By: Megan McGurk
By 1932, hundreds of girls arrived in Hollywood each week looking for the opportunity to make a screen test. While they cooled their heels, George Cukor gave them the playbook for how to nail one in What Price Hollywood? In his first masterpiece, Constance Bennett plays Mary Evans, a waitress in the Brown Derby, an ambitious woman who scans the glossies for style tips between Garbo impressions and fine-tuning her glamour-puss poses. When she finagles a plum director’s table, she not only scores a noteworthy entrance to a film premiere, she also wheedles a coveted screen test—through yodelling, rather than any tawdry manoeuvres under the sheets.
Mary’s screen test serves as a masterclass in acting craft. Every aspiring starlet in the balcony should have been taking notes. Lowell Sherman plays director Max Carey, a seasoned Hollywood hit-maker. He offers bare bones direction for Mary to descend from the middle of a staircase and deliver two simple lines to the actor standing at the bannister: ‘Hello, Buzzy. You haven’t proposed to me yet tonight’. Then she’s supposed to look and notice a dead body on the floor. To Mary and the audience, it seems like a snap. Do three little things (walk, speak, react) and then sign a contract.
Like Mary, the audience overlooks how many controlled actions need to dovetail with timing for a solid performance. An actor dilutes many isolated components down to one fluid gesture to appear natural. When Mary first attempts the scene, her shoulders graze earlobes they’re so hunched; stiff forearms hold clenched fists; heels pound each stair like a spade in parched soil; finally, two lines collapse into one, delivered at breakneck speed. Mary executes instructions without perception. Max’s pained expression tells the audience what they already know: she stinks.
Max intervenes to help Mary parse out what the scene requires:
Max: Come here, dear, let me show you something. Look, now when you come down the stairs, come down, easily, gracefully. See? Lightly. Now, don’t put your hand on the railing. You’re sober. Now, look here. You’re, you’re a pretty girl and this poor sap is going to propose to you. So, give it some zip, some animation, now.
Max: Now, try it once again. Now, come on. No, no, no, not on your heels. And don’t clench your hands that way. This is a love scene, not a fight.
Mary’s so consumed with hitting the marks that she forgets to slowdown, reflect and readjust her bodywork. She reacts before cue, fails to make eye contact with the leading man and compresses distinct parts into one fell swoop. She’s a cyclone when the mood calls for kittenish. Max all but pushes her off set. Downcast, she broods at the studio exit with the $10 pittance for a day’s work on the call sheet.
After Mary admits that she bombed the screen test to the landlady, she pauses on the stairs on the way to her room. Instead of succumbing to tears and a wallow, Mary rewinds the director’s instructions and practices through the night, picking apart each facet of what the scene demands. Up and down, she orchestrates the sequence of motion and gesture. She learns control and precision. At one point Mary leans forward, startled by an actor’s epiphany when she realises she nailed it. Two dozen physical commands gel into a smooth, confident performance.
Secure in her delivery, Mary smokes a cigarette to add a bit of business to the scene when she repeats it for Max and crew in the studio. The cigarette smoke accessorises Mary’s smouldering appeal in her slinky-hip glide down the stairs, attention locked on the lust-sick man who waits. She’s playful and confident that she has the man in thrall. No pantomime eye pop marks her reaction to the dead body in the room; instead, she lures the camera and the audience closer to regard the horror which dawns on her face. Mary’s a star before the last step.
A Hollywood star is born on the stairs, the primal stage for every woman of the silver screen. Focal point of a domestic sphere, staircases escalate emotion, encounters, time’s passage, and a desire for escape. Every scene plays more dramatic when set on a staircase. In her memoir The Lonely Life (’62), Bette Davis credits her career break to Martha Graham’s training on the stairs, which led to a theatre role that enabled Davis to fall down a staircase without injury. Davis cites Graham’s discipline throughout her screen credits: every time I climbed a flight of stairs in film—and I spent my life on them—it was Graham step by step.
Staircases offer an element as fundamental to woman’s pictures as a tenement building to the gangster genre or a room darkened by venetian blinds in film noir. Consider how many plots written for a female audience hinge or dwell upon the stairs: Marie Prevost runs up twenty flights of stairs in formal clothes to catch her friend’s true love in time at the end of Ladies of Leisure; as a symbol of Madchen’s alienation; Julie Marsden’s balletic turn with a crop stabbed to lift a riding habit; Scarlett learning Rhett won’t be played for a fool; Sheila Regan’s dissipation culminates with a swoon and fall; Phyllis Dietrichson sporting a honey of an anklet on them; when a smack from Veda knocks Mildred down; Margo cautioning her party guests about the turbulence ahead. Each of these and countless more moments illustrate each flight and landing in a woman’s story.
Jackie Stacey’s book Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (’94) recovers the importance of classic cinema in everyday women’s lives through hundreds of interviews. One British woman recalls how the staircase drama onscreen transferred to her own experience: ‘Our favourite cinema was the Ritz—with its deep pile carpet and double sweeping staircase. Coming down one always felt like a Hollywood heroine descending into a ballroom’.
Cukor understood stairs as venue for women to stand out; his quintessential treatment of a woman’s rise to stardom was remade as A Star is Born in 1937, 1954 and 1976, with another one currently in development. Hollywood lore has it that the story of A Star is Born was based in Barbara Stanwyck’s marriage to vaudeville impresario Frank Fay. Although there’s no romantic angle between Bennett and Sherman, it’s nonetheless a prescient take on a man’s fall in fortunes paralleled with a woman’s ascent, as was the scenario with Stanwyck and Fay.