Sunday Editor’s Pick: A Star Is Born (1954)

by on July 30, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sun July 31 at 7:30 at FSLC [Program & Tix]


George Cukor’s 1954 musical version of A Star Is Born is a picture whose story extends far beyond the screen. A remake of the 1937 David O. Selznik drama, it stars Judy Garland in a comeback performance engineered to mirror the drama unfolding on film. Although cut significantly after its initial premiere, its legacy lived on; the film was remade once again in 1976, this time starring starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and then restored to much of its original form in 1983. More recently, Clint Eastwood has threatened to lens yet another version, starring Beyoncé Knowles in the Judy Garland role. The Cukor classic will likely remain the quintessential interpretation.


Dan Callahan in his feature on Garland for Alt Screen:

That voice new heights in her comeback movie, A Star is Born (1954), especially when she sings “The Man That Got Away” in a dark bar. “No more his eager call,” she sings, holding on “more” and then “call” and making them quiver. “The writing’s on the wall,” she continues, doing the same thing but shooting up even higher vocally. “The dreams you’ve dreamed have all gone astray,” she finishes, and the surprise is that she chooses to hit “The” before “dreams” with her full Phil Spector wall-of-sound lung power. Maybe this is just showing off (the emphasis on that word has nothing to do with the lyrics), but it’s unlike any other sound in movies, an enormous cry of pain dredged up from the bitterest experience.



Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

One of the greatest inside-Hollywood movies, featuring a career-crowning performance by Judy Garland… the scintillating new restoration restores the film’s extravagant Technicolor palette and reveals the passionate visual aspects of Cukor’s masterly dramatic sense.


The production design, with its riot of colors, and the daringly lurid photography achieve a profundity to match the action, as in the first scene, with its contrast of Hollywood’s public pomp and its private pain. The brilliant sparkle of spotlights and city lights—and a whirl of inflamed reds and morbid blues—welcome to the Shrine Auditorium an erstwhile icon in a downward spiral, Norman Maine (James Mason), who shows up drunk at a lavish public benefit, where he is rescued from humiliation by the clever improvisations of a scuffling band singer, Esther Blodgett (Garland).


Peter Bogdanovich for Indiewire:

As a tragic show-business fable, it carries all the substantial weight of Cukor’s life experiences in the theater and film with some of the greatest star players of the 20th century, from Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman and Jean Harlow to John Barrymore, Spencer Tracy, both Hepburns (he discovered Katharine!) and Cary Grant, James Stewart, Judy Holliday, etc. And his Star Is Born has the absolutely truthful ring ——no matter how brassy at times, or even sentimental——of the way it really is in show business. Garland is astonishingly good, terribly moving, naked, honest. Mason has charm, dignity and a sense of great talent wasted, but not quite the star allure the role could have used.
The saddest irony is that Judy Garland’s amazing comeback essentially became her swan’s song. She did some emotionally charged acting in a couple of films (like John Cassavetes’ 1963 A Child Is Waiting), yet A Star Is Born was her farewell to Garland the singer-actress-movie superstar. But then again, what an exit!



Michael Wilmington for the Chicago Tribune:

The Cukor-directed remake of the 1937 backstage Hollywood evergreen was Judy Garland’s most personal movie and it remains a great, unique American film. From the archetypal story of Esther Blodgett a.k.a. Vicki Lester, small-time band singer turned movie superstar, Garland created a portrait of almost unbelievable intensity: searing dramatic scenes and bubbly comedy, alternating with overpowering performances of the Harold Arlen-Ira Gershwin songs (like her staggering one-take rendition of the smoky, bluesy gem “The Man That Got Away”). Around her, the pop Hollywood legendry becomes both fairy tale and nightmare: Getting her boost from alcoholic, self-loathing matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason), Esther helplessly watches his career collapse while hers soars. In a way, both main roles are Judy Garland — but Mason’s dark, tormented Maine is also a perfect complement to her “up” side, a marvel of subtlety.


Time Out (London) reminds us not to overlook James Mason’s performance as well:

Of all Hollywood’s heartbreakers, this must be one of the saddest. Made at a time when Garland was fast approaching final crack-up, the story of the rise of a young singing star at the expense of the actor she loves and yearns to keep intact (Mason) seemed to touch exactly the right raw nerves in its performers to make it a major discomfort to watch. Garland’s tremulous emotionalism, which so often left her unwatchable, is here decently harnessed to a story which makes good sense of it and to a man worth yearning for. But the acting honours belong to Mason: whether idly cruising the LA dance-halls for a new woman, sliding into alcoholism, or embarrassing everyone at an Oscar ceremony, he gives a performance which is as good as any actor is ever allowed.



Karina Longworth interviews a Warners representative about the pain-staking restoration and the film’s legacy for LA Weekly:

Though Feltenstein calls the new restoration “expensive major surgery,” the operation was cosmetic rather than structural: The second-act section is still lost. Rumors have long circulated that someone, somewhere has a single extant print of Cukor’s version in his or her private collection, but, Feltenstein says, WB has run out of places to look — [LACMA film chief Ronald] Haver’s early-’80s hunt was exhaustive, and Feltenstein is convinced “nothing survived other than what Haver found.”


The good news is that the film’s original negative has been digitized in order to return the footage that does survive to the state in which Cukor intended it to be seen. Star was shot on Eastman Color stock, which is notorious for its propensity to fade, and until now, prints and video transfers “always looked brown and grimy,” Feltenstein says. “People will be shocked. Finally, we get to appreciate the color, the production design and the extreme attention to detail that Cukor put into every frame.”


[…]Garland was one of the crazies, a fiercely talented performer who, between hard living and crippling insecurities, couldn’t always get it together to show up. Star is her most autobiographical work, and though in real life she may have more often than not fallen into the self-medicating habits depicted by Mason as part and parcel of the price of fame, Star’s gut-wrenching climax exaggerates the all-consuming, destructive relationship between performer and audience that Garland herself knew well. In one scene, shot handheld with almost documentary-style immediacy, a veiled Garland pushes through a crowd of gawkers outside her husband’s funeral. The clawing lookie-loos ultimately rip the veil off the widow with the gleeful cry, “Give us just one good look!”


“That’s the moment of the film that just tears my heart to pieces,” Feltenstein says. “That mentality of public people being public property. It’s so real — and so out of today’s TMZ.”


Butchered due to a lack of foresight of the brothers Warner, A Star Is Born still managed to foretell the future.


Frank Miller for TCM:

A Star Is Born marked the start of two profitable collaborations for director George Cukor. Special Visual and Color Consultant George Hoyningen-Huene, one of the nation’s leading fashion photographers, and production designer Gene Allen would play a major role in shaping his directorial vision as he moved into directing in color. They would work with him on most of his later films, making notable contributions to the visual look of Bhowani Junction (1956) and Les Girls (1957) in particular.

Thanks to Huene and Allen’s influence, and Cukor’s immaculate taste, A Star Is Born was one of the first films to indicate how the CinemaScope process could be used artistically. Introduced only a year earlier, the wide-screen process had helped draw audiences to epics like The Robe (1953), the first film shot that way, but had stymied directors, who found the new image unwieldy. Director George Stevens suggested it was only good for photographing snakes. But by playing with color and composition, Cukor showed that it could actually enhance a film’s effectiveness.


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