A Star is Born (1954)

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Director: George Cukor

Producers: Vern Alves, Sidney Luft (Transcona, Warner Bros.)

Writers: William Wellman (story), Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker (1937 screenplay), Moss Hart (1954 screenplay)

Photography: Sam Leavitt

Music: Harold Arlen, Ray Heindorf

Cast: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon, Hazel Shermet

I’ve always felt one of the great ironies in all of movie buff-dom was the fact that Judy Garland’s comeback came in A Star is Born. As we all know, her star had been born a full 15 years earlier with a pair of 1939 MGM hits, iconically as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and across screen from favorite collaborator Mickey Rooney in Busby Berkley’s Babes in Arms. The irony thickens when you consider that such a comeback, featuring Garland’s greatest performance and one where she grasps an Oscar statuette mid-way through the picture, did not nab Garland the award in real life.

Historians write of her devastation at having lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954), (A) ending her last best chance at an Oscar — she was later nominated for Judgement at Nuremburg (1961), but the performance was hardly worthy. Tragically fitting, Garland’s life only last 15 years after A Star is Born, stamping the film as the midway point of a 30 year career that ended in showing off that powerful voice of hers in concert halls across the country. Not far off from the final scene of A Star is Born, Garland stepping out on stage for a benefit concert, and famously addressing the audience: “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

The second of three versions, following “Wild” William Wellman’s 1937 Best Picture nominee starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and preceeding the 1976 rock opera with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, George Cukor’s 1954 masterpiece was the first to adapt the material into a musical. Working from Wellman’s 1937 story and script by Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker, Moss Hart’s adapted screenplay tells the tale of alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason), who falls for a young girl named Esther Blodgett (Garland) and insists he can turn her into a star. Persuading her to join him in Hollywood, Norman transforms her into screen queen Vicki Lester, an almost vicarious experience for him as his own career heads for the pits.

Their love blossoms just as their careers take opposite trajectories, she skyrocketing to an Academy Award, he tanking in depression and box office poison. When the two decide to get married, producer Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) and studio spinster Matt Libby (Jack Carson) hope it’s the one thing that can save Norman’s deteriorating life, but alas, his addiction to the bottle is too strong, making a fool of himself on television and endangering the lives of others. When Norman is admitted into a rehab sanitarium, Esther/Vicki must choose between her new-found fame and caring for her sick husband, a choice she admirably makes just as tragedy strikes.

The deeply moving material was ripe for killer performances, and both Mason and Garland came through with Oscar nominations for their work. Still, the parts were risky as hell. Warners were very worried about casting a chubby Garland in a satire that railed against the very industry that had made her a star. And no one wanted the part of washed-up actor Norman, a part turned down by the best in the biz — Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant, who accepted before he declined. In walked Mason, a Brittish star from such films as Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) and, in the States, Max Ophuls’ Caught (1948) and The Reckless Moment (1949). A Star is Born would provide his career performance, setting up future roles in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), Kubrick’s Lolita (1962) and Lumet’s The Verdict (1982), but none would equal his performance here. If Swanson’s Norma Desmond made lost stardom scary, Mason’s Norman Maine made it so damn sad. Is there anything sadder in the movies than Norman stumbling drunk onto the steps of that Oscar stage, pleading “I need a job” to the industry insiders he’d once worked with?

It’s such sadness on his part that helps make Garland’s performance so great. Take for instance the scene after she sings, “Lose That Long Face,” then takes five in her dressing room. Oliver enters to inquire about Norman, and Garland’s eye-makeup begins dripping in sincere emotion. “You don’t know what it’s like,” she says, “to watch somebody you love just crumble away bit by bit, day by day in front of your eyes, and stand there helpless!” Seconds later, she’s back on stage singing the very words that sum up her own life, where personal feelings and public performance play a delicate tapdance on one another: “Turn that frown upside down, and go and get your long face, get your long face, go go go and get your long face lost!”

In this way, A Star is Born truly broke new ground. Never before had musical lyrics been so essential to a film’s dramatic storytelling. The numbers in A Star is Born are more than entertaining interludes to the story; they are dramatic extensions of the story, specifically Esther’s story. In rare musical fashion, Garland is the only actor to sing in the entire film, creating a tour-de-force of pure Garland vibrato on such Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin pieces as “It’s a New World,” “Here’s What I’m Here For” and “Someone at Last,” the latter of which features Garland at her absolute goofiest, running around her living room finding household objects to use as movie musical spectacle (a must see). Outside of the Arlen-Gershwin songbook we get Leonard Gershe’s memorable “Born in a Trunk” medley, which receives the best art direction in the film. Her most memorable performance, though, comes toward the very beginning, the moment Norman first falls for her as he enters an empty jazz club to watch her leaning against a piano and rehearsing the Oscar-nominated “The Man That Got Away.”

