A Star Is Born

GERALD WEALES is on the staff of the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of many articles and a children’s book, MISS GRIMSBEE IS A WITCH.

Some time ago — so I learned from the Philadelphia Bulletin — Joshua Logan got on the telephone and carried on a long-distance, round-table discussion with a rich cluster of movie editors all over the country. His grand gesture was his way of announcing an intensive search for an unknown actor to play the lead in the film version of Mildred Savage’s novel Parrish. I know — and Logan knows, and the editors know — that as likely as not the actor finally chosen will have been carrying an Equity card for ten years, will have been discovered playing a psychotic adolescent on Studio One, will have been featured on the front of at least three fan magazines, will be at present shooting a film for De Laurentiis in Spain, and will already be able to command $100,000 a picture.

Yet, phony as they are, there is something exciting about these searches. Somebody has to be the Dalai Lama. All of us — so Grimm and Andersen taught us long ago — are really princes in disguise, ugly ducklings about to turn into swans. There is always a movie maker, like Otto Preminger, who is willing to sacrifice George Bernard Shaw to Jean Seberg. Discovery is possible. My own adolescence was blighted by Lana Turner; I had to spend all the profits of my newspaper route buying Cokes for little girls who wanted to sit in drugstores waiting for a producer to find them.

Right there is the problem. Adolescence. Youth. Can anyone remember a movie producer ever walking into a shoe store and discovering that the forty-seven-year-old clerk (with a son in junior college) was star material? Is there, on record, an account of a nationwide search for a graying, fiftyish matron to play, say. Gertrude in a musical version of Hamlet? I think not. The actor that Logan wants to play Parrish must be, besides Unknown, eighteen and handsome. If you are eighteen and handsome, who needs Logan?

When I look around at my friends and neighbors and business associates, or into the mirror, I know that the best public service that might be offered by any film maker who is mainly concerned with publicizing a new movie would be to start a nationwide search for a man in his middle thirties, mature but with a wisp of romance still sticking to his thinning hair.

The problem is a little more complicated than it looks at first glance. The “unknown” hunters are restricted in their quarry by the kind of leading roles offered by the novels and plays that they hope to turn into movies (no one writes original scripts any more). The novelists and playwrights are all busy writing novels and plays about handsome eighteen-year-old boys discovering life in Ivy League colleges or on motorcycles, and sensitive sixteen-year-old girls unfolding like flowers before the warm sun of first love. So, comes the search, and only teen-agers are eligible. The only solution, apparently, is to write the novel first, sell it to the movies, suggest a search, and then apply for the leading part. You have to start somewhere, so why not start with the first paragraph of the novel?

It was afternoon. The summer sun washed like remembrance over the beach, but for Allen Hope there was little warmth in it. He stood on the boardwalk, his rumpled, creaseless suit hanging sadly from his thickening body. Weak blue eyes looked out of a pale, puffy face, out through strong-lensed glasses at the busy beach below. They lingered over strong young bodies — male and female created he them — romping in a sand-and-sun fight. Unthinkingly, he began to sing; his hoarse, tired voice only occasionally approximated the tune of a popular song that he had unconsciously dredged up from the waste of his youth: “I don’t want to set the world on fire. . . .”