A Star Is Born is probably the most frustrated Hollywood masterpiece I’ve ever seen. Like Gone with the Wind or Citizen Kane, George Cukor’s 1954 classic is highly-revered among movie viewers for its searing performances and high class melodrama. When released, the film ran over 3 hours, prompting the studio to trim the film, but the result was butchery. Unfortunately, the cuts rendered the film messy and incohesive, hurting it at the box office as well as costing the film some Academy Awards. Restored on DVD, the audio is intact, however, the scenes that were cut are now replaced by sepia movie stills. As I said, a thoroughly frustrated experience to watch.
With that in mind, A Star Is Born is still an important film to watch. The third time the story was filmed (after 1932’s What Price Hollywood? which was directed by Cukor and a 1937 version directed by William Wellman) it tells the story of Norman Maine (James Mason), an alcoholic movie star whose career is descending as his wife Vicki Lester’s (Judy Garland) career is ascending. A biting critique of the cutthroat nature of show business, the film is an indulgently depressing drama that will have viewers reach out for the Kleenex box.
***spoilers spoilers spoilers***
The movie opens with a Hollywood benefit. It’s a garish, gaudy affair that looks like something out of a nightmare version of the Ziegfeld Follies. There are dancing girls with towering crowns of plumage and cowgirls riding horses on stage. Norman Maine is a popular actor – a debonair lady killer who arrives at the benefit drunk. Like the most tragic drunks, Norman cannot contain himself and instead makes a big ass of himself, wandering on stage when the orchestra is accompanying a song-and-dance trio, led by Esther Blodgett (Garland). Though Norman’s antics are annoying to everyone, Esther views his behavior with bemusement and saves his dignity by gently folding him into the act, fooling the audience into thinking that he’s part of the performance.
What this evening sets off is a romance that is paralleled by the mirror-image of each performer’s career trajectory. Norman sneaks into a bar and sees Esther perform an impromptu rendition of “The Man That Got Away” – one of the greatest musical numbers ever filmed.
The “The Man That Got Away” sequence is justly lauded as iconic because of the wonderful camera work and Garland’s performance. It’s clear from the first few bars that Esther won’t be singing in empty darkened bars forever. Cukor stages this performance beautifully, framing his star by instrumentalists, all of whom are dressed in black, essentially fading into the darkness of the club. Garland herself is also dressed darkly, but her face is lit – a spotlight that follows the singer. And unlike most Garland musical numbers there are no quick cuts and fancy editing with elaborate sets that unfurl behind her; instead, it’s a simple, long, continuous shot following her as she makes her way from behind the piano to the front of the makeshift band.
Also key is Cukor’s use of Garland’s iconography. The borders that separate Esther the fictional singer and Garland the real live diva are rubbed away as she shows off her impeccable mastery of singing and performing. This performance is the closest viewers today will get to see the legendary Judy Garland of the Carnegie Hall/Palace days when she incorporated stage performance into her public persona. There is no autobiographical subtext in the lyrics of “The Man That Got Away,” but there is autobiographical subtext in the performance of the song. The nervous gestures, the awkward flailing of the arms, and the neurotic way in which she scrapes her hair as she sings is pure Garland – she steps away from being “Esther Blodgett/Vickie Lester” momentarily and allows Garland the singer to step in.
Because of her outsized talent, Norman uses his box office clout to have Esther become a contract player. Like Garland’s former studio MGM, the fictional studio does a number on Esther changing her name into Vickie Lester and transforming her, attacking her with false teeth, fake noses, wigs, golden powder foundation – all of this happened to Garland when she was a child actress at MGM. By 1954, the studio system was starting to fray – actors weren’t satisfied with long-term onerous contracts and many resented being treated like livestock in a factory farm.
Again, as with “The Man That Got Away,” the screenwriter (Moss Hart) takes generously from Garland’s personal life and legend when plotting the journey Vickie and Norman take. Vickie’s natural charm and talent shine through and with Norman’s help, she shrugs off the makeup and fakery and impresses with her talent. It’s here that Cukor and Hart gift Garland with a long musical number called the “Born in a Trunk” medley which is capped off with Garland’s rendition of “Swanee” (thankfully she didn’t do it in blackface).
The “Born in a Trunk” medley contains six songs that tell the fictional tale of Vickie’s rise to stardom that mirror Garland’s own; as she narrates her story, Vickie sings to her audience about her childhood as a kiddie hoofer with her parents, performing on Vaudeville, before wowing the audiences with a solo. As a struggling singer she does voice overs for commercials before heading a fledgling band and eventually running through a list of indifferent agents before becoming a star.
The musical number has two roles in the film: in the plot, it works as a way to introduce Vickie to her audience. It’s played in front of one of Norman’s lousy vehicles, and it’s quickly apparent that she’s going to eclipse his star. The sequence also works as a way to have Garland tell Vickie’s back story that neatly mimics Garland’s own story of working as a vaudevillian performer before being groomed by MGM.
Suddenly Vickie’s career starts to move forward at a clipped pace, while Norman’s drinking causes his career to quickly disintegrate. Finding himself unemployed, he tries his hand at being a Hollywood househusband. Vickie’s the breadwinner and is his tie to the outside world. To lift him from his ennui, Vickie goes over a musical number she was filming during the “Someone at Last” number – an inventive musical sequence that spoofs the extravagant musical numbers that Garland starred in for years; but because Vickie’s in her living room in stockings and a man’s shirt, she’s improvising with household items and furniture to tell the story of her day.
