Friday, September 25, 2020

What Price Hollywood?

We've all seen the standard trope: girl hopes to be a big name, gets a lucky break, and then is confronted with the pitfalls of fame soon after. The more famous example of this is found in A Star is Born with four versions being made over the years. But five years before the Fredric March and Janet Gaynor version, the one that started it all was released.

George Cukor's What Price Hollywood? has Brown Derby waitress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett) making a beeline for director Maximillan Carey (Lowell Sherman) when he stumbles into the restaurant one night. With some determination, she becomes a star but he slips deeper into alcoholism. What fates await them?

In contrast to Cukor's take on A Star is Born, What Price Hollywood? -- as its title implies -- has a far more suffocating depiction of stardom than the more famous title. (Being a pre-Code also adds to it.) Tabloids and newspapers serve as the film's segues for the characters' conflicts, how the public eye pries into their private lives. That can inflict more damage than anything else, especially if you're someone of note.

There's also a meta-humor with What Price Hollywood? in casting Sherman and Gregory Ratoff -- both directors in their own right -- as figures in movie production. Likewise, Bennett (whose sister Joan had a longer career herself) had her career become less in-demand by the 1940s. Ah, life imitating art imitating life.

What Price Hollywood? still has bite all these years later, perhaps not a surprise seeing as it's a Cukor title. If anything, it downplays what actresses endured in Hollywood then as Judy Garland was sad testament to. (Cukor meanwhile lapped up the Hollywood lifestyle.) And how strange how very little has changed since then...

My Rating: *****

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