#268) A Star is Born (1954)

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#268) A Star is Born (1954)

OR “Judy, Judy, Judy”

Directed by George Cukor

Written by Moss Hart. Based on the 1937 film: screenplay by Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell & Robert Carson, story by Carson and William A. Wellman.

Class of 2000

Note: The only readily available version of “A Star is Born” is a 1983 restoration of the original premiere runtime. About 30 minutes of footage is reinstated, forming an inarguably stronger picture. For scenes where only the audio survived, still photos and outtake footage are used.

The Plot: At a Hollywood benefit, over-the-hill movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) meets struggling singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland). Maine is bowled over by Blodgett’s talent and uses his clout to get her a screen test. After some initial setback, Esther – now “Vicki Lester” – lands the lead in a big Hollywood musical. The film is a hit, and a star is…christened. But as Esther’s star begins to rise, her now-husband Norman’s free-falls into decline, leading to his relapse into alcoholism. It’s the ultimate Hollywood tragedy, and the rare time a film remake is superior to its original.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises Judy, director Cukor, and the song score by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin.

But Does It Really?: As a film, “A Star is Born” is entertaining, albeit a bit bloated. But any flaws this film possesses are instantly forgiven by Judy Garland’s performance. Quite simply, this is the role Judy was born to play. You can see her pouring everything into Esther, to the point where it gets difficult differentiating character from actor. She is grounded by James Mason’s wonderful work, as well as by George Cukor’s intelligent direction. This is Judy’s movie, but she is surrounded by the best of the best, and “A Star is Born” is more than worthy of preservation.

Shout Outs: Norman references “An American in Paris” while discussing Vicki’s “Someone to Love” number.

Everybody Gets One: Producer Sidney Luft was the third Mr. Judy Garland and father of Lorna and Joey.

Wow, That’s Dated: So much cultural appropriation in this film. Exhibit A: [Deep Exhale] “Swanee”.

Seriously, Oscars?: “A Star is Born” failed to receive a Best Picture or Director nod, and lost all of its six nominations. Most egregious: In what Groucho Marx called “the greatest robbery since Brink’s”, Judy Garland lost the Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl”.

Other notes

  • Since this film is one of the rare remakes to make the NFR before its predecessor, I screened the 1937 “A Star is Born” along with the 1954 version. It’s no contest: 1954 wins hands-down. The remake retains the same story, but is far less melodramatic and makes smarter overall choices in its directing and acting.
  • This material really doesn’t need the expansive CinemaScope format, but cinematographer Sam Leavitt makes the film spacious without seeming epic. It feels like a standard widescreen film with some breathing room. And on top of that, most scenes are comprised of long single takes. I’m always down for that.
  • Movies are moments. Our memories of films erode to one or two moments: a scene, a line, a performance, etc. Few movies are perfect from beginning to end, but many have at least one of those perfect moments captured on film. “The Man That Got Away” is a prime example.
  • One of my favorite choices is having Esther already somewhat jaded when we meet her. The 1937 film has Janet Gaynor fresh off the farm and 100% optimistic. It loses steam fast, while with Judy you see the continuous struggle between her dreams and her reality. It’s the stronger choice.
  • Don’t let Judy’s work eclipse James Mason. You’re only as good as your scene partner, and Mason crafts a wonderful character arc while simultaneously setting Garland up for success. Any of the countless stars that turned down Norman (from Cary Grant to Frank Sinatra) couldn’t have done it better than Mason.
  • There’s a lengthy deleted sequence early on that is reconstructed using audio and photos. It’s a huge chunk to cut so early in your film, and its removal hurts Norman’s characterization a bit. I’m just glad someone took all those photos.
  • This movie blesses us with the Wilhelm Scream. Twice!
  • “Born in the Trunk” is this movie’s “Broadway Melody”: it serves no plot purpose but boy is it great to look at. And for those of you taking notes: that’s a flashback within a movie within a movie.
  • What a weird place to put your intermission. It’s immediately after “Born in the Trunk”, which is not a climactic moment. I would have put it after “It’s a New World”; a number with more weight to it, plus you get a better sense of Esther and Norman’s impending woes.
  • Once we hit the second half of the film, there are several scenes in which the dialogue from the 1937 version is left almost entirely intact. If it ain’t broke…
  • “Someone to Love” is the number responsible for “the Judy hands”, as immortalized on the poster. Side note: Why is she dressed like Elaine Stritch in this scene?
  • Oh the sad irony of Judy winning an Oscar in this movie.
  • They cut “Lose That Long Face”? No wonder Judy lost the Oscar: they cut the character’s heart out!
  • Here’s another one for my “Die Hard” Not-Christmas list!
  • Whoops, the ocean rear projection just looped. That’s gonna mess up the tides real bad.
  • Tommy Noonan is not up for the dramatic weight he has to carry in his big scene. Unsurprisingly, Judy wipes the floor with him.
  • “Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine”. God that stings.

Legacy

  • Thanks to studio interference, “A Star is Born” wasn’t the comeback vehicle Judy wanted it to be. She focused on live performances and stayed away from the movies until 1961’s “Judgment at Nuremberg”.
  • “A Star is Born” has been remade two more times: the 1976 Barbra Streisand vanity project, and the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga update that’s being released this week! I swear I did not time it out this way.

Further Viewing: Anything that needs to be said about the Garland/Kelly Oscar race is summed up in this expertly researched video from “Be Kind Rewind”. A must-view for any Oscar buff.

Listen to This: Seven years after “A Star is Born”,  “Judy at Carnegie Hall” covered Garland’s debut at the iconic venue in what has been described as “the greatest night in show business history”. After years of scandal and heartbreak, “Judy at Carnegie Hall” is the apex of an unparalleled show business career.

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