A Star Is Born (1954) dir. George Cukor
Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford and Jack Carson
By Greg Klymkiw
The devastating effects of alcoholism have seldom been captured with the kind of force that permeates director George Cukor's 1954 rendering of this classic tale of a star rising, another star burning out and the bond of love between them.
A Star is Born as a much-beloved screen entity began with David O. Selznick's early attempt at R.K.O. Pictures to tell a true-to-life story about Hollywood. Securing Adela Rogers St. Johns to write the story and subsequently employing a myriad of screenwriters, Selznick teamed up with his good friend George Cukor to bring the world What Price Hollywood? in 1932. It's a solid film with an especially great performance from Lowell Sherman as the alcoholic who feels he is holding back the genius of the woman he loves and subsequently commits suicide to "free" her. Constance Bennett in the female role was good, but not great.
In 1937, Selznick returned to the material and delivered what would be the first picture officially bearing the title "A Star is Born". This fine version, sans Cukor and helmed by the stalwart William Wellman, starred Fredric March as the drunken star and also featured exquisite production value. Alas, Janet Gaynor as its leading lady was simply no match for Mr. March. The film, whilst good, fell short of the greatness it was clearly striving for.
The cinematic marriage made in Heaven for this material occurred when Judy Garland's husband, Sidney Luft, seeking a comeback project for his troubled wife, convinced Warner Brothers to bankroll a musical version of the tale with George Cukor directing and the inimitable Moss Hart writing the screenplay adaptation of Dorothy Parker's 1937 screenplay. The casting of James Mason as Judy Garland's husband was a stroke of genius and for once, the material had two great stars - evenly matched in talent and screen presence.
The simple, well-told tale involves singer Esther Blodgett (Garland) who meets-cute with Hollywood star Norman Maine (Mason) at a ritzy film business fundraiser wherein the completely sloshed actor ends up on stage with a chorus line of performers, one of whom is our heroine. Esther knows who Norman is, and also realizes how drunk he is, but she's both star-struck and charmed and engages him in a fun, silly dance that entertains the audience and, in so doing, allows Norman to retain the dignity of a stalwart performer letting loose (as opposed to being seen as a buffoon).
Eventually, the two becomes friends and lovers and most importantly, Norman becomes Esther's benign Svengali and he uses all his powers to turn her into a huge star. The paternal studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) gets Esther to change her name to Vicki Lester and further builds her into the studio's most valuable asset.
Alas, Norman's continued drunken antics have made him a huge liability to the studio and his contract is not renewed. People he thought were his friends ignore him, and the slimy studio publicity chief played by the inimitable Jack Carson, tell hims to his face how much he's always hated him and pretended to be his friend because it was his job. This latter blow comes after Norman is off the wagon and leads to him hitting the bottle even harder.
Esther/Vicki rises to the top, and Norman falls further than anyone could have imagined. Loving his wife desperately, but feeling he is holding her back, Norman makes what he thinks is the ultimate sacrifice so she can truly shine.
While there are plenty of musical numbers in the picture - including Garland's knockout rendition of Arlen and Gershwin's great song "The Man That Got Away" - the movie is at its absolute best when Garland and Mason share the screen together. Cukor and his two great actors brilliantly capture the initial attraction, their growing love, the mutual dependency upon each other (positive and negative) - all the ups and downs one expects from characters that are deeply wrought and ultimately, sympathetic because of the simple, delicate humanity with which they're handled.
An extremely interesting aspect to this story is that so many pictures from the Golden Age of Cinema were weepers of the highest order and often used female characters in the position of feeling like a millstone around either their lovers' or children's necks and making huge sacrifices to free those they love from their burdensome presence. "A Star is Born" - especially in this version - is a powerful reversal of this storytelling tradition.
One of the more astounding sequences in the movie is when Esther/Vicky is at the Academy Awards, desperately awaiting to see if she wins, but even more desperate as she wonders and waits where an absent Norman is. Garland's performance here is heartbreaking, but when Norman finally appears at the awards ceremony - completely plastered, Garland's performance reaches stratospheric heights when she deals with how Norman humiliates her.
Mason captures his character's pathetic inner helplessness while Garland displays pure love - not a stalwart attempt at maintaining dignity, but love! A love that means helping her husband at all costs and no matter how much he's made a fool of himself - Garland conveys that it is her love that is stronger than his illness and that sacrifice is perhaps the greatest force of love. In fact, her kind, resolute handling of the embarrassing situation plays as a sacrifice and yet, below the surface, there is the subtext - delivered mostly through Garland's performance - suggesting that for Esther/Vicki, helping someone you love maintain THEIR dignity might be SEEN as a sacrifice, but that she doesn't view it that way. It's what one does when one is in love.
One of the reasons Garland's Blodgett/Lester seems so evenly matched is the juxtaposition between one character's discovery and the other's loss - the latter clearly being the loss of one's way in the world to the point where the only way to move forward is to seek death. Garland discovers, not only her talent, but that she has the capacity for undying love and sensuality while Mason can only empower himself in making a star out of someone even as he has lost all of his lustre.
While there is a certain surface bravery to Mason's sacrifice, there is a cowardice to it as well - a cowardice that is only too human, and in so being, FEELS heroic. His sacrifice, however, pales in comparison to the endless sacrifices Garland makes.
It was my most recent viewing of this film, on the new Warner Home Entertainment Blu-Ray Special Edition release where my eyes were drawn almost inextricably to the eyes of both performers. It was, perhaps the clarity of the format itself that allowed me access to the souls of the characters through these two pairs of eyes. Both Garland and Mason express a myriad of emotions and there's never a false note from either of them. And as truly great as Garland is in the film, we once again have a film version of the story where the actor playing Norman - in this case, Mason - is such a compelling tragic figure that it's impossible not to be deeply moved by him to the point where our heroine becomes somewhat muted in comparison.
Thankfully, though, Garland is only occasionally overshadowed by Mr. Mason and is certainly a match for him. At the conclusion of the film, when she proclaims that her name is "Mrs. Norman Maine" - suggesting, of course, how their souls are inextricably connected for an eternity - we realize just how utterly perfect Cukor's handling of this vital love is.
That said, Mason's last scenes in the magic hour of his final day on Earth, come close to ripping one's heart out of one's chest. The little looks and smiles of love and determination he delivers, wrench such pure emotion from an audience, that it's easy to see how Mason comes close to walking away with the picture. As well, anyone who has suffered from alcoholism either directly or indirectly will realize just how great Mason is in the picture.
It's truly a testament to Mason, Garland and Cukor that alcoholism is treated with all the sad truth the subject requires and most of all, that its viewed as it should be - a disease that can rip the lifeblood out of everyone, not just the individual afflicted with the disease.
A Star Is Born is a classic - end of story.
It might well be over fifty years old, but it feels as fresh and vital as if it had been made just yesterday.
A Star Is Born" is now available on Warner Home Entertainement in''' DVD and Blu-Ray with a restoration that brings the recut 177 minute version - as close to Cukor's original cut (over 180 mins.) before the studio truncated it to 154 minutes soon after its initial theatrical release. You'll also note I have made absolutely no mention of the execrable 1970s film version of the story. The less said about it, the better.