The Story (continued)
A Star Is Born (1954)
During a recording session, Norman proposes marriage - she accepts his "public" proposal, and they proudly tell Niles and receive his blessing. After they have left, Libby comments that Vicki is walking into a "booby trap."
Vicki marries the aging Norman Maine in a very secretive and small justice-of-the-peace ceremony (they are married under Norman's legal name as Mr. and Mrs. Ernest Sidney Gubbins), without a studio publicist in attendance. Libby feels betrayed and frustrated, wishing to have capitalized on the event of their elopement with some publicity. He chastises them:
If you'll be kind enough to glance between my shoulder blades, Mr. and Mrs. Gubbins, you'll find there a knife buried to the hilt. On its handle are your initials.
After their idyllic honeymoon, her career takes off with a blossoming film career and a number one hit song, "It's a New World." Norman is confronted by Niles, the head of the studio, who informs him that the rest of his contract will be bought up and paid off. Norman is to be dropped at the studio, because he has become too big a risk, lapsing in his screen performances due to his alcoholism. Norman admits his bad sense of timing:
You know, Oliver, I sometimes think I was born with a genius - an absolute genius - for doing the wrong thing.
The studio makes the action look as if Norman asked for a cancellation of his contract, to free him to make long-overdue changes in his career. But his career topples and he must remain at home waiting for screen roles, playing solitaire and putting golf balls, while Vicki spends her long days at the studio.
When Vicki returns one night from rehearsal, wearing a pink shirt and dark-colored tights, she finds Norman lonely and eager to see her. She performs her most recent production number for him, playing all the parts. For a brief moment, he comes out of his depression, and has a pillow fight with her. Then he pulls her down behind the sofa. But they are interrupted by the doorbell. A package arrives, and the delivery boy asks Norman: "Who are you?...Sign right there, Mr. Lester." This sends him into a tailspin. He realizes how much attention she is receiving and how much the public has already forgotten him. Norman tells Vicki: "I think I shall mix myself a drink." Their marriage begins to unravel.
A few weeks later, in the annual Academy Awards Banquet Ceremony, the second of three Hollywood ceremonies, Vicki wins the Academy Award Oscar for Best Actress. In the presentation ceremony, she delivers her acceptance speech, graciously accepting her award:
When something like this happens to you and I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I didn't keep hoping it would happen. All the speeches that you've made up in your bedroom or in the bathtub go out of your mind completely and you find that, out of all the words in the world, just two stick in your mind - thank you. And all I can do is say them to you from my heart and...
In the next classic film moment, a drunken Norman interrupts Vicki's speech, arriving late and clapping obnoxiously from out in the audience. He approaches the stage as the shocked audience tries to keep him quiet. Lurching on stage, he reels around rubber-legged, and then delivers a self-pitying speech, humbly pleading with the audience and national television for a job (he sits down on the steps for part of his speech):
Congratulations, my dear. I made it just in time, didn't I? May I borrow the end of your speech to make a speech of my own? My method for gaining your attention may seem a little uncon-unconventional, but, uh, hard times call for harsh measures. My - I had my speech all prepared, but I - it's gone right out of my head. Let me see - why, it's silly to be so formal, isn't it? I-I know most of you sitting out there by your first names, don't I? I made a lot o' money for you gentlemen in my time through the years, didn't I? Well, I need a job now. Yeah, that's it. That-that-that-that's the speech. That's the - I need a job. That's what I wanted to say. I - I need a job. It's as simple as that. I - I need a job, that's all. My talents, I may say, are not confined to dramatic parts. I can play comedy, too.
As he rambles on, he gestures wildly, swinging his arms out and accidentally slapping Vicki in the face. The audience gasps in shock. Hiding her embarrassment, she laughs, brushes her tears aside, and helps him off the stage to her table.
The damage has been done and Norman's career is finished. He must enter a sanitarium for treatment of his alcoholism. Vicki confesses and weeps to studio head Niles that she can't understand his illness and deterioration:
What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?...You don't know what it's like to watch somebody you love just crumble away bit by bit, day by day, in front of your eyes, and stand there helpless. Love isn't enough, I thought it was. I thought I was the answer for Norman. But love isn't enough for him.
The effects on Vicki are noticeable, and she helplessly finds it hard to admit that:
...sometimes, I hate him. I hate his promises to stop, and then the watching and waiting to see it begin again. I hate to go home to him at nights and listen to his lies...I hate me cause I've failed too.
Niles suggests that he will try to help Norman get work again. Vicki seems relieved: "All he's got left is his pride." Niles briefly visits Norman at the sanitarium, and gives him a possible acting role and script. Norman comments about reactions people will have to him after he is released:
I shall have to introduce myself all over again to a lot of people. They won't know me when I'm not drinking.
