Alcott isn’t the greatest of writers--the love story elements in her stories are often trite and a little too cutesy for my taste--yet in A Touch of Stardust, I was steadily enticed by her embattled heroine as artfully as Julie Crawford is seduced by hot-shot film editor Andy Weinstein, David O. Selznick’s one-time protégé and favorite golden boy. Julie is an early proto-feminist, a throwback to those first tumultuous decades in the movie industry when
Gone With The Wind was considered to be a “sloppy monster of a movie” with an unfinished script, and
during which lots of people predicted the film would be the biggest disaster in Hollywood history. Julie’s first introduction to the making of the film is Selznick’s recreation of the burning of Atlanta, an event that literally takes Julie’s breath away. As the fire roars across the landscape, devouring everything in its sight, Julie wonders how Selznick will ever be able to build his beloved Tara.
In thrall to the Hollywood from the outset, hardworking Julie proves to be Andy‘s romantic nemesis: he’s a loveable man who at first hides his businesslike persona behind Selznick’s fanatical vision. But Julie has a lot to learn even if she has the “silly dream” of tap-dancing her way into screenwriting stardom. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, this naïve, virginal girl aches to make it big.
She’s unprepared for her romance with handsome, dark-haired Andy, who takes her on long drives down Sunset Boulevard and seduces her with romantic nights at all-night diners. To be sure, Julie’s no babe in the woods, and she’s certainly no longer content to be the wife of “a proper lawyer from a good family” in a town where “Negros were expected to know their place and a girl was an old maid if she wasn’t married by the age of twenty.”
Obsessed with the movie business from the first, Julie lands a job working as a personal assistant to feisty, earthy Carole Lombard. Carole is a hard-as-nails woman who will stand up to anything. She also proves to be the strength behind her insecure lover, Clark Gable, who must learn to overcome his fears of “the lonely boy with bad teeth” in order to really shine as the iconic Rhett Butler. As her plot builds, Alcott introduces us to many of the characters who will come to play their roles with elegance and panache: Gable, Selznick, fragile Vivien Leigh, feisty George Kukor (who will later be fired from
Gone With the Wind), director Victor Fleming, and famous columnist Louella Parsons, who is always waiting in the wings, looking out for the next big juicy story.
Alcott’s fictional Julie powers this tale; it is Julie who frantically bangs on an old second-hand typewriter while sharing a ramshackle rooming house with her blonde, fragile Rose, and it is Julie who plunges effortlessly into her new role as treasured confidante and best friend to Carole and passionate lover to Andy. It comes as no surprise that Julie
soon tumbles into the wonders of Hollywood and right into the doors of MGM where she lands the role of a lifetime, even when the job sometimes “feels no more substantive than spun sugar.”
Still, through her multiple roles as confidante, friend, lover, and rooky screenwriter, Julie remains steadfast to the last: not yet steady in her choices but always passionate about what she wants to achieve. Even as she sometimes wonders that “happy endings only exist onscreen,” Julie soon realizes that perhaps she’s actually writing her own story. Alcott does a fine job of presenting Julie’s sadness and her fears, defiance, and strengths: “like a dancer still tripping across the stage.”
Writing with passion and vibrancy, Alcott’s purview of the entertainment industry of the late 1930s is as fascinating as Julie and Andy’s daily existence in a world of backstabbing, drinking, and competitiveness, where the hardworking days and long nights form a creativity that is tinged with a one-upsmanship. The Hollywoodland sign becomes a jaunty symbol of glamour, filling Los Angeles with promise, hope and desire.
The mistakes and the fears--along with the sweat and magic--are the end result of weeks and months of anger, tensions, and disruptions.
Alcott uses this constant turmoil to focus on the universal question: What choices set us on our individual paths in life? We certainly see how Julie grows from one kind of woman into another. Alcott’s talent is that she’s able to give us a strangely robust sense of Julie’s decisions. What follows may be the popular, clichéd concept of boy-meets-girl, where the girl dreams of glamour, work and love, yet this the reason why the novel ultimately comes across as so powerful and so charming.