A young actress becomes an instantaneous movie star while her alcoholic husband's career plummets.
Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) wants to be an actress in the movies, but her aunt ridicules her. Her pioneering grandma Lettie (May Robson) encourages Esther and gives her money to go to Hollywood. Esther rents a room and learns there are too many extras. She meets assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), and at the Hollywood Bowl she sees drunk Norman Maine (Fredric March) fight a photographer. Danny gets Esther a job serving at a party. Producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) keeps Norman's antics out of the papers and warns him about his drinking. Norman breaks plates and leaves with Esther, kissing her good-night. Norman calls Oliver to give Esther a screen test. At 3 a.m. Norman calls Esther.
Norman does a screen test with Esther. Oliver signs her to a contract and names her Vicki Lester. She is coached and practices her line. Norman gets Oliver to star her in his picture. At the preview people like Vicki Lester. Norman takes her out and asks her to marry. She says he drinks too much, but he promises to reform. Norman and Esther tell Oliver they are going to elope, and Matt Libby (Lionel Stander) plans publicity. They are wed by a judge and drive off as Danny holds Libby. They take a trailer to the mountains. Libby tells Oliver that no one likes Norman.
Norman shows Esther their lavish home, and Libby gets photos. Oliver tells Norman that he has slipped. Norman offers to quit, but Oliver has a picture for him. Vicki Lester succeeds, and Norman's contract is ended. Norman cooks while she is busy. Called Mr. Lester, Norman gives her messages and starts drinking. Vicki Lester wins an Oscar, and Norman barges in drunk, asking for a statue for the worst performance.
Oliver greets Esther and asks about Norman. She says he is in a sanitarium and cries. Oliver visits Norman and says he has a part for him, but Norman says he has pictures to do. At Santa Anita Libby tells Norman that he doesn't like him but that he can live off his wife. They fight, and Norman drinks. Esther tells Oliver that Norman has been gone for four days. They go to night court, where the Judge (Jonathan Hale) sentences drunks. He lectures Norman and gives him ninety days; but Esther pleads for him, and he is released into her custody. The story is on the front page. Norman overhears Esther tell Oliver that she wants to start over with Norman and no longer be Vicki Lester. Norman apologizes to Esther and goes swimming in the ocean, news reporting his death. At the funeral fans mob Vicki Lester, who screams. Esther is packed to leave; but her grandma arrives to tell her not to run away. Esther decides to stay. At a movie opening Esther speaks as Mrs. Norman Maine.
This classic Hollywood story shows the sudden rise and fall of movie stars with exhilarating and tragic results. The film even attempts to convey that the chances of becoming a star are one in 100,000, though it does not dwell on the many that fail. The shame of a man being supported by a woman does not help Norman's drinking problem.