After Norman's discharge months later, he spends some of his time at the Santa Anita Race Track. In the club house bar, he encounters his old adversary Libby who immediately insults him and tells his former client off. To provoke a fight, Libby accuses him of living off Vicki's earnings:
Friends, my eye! Listen. I got you out of your jams because it was my job, not because I was your friend. I don't like you. I never did like you. And nothing made me happier than to see all those cute little pranks of yours catch up with you and land you on your celebrated face.
Norman objects: "Pretty work, Libby. Always wait till they're down, then kick them." He attempts to strike Libby, but is knocked down. An onlooker comments: "Drunk again. He's been drunk for years." Provided with an excuse to continue drinking, a humiliated Norman changes his drink from ginger ale to a double scotch. Going on a monumental drunken binge, Norman is scandalously arrested four days later, and brought to a night court.
In a heartbreaking scene, Norman is publicly reprimanded by a judge (Frank Ferguson) in a Los Angeles jail on drunkenness charges, and sentenced to 90 days in jail. Vicki pleads with the judge during the hearing, the sentence is suspended, and Norman is placed in her custody. She takes him to their Malibu house.
There, while he is sleeping, she watches him sleep off a drunken episode, commenting to Niles: "He looks so helpless lying there smiling in his sleep just like a child." On the porch, torn between her career and her husband, she tells Niles she plans to quit Hollywood so she can go away for good and take care of him, to restore his health. Niles doesn't think there is much hope left:
There's nothing left anymore. It happened long before last night...20 years of steady and quiet drinking do something to a man.
Vicki refuses to believe that there isn't hope. Sleeping in the next room, Maine overhears their conversation and can't believe his ears. In anguish and with a look of agonizing self-loathing, he buries his face in his pillow.
In the next scene, after Niles has left, a smiling Norman enters the room in an upbeat mood. Wearing a robe and swimming trunks, he is asked how he feels, and responds:
'As fit as a fiddle and ready for love,' though why being as fit as a fiddle should make one ready for love I never understood. How did they decide that a fiddle was fit?
He announces that he is going to start his changed life with a healthy swim - to turn his life around. He requests a song from unsuspecting Vicki. And then he makes a final request, stopping short to take one long look at her before she walks away out of view:
Hey - just wanted to look at you again.
She sings "It's a New World" and goes inside, as he wades into the ocean. Norman commits suicide by drowning himself. It is a genuinely tragic, but inevitable demise. The headlines rule the death an accident: "Ex-Film Star Victim of Accidental Drowning," although it is obvious that he sacrificed his life for her so that she could fulfill her potential in her career.
For weeks, Vicki is grief-stricken, hysterical, and solitary. Her studio accompanist, Danny McGuire, comes to take her to sing at the scheduled Shrine Theatre benefit. He tries to get her to shake her grief and criticizes her for wasting the career that Maine died to keep from destroying: "You just gonna sit here forever?" He believes she can keep his memory alive:
Sympathy? That's not what you're getting from me, baby. You don't deserve it. You're a great monument to Norman Maine, you are. He was a drunk, and he wasted his life, but he loved you. And he took enormous pride in the one thing in his life that wasn't a waste, you. His love for you and your success. That was the one thing in his life that wasn't a waste. And he knew it. Maybe he was wrong to do what he did, I don't know. But he didn't want to destroy that, destroy the only thing he took pride in. And now you're doing the one thing he was terrified of, you're wiping it out! You're tossing aside the one thing he had left. You're tossing it right back into the ocean after him. You're the only thing that remains of him now. And if you just kick it away, it's like he never existed, like there never was a Norman Maine at all.
Vicki turns toward Danny, realizing that his words are true, and with tears in her eyes, asks: "Would you wait for me?" She is persuaded to come out of mourning to perform.
In the film's memorable poignant ending, one of the greatest endings of any movie in the 1950s, Vicki, escorted by Danny, shows up at the Shrine Theatre, the third Hollywood ceremony in the film. She passes by the wall with the heart and arrow drawn in lipstick by Norman so many months before. The emcee (Rex Evans) is announcing that she will not be appearing, but receiving a whispered message, he then excitedly announces: "Vicki Lester will appear tonight!" Before singing, Vicki steps into the spotlight and with a strong and confident voice, she honors her late husband's name:
Hello everybody - this is - Mrs. Norman Maine.
There is a slight pause and silence, and then the audience stands and bursts into ecstatic applause. The camera pulls back slowly, ending with a long shot of Esther smiling through her tears.
Also Worth Your Attention...
AMC Filmcritic's Review of A Star Is Born