Genre: Musical and Romantic Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 56 min.
Release Date: October 16th, 1954 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George Cukor Actors: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tom Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon
t the Night of Stars celebration in Hollywood, benefitting the Motion Picture Relief Fund, screaming crowds gather as shiny black cars drive up to a red-carpet walkway. One of the biggest draws is producer Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford), escorting celebrity Lola Lavery (Lucy Marlow) – among so many others, decked out in furs and diamonds and shows of riches. It’s a glamorous event, full of stage performances, Hollywood bigwigs, beautiful stars … and the late, drunken arrival of actor Norman Maine (James Mason), whose anticipated appearance ends up spoiling part of a dance routine and causing a bit of a ruckus backstage.
Public relations manager for the studio, Matt Libby (Jack Carson), attempts to conduct some damage control, but Maine is routinely given a wide berth, his popularity allowing for plenty of troublemaking. As executives struggle to rein him in, he becomes violent, knocking people to the ground and even assaulting a trio of singers and dancers in the middle of their big number. One of those performers is Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a talented woman but a relative newcomer to Hollywood. She tries to remain professional, but she’s terrified of his unpredictability. That unstable behavior nevertheless awakens Esther’s curiosity; when Norman tracks her down that evening, he insists that she has that special star quality that could make her a household name – and he’s more than willing to take her under his wing.
“I somehow feel most alive when I’m singing.” Interrupting the storyline are numerous opportunities for Garland to flourish her sensational pipes. Long pauses allow for full musical sequences (some segueing straight into another), clearly serving as a showcase for her considerable talent. If the running time weren’t so long (complete with an intermission), her moments for singing would be the sole highlight, and far more memorable than the plot. And though they’re exquisite (a preview at the end of a picture shown in a theater is one of the best, as it’s basically a separate film within the film – the “Born in a Trunk” sequence), the story itself ends up being quite poignant.
“What makes you so sure about me?” Although Maine is far from dependable – and manages to let people down at every turn – he inspires Esther to follow a new path, and to believe in herself. So even when he initially fails to come through with his promise to put her in front of a camera, she’s undeterred, insistent on pursuing fame on her own. Of course, once she actually makes it to Oliver Niles Studio for a screen test, there are other hurdles in her way – such as criticisms about her physical appearance. Hollywood (and show business in general) isn’t kind to the imperfect.
“A Star is Born” is as much a skewering of the problems and customs of fame and celebrity and the studio system as it is a chance for Garland to croon. Through comedic demonstrations of the uncaring and insincere nature of executives, to the transformative makeup department, to the deceptive magic of moviemaking itself (which includes further disapprovals of Esther’s unconventional features), numerous areas of the industry are examined and censured; it’s not satire as much as it’s just realistically daunting. “We’ll have a new name for you by the end of the week.”
“I destroy everything I touch.” A tragic, cynical love story blossoms, too, but once again, the major plot points are punctuated by songs; some of them supplement the yarn, as if narration, but most are merely additional performances, keen on reiterating Garland’s abilities (worked in organically and, on occasion, ungracefully [“I’ll put the practice record on and show you”]). Between songs, however, Garland reveals a range that transcends her voice as well; she’s incredibly convincing in moments of distress and heartbreak, which tend to immediately alternate with another song-and-dance number.
Esther’s stardom comes at a price, as her love for Norman is partially gratitude for the boost to her career – or at least it transitions into that blend, as the has-been actor withdraws in the face of her skyrocketing success, and his past bad behavior finally catches up. A touch of jealousy, guilt, and insecurity plague any psychological recovery; his lover’s achievements take a significant toll on his emotional wellbeing, which come to a head at an Oscars ceremony – a supremely embarrassing, awkward show of resentment and immaturity. Ultimately, pride gets the better of Norman; in a moment of brutal clarity, he realizes there’s only one real way to help Esther remain on track to worldwide acclaim – one that leads to a monumental conclusion. But no matter how impactful the finale, it’s difficult to appreciate the film as a whole; it’s very clearly two distinct pictures: one about the rises and falls of a Hollywood couple, and the other a collection of musical numbers to illustrate the magnificent art of Judy Garland.
– Mike Massie