#218 A Star Is Born

(1954, George Cukor)

“It won’t happen”
“No, it might happen pretty easily, but the dream isn’t big enough”

I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear before, but I really don’t like musicals. Oh, I have made that clear before? Well, let me say it again. I don’t like musicals. Something about the constant stop and start nature of the genre, where the action and dialogue will stop for a song-and-dance number, actually tends to distract me rather than enthral me. And so we come to A Star Is Born, which not only is a musical, but is also almost three hours long. Hurray!

A Star Is Born is about singer Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), who has a chance encounter with actor Norman Maine (James Mason) while performing at a function in Hollywood. Maine’s career is in decline, and he turns up to the function drunk, and ends up stumbling onto the stage in the middle of the performance. Esther manages to pull him offstage, and he immediately becomes enamoured with her. Convincing her to leave her band and work in Hollywood as a musical star instead, she begins her climb to stardom as Vicki Lester, while he simultaneously begins his descent into failure.

So, about that whole musical thing. This is technically a musical, since there are song-and-dance numbers, but it’s not really a musical in the traditional sense. All those musical numbers exist in the universe of the film, since they’re all performances for films-within-the-film. It’s like Once, where the songs existed because the characters were musicians and not just because someone hired a composer. So, let me add this to my thoughts on musicals: I don’t find the songs distracting when the characters themselves are musicians or singers.

With that element out of the way, I can judge the film a little better on its merits. And surprisingly, I actually really liked A Star Is Born. Let’s examine why.

First of all, the two leads. I always seem to like a movie if the leads have good chemistry, and Garland and Mason do indeed have great chemistry. Garland is perfect as the idealistic singer swept off her feet by a dashing Hollywood star who promises her the Earth, and Mason is suave and charming but with a definite dark side. They also play well off each other, with happy moments feeling believably like they love being around each other, and the dark moments demonstrating great sympathy for each other.

And yes, there are dark moments, and they are a big part of why I enjoyed the movie. It didn’t feel like the movie was a happy celebration of Hollywood, despite my initial impression that it was. Norman’s career decline due to alcoholism is occasionally harrowing to watch, and there’s always a sense that Esther is fragile and is in way over her head at times. The struggles never felt clichéd either, and the alcoholism is played relatively realistically.

The movie also never tries to justify Norman’s issues or tries to give an adequate reason for why he drinks so much. Like real mental issues, it feels like not even Norman himself understands the reasons behind it. His producer is torn between being a sympathetic friend and a boss that needs to tell him to shape up. He is played sympathetically but immensely troubled, and his self-destruction is tragic. I commend Cukor and the team for treating the issue with great respect and without resorting to demonization and moralisation.

The romance does veer dangerously close to the “falling too fast” syndrome I mentioned in my Lady Eve review, but manages to stay on the right side of it due to the various time skips allowing us to recognise a greater build-up behind the scenes and, as mentioned, the actors’ chemistry makes it believable.

I even enjoyed the musical numbers, surprisingly enough, with one particular number, “Born In A Trunk”, being a particular favourite. The songs were usually pretty enjoyable, with Garland visibly having the time of her life, and “Born In A Trunk” in particular is visually very stunning. It takes a lot for me to appreciate musical numbers, so they must have done something right.

However, if I must criticise the movie, there are two things that stand out. The length is a bit of a problem, as it does feel a tad bloated at times and probably could have lost an hour off its running time fairly easily.

The second issue is Garland herself. While on the whole she does a great job