Celebrate Judy Garland’s centenary year with screenings of the restored version of George Cukor’s exemplary musical drama.
Cukor’s version still proves impossible to equal primarily because of [Judy] Garland... whose performance is one of the greatest ever committed to celluloid.
Norman Maine (James Mason) is an established movie star whose fame risks being tarnished by an indiscriminate drinking habit when he sets eyes on singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) at a Hollywood gala. He tracks Esther and her band down to their second gig of the night and watches enthralled as Esther delivers an absolutely knockout version of Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen’s ‘The Man Who Got Away’. Unaware of her unmistakable star quality, Maine urges Esther not to “settle for the little dream – aim for the big one”.
Encouraged by Maine’s belief in her talent, Esther dares to set her sights on a career in Hollywood musicals. In George Cukor’s exemplary musical drama – an adaptation of an earlier film he had directed in 1932 under the title of What Price Hollywood? – Esther’s transformation into a studio-styled creation renamed Vicki Lester mirrored some of the younger Garland’s own notorious experiences as a rising talent at MGM.
Notwithstanding its critique of the studio system and the single-mindedness of its press agents – studio press agent Matt Libby (Jack Carson) emerges as one of the least sympathetic and cynical characters in Cukor’s film – A Star is Born is rightly remembered for showcasing Judy Garland’s extraordinary screen presence and range, musically and dramatically. (James Mason is no lightweight, either!)
Despite their own investment in a film that Garland and her then husband Sidney Luft produced, a churlish and vindictive campaign on the part of Warner Bros’ Harry and Jack Warner stymied the film’s prospects at the Academy Awards, arguably denying Garland the Best Actress prize and the industry comeback (at 32!) she keenly sought and deserved. Jack Warner also ordered that the original version of the film be cut, without consulting Cukor, and without retaining a single print of the original full-length film.
Restored in the 1980s in large part thanks to the efforts of film historian and preservationist, Ronald Haver, an early section of the film features a montage of stills juxtaposed with surviving audio to recreate 20 or so minutes of footage that were permanently lost. None of which diminishes the emotional force of Garland and Mason’s riveting performances in a film that attests to the enduring star power of both.
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