Hollywood’s first remake of William Wellman’s searing 1937 tragedy, A Star is Born, neither enhances nor detracts from the original. Director George Cukor, working from Moss Hart’s screenplay (based upon the original script), mixes music into the story, which remains essentially intact. If this sounds clunky, so is the remake. A Star is Born (1954) lacks chemistry, characterization and cohesion. It’s a star vehicle for Judy Garland and by now everyone knows about that legendary wreckage. It’s impossible to watch this and not think of the real life tragedy of Judy Garland’s life.
Indeed, known facts undercut the theme. Knowing what one knows about Garland and her abused, molested, drug addicted life trivializes what might have been a great motion picture. Hart, Cukor and Garland were extremely talented. Others, such as co-stars Jack Carson, Charles Bickford and James Mason as an alcoholic movie star who discovers Judy Garland’s Esther Blodgett, also have ability. They’re lost in a movie that’s constantly doing to its star what it’s dramatizing as destroying its leading man. The incessant push and pull of publicity, promotionalism and working an artist too hard — before the ends of Marilyn, Elvis and Whitney, to name a few — lies beneath the surface of Cukor’s colorful extravaganza, in which there’s too much Judy Garland performing too many songs, few of which advance the plot.
“He’s here — he’s drunk” introduces the fading movie star known as Norman Maine (Mason) before the show thrusts the audience into chaos.
Enter Judy Garland as the song and dance performer who coaxes the drunken fool offstage — she comments to her bandmate that, drunk or not, Norman Maine seems nice. The problem is that he’s not nice — and Jack Carson as the studio’s publicity chief and Maine’s babysitter, knows it — and Cukor’s extended setup makes Mason’s Maine too vile and disgusting to redeem.
The stars do their best to play the romance but they never get the screen time to show how deep is Norman Maine’s and Vicki Lester’s love, so there’s lacking the sense of their desperate need to get away from show business. Maine molests and cavorts at will. Garland’s Lester is a musical powerhouse, if a maudlin powerhouse, and 1954’s A Star is Born is too much her movie. After he hunts her down following the opening debacle, he hears her sing without an audience, pledges to make her a star and tells Esther Blodgett to sing “for herself”, which she proceeds to do after admitting that her inner state is confusion and that she feels most alive when she sings.
Vicki Lester and the movie too abruptly dispense with the man who believed in her. In nested stories within stories depicted in Vicki Lester’s songs, which go on and on in an entertaining if detached and meaningless montage — at one point, she sings about being melancholy, which displays pure melancholy — A Star is Born dims its glow.
Even after her character sings about a new world opening up to her, as Norman Maine’s finally released from the burden of being Norman Maine, her response is more song and dance. That she does this in a dazzling display which tickles her man is fine. But it casts her character adrift and reminds that audience that the movie exists to serve Judy Garland’s musical numbers, not the other way around. This renders her “new world” star ignorant. When she gets a smack in the face, it is not shocking.
Love is not enough to stop someone wonderful from ceasing to love himself, it turns out. That Judy Garland of all actresses realizes this in her big meltdown scene, foreshadowing Malibu’s winds of change and a robe on the rocks, as James Mason writhes in agony at the wreckage of his life, ought to have underscored the line that a disowned self fades with “not with a bang but with a whimper”.
Instead, this overproduced A Star is Born, putting a troubled, fading star at the center of a film about reclaiming life, flickers the illusion that suffering can be glamorous — forgetting that it superficially seems that way until it happens to you.