What Price Hollywood?

1932, Movie, NR, 88 mins

Review

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The first big success for director Cukor, and also the first talking picture to take a jaundiced look at Hollywood, WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? opens in the famed Brown Derby restaurant. Bennett is a waitress there, determined to break into show business as an actress. One night Sherman, a film director, enters the Brown Derby and Bennett switches stations with another waitress so she can serve him. The well-dressed Sherman is quite inebriated but takes a liking to his ambitious waitress. Sherman invites Bennett to attend a Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, but rather than arrive in a fancy, chauffeur-driven limousine, the couple make their entrance in a beat-up vehicle. The shocked parking attendant doesn't know what to do, especially when Sherman gives him the jalopy as a tip. To Sherman, this is all part of the advice he had earlier given Bennett: "Remember our motto--`It's all in fun'...Always keep your sense of humor and you can't miss." That evening Sherman introduces Bennett to Ratoff, a producer, then takes the hopeful woman home with him. The next morning, when Sherman wakes up, the previous evening is a blank. Bennett reminds Sherman that he had promised her a screen test. She worries about his excessive drinking, flippant attitudes, and solitary lifestyle, but Sherman simply shrugs off Bennett's concerns. Later he directs her screen test, which proves the would-be actress has more ambition than talent. Bennett rehearses the scene by herself, then pleads for just one more chance.

Ratoff sees this new test and decides Bennett has some potential. He has her signed up, and Bennett's rise is meteoric. Sherman, on the other hand, is convinced that his talents and career are on the decline. He decides not to become personally involved with Bennett, lest he harm her career. After Bennett becomes a full-fledged movie star, she meets Hamilton, a polo-playing plutocrat. Hamilton falls in love, though Bennett is more amused than anything else. The wealthy playboy arranges a fancy dinner for her, complete with full orchestra, but Bennett fails to show up. Hamilton is enraged. He storms over to the star's home and, pulling her from her bed, brings her to the dinner. She finally agrees to marry Hamilton, though Ratoff and Sherman are convinced this is a mistake. Their predictions on the marriage's longevity prove correct when the honeymoon is interrupted so Bennett can get back to a movie set. Hamilton grows angry when he must wait for hours while Bennett is doing her day's shooting, but this is only the beginning. He begins badgering Bennett about the articles Hollywood fan magazines publish about her. Hamilton finally blows his stack when one writer wants to portray the couple in a series called "Great Lovers of Today." Hamilton walks out on Bennett and Sherman offers her bitter comfort, saying: "I made you what you are today--I hope you're satisfied."

Sherman's own career is sinking fast, undermined by his growing dependence on alcohol. After her divorce from Hamilton is final, Bennett realizes she is pregnant but her hopes are lifted after winning the Oscar for Best Actress. She bails out Sherman after he is arrested for drunk driving, then takes the failed director home. Despite Bennett's encouragement, Sherman's attitude is fatalistic. "I'm washed up, it's all gone," he says without a hint of remorse. Later, alone in Bennett's dressing room, Sherman stares at his sorry reflection in the mirror, comparing it with a photograph from his happier days. He makes a few ironic jokes, then finds a handgun in a drawer. With no feelings of self-pity, Sherman decides to end his misery and kills himself with a bullet to the chest. After the corpse is discovered, Bennett falls victim to scandal and gossipmongers. A reporter callously asks Bennett if she thinks Hamilton will be awarded custody of her son. The personal and professional anguish is more than she can bear, so Bennett takes her child and flees to France. Hamilton learns where they are staying and comes to see the boy. He realizes how wrong he was in abandoning his wife and asks forgiveness. Bennett, with hopes for the future, reconciles with Hamilton.

Though the conclusion is a pat romantic ending, this is a strong drama that shows the real Hollywood behind the glamorous facades. Bennett gives an excellent performance, making her turn from ingenue to hardened star wholly believable. Bennett later stated she felt this was the best performance of her career, although she also conceded that she was "no Sarah Bernhardt." Sherman's portrait of a director on the skids is powerful, playing the drunken man in a straightforward manner, accepting his self-induced fate. The scene of his suicide is particularly striking, cutting swiftly from flashes of his past to his sorry present, shot at weird angles. When he shoots himself, the fall is in slow-motion, anticipating the slow-motion violence of THE WILD BUNCH by almost 40 years. This unsettling montage was apparently the work of Slavko Vorkapich, a Yugoslavian immigrant who contributed memorable scenes to a number of films, including the frightening wraiths zooming through the canyons of New York in CRIME WITHOUT PASSION (1934). Unfortunately, the romance between Hamilton and Bennett remains in the film's spotlight while Sherman's fascinating disintegration is kept a subplot. Hamilton's role was one he was well accustomed to, and there is nothing new or revealing in his character that adds to the film's plot or ambiance.

Cukor, after numerous forgettable directing and codirecting jobs, finally came into his own with his work here. Producer Selznick conceived the idea of making a film that accurately portrayed Hollywood. He contacted Adela Rogers St. Johns and told her, "It's time we made a really good picture about Hollywood, so why don't you go and find us a story?" She came up with a story loosely based on the experiences of Colleen Moore and her husband, alcoholic producer John McCormick. She further based Sherman's role on the life and death of director Tom Forman, who had shot himself in the chest after a nervous breakdown, and Sherman himself based some of his performance on his own brother-in-law, John Barrymore. The script that St. Johns submitted, which would eventually be nominated for an Academy Award, was entitled "The Truth About Hollywood," and it was to star Clara Bow in her talkie comeback. But Bow, already an alcoholic, had put on too much weight and couldn't lose it before production began, so she was replaced by Bennett. The picture was quite successful, and five years later Selznick reworked the story into A STAR IS BORN, directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Cukor also returned to the material with his version of A STAR IS BORN in 1954, featuring Judy Garland and James Mason (in 1976 Barbara Streisand was featured in a rock 'n' roll version of the story that was a pale shadow of the other films). Selznick remained fond of WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? and, in his book Memo From David O. Selznick, recounted his motivations in making the film: "I believed that the whole world was interested in Hollywood and that the trouble with most films about Hollywood was that they gave a false picture...that they were not true reflections of what happened in Hollywood...Ninety-five percent of the dialog in that picture was actually straight out of life and was straight `reportage,' so to speak." leave a comment

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