I guess I am not the only one who was introduced to the character of Vicki Lester, née Esther Blodgett, by the celebrated and by now kind-of legendary performance by Judy Garland in the musical-remake of 1954. In fact, Judy Garland has left her mark on this role in such an overpowering manner that it’s probably unknown to most people that Vicki Lester had been brought to life before and would be again – but the second remake also has its fair share of followers and was a big success in its days thanks to leading lady Barbra Streisand who continued the transformation of Vicki Lester who started as an actress in 1937, then became a singer/actress in 1954 and finally turned into a full-fledged singer in 1976, always depending on what the actress taking on the role could offer. It all started in 1937 when Janet Gaynor originated the part and it seemed fitting that the actress who was the first Best Actress winner 9 years earlier would also become the first actress who received an Oscar nomination for playing an actress who wins an Oscar.
The part of Esther Blodgett who becomes superstar Vicki Lester is by now almost a synonym for the classical underdog story who makes it against all odds in show business, a classical Hollywood fairytale. But more than that, it also has all the ingredients for awards-attention and is a wonderful part for any actress since it demands so much: an actress has to take the character from her early days of being an unknown and slowly carry her into the sphere of stardom – and all this coupled with a tragic and sentimental love story that is just as classical as the part itself and turns into a cynical payoff with Hollywood where apparently fame and success can’t exist for two people in love at the same time.
Surely like everybody who watched the remake of 1954 with Judy Garland I quickly recognized the part of Vicki Lester as a true challenge for every actress – but the original version of 1937 proved that this challenge can easily differ in its degree of difficulty. 1954 showed that the role was heavily dramatized and made much more demanding to turn it into the perfect showcase for the comeback of Judy Garland. Of course, Judy Garland had the advantage of also being able to show off her strong pipes, something that Janet Gaynor couldn’t and I certainly won’t hold that against her. But the absence of musical numbers is certainly not the reason why Vicki Lester seems like a much lesser challenge in 1937 than it was in 1954. In both version, Vicki Lester went the same path of success and had the same emotional problems with her alcoholic husband, Norman Maine, who used to be a famous actor himself but his star is sinking just while Vicki’s fame is rising. The big difference can be summarized like this – in 1937, Vicki Lester was a dreamer. In 1954, she was a worker. This means, that in 1954, Judy Garland’s Vicki was a hard-working performer who was happy to get paid and simply never had the chance to become a true star. But Judy Garland showed in her first musical numbers that Vicki did have the star potential, that she had everything it takes to become a big success if only she was given the chance. Like so many movies that portrayed young and aspiring actresses, like Morning Glory with Katharine Hepburn or 42nd Street, A Star is Born shows the bitter truth – that luck is just as an important ingredient to a successful career as talent. To be at the right time at the right place, to know the right people or simply a coincidence which can come in the form of being asked to replace the star of a show on opening night despite being a total unknown or giving a show-stopping performance in front of a famous actor who becomes an important mentor. But even though luck may be an important part in a career, it can only bring you so far if you don’t have the talent that must take over the role of luck. In 1954, A Star is Born showed the audience that Vicki Lester had the talent it takes. It may have been a fairy tale but it was believable because it doesn’t stretch the imagination that a woman with the talents of Vicki/Judy would be destined for greatness. In other words, it was always clear why Vicki became such a sensation. But in 1937, things were different.
