Combustible Celluloid
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With: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon, Hazel Shermet
Written by: Moss Hart, based on a screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, Robert Carson
Directed by: George Cukor
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 176
Date: 09/29/1954

A Star Is Born (1954)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Morose Famous

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

George Cukor was always a respected director, known for being good with actresses, and able to turn in sly, sophisticated, tightly constructed comedies like Holiday (1938), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Adam's Rib (1949) and Born Yesterday (1950). (He was no slouch with dramas, either, as Camille or Gaslight can attest.) But he was not particularly known as a visual director, which is where A Star Is Born comes in.

It was his first film in color and Cinemascope, and his first real musical. Many old-time directors froze up when it came time to face such radical changes in their craft, and a great many of those early widescreen productions merely consisted of big, static frames, crammed with ornate stuff. (They avoided too much cutting or close-ups for fear of suddenly jarring the huge frame.) However, somehow, Cukor sensed what to do.

He had a fairly small story; it had been filmed before in 1937 by William Wellman, from a screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Robert Carson, and it was a standard two-hour movie. Very simply, it tells the story of major Hollywood star, Norman Maine (James Mason), who has turned into a troublesome drunk. He discovers a young, unknown singer, Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), and uses whatever pull he has left to get her a shot. Essentially, she rises while he falls. There are a few complications, such as an unexpected separation while Norman is on location, their increasing love for one another, and Norman's increasing self-pity. But overall, it's a two-person story.

Cukor inserted some huge, complicated musical numbers. There was probably some pressure to top the ballet that had helped capture the Best Picture Oscar for An American in Paris (1951), and the characters even mention that movie onscreen. So we get a 15-minute number that plays in the form of the premiere of Esther's first big movie. (She's now called "Vicki Lester.") This and other musical numbers are impressive, but I was far more amazed by some of the simpler moments, such as Norman drunk backstage at a benefit, or Norman trying to convince Esther to give up a low-paying show in order to take a stab at Hollywood.

In these and other sequences, Cukor's camera is supremely fluid, opening up and using the extra, empty space as an important part of the mood. He uses mirrors and windows wherever possible, illustrating the two equal, but opposite lead characters. But his skill with actors is still apparent, and even within all this hugeness, Garland and Mason give two full-blooded performances. In one scene, Esther is aching and sobbing over her husband's trials, and she breaks down in the makeup room. She's called back onto the set, and she shakes it off in the space of a few seconds, putting her smile back on for the cameras. Mason may have seemed like a stiff Brit from time to time, but he gives a remarkably, raw, physical performance here; one shot of him laughing maniacally in the flickering light of a projector is immensely haunting. Mason was nominated for an Oscar, but unfortunately so was Marlon Brando. Likewise, Garland lost to Grace Kelly.

The film received six nominations in all, and lost all of them. But it also suffered a worse fate. The world premiere ran 181 minutes, which received high praise, but the studio decided to cut 30 minutes out of it. In 1983, a "restored" version was released. Using audio tracks and stills, technicians were able to put most of the missing scenes back together. This print, which runs 176 minutes, is the one that's available today. Warner Home Video has released a spiffy new Blu-Ray, with the feature film taking up one whole disc, and all the extras relegated to a second disc (a DVD). They include alternate takes, radio shows, premiere footage, trailers, and a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

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