Like the other two major musical numbers, the “Someone at Last” sequence is important because it affirms Vickie’s talent. It also confirms that Norman’s support wasn’t in vain. The song sequence – which includes some dated Hollywood racism – also is meant to show us Vickie’s wide range, as she sings with a French accent and a Chinese accent as well as dancing up a storm, holding court despite being alone in her living room. It’s during this sequence that Garland uses her hand to mimic a camera giving her a “big fat closeup” – an image that is used on most promotional photographs for the film.
The sequence is also a signpost for the film – after it, Norman’s descent into drink and depression speeds up an at an alarming rate, peaking with a particularly embarrassing moment during the Oscars, during which Norman drunkenly staggers onstage to interrupt his wife’s acceptance speech. As he begs for work he accidentally slaps Vickie in the face and collapse in remorse. There is some unintended irony in the scene because Garland would be up for an Oscar for the film, but unlike Vickie, she loses the Oscar (to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl).
In another heart-wrenching scene, Vickie is confessing to fatherly studio exec Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) about Norman’s drinking and how she’s suffering from feelings of self-loathing and resentment. The scene is made all the more poignant because Vickie’s in costume for a musical number she’s filming, and she’s dressed up in tramp drag with a straw hat and goofy freckles. But instead, she’s miserable, crying to Oliver about how difficult her life has become and how much she’s starting to hate Norman for his behavior.
Garland’s work during this scene is masterful – but it’s not clear anymore if she’s performing or reflecting on her own life. At this point in her career and life, Garland’s work was adversely affected by her bouts of depression, suicide attempts, and alcohol and drug addiction. While Vickie is the strong one who is trying to hold everything together, Garland is Norman Maine, letting her career and all her hard work fall apart because of her addictions. It’s an uncomfortable scene – very raw, demolishing the cheery image of the Judy Garland of the Andy Hardy days.
The intensity of her performance is something new for Garland – she lets herself be unlikable and difficult. She matched this scene in her last film, 1963’s I Could Go on Singing, in which Garland gives a performance using her personal troubles and misery to inform her character.
What makes the confession scene between Oliver and Vickie all the more troubling is that she had just gotten off a sound stage energetically singing “Lose That Long Face” – again harking back to the Garland’s glory days at MGM. The song cheerily orders its listeners to “turn that frown upside down” and react to adversity with an optimistic smile. Both Vickie and Garland were paid to chirp these lyrics to inspire their audience, regardless of what was going on in their private lives.
The shiny optimism that is so harshly promoted in the lyrics of “Lose That Long Face” is a gruesome joke as Norman’s suffering one indignity after another. During a stint in a sanitarium his pride is smashed when he’s offered a bit part because of pity. And later at the race track, Norman has a confrontation with the odious Matt Libby (Jack Carson), the studio publicity man who nurtured and protected Norman’s career and the studio’s investment. Norman was under the misguided impression that Libby’s work was in part due to affection and altruism, but was quickly schooled – Libby nursed a noxious resentment of Norman’s behavior. Instead of having a peaceful talk the two take to fighting with Libby quickly flattening Norman with a meaty fist, sending the former movie star back to the bottle. With echoes of The Lost Weekend, Norman is found four days later in a jail cell, forced to have his mournful wife bail him out.
With his life in shambles and his troubles threatening his wife’s career, Norman decides to commit suicide – a terribly sad moment in the film, because yet again, the tragic tone is juxtaposed with something positive: in this case, Norman bounds from his bed in the morning, urging Vickie to sing while he takes a swim at the beach. It’s clear for the audience that the swim won’t end well, but Vickie isn’t privy to that knowledge, and unknowingly starts to warble “It’s a New World” and the last image of Norman we have left is his discarded bathrobe being thrown around in the surf.
At the end, Vickie rallies and shows up at another Hollywood benefit. And before she gets to sing a rousing number, she introduces herself proudly as “Mrs. Norman Maine,” to the rapturous applause and standing ovation from the audience. This Vickie performance is the Judy Garland that most are familiar with – the shaking voice and the smiles through the tears. It’s a familiar image, a somewhat comforting image to end a film that is deeply troubling.
A Star Is Born is remembered as the ultimate Judy Garland vehicle, at the expense of James Mason – which is unfair, because he’s just as effective in his role. He shares Garland’s pathos, but because his character’s arc is doomed, he’s given moments of pure despair. It’s not his fault that he’s overshadowed because the story isn’t about being a testament to Mason’s talents, in the same way it works as it does for Garland. And much like Clark Gable was eclipsed by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind. Mason also has the unenviable task of being the leading man opposite a star with blinding charisma – but his performance is wonderful, and should be remembered as well.
After some review, it’s clear that both Norman and Vickie work as two sides of Judy Garland – the talented performer and the hopeless addict. We know that in her real life, Garland’s life ended more like Norman’s than Vickie’s – unable to escape her demons, she died of an accidental overdose at the young age of 47. A Star Is Born works not only because it’s fiction, but also because the fiction plays so acutely with so much of reality.