March 17, 2005
A Star Is Born (1954)
Grade: 96/100

Director: George Cukor
Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford

What it's about. Alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (Mason) falls in love with an obscure but talented performer (Garland) whom he promotes to stardom. They marry, but can Norman stop his downward spiral?

How others will see it. If they are fortunate enough to see the restored version, viewers will be surprised that several scenes have a soundtrack but only publicity stills as a visual. This is because Warner Bros. in their infinite wisdom trimmed the film after its initial run, and tossed out the cut scenes like they were yesterday's garbage.

Apart from the partly restored footage, which isn't really important to the film, they may find the movie to be a bit slow and depressing. Like Titanic, the movie is about three hours long, but the direction is not urgent, and the bitter result of drug addiction is neither glamorized nor exaggerated.

Among Hollywood musicals, only Singin' in the Rain is superior, and only by a slender margin. But because it is 'slow' and often uncomfortable to watch, A Star Is Born will never approach the popularity of its upbeat rival.

Those not familiar with Judy Garland beyond her role as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz will rediscover her enormous talent, particularly as a singer. Fans of classic cinema will enjoy every moment, especially the convincing study of Hollywood studios near the end of their golden era, when stars and bit players alike were under strict contract.

How I felt about it. A Star Is Born is a masterpiece, profoundly superior to the 1976 Barbara Streissand vehicle, and clearly better than the 1937 version on which is based. Director George Cukor had earlier directed the similarly themed What Price Hollywood? The 1954 remake has the benefit of Judy Garland, who put everything into her performances since the big budget, high profile film was her great movie comeback. She had been unceremoniously dropped by MGM a few years before, and the project was a once in a lifetime opportunity to revive her Hollywood career.

Garland's numbers range from great to spectacular (especially "The Man That Got Away") except for one mildly embarassing performance that includes wearing a lampshade to imitate a Chinese woman. But her acting and dancing, and of course her singing, are on target throughout.

Cukor's slowly paced direction doesn't spoil the film. Instead, it allows us to savor its atmosphere and glory. The jaded Mason walks through a restaurant with a knowing waiter, while they discuss the availability of the ladies present, before Mason decides to lose the scene to seek Garland. Is this scene essential, or exciting? Hardly. But its memorable nonetheless, since it helps establish the personality and motivation of Mason's character.

A Star Is Born is not for everyone. But veterans of viewing the silver screen will appreciate it as a masterwork, instead of waiting impatiently until next Friday for the latest ballyhooed new release.