If you are looking for a movie representing 1930s Hollywood, this must come as a recommendation. I enjoy it and respect it a lot, as it was the film that opened the road for a lot of movies of its kind. It’s hardly perfect, but I prefer it to the 1954 and 1976 versions.
Janet Gaynor plays Esther Blodgett, a simple girl from a small town dreaming of becoming a Hollywood star. She moves to L.A., faces some difficulties, then marries drunken fading star Norman Maine and she becomes an overnight acting sensation. However, the success of her career brings personal unhappiness. It is indeed a leading role, but the real stars of the film are the subject and the storyline… and was her casting that great?
To me, the problem with the performance is both character and casting related. First, as I said, despite the premise of the film, Esther/Vicki is not a very complex role and it lacks some of those big scenes that would demand a real dramatic effort from the actress. She does get some drama, but the writing doesn’t underline the acting or Janet just fails to put it all out there, which brings me to problem no. 2.
For the most of it, Janet is underplaying, even though it’s not necessarily a role that would’ve asked that. I can understand her shyness and a bit of restraint in the beginning, which is justified by the character’s innocence. Esther is an honest girl and doesn’t sleep her way to the top, she is simple and kind and sweet. But at one point, Janet’s acting should have shifted a bit; I didn’t buy that she was all of the sudden a big movie star, because I didn’t sense it in Janet’s performance. She didn’t bother to act the role from that perspective, and I would’ve wanted her to.
Is it in the end all about the casting? Janet looks like a nice, innocent girl (ps: I would’ve chosen a younger actress) but she doesn’t make me believe that she’s hungry enough to want to live the Hollywood life. And also, she doesn’t really sell the charisma of the character as I didn’t find myself rooting for her. As my last comparison, even though I’m not the biggest fan of Judy’s performance, her casting was great: she inspired both the kindness, but also that fierce desire to reach her goal.
I’ve made it sound like I really dislike this performance, but that’s not the case. She is constantly ok throughout the film and there aren’t mistakes or something bad about the acting. It’s just not a performance to remember. You remember the story, Fredric March’s terrific performance, but not that much about Janet; she is ok, good at times, but maybe a bit lazy in her acting. So I guess I’m going with .