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Is it possible to watch this fictional story without digressing to
thoughts about the real life story of Judy Garland? For me it isn't.
Both are permanently intertwined. And it's not just the parallel
between fiction and fact, but also the dark, brooding, melancholy mood
they engender, like ghosts calling out to us from a Hollywood that no
The film's storyline is well known. I won't belabor it here, except to say that it communicates an honest and introspective indictment of the entertainment industry as it once was. The story can be thought of as a kind of archetypal Hollywood memoir, expressed as a musical.
But musicals are supposed to be upbeat, lighthearted, fun. This one isn't. Moments of humor and joy are swept away in a cascade of emotional pain and tragedy. Fiction mimics real life. How appropriate that the film's signature song "The Man That Got Away" is one that is so uncompromisingly serious, poignant, and smoldering ... a perfect vehicle for Judy Garland.
Some say she had the greatest singing voice of any entertainer in the twentieth century. This film lends credence to that assertion. Every song she sings is performed with such consummate verve, such emotional commitment that she seems to be singing not just for her contemporaries, but also for generations to come. Indeed, she is. My personal favorite is the "Born In A Trunk" segment, all fifteen minutes of it. Surrounded by sets of true cinematic art, she belts out one tune after another, including, of course, the poignant "Melancholy Baby".
Judy's singing and the music itself are what make the movie so memorable. But she also demonstrates her considerable acting talent. And the acting of other cast members is fine, especially the performances of James Mason and Jack Carson. I do think that the film was, and still is, too long, the result of an overly ambitious screenplay.
That Judy Garland was denied the Best Actress Oscar is poignant. But her talent was so massive, her uniqueness was so special, maybe fate required a compensatory level of pain and tragedy, as a prerequisite of legend.
The 1954 musicalized version of A Star Is Born is a great film. Judy Garland and James Mason (both Oscar nominated) turn in terrific performance as Esther and Norman. Like its 1937 predecessor (which starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric Marchboth Oscar nominated), the 1954 version follows the ups and down of two people set against the vicious world of Hollywood. The newer version sticks to the basic story but adds some great numbers for Garland, including "The Man That Got Away" and "I Was Born in a Trunk." In a major comeback, Garland had not worked in films since Summer Stock (1950), and her performance here is the best of her career. That she lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl is one of Hollywood's great inequities. Mason lost to Marlon Brando for On the Waterfront. Garland sings superbly and is a great comic and dramatic actress. Her Esther is more vulnerable than Gaynor's just as Mason's Norman is more pathetic than March's. I love both versions. Charles Bickford and Jack Carson play the other major parts, played by Adolphe Menjou and Lionel Stander in 1937. Two major supporting roles from the 1937 version were cut from the 1954 version: Esther's first Hollywood friend (Andy Devine) and her intrepid grandmother (the great May Robson). But Garland's musical numbers make up for their absence. Oddly, despite the great hullabaloo surrounding A Star Is Born, it was not nominated for best picture, and George Cukor was bypassed in the directing category. One of the best musicals ever made.
Much has been written about this movie (to extremely great length) in other
reviews, so I'll try to keep this fairly brief and concise.
First, the restored version runs at 176 minutes. The movie originally ran at 181 minutes, but was cut to 154 minutes when theater owners complained that they were losing money due to the excessive length. The cut destroyed the integrity of the movie - director Cukor never saw the movie again. However, the restored version contains stills to replace some of the cut footage, and gives a better sense of the film's power and scope.
Second, all four major studio versions of the story (including "What Price Hollywood?") have their own merits and differ greatly from one another. If you like the story, see them all and compare for yourself. It's quite fun to compare!
Third, definitely see this version for Judy. Sure, Judy's "The Man That Got Away" may be the greatest musical moment on cinema, but it's her dramatic performance that will keep your attention over almost three hours. James Mason is on target, and the supporting cast is fine, but Judy just dominates the screen. It's an opportunity to see a true genius in action at the absolute height of her powers. For more dramatic Judy, see her in "The Clock".
