Welcome to the latest installment of The Bucket Cine-list, in which we take a look at the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. The movie in the spotlight this week is the 1954 musical A Star is Born.
Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), a young singer working with a small-time traveling act, finally gets her big break when she meets movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) and saves him from drunkenly humiliating himself in front of an audience. Grateful, and impressed with her talent, Norman sets Esther on the path to stardom, and her fame skyrockets just as his starts to wane. Esther must contend with the price of Hollywood, struggling against those who want to change her looks, her identity, and her life. In addition to navigating Esther’s rising fame and Norman’s descent into alcoholism, the two of them are placed squarely on a collision course with disaster when they fall in love.
Reasons for its significance:
A Star is Born was Judy Garland’s comeback to the big screen after an absence of several years. The success of the film rebuilt Garland’s film career, which could have been over after her contract with MGM was terminated, and helped to ensure her legacy as one of the great stars in the history of film. A Star is Born also helped to popularize the CinemaScope or wide-screen format for films when director George Cukor demonstrated that the format could be put to artistic use.
A Star is Born is one of my favorite musicals. It was a vehicle for Judy Garland’s tremendous musical and acting talent and she put on a masterful one-woman show. Garland is a tragic figure in Hollywood history; she came to stardom early and was busy in movies and television her entire life. She famously suffered from depression and substance abuse problems and died at the age of 47 after an overdose of barbiturates. The woman who brought joy to so many through The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and countless other musicals spent a lot of her life being quite miserable. In reality, Garland was something of an amalgam of the characters of Norman and Esther which makes the movie even more tragically compelling.
Despite Garland’s personal struggles, her performance in A Star is Born is one of her most luminous. Her voice is breathtaking, and it’s very easy to believe that Norman Maine would have been motivated to make a star out of her when he heard her performance of “The Man That Got Away.” The songs are universally excellent, and the story is beautifully executed. The 1950s had a very different aesthetic for dramatic storytelling than modern audiences are accustomed to, and it’s a testament to the strength of the writing, the performances, and the music, that the film never feels dated or unreal. It’s something of a tragedy in my mind that Judy Garland did not win the Oscar for best actress for this performance.
James Mason was charming and ultimately heartbreaking as Norman Maine, the star struggling in the deathgrip of alcoholism. The smooth-spoken charisma that Mason was famous for lends believability to the character who is well-loved despite his failings, and makes the sting of his tragedy that much sharper.
The music in the movie is absolutely exquisite. The songs were written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin and they range from funny and entertaining to absolutely heartbreaking. Even the most show-stopping musical numbers in the movie never distract from the overall arc of the story, they only enhance it. It’s a very impressive accomplishment for a musical to be so tragic and real when people stop to perform semi-justified musical numbers every few minutes. As a result of the captivating performances and the beautiful staging, it really does work.
A Star is Born is a fairytale that continues after the “happily ever after” and presses forward into far darker territory where love is not necessarily enough to save someone from themselves. It’s heart-piercing, extravagantly beautiful, and an all-encompassing cinematic experience that also happens to be a brilliant one-woman show. After all the showy musical numbers and moving drama, the ending is a powerful and bittersweet moment (which I won’t detail here), in which Esther smiles through tears. A Star is Born is a movie that deals with the idea that all dreams come with a price, even fame… and especially love.
A Star is Born is available on DVD and blu-ray, and through Amazon Instant Video.