Reviews of unabashed praise are rare for me, and hard to write because there’s only so many permutations of the phrase “It’s freaking awesome!” A Star Is Born has been done countless times (and was remade again in 1976), both literally and peripherally. I’ve seen snippets of the ’76 version with Barbra Streisand and couldn’t stand it; I haven’t seen the 1937 version with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. In the trio, this is the one to beat, and while I don’t quite believe its the “greatest musical ever made” it’s damn near perfect!
Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) is a struggling nightclub singer waiting for her big break. When she meets leading man, Norman Maine (James Mason), he takes a shine to her and helps her gain entry into movies. Unfortunately, as her star rises, his starts to fall and Maine’s demons surface. As his struggles with alcoholism increase, Esther grapples with how to maintain her career and save the man she loves.
A Star Is Born is the quintessential “perils of Hollywood stardom” story (another Streisand vehicle, Funny Girl, is similar), but this is the one that tramples all the others. Esther’s success causes her husband to devolve into an alcoholic mess, ultimately ending in suicide is a bit too Mildred Pierce for me (damn women and their careers ruin lives), but it’s all explained beautifully in the film’s final moments when Esther asks studio head, Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) what causes Norman to become so unhinged. I’ve reviewed two films dealing with the aftermath of alcoholism – The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses – and I believe this should be included in that trio. There is no explanation for Norman’s disease; the blame can’t be placed on Esther or fame. Maine is a man predisposed to alcoholism and no amount of love or money can save him. Instead of saving himself, Norman decides to end his life. The movie belongs to Garland, but Mason takes a character that could have been a living nightmare and creates a sympathetic, tortured soul who cowardly turns to suicide (under the belief he’s sparing Esther), but who just can’t get out of the bottle. Lost Weekend and Days provided somewhat realistic, but still idealized, portrayals of alcoholism but I think Mason is the best out of the group; a man who can’t magically fix himself, and in the end becomes so tired that he gives up.
The autobiographical connections are intentional, and even though this was Garland’s comeback, much like Maine she couldn’t exorcise her demons entirely. After watching various Garland biopics, I expected to see a woman who was still a fantastic actress, but whose appearance showcased her years of hard living. Color me surprised when I saw how vibrant Garland was. No trace of booze or drugs appeared on her face or her bearing. The character of Esther Blodgett is Garland – the 18-minute “Born in a Trunk” sequence details her life growing up – but she’s just as much Norman Maine. There are funny sequences that hearken back to Garland’s youth in the studio system, such as her “makeover” in the studio makeup department while they talk about giving her a “Crawford mouth.” Their desire to turn her into a carbon copy of another star reminds me of Kim Novak’s interview for TCM when the studio attempted to recreate her as a combination of other stars. It’s startling the frankness director George Cukor employs considering he’s damning the studio system whilst directing a studio film; it’s realistic and troubling. The changing of Esther’s name to Vicki Lester is reminiscent of Ethel Frances Gumm who became Judy Garland, and calls back to the moment when Esther’s first movie director tells her “We don’t want to see your face!” Vicki/Esther isn’t a face, but a name; a brand that can be slapped on a movie poster and marketed. Cukor upbraids the studio industry for creating an industry of Vicki Lester’s and Norman Maine’s only to cast them off when they’re of no use. It’s ironic that the film opens with a Motion Picture Relief Fund fundraiser where Hollywood maintains “Hollywood never forgets its own” despite the entire movie detailing Hollywood’s forgetting of Norman Maine.
Just as Norman fears Esther will overshadow his career (and does), Garland smothers Mason. It’s proof of Mason’s strong acting abilities that he creates such a fantastic character at all because Garland forces you to feel everything she’s feeling as she’s feeling it! Her performance of “The Man That Got Away” had me bawling and wondering why. I believe it’s because she’s so raw and unrestrained in the role. Her performance is intense and visceral. She has “that little something extra” to enhance her star quality, and her determination to give the audience an Esther to root for can’t be ignored; Garland refuses to have you ignore her. As it was with Myrna Loy and William Powell, I wanted to believe that James Mason and Judy Garland were hopelessly in love. Esther gives several speeches about her mix of hatred, frustration, and enervation with Norman’s drinking that had to have come from a real place in Garland’s life, due to her personal struggles with alcohol. The script is expertly written by Moss Hart, who doesn’t sink to platitudes or clichés. The various conversations the characters have are no different from the average Joe, which only makes Esther’s sadness over Norman more profound. Norman himself is nothing but honest with his life, warning Esther that “I destroy everything I touch. I always have.” It is this honesty, the acknowledgement that he cannot forsake drinking, sadly he loves it more than his own wife, that breaks Esther – and the audience’s – heart.
Jack Carson is also worthy of praise as Norman’s agent, Matt Libby. Libby is a mixed bag, never completely falling into friend or foe territory. His character accentuates the symbiotic relationship between the press and the stars, with Libby being the middleman. The press is the “authority” on how real and unspoiled the stars are, but Libby is the man pulling the strings, doling out controlled stories on how much the press are allowed to know about that “reality.” Matt is the first parental figure we meet with regards to Norman. As Norman sleeps off the first of many benders Matt comments that Norman’s “like a child with a blowtorch.” Once Norman and Esther are married, Esther comments – again with Norman sleeping – on how childlike he is. Stars on others to care for them is another troubling element within the studio system. Hollywood may take care of its own, but that coddling and co-dependence only creates adults unable to cope with reality; Garland being the prime example of a studio life gone wrong. Libby compliments Norman throughout the movie; he’s sick of looking like the fool when Norman does something bad, so when Norman goes off the rails it is to Libby’s advantage. Libby sees this as karma, only to learn at the end that his assumptions about Norman were incorrect all along. Carson continues to rise up my actor lists, creating various characters of all shades that you can never put your finger on.
I could continue to gush about the film, but it’s one where I flat-out recommend you watch it. Garland and Mason are superb with Garland creating a role that’s iconic and should have won the Oscar. I haven’t seen Grace Kelly in The Country Girl – she won that year over Garland – but I cannot believe that role is better than this.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.