-photographed surface (as a director, he's a perpetrator as well as a victim) and the frailty that lies underneath. I don't want to make too much out of this, but it seems to me that whatever glamorizing process Mary undertakes at the beginning--person abstracted into photo-- Max undermines at the end.
Playing Max is Lowell Sherman, who 12 years earlier seduced Lillian Gish in Way Down East and played a series of cads and playboys throughout the 20s. Sherman was also a director: he directed, for example, Mae West in She Done Him Wrong and Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory, and in the brief scene where he directs Bennett's screen test he's very convincing. Sherman gives a great performance in What Price Hollywood? though he looks pretty bad. (His drunken, elaborate, ruined Max anticipates John Barrymore by ten years.) Sherman was 47 when this film was made, and died two years later. This is one of those cases where an actor's accumulated persona over the course of a career greatly enriches a character.
In his posting about the 1937 A Star is Born Don Larsson writes about how the film opens and closes with shots of its own "Final Shooting Script"--perhaps the ultimate in self-referentiality, as Don says. What Price Hollywood? also puts its story in a kind of a frame. The titles are "set" in Hollywood--we see a shot of the city before we see the credits--and consist of a series of billboards advertising What Price Hollywood? along a Hollywood roadway.
copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein