Filmsite Movie Review 100 Greatest Films
A Star Is Born (1954)
Pages: (1) (2)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Marriage Between Norman and Esther/Vicki:

During the playback of her singing "Here's What I'm Here For" after a studio recording session, Norman's marriage proposal is caught on the audio. Although she at first declines due to her concerns about Norman's heavy drinking, she accepts his "public" proposal, and they proudly tell studio head Niles and receive his blessing. After they leave, Libby comments to Niles that Vicki is walking into a "booby trap," although Niles feels marriage may benefit Norman: "This might make the difference to Norman."

Vicki marries the aging Norman Maine, not in a highly-publicized celebration in Beverly Hills orchestrated by Libby, but in a very secretive and small justice-of-the-peace ceremony in San Verdo township in LA County (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 grand publicity. He chastises them right after the ceremony:

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.

The embittered Libby also feels betrayed and hoodwinked by Norman, who he claims he has been endlessly covering up for during his entire drunken career: "Mr. Public Nuisance could stand some decent publicity for a change, believe me. I've spent ten years covering up for him. Killing bad stories, sucking up to the columnists to smooth away his insults. Who do you think they'll blame for not letting them cover this today? Him? Nah. Me. I'll look just like a fool. Double-crossed by a cruddy actor."

They experience an idyllic honeymoon (in a cheap motel), where after hearing her singing the number one hit song on the radio, "It's a New World," Norman asks for a private listening session with Vicki - one of the film's most tender moments.

The End of Norman's Studio and Screen Career:

Vicki's 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 takes him aside and 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 ("Oliver Niles Studio announced this morning that it has granted Norman Maine's request for a cancellation of his contract..."). 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, "Someone at Last" - 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 Norman into a tailspin. He realizes how much attention she is receiving and how much the public has already forgotten him. Soon after, Norman tells Vicki: "I think I shall mix myself a drink." Their marriage begins to unravel.

(2) The Disastrous Academy Awards Banquet Ceremony:

A few weeks later, in the annual Academy Awards Banquet Ceremony (in the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel), the second of three Hollywood ceremonies, Vicki wins the Academy Award Oscar for Best Actress for A World For Two. 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.

The Effects of Norman's Alcoholism on Vicki and Her Career:

During a break in filming after Vicki's singing and dancing of "Lose That Long Face," she experiences a confessional breakdown in a dressing room scene with studio head Oliver Niles about her despair and concern over her alcoholic husband Norman. Vicki confesses and weeps to Niles that she can't understand Norman's 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." Afterwards, she forces herself to go back on stage to film the scene again.

Niles briefly visits Norman at the sanitarium, and offers him a possible acting role and script for a brief, non-leading role in a future film. Norman explains how he already has something in the works with another studio: ("I'm pretty well set at another of the biggest pictures of the year...You'd better not count on me, Oliver, because I've got several pictures lined up after this one"). Norman also comments about reactions people might 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 ("Do they let you wander around now without a keeper?"). To provoke a fight, Libby accuses him of living off Vicki's earnings, and denies ever being "friends" with Norman:

It's nice having somebody in the family making a living....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 nothin' 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." Libby retaliates: "You got yourself fixed nice and comfortable, you got no complaint. You can live off your wife now." Norman attempts to strike Libby, but is knocked down to the floor and humiliated. An onlooker comments: "Drunk again. He's been drunk for years." It provides him with an excuse to continue drinking, and he changes his drink at the bar from ginger ale to a double scotch.

Norman's Relapse into Further Drinking:

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: ("Drunk and disorderly. Crashed car into tree at Sunset and Coronado. Evidently been drinking for days. Resisted arrest and injured one of the arresting officers"). He is 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 with her to their Malibu house.

There, while he is sleeping, she watches him sleep off his drunken episode, commenting to Niles who has joined her: "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 that she plans to quit Hollywood (at the height of her career) so she can go away for good and take care of him, to restore his health:

I can't do any more pictures, Oliver. I'm going away for good. With Norman...Well, we'll go away together. I'll be with him every moment. Maybe if I'd had a chance to be with him more, some of these things wouldn't have happened. I've got to hang onto that. I've got to believe that. And then when he gets better, we can work in England or Italy. Somewhere where they don't know about him the way they do here. And he can get a chance to start again. That's all he needs. That's what I'm willing to fight for. To give anything for.

Niles doesn't think there is much hope left:

There's nothing left anymore. It happened long before last night. Long before we let him out of the studio. Twenty years of steady and quiet drinking do something to a man. Long before it showed in his face, it showed in his acting. Little by little, more and more, with each picture. That's why he slipped. It wasn't just bad pictures, it was him. And there's nothing left any more. He's just the shell of what he once was. It's gone, Esther.

Vicki refuses to believe that there isn't hope ("I don't believe that. I won't and I can't"). Sleeping in the next room, Norman 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.

Norman's Decline - and Predictable Suicide:

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 at dawn - 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 - I just wanted to look at you again.

She sings "It's a New World" heard from the kitchen window, 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 Auditorium 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?" When she states she doesn't want sympathy, Danny urges her to keep Norman's memory alive by attending:

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: "Will you wait for me?" She is persuaded to come out of mourning to perform.

(3) The Second Shrine Auditorium Ceremony:

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 Auditorium, 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.

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