George Cukor was acclaimed as the great director of actresses, and he raises Judy to the height she deserves. I love Judy. This is a 10 out of 10.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The year 1954 proved to be one of the professional best for Judy
Garland, as she did an outstanding comeback in A STAR IS BORN, a part
that if not meant for her originally when the first version of this
movie was filmed as WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?(1932), was the one which she
made her own and to this day is the most referred to and remembered for
the sheer emotional honesty and power to which acted the part of Esther
Blodgett. That is was not awarded by the Academy in favor for a more
"correct" acting by Grace Kelly is one of those great injustices that
has been done, and that its competition with ON THE WATERFRONT was too
tight to garner it any of the major awards was just bad timing on its
release (today the results would have been different, dividing the
awards), but time has eventually healed these major slips -- at least
on Judy Garland's favor, the greater of the two actresses by a long
shot -- and as a movie, it still holds up today in its poignant
portrayal of a marriage destroyed by alcoholism and the coldness of the
media closely watching its disintegration.
Originally at 154 minutes, the restored, 179 minute version is the best to watch because it does effectively tie up some plot holes and the way Mason's character eventually meets up with Garland's who is wondering if he was serious about making her a star -- the transition in the first, cut version would have been too easy and unbelievable, a borderline fairytale. Both Garland and Mason tackle difficult parts flawlessly without going over the top in histrionics but giving both their characters a painful, human dignity that should not have been lost on the Academy even then, and Mason's descent into alcoholism and later, self-sacrificial suicide is one of the most heartbreaking ever committed on film, even if in reality, it was Garland who was the ravaged, addicted star.
On a brief getaway this past weekend, the hotel where I was staying had TCM
(Turner Classic Movies) on its cable roster and, lo! and behold, there was
Judy singing and acting her heart out in letterbox and stereo sound.
TCM...you're the best!
It was the restored version, thank the good Lord, with that sad reminder of Warner Brothers' pathetic timidity in trashing Cukor's original cut, but recalling for us his masterful use of the widescreen ratio. (A "formatted" version would be simply unwatchable, what with numerous scenes played by actors perched on the outer reaches of the screen, opposite each other.)
James Mason turns in an absolutely brilliant performance, especially when one recalls the rigors of production, with filming going months over schedule, due to Judy's unhappy vicissitudes (so evident in her appearance even within the same scene!) With the very able support of Charles Bickford, as the most benign studio head ever, and Jack Carson proving why Warners kept him employed so often for so many years.
Plus musical direction taking fabulous advantage of Warners' studio orchestra (and WB's sound technicians who were, for several decades running, the envy of all the other major studios), and arrangements that must have overwhelmed first-run audiences with their incredible richness.
It's a must-see, all right, and is in a class by itself, among the several screen versions of this beloved Hollywood saga.
In a career of classic performances this may be Judy Garland's best role and
one that certainly uses her many talents to the hilt. James Mason gives an
Oscar caliber performance as well and I believe in almost any other year
that he wasn't up against Brando's "On the Waterfront" performance he would
and should have won.
This George Cukor film features gorgeous color and beautiful cinematography, but does suffer from choppy editing that may be the result of restored footage. The project to restore over an hour of missing footage scrapped by the producers after the original length was in excess of four and a half hours may have been done with the best intentions, but is still incomplete and leaves the film disjointed and obviously lacking. I certainly wish the original footage was never scrapped, but this spotty attempt at restoration makes you feel like your watching more of a project than a classic film. Sometimes less is more and definitely in this case.
Whatever you do make sure you see the widescreen version of this film that was originally shot in Cinemascope or you will only see about a third of the actual picture and I assure you, you won't want to miss any of it.
This movie is not without its flaws, but overall, it is a masterpiece.
The quintessential story of a couple, one who's career is on the rise, the other on the decline- is made extraordinary by the performances.
Ester Blodgett, aka: Vicki Lester (Judy Garland) plays the unknown talent with pipes that would put an organ to shame. Her singing in this movie is definitely a HUGE reason to watch it- especially the show stopper, "The Man that got away." Ester meets, by chance & some help from the bottle, the cinematic icon, Norman Maine (James Mason.) Even though he's drunk, he is taken with her. Much later that night, he finds her at a club just "kickin' it" with the boys in the band. In what is probably the best 5 mins of music in the history of musicals- Judy lets it all out in "The Man that got away." Sincerely, I MYSELF, have never heard singing like that. So absolutely raw, almost uncontrolled and full-out and all heart that it always gives me goosebumps! And an unobserved Norman Maine comes out of the shadows to tell Ester that he TOO has never heard singing like that. He tells her, (completely sober after sleeping off a little) that she has a great talent. And he makes her believe it.