The song ranked as high as #11 on AFI’s 100 Movie Songs, a list that also featured at #16 Streisand’s Oscar-winning “Evergreen” from A Star is Born’s 1976 remake. But in choosing which version would make their 25 Greatest Musicals list, the AFI wisely went with Cukor’s 1954 take, a film of no more originality in its story (it was itself a remake), but one of much originality in its place as the first A Star is Born musical. Indeed, Cukor’s film was visionary in its attempt to combine the musical with the epic drama. Up to that point, musicals were short, sweet and over-the-top. This one dared to go further, deeper, longer, making room for the musical epics of the next decade, stuff like West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and Funny Girl (1968). For this, A Star is Born deserves a spot amongst history’s greatest musicals, rightly placing #7 on AFI’s Greatest Musicals.

The AFI also ranked the film #43 on its 100 Passions, a claim supported by such scenes as Mason preparing Garland a sandwhich so big that she says, “I don’t think my mouth is big enough,” to which he replies, “I can take the measurements right now,” grabbing and kissing her. The film has done just as well on other lists, finding itself in the Filmsite Top 100, #64 on Entertainment Weekly’s Greatest Movie Moments and a 100% on rottentomatoes. Still, even if today’s critics are 100% unanimous that this one’s a classic, in 1954, the reception was mediocre at best. Of its six Oscar nominations, A Star is Born won none in a year dominated by Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954), and in a category defined solely for musicals, Ray Heindorf’s score lost Best Musical Score to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). Perhaps more significantly, the film failed to earn even a nomination for Best Picture or Best Director..  

What a snubbing for Cukor, who had gone out on a limb in making A Star is Born, his 37th film, into both his first color picture and his first musical. No doubt Kazan better deserved the directing Oscar than did Cukor, but there’s plenty to admire here in Cukor’s musical debut. One has to enjoy the long takes, one lasting two and a half minutes as Mason scowers the Coconut Grove nightclub, with palm trees serving as framing devices, and another lasting more than two minutes as Mason and Garland move from the dining room out to the balcony during the post-premiere party.

One also has to enjoy the poignancy of such simple images as Norman’s movie billboard being hauled away as Vicki’s is put up in its place. But perhaps most impressive is Cukor’s composition during Vicki’s Oscar acceptance speech. The shot shows tremendous depth of field, with the stage steps bridging between the audience in foreground and Garland in background. We also get a big TV screen to the right of the frame, showing the larger full shot of Garland that’s being broadcast to TV audiences of the Academy Awards. Geniusly, Cukor then has a cameraman character enter from frame left, bringing his camera up close to Garland on stage anf thus bringing the TV monitor image to a close-up. This creates almost a picture-in-picture effect, placing the cameraman character’s POV shot inside Cukor’s own long shot. What a fabulous way to display the art of the camera, depth of field and the idea of image vs. reality in visual broadcasts.

In essence, this is precisely what A Star is Born is about. It is a satire on the disparity between the images of these celebrities we see on screen and the harsh realities of their personal lives. Imagine the fans swarming Esther/Vicki at the end of the film, screaming her name and ruining her peace in her most solemn, personal moment. These fanatics have no idea what she’s going through; all they see is a star. This message harkens back to the title of Cukor’s earlier film, What Price Hollywood (1932), which is considered the source for all three film versions of A Star is Born (A). The question poses stardom as a double edged sword, here made all the more tragic by two lovers whose relationship is both made possible and torn apart by the industry they’ve chosen. Similarly, Cukor’s film art was both made possible and torn apart by the industry he had chosen. When the film flopped at the box office, the Warners chopped 30 minutes off it against Cukor’s wishes in hopes of making it more accessible to the mainstream. Thankfully, in 1983, the film underwent a complex resoration process that revived the film to 178 minutes, but several scenes remain lost forever, only avaible as sepia production stills inserted into the picture on DVD.

Citations:

CITE A: Tim Dirks, filmsite.org

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