A Star Is Born

1954, Movie, PG, 176 mins

Review

STAR IS BORN, A
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Judy Garland is at her peak, pulling out all the stops, daring the gods in this dark, weighty fable of the price one pays to be at the top. This version, directed by Cukor, is lent all manner of mythic significance by Garland, teetering on the abyss before the slide. There would be other triumphs in concert, but this is the peak of her film career. Here she finally exposed her powerful dramatic range, coupled with the magnificent singing voice that she pushed further than anyone could imagine. Her genius is attached to an uncomfortable, intense plot that allows reason for the tremulous mannerisms and bottomless, dark eyes.

The plot essentially follows that of the original 1936 film (directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March). A young singer (Garland) saves Norman Maine (James Mason), a star actor, from making a drunken fool of himself on stage. Later, a sober Norman hears her sing and decides to help this incredible talent get started in pictures. Eventually (after she changes her name from Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester), he manages to get her the lead in a big musical. As Vicki's star rises, however, Norman's begins to fall. The two elope, but their happiness is short-lived, and Norman's drinking increases when he is cut by his studio. Frustrated by the fickleness of his public and "friends," he drunkenly interrupts the Oscar ceremonies where Vicki has won the award for Best Actress, humbly pleading for a job and accidentally slapping his wife during the presentation ceremony. Despite all Vicki's attempts to find Norman work in Hollywood, his slide cannot be stopped by his wife's love.

Director George Cukor previously filmed the story as WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? in 1932. Here he delivers a much more savage film, allowing moments and characters to speak for themselves in a way that give A STAR IS BORN that much more power. Garland is well matched by Mason, who imbues Norman's hellish descent with a deep sense of self-understanding, a dignified awareness of what is transpiring and ultimate acceptance of fate. And in the scenes of drunkenness, a threatening aura of danger that seems to give him an unhuman kind of vigor and strength. If Mason looks healthier than Garland sometimes, it works. Policing and caretaking an addict takes enormous energy; sometimes the toll is greater on the spouse than the addict themselves. Mason's work on STAR is the equal of any good performance you can name.

Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin provided Garland with songs that would become standards in her concert repertoire, including the ten-ton torch song, "The Man That Got Away" (which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song), rendered by Garland with incredible emotional power. Leonard Gershe's classic "Born in a Trunk" sequence is also one of Garland's finest moments, a near-autobiographical musical sequence that shows the star's rise, incorporating the songs "I'll Get By," "You Took Advantage of Me," "Black Bottom," "Peanut Vendor," "My Melancholy Baby," and "Swanee." After Garland's Oscar-nominated performance lost to Grace Kelly's amateur thesping in THE COUNTRY GIRL, many in Hollywood felt that she was being punished by her peers for her past troubles, and Groucho Marx sent a telegram to Garland saying that the loss "was the biggest robbery since Brink's."

Warners stupidly cut A STAR IS BORN considerably after its premiere, but Cukor's version was eventually partially restored through the reinsertion of recovered soundtrack with production stills and some alternate takes that had somehow survived, giving the film a continuity that unfeeling hands had removed. Seemingly vindicated, Cukor passed away the night before he was to see his restored film, which reopened in 1983 to enthusiastic crowds. George Hoyningen-Huene consulted on the color, which gives the film either somber depth or hysterical, raw splashes of color--it's exactly right. If this version is more closely aligned with showbiz tradition than the 1937 version, it works, largely because it underlines the Garland legend. With Jack Carson in a definitive role as a bastard press agent, and Lucy Marlow and Joan Shawlee as putrid starlet and columnist and Tommy Noonan, surprisingly effective as Garland's jazz musician pal, in the best role of his career. leave a comment

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