She eventually gets her chance with some help from Norman, and makes a big hit movie. She starts to make a lotta hit movies. Meanwhile, Norman gets cut from the studio by his longtime friend & boss, Oliver Niles. One thing leads to another & even though he is happily married now to Ester, his drinking starts up again. In a scene that is almost too awful to watch, he stumbles in on her acceptance speech at the Academy Awards. I dunno if that slap was real, but it looked real. And the ashamed look on his face afterwards looks real.
I won't give away the ending, but I will tell you why I liked this movie. First of all is Judy's singing. There are many memorable songs and moments. She always gives it her all when she sings. Or to paraphrase Ester in the movie, it's when she is her most alive. Her acting is terrific too. In a scene that is so well written and ahead of its time (and timeless), Ester tells her friend & studio head that she is worried about what's happening to her & Norman. That she hates him for the lies, for the promises to quit, and for failing. That she too feels like a failure. This scene encapsulates the ripple effect caused by alcoholism. Judy is absolutely mesmerizing as the wife who has discovered that love is not enough.
James Mason delivers one of the best & most convincing performances of an alcoholic on the decline that I've ever seen on screen. First of all, his charm & sincerity are apparent. When Libby (his Publicity Agent) says that his appeal & charm escape him, it's because he didn't see this side of him. He only saw the mean drunk and that wasn't who Norman Maine really was. James Mason is LOOKS so convincing that you'd swear he had a quick 6 or 7 drinks before the shoot. And his pain is real. In the scene where she gets him out of night court, his self-disgust and shame are vividly on his face. And the scene where he over-hears Ester & Oliver talking about him is enough to make anyone reach for the hankies. He has so much chemistry with Judy that you'd swear they were really in love. Many a reviewer has mentioned this- and I won't speculate on it- suffice to say that it adds tremendously to the movie, because it seems palpable how much Ester & Norman care about each other & are desperately in love. Definite Oscar-calibre performance by Garland & Mason here. This is the story of the Oscar that got away. In any world that was just, they both would've gotten one.
All the supporting roles are well done and not too obtrusive. My only complaint with the movie is the editing. I'm happy to have the restored version, but the editing could've made a more intense, compact version of the film. I will give one of many examples: The scene towards the end where her friend from the band arrives at her house to take her to the benefit. It is a very important scene. The next scene is at the benefit location. We have several minutes of them showing the backstage bustle before Ester & her friend enter. They already showed in the beginning of the film all the backstage confusion- it slows down the story. They could've cut directly to the part where she & him walk in. You still get a sense of what's going on around them without that long lead-in. That is just an example, there are more. But it is a minor complaint - I have a DVD & can scan when I need to. Overall this is a timeless movie with outstanding performances. A must see!!
Alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) meets singer Esther
Blodgett (Judy Garland) and gets her the screen test she needs to
become a big star (and change her name to Vicki Lesterhas any name
ever so desperately needed changing?).
This was not my first viewing of A Star Is Born, but it was illuminating. I certainly already believed it was a great movie, but it is far more subtle and complex than I had previously known. The movie is working on several levels at once. In one way, it's a straight-ahead musical, with some wonderful songs and production numbers. At another level, it's an 'inside Hollywood' story, and that level works remarkably well. Some of the 'events' (the opening, the Academy Awards) look almost raw in their filming style, almost like news footage, creating a powerful impression of being behind the scenes. The production numbers support that impression, with numerous bits and visuals lifted from other musicals, so that we are clued into the idea that we are seeing what "really" happened, or might have happened, on any number of film sets (at one point, An American in Paris is referenced directly).
