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.