DESTINY CAME AT HER WITH A LEER!
This film was never easy to make from the start, but the post-production process wasn’t much fun either. Once completed, the film ran over three hours. It received rave reviews, but the studio nevertheless wanted it shorter. In the end, A Star Is Born came down to 154 minutes, losing several musical numbers and key dramatic scenes. Director George Cukor, who had been resting in Europe after the shoot, was anything but pleased.
In the early 1980s, film preservationist Ronald Haver started looking for footage in Warner’s vaults and found some of it. The new version, running 170 minutes, premiered in 1983 (with some missing scenes illustrated by dialogue and production stills). It is a marvel to behold.
Meeting at the Shrine Auditorium
The paths of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) and Norman Maine (James Mason) first cross one night at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, where the aspiring singer is performing together with an orchestra. Maine, a major movie star with a drinking problem, crashes the performance but Esther somehow makes it work without embarrassing Maine. Later that night, he sees her sing in a bar and realizes that she’s a huge talent. While wooing her, Maine encourages Esther to make her dreams come true and also helps her in every way he can. Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford), head of Maine’s movie studio, agrees to cast her in a small role in a movie and her name is changed to Vicky Lester. Eventually, Maine makes Niles hear Esther sing and suddenly her career begins to take off…. while Norman falls on hard times.
Up for the challenge
It was Garland’s husband, Sidney Luft, who convinced Cukor to direct a remake of the 1937 classic, with his wife in the lead. This must have been ironic to Cukor, because he had turned down the chance to make the original. Cukor, who had never made a musical, was up for the challenge… but he learned that working with Garland wasn’t easy. The shoot was constantly delayed because the star was battling several problems – addiction, illness and hypochondria. There was a reason why she hadn’t made a movie in years.
Still, this was a magnificent comeback, a tour-de-force performance that had a lot of truth in it, considering how her strongest dramatic scenes all deal with how Esther is desperately trying to think of how to help her alcoholic husband. The musical performances may not belong among the silver screen’s most classic moments, but Garland’s rendition of ”The Man That Got Away”, the song that catches Norman’s attention in the night club, is a showstopper. Beautifully staged and directed, and that also goes for most of the musical numbers. The film is one hour longer than the original, but that’s largely because of the musical performances; imagining the film without them is impossible. It’s a visually attractive picture, penetrating the glamor of Hollywood as its dream factory workers struggle first to make it, then to remain relevant even though addiction makes them impossible to work with.
Mason took a role that many actors reportedly didn’t want because Norman Maine was seen as a Hollywood loser, but he’s superb, one of the reasons why this is far from just another randomly assembled remake.
The film is handsome and touching. When the restored version premiered in 1983, Mason was in attendance together with Garland’s daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. It’s been said that after the film was shown, after the standing ovations and the revelation what a great movie this is, the daughters spent 20 minutes crying. Their mother wasn’t always easy… but damn, what a talent.
A Star Is Born 1954-U.S. 170 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Sidney Luft. Directed by George Cukor. Screenplay: Moss Hart. Cinematography: Sam Leavitt. Music: Ray Heindorf. Songs: ”Gotta Have Me Go With You”, ”The Man That Got Away” (Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin). Production Design: Gene Allen, Malcolm Bert. Costume Design: Jean Louis, Mary Ann Nyberg, Irene Sharaff. Cast: Judy Garland (Esther Blodgett/Vicky Lester), James Mason (Norman Maine), Charles Bickford (Oliver Niles), Jack Carson, Tom Noonan.
Trivia: Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, Frank Sinatra, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant were allegedly considered as Maine.
Golden Globes: Best Actor (Mason), Actress (Garland).
Last word: “It was edited brutally, stupidly and arbitrarily, and many of Garland’s finest moments were taken out. I have no doubt that’s the reason Judy didn’t win an Oscar in 1954. Neither of us have ever gone to see the butchered version; it’s a very painful business. Even worse, nobody seems to know what happened to the missing scenes after they were cut. There doesn’t seem to be a complete negative of the film in existence.” (Cukor in 1967, before the footage was found, RogerEbert.com)