Note that this essay of A Star is Born appears in the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, coming in at #19.
Judy Garland. There were always two sides of her. On the one side, there was the immense talent and capability to entertain an audience. Her visceral vibrato could grab you and shake you to your core, and the way she conveyed her joy of singing was always so heartfelt, connecting straight to the audience's emotions. As a teenager, we saw her in perhaps the most iconic role in the history of cinema - Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939), something most of us recall in a primordial sort of fashion, identifying with her sense of wonderment. On the other side was the immense tragedy. She may have been perhaps the most tragic figure ever created and tossed-aside by Hollywood. It's all the stuff of legend now though: the pills and drugs, the weight losses, the weight gains, the failed marriages, and the suicidal behavior. What's amazing is that for most of her career, MGM was able to somehow separate the two Judys and glossed over her immense personal struggles, despite her wildly erratic work behavior, to only present us the talent; the good Judy. One film, though, captures all of Judy. All of her intense personal pain and unbelievable talent in one film. George Cukor's A Star is Born is the film that dared to take Judy as she was, which was both one of the most talented entertainers to ever live and the most tragic of stars.
Sid Luft was going to produce A Star is Born, and he assembled a crew that he felt would work well for Judy. But of course, not all went as planned. Judy tried as she might, but her drug and health problems resurfaced as the shooting went on, leading to delays and budget problems. In Get Happy, Clarke recalls a letter from George Cukor to his friend Katherine Hepburn regarding Judy: "About 3 weeks ago, strange sinister and sad things began happening to Judy." Cukor describes how Judy would call in sick and then be seen that night at a club. Cukor wrote, "This is the behavior of someone unhinged." Finally after 9 months, the film was completed, including a partial reshoot from standard aspect ratio to CinemaScope lenses, and amounted to a massive 196 minutes. Cukor and editor Folmar Blangsted cut the film down to 181 minutes prior to the premiere. However, after the premier, Warner studios cut the film down to 154 minutes without consulting Cukor (who was in India scouting locations for Bhowani Junction (1956)), resulting in the loss of two musical numbers and other key scenes. All this footage was considered lost for decades, but film preservationist Ronald Haver, after extensive searches, found both missing song sequences, "Here's What I'm Here For" and the brilliant "Lose that Long Face" and several other scenes, as well as missing soundtrack elements. A near-complete restoration that followed was completed in 1983, bringing the running time to 176 minutes. A Star is Born is now always shown in this restored version, that also incorporates some still photos to account for missing film images, while the complete audio soundtrack is played.
A Star is Born was filmed once before, in 1937 (a non-musical) and once after in 1976 (with Streisand). Cukor's 1954 film is the definitive story though, filled with the kind of searing melodrama that Douglas Sirk was doing at the time. Judy Garland stars as Esther Blodgett, a talented singer, but someone who has never gotten the big break. She has a run-in with fading, alcoholic Hollywood star Norman Maine (James Mason) during a Hollywood engagement. They hit-it-off, and after he sees her sing, realizes she has immense talent and decides to get her a screen test at the studio. She of course gets the job, marries Norman and we follow Esther (who gets renamed Vicki Lester) and her rise to stardom while we also get the parallel story of Norman and his Hollywood decline through alcoholism. So many elements in the script of course are so closely biographical to Judy's life. Not only the references to Judy's young years on the stage around the country doing Vaudeville (that's told in the "Born in a Trunk" sequence), her rise to stardom and the troubled marriage, but also in the story of addiction that plays out through the Norman Maine character. Clearly, the story of Norman Maine is the sad story of Judy Garland in her latter years, only it's James Mason playing the character and not her. There's a deeply felt and utterly sad moment where Vicki is recounting to the studio head the troubles she is having dealing with a husband who is an addict. This must have been a devastating scene for Judy to complete with the scenario hitting so close to home.
A Star is Born contains some great music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Among all the musical numbers in the film, there are two clear stand-outs. One is the stupendous 15-minute "Born in a Trunk" medley. We are introduced to the scene in a film-within-a-film, as we watch Vicki's premier at the theatre. It's a colorful and brilliantly composed sequence of scenes where the sets are switched in and out and Judy is given a great collection of songs to sing, including "Swanee", that highlight her range as a singer. Of course, the other scene to highlight can rightly be claimed as one of the best musical numbers that ever appeared in any musical. It is "The Man That Got Away". In the scene, Esther (prior to being renamed Vicki) is with her traveling band, late at night in a club, when they improvise a moment for themselves and they tell her to sing it. It's hard to describe the power with which Garland sings the song. She seems to summon some kind of tidal-wave of emotion that rides on her powerful vibrato, and I mean powerful. She doesn't just want you to hear the song. She wants you to feel it. If you don't get chills while listening to her sing this song, you might need to check your pulse. It's a perfect song and a perfect scene, done in one take.
This film's greatest achievement is that it captures and preserves the essence of Judy Garland, including all her worn-in, unfiltered emotions, and the sweat and guts of someone who had been living through addiction and personal strife for nearly her entire life. I've always thought Garland was an underrated actress. When you consider her work in Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Clock (1945) and A Star is Born, it's hard not to be in awe of her ability to project emotional honesty and transparency. If you watch her passionate performance in the non-musical, The Clock by Minnelli, you can see her talent as an actress laid bare. You watch her for a few minutes and you immediately are pulled in by her openness. In this way, A Star is Born allows her the chance to be dramatic and emotionally naked for much of the film, but, it also lets her belt out a tune, something she was gifted with beyond all measure. Her performance in A Star is Born is one of the greatest performances by an actress that I've ever seen. Time once maintained that her performance was "just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history." However it should also be noted that James Mason's work here as an alcoholic is nearly as good and should be praised for giving a performance that supports, but does not upstage the film with showiness. It feels like his performance is a precursor to his masterful work in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956). But, this is still Judy's film. Sadly to say, this really wasn't her comeback. Following her devastating loss on Oscar night to Grace Kelly, she wouldn't appear again in a film until 6 years later. No studio wanted to take any more chances on her and couldn't afford to spend days idle, waiting for her to show up on the set in some kind of decent shape. A Star is Born thus acts as the final great testament to one of the greatest entertainers and actresses of the Hollywood era and one of the greatest singers who ever lived. Judy Garland will always be remembered as Dorothy, but to see the real Judy, see this one.