A title card ten minutes into the 1937 version of A Star Is Born proclaims Hollywood as the “Metropolis of Make Believe.” The entire film, which has been written about ad nauseum, is a reflexive look at what Hollywood is, what stars are, and the life behind the camera.
And in true Hollywood style, A Star is Born both disillusions and perpetuates myth. (What’s really interesting is to watch the film and see the way the camera “treats” an ordinary person, a major player in the story, and a “star” on the screen…talk about illusions within illusions.) In fact, all three film versions of the story (1937 with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) repeat this process. The disillusionment is obvious: the glamorous life behind the camera is A) hard work B)a big show and C)stars are still human with human problems. The myth that is continually perpetuated: If you want it bad enough, you will be a star.
Here’s the cold hard fact. To paraphrase Shel Silverstien, sometimes the little engine that thinks it can, thinks it can, thinks it can just crashes down and smashes into engine hash because “thinkin’ you can just ain’t enough.” The sheer number of Hollywood films that encourage all viewers to be stars is astounding. So is it any wonder that in the post-digital age, everyone is becoming a star? YouTube, Reality TV, and Facebook make us online celebrities, or perhaps we just feel that way, and that’s what we really wanted anyway: the feeling that someone was paying attention.
What we crave is the magic of make believe. What we want back is our imagination. I’m not sure where we lost it. In make believe, we can be as famous as we want, wherever we want, whenever we want. And make believe is better than the best CGI…or is it? Sometime imagination needs food. Do we need to see fantasy in order to stimulate our imaginations, to dream of better versions of ourselves in order to achieve them?
C.S. Lewis once said that we want more than just to see beauty, that we wanted to “pass into it, to become a part of it.” Movies are filled with transcendent moments; that’s the “magic.” We can experience them when we watch a movie, but we also have this latent desire to become a part of them. So we make movies of ourselves, or we see our lives as movies. I’m not sure that’s wrong, but it can be a deception.
And living a deception is unhealthy. But dreaming of a better reality, in order to work towards making it come true, has done a great deal of good. What if every girl saw their potential for beauty, and realized how much conventional beauty is a construct? (Dove is working on this, among others.) What if watching Janet Gaynor go from “natural beauty” to “star beauty” (I prefer Judy Garland’s version of this scene, actually) gave some perspective?
Life requires healthy doses of reality and fantasy. Does A Star is Born help quell the urge to be a celebrity, or does it promote the idea that we all are entitled to stardom? Does it make the star human, or does it make the star humanesque? Should movies make us more satisfied with our lives, or provoke us to more self reflection? Does that transcendent moment in a movie give us food for the imagination, or lull us into apathy? The answer is complicated, but for all those who already have their Oscar speeches written, it begs discussion.