If it were a box of fancy chocolates, the package would be elegantly wrapped. Upon opening, each mouthwatering piece would appear carefully formed and placed. All would look soft and creamy, but when you bite into some you discover hidden ingredients, nudging you to contemplate textures and tastes you hadn’t expected. Since these delicacies are equally well-made and the surprises don’t overpower, you eat them all, impressed by the thoughtfulness that must have gone into their creation.
A Touch of Stardust, then, is a well-thought out, well-researched historical novel that is more than a tribute to the halcyon days of Hollywood moviemaking when studio moguls “ruled this world of make-believe,” creating larger-than-life movies and movie stars. Yet not all the “fairy-tale” glamour is as magical as the Stardust title suggests; serious themes are raised. What consistently sparkles is the smoothness of Alcott’s prose, never hitting us over the head but making sure she’s gifted us something meaningful, not just decadent, to chew on.
This is Alcott’s third historical novel casting strong female characters (The Dressmaker, The Daring Ladies of Lowell). It’s a romantic Hollywood tale showcasing grand filmmaking, with enough juicy Hollywood gossip to feel like we’re getting the inside story.
Julie Crawford, a recent graduate of the elite women’s Smith College, has come to Hollywood to escape Fort Wayne, Indiana, pinning her hopes on becoming a screenwriter. Her parents have given her a year to prove herself. Julie masks her beauty in a town obsessed by it, wearing eyeglasses she doesn’t need, so she’ll be taken seriously. She was inspired by the great female screenwriter, Frances Marion, who once spoke at her college. When Julie sees first-hand how respected her idol is in Hollywood (for decades Marion was the highest paid Hollywood screenwriter in a town where men have beat out women for the highest paying jobs), we’re tickled Julie set her sights on such a worthy icon.
Could the author have chosen a more perfect movie to anchor her novel around than Gone with the Wind – the top grossing film of all time – and still, 75 years later, provoking controversy?
Clark Gable, “King of Hollywood,” seemed destined to play Rhett Butler, but fiercely independent producer David O. Selznick, of Selznick International Pictures, whose “passion for perfection was legendary,” reportedly screened 1,400 actresses for the role of Scarlett. Winning out over actresses like Katherine Hepburn (not in the novel) and Carole Lombard (looms large in the novel) – crazy in love with not-yet divorced Gable – Selznick banked on a British actress, Vivien Leigh, with “skin as luminous as a bed of pearls.” His Scarlett (very much “his”: he fired the first director, George Cukor; the film was then directed by Victor Fleming) looked as though “she could have just stepped by magic from the pages of a Civil War History book.”
Could there be a more perfectly fictionalized character for Julie to become romantically entwined with than the handsome, older/wiser, Columbia graduate Andy Weinstein, whose Jewish identity is a sensitive theme? He spent his childhood in Berlin living with his grandparents, “the two people he loved more than any.” Now, justifiably, he’s full of angst about their fate as the movie was under production when Europe was at the brink of war. Even when the two first met, Andy bluntly asks Julie if she is “put off by my name?” While she quickly replies of course not, her words haunt her as novel unfolds.
There is much to like about Andy. He recognizes Julie’s refinement and innocence, treats her gentlemanly. But he’s balancing so much pressure on-and-off the job, he’s not always able to be as available and emotionally open as she deserves. (“Being with Andy sometimes felt like swinging on a trapeze quite high above the ground.”) Andy is Selznick’s right-hand assistant, which means he must stay on top of a zillion production logistics for a “sloppy monster of a movie with an unfinished script that lots of people predict will go down as the biggest disaster in film history.”
Carole Lombard is the historical character who touches us the most. With “her heart in her eyes,” what comes out of the mouth of the “Profane Angel” may not be enchanted prose but it sure feels authentic. Early on in the novel, Carole asks Julie to be her personal assistant, thus offering Julie “a wave of energy that seemed capable of lifting anyone off his or her toes.” Their professional relationship blossoms into a soulful friendship. Stardust, then, is also more than a generalized tribute to Old Hollywood; it’s a specific nod of appreciation to a beautiful, gutsy, comedic actress who hailed from Julie’s Midwestern hometown. You’ll read more about her life story in the “Epilogue,” which is when it hit me why the author wanted Lombard to emotionally reach us.
Another historical character you’ll root for, despite his notorious womanizing, is Clark Gable. For one thing, he genuinely adores Carole. It’s his expressions of outrage at the discrimination and hypocrisy towards the treatment of the black actors and actresses in the film, both on and off the set, which endears him to us. Two in particular: Mammie, played by Hattie McDaniel, (who went on to become the first African American to win an Oscar for Supporting Actress); and Butterfly Queen (whose glorified and stereotypical role as Scarlett’s content, not very bright servant is one vexing aspect of “GWTW.”) Against Gable’s (and apparently Selznick’s) objections, Hattie and Butterfly were barred from attending the movie’s three-day premiere in Atlanta. Margaret Mitchell’s novel may have won the Pulitzer-prize, but we’re reminded this was Jim Crow South. That’s why when Gable goes wild on the LA set shouting “this isn’t the Deep South,” when he spots segregated bathroom signs and threatens to quit unless they’re removed, we really like him and he feels real to us.
One reason Stardust feels so authentic must be the author’s Hollywood connections. She married into the famous Mankiewicz screenwriting family. Surely it was fun writing a scene in which fictional Andy escorts fictional Julie to her first Hollywood star party (he’d been taking her to the “Place Where the Stars Eat,” Chasen’s, now closed after 60 years) at the Beverly Hills home of the “classy writer” Herman Mankiewicz. At that time, he was finishing The Wizard of Oz. Andy, in his no-nonsense way, informs Julie that “if you’re looking for intellect, you find it here.”
This party is memorable because here is where Julie is formally introduced to Frances Marion. (F. Scott Fitzgerald was present too. He was working on the troubled script. Andy’s advice: he “should be writing novels, far from Hollywood.) Mankiewicz’s home is also where Julie overhears opinionated conversations about America’s entry into WWII. Many proclaim it’s not our war. Not Andy, whose resentment of Hollywood powerhouses like Louis B. Mayer “pretending they aren’t Jewish” was far more than just personal: Up until America entered the war, Hollywood stayed clear of making movies about the Nazis, for fear of offending international audiences. A sorry bit of cinematic history.
Alcott makes sure we don’t linger too long on this. Lightly, she drops in Hollywood notables like gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons; lavish costume designer, Edith Head; Laurence Olivier, married and openly having an affair with Vivien Leigh (Yes, Selznick was “afraid of scandal;” sometimes Scarlett had to be appeased); and the all-mighty Mayer, head of MGM, Selznick’s father-in-law, for whom he once worked.
Julie marvels how “actors step in and out of reality so brilliantly.” Carole’s screenwriting advice to Julie: “create a set, sprinkle a touch of stardust.” Together, they sum up the author’s polished prose, seamlessly blending her imagination into realities. Julie feels as real to us as Carole Lombard. That’s the art. The stardust.
Happy Valentine’s Day! Lorraine