At one time she was Hollywood’s highest-paid star. Today, Constance Bennett’s name is known only to the most devoted film buffs…but I realize she has a link to one of this year’s Oscar nominees. You see, Bennett starred in the 1932 movie What Price Hollywood?, which inspired the 1937 screenplay for A Star is Born, which in turn has been remade four times with Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and this past year with you-know-who.
Constance’s father was actor Richard Bennett, a major theatrical figure who also appeared in films, not the least being Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (as Major Anderson). If you’ve seen him as Ronald Colman’s mentor in Arrowsmith (1931), you’ll never forget him. Bennett sired three daughters, two of whom became bona fide stars in their own right: Constance and Joan. Their sibling Barbara tried acting but never took to it. (This family heritage is the reason Joan entitled her autobiography The Bennett Playbill. I read it when it was new and recall her writing that her sister hated being called Connie.)
Constance made her screen debut in the silent era but came into her own with talkies, when she dominated the field of soap operas with titles like The Easiest Way, Common Clay, Born to Love, and Bought! When Warner Bros. paid her $300,000 for two successive films she became the highest paid star in town.
I’m an unabashed fan of hers, even though the quality of her starring vehicles was inconsistent. She remained a star through the 1930s, introduced Warren and Dubin’s memorable torch song “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” in Moulin Rouge (1934) and breezed through Topper (1937) with Cary Grant, displaying her flair for comedy. Seen today, Two-Faced Woman (1941) might have been something of an embarrassment for Greta Garbo, who retired after its failure, but Bennett is hilarious in a showy supporting role. No doubt it was director George Cukor, who worked with her in the early 1930s, who suggested her for the part.
Bennett was a genuine beauty who developed and promoted her own line of cosmetics and even made a promotional short called Daily Beauty Rituals—in Cinecolor. Click HERE to watch it. I was lucky enough to find a complete display case some years ago.
There is much more to say about this neglected star (and her five marriages) but that will have to wait for another time. I couldn’t resist making note of the slim but striking connection between her and Lady Gaga. By the way, Constance also sings (quite nicely) in What Price Hollywood, where she casually croons “Parlez-Moi D’Amour” in a scene that shows how movies are actually made.
I wish I could have seen her when she toured on stage as Auntie Mame in the 1950s. She might have had a TV career if the pilot she made in 1961 (playing an actress, of all things) had flown. (It was a Desilu production that aired as a special episode of The Ann Sothern Show.) Producer Ross Hunter made a fuss over her when he brought her back to the big screen in Lana Turner’s remake of Madame X (1966), but she died before the movie’s release.
Constance Bennett doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Perhaps, thanks to the enduring interest in What Price Hollywood?, she won’t be.