Finally, it is a remarkably honest and true portrayal of alcoholism and marriage to an alcoholic. Esther's co-dependence is seen for what it is, her pain is real, her self-flagellation is real. If anything, the movie is overly sympathetic with Norman Maine, portraying the publicist (Jack Carson) who is disgusted with him as a villain. When I saw A Star Is Born for the first time, I was in *my* one and only relationship with an alcoholic. I wept with Judy Garland and I knew firsthand how accurately her agony was depicted. All these years later, quite recovered from any desire to go THERE again, I sympathize almost as much with the publicist. Kick the bum out! A few weeks ago I saw the train wreck that is New York, New York. It seemed like Scorcese's intention was to deconstruct, while at the same time celebrating, the 40s Hollywood musical. He wanted to show the ugliness behind those magical romances, the meanness behind those amusingly bossy men, and he still wanted to enjoy the glamour. Upon re-viewing A Star Is Born, I wondered why he bothered. It's already been done, as well as could possibly be done.
Marked by a pervasive sense of melancholy, the 1954 musical version of
the familiar Hollywood warhorse will forever be remembered as Judy
Garland's most acclaimed work in films. Even though she would go on to
a handful of films in the early 1960's, this was her last leading role
in a major Hollywood production, an ironic point since she plays an
emerging movie star on the rise. True, she doesn't look her best in the
film, but her fulsome talent is on full, heart-wrenching display as
Esther Blodgett, an obscure but thriving band singer who becomes movie
star Vicki Lester thanks to Norman Maine, an alcoholic has-been movie
star in career free-fall. Their love story and the opposing
trajectories of their careers are tracked meticulously by Moss Hart's
shrewdly observed screenplay and George Cukor's sensitive direction.
The double-sided 2000 DVD provides the 176-minute restored version, which is just five minutes less than what was shown at the original premiere. Until 1983, the half-hour of footage excised after the premiere was thought lost, but film historian Ron Haver found much of it and supervised an extraordinary restoration effort that includes a necessary albeit brief use of production stills to match up with the complete soundtrack. Even with such technicalities, the resulting film is even more of a landmark musical drama, emotionally resonant in spite of certain pacing issues with the storyline. Cukor's approach is probably more leisurely than the relatively hard-boiled material requires since he includes so many establishing and lengthy shots, but his direction shows his legendary sensitivity toward actors.
While he comes across a bit too robust as a fading matinée idol, James Mason vigorously captures Norman's scornful pride and self-pity. He may lack Fredric March's innate sense of vulnerability in the original, but Mason makes the character's inner torment more palpable. As for Garland, she brings so much of her own history to Esther/Vicki that her scenes feel alive with her vibrant, masochistic personality. She is aided immeasurably by the masterful songs of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, most significantly her torchy rendition of "The Man That Got Away", as perfect a musical movie moment as has been ever produced. While her work in the fifteen-minute "Born in the Trunk" sequence is impressive, it is really later in the film when she soars, in particular, when she segues from the tap-happy "Lose That Long Face" into a breakdown scene in her dressing room with sympathetic studio head Oliver Niles portrayed with his typically stentorian fervor by Charles Bickford.
The print condition and sound quality on the DVD are superb. There are also some fascinating extras on the B-side starting with three alternative takes on "The Man That Got Away", each distinctive in presentation with costume and lighting changes, a must for Garland fans. Also included is a very brief deleted number within the "Born in the Trunk" sequence", "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street". Three vintage pieces have been gathered - a brief newsreel piece of the premiere, a four-minute clip of the Coconut Grove premiere party held after the premiere, and most interestingly, a half-hour kinescope akin to the current-day red carpet pre-shows with an amazing parade of period stars expressing little more than good wishes on their way to the theater. Lastly, the theatrical trailers for all three versions of "A Star Is Born" are also included.
I was disappointed with many aspects of a Star is Born. The restored version of the film is more than an hour too long. There are so many drawn out scenes and musical numbers that any tension between the characters is completely dissipated by the time we come to the tragic ending. The two great scenes -- Judy Garland's night club performance of the Man that Got Away and her song and dance routine in her living room using a lamp shade as a Chinese hat -- don't make up for all of the other overly long and unnecessary (as far as the plot or the character development is concerned) musical numbers. This is a showcase for Garland's considerable musical talents, it is not a well scripted movie. It's ashame because James Mason is terrific in his scenes.
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