It’s not Janet Gaynor’s fault that the character of Vicki is written so surprisingly simple but she also adds a lot to the simplicity. She begins her performance with the right amount of dedication and naivety and her angry outburst at the aunt, who discourages her dreams of Hollywood, are done very nicely and surprisingly subtle without any over-acting but her performance very soon becomes just as simple as the storyline and unfortunately never fully recovers. Of course, it all depends on the point of view. Her simple, honest and good-hearted characterization is obviously the way the movie makers wanted to go and her performance works wonderfully in the context of the story but in itself, the role and the performance are too one-dimensional and limited. The main problem is that Janet Gaynor doesn’t show any development, she always keeps the character the same – even when she turns from Ester to Vicki, from nobody to national superstar. Again, it fulfills the purpose of showing that Esther didn’t let her career turn her head and change her character, but it’s all just very unsatisfying and becomes strangely uninteresting. Nothing in Janet Gaynor’s performance indicates that Vicki is or should be an actress, much less a superstar. She could have filled the gaps of the screenplay by showing a more intriguing side in Vicki, an ambitious woman behind the young girl, or at least a hint at the wave of talents inside her but when Vicki decides to leave showbusiness to take care of Norman and a friend tells her that she worked so hard, it’s simply an incomprehensible and meaningless moment because the viewers have never seen Vicki ever work hard. Unfortunately, A Star is Born and Janet Gaynor only show results but not the process. The movie spends probably 40 minutes of showing Ester complaining that she doesn’t get a job but when she finally works as an actress, she has turned into a superstar from one moment to the other. These missing scenes of process make it almost impossible to develop any connection to the characters and Janet Gaynor’s performance makes the success of Vicki very difficult to believe because her Vicki is always the same. Considering that becoming an actress was the biggest dream of her life, she seems to take her success with a surprising lack of excitement or even caring. The problem is that this is 1937 and the old-fashioned ideas of the movie makers concentrate more on Vicki – the wife than on Vicki – the actress. In the end, Vicki Lester isn’t anything more than the typical suffering wife – the aspect of her stardom and her life as an actress are an added twist that never becomes truly challenging and remains mostly underdeveloped. That way, even though the part of Vicki seems to be the center of the story, Norman Maine and the performance by Frederic March outshine Janet Gaynor without even trying as he gives a fascinating and captivating portrayal of an actor on his way down. The chemistry between the two is wonderful and very convincing but mainly because Janet Gaynor always seems to play the little housewife and never gives any hint at the fact that she is by now a bigger star than him.
All these complaints probably make her performance seem much less interesting or good than it actually is because, as mentioned before, Janet Gaynor perfectly brings her character to life in the context of the story but one can’t help but think about all the things that could have been, all the wonderful challenges that were missed because the script and the performance focused too much on the simplicity of a woman who should actually be very complex. Janet Gaynor does bring a lot of humor and irony to her part, her imitation of famous movie stars at a Hollywood party is a true moment to cherish and, even though the transition to talkies has been completed years ago, it’s still nice to see how completely she transformed her acting style. Her performance aged very well and shows no signs of overacting or melodrama but instead is very subtle and tasteful, even in Vicki’s most desperate moments. The whole concept of Esther becoming a star doesn’t really connect with the character as written and played but the other aspect of the character, the role of Esther as Norman’s wife, is done very beautifully by Janet Gaynor. She shows all the worries and her fears about the future, about her husband and about herself very convincingly and there is always a certain warmness in her performance that makes it at least believable that Vicki would become very popular – she, as the movie tells us, not only has talent but Janet Gaynor also adds charm and kindness which surely serves the movie well. In the movie’s most famous scene, the Academy Awards, she may be overshadowed by Frederic March, but Janet Gaynor finds some wonderful moments to finally add some depths to her character when she watches her husband after he made a fool of himself and slapped her by accident – she shows that Vicki is certainly worried and caring, but there is also a certain coldness at this moment, maybe a feeling of rejection for having ruined her moment and for ruining himself.
A lot of the faults in Vicki's character can be found in Janet Gaynor’s performance that, even though it works in the context of the film, is too often too simple for its purpose but the most fault can be laid on the script which simply rushes too quickly through the important moments while overemphasizing the less important ones. Ester’s rise to stardom, her relationship to Norman and the effects of his drinking find barely any way into Janet Gaynor’s performance because the script barely touches them. All this simply shows that even a character who could be very challenging needs a good script to really come to life.
Not surprisingly, Janet Gaynor’s best moments come at the end. No, not her grief over her husband which is again done too quickly but her final, famous line which she says with an interesting combination of joy, defiance, pride and strength that seems to defy anyone who has to say bad things about her husband, especially the people at the funeral who told her that she is better off without him. With her delivery, Janet Gaynor shows that Vicki will forever proudly cherish the memory of the man who gave her everything and it becomes clear to the audience that Vicki will be alright and continue her career. This way, A Star is Born leaves the viewer with a feeling of joy and relief despite the tragic circumstances.
It’s a performance that could have been a lot of things but unfortunately settled for only a little bit. Janet Gaynor does all the things she is asked to do but, despite a role that seems so juicy and challenging on paper, all this is actually rather undemanding and simple. The movie doesn’t ask much of her but she adds her own charm and grace to give a loveable performance that gets