- Special Features
- Blogs & Columns
- Fun & Games
For over three decades, there was no talent on earth like Judy Garland. She was truly one of the first celebrities that Americans saw grow right before their eyes. She survived so many trials and tribulations throughout her career, but tragically allowed drugs to consume her life and she died at the age of 47. However, she started so young, allowing her to leave an immense body of work that we continue to return to. If she were still with us, she would be turning 90 on June 10.
While most of her best films were made at that “Dream Factory” called MGM, including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade, among her finest work is 1954's A Star Is Born. The film, directed by George Cukor, is the first remake of William A. Wellman's 1937 classic of the same name (which was actually based on Cukor's obscure – but brilliant – 1932 film What Price Hollywood?). After Garland was fired by MGM in 1950, she tried to put her troubles behind her and returned to the stage. In 1953, she decided to make a comeback on the screen and teamed with her third husband, producer Sidney Luft, to do so. They picked A Star Is Born as the perfect vehicle for her and it fit like a glove.
Every medium seems to have an image, a song or a story that gets reshaped or retold every decade or so. For the Hollywood film, that tale is A Star Is Born. It tells the story of a small-town girl named Esther Blodgett (Garland), who moved to Hollywood to try to be a star, just like millions of girls from all over the world. She is stuck taking odd jobs and singing part-time in a nightclub, until she meets Norman Maine (played by James Mason in this version), a drunk, has-been actor who still has enough clout with the studio boss to get her a screen test. The two fall in love just as her star rises to new heights, eventually winning the Oscar for Best Actress, and his star falls to new lows, as his studio cancels his contract. Esther, now known as Vicki Lester to the world, tries to support him, but that drags the two down. She puts her career on the line to save Norman's life.
Even though Judy had all the best intentions in mind when production began, her health problems began again and the shoot was troubled, causing frequent delays. Cukor was able to hold the production together the best he could, completing a film that ran well over three hours but paced in such a way that it never feels like it. Still, there were cuts and the version we have today is 176 minutes long, featuring stills in place of scenes long lost. It's impossible to think about today, but lengths like that were reserved exclusively for historical epics. In 1954, musicals weren't typically that long, even though in just a few years, it would be the norm. I think if people saw the film at its original length in 1954, there would have been no way for Judy to lose the Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly.
The film is filled with some fantastic moments including what could be the finest moment of Judy's film career. Her singing “The Man That Got Away” by Harold Arlen & Ira Gershin is just about one of the most beautiful moments in musicals and her performance just seals the deal for me. The “Born in a Trunk” sequence is a tad long, but, again, her singing brings tears to your eyes.
James Mason is also incredible and doesn't quite often get enough credit for this film. Mason was one of those actors who put everything into whatever role he had (watch Stanley Kubrick's Lolita or Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life and you'll see what I mean). As Norman Maine, Mason embodied all the tragedy and emotions bottled up in a character outliving his prime. He was nominated for Best Actor, but he had no chance to beat Marlon Brando for On The Waterfront.
Every time I watch Judy's A Star Is Born, I think of how magical this film could have been if the great Cukor was able to fully realize his vision. But, I believe that even he knew this wasn't really his picture. It was all about Judy and her attempt at a comeback. Unfortunately, A Star Is Born cost way too much to make a profit in 1954. It failed to be the film comeback she needed, so Judy continued her career for the rest of the '50s and '60s with TV and theater appearances. She made a few more film appearances before her death, but none of them were as strong as A Star Is Born. It is one of the best musicals ever made, as one of the few to look at the darker side of Hollywood and life itself.
“Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
Join the conversation on this film and others at the Film Friday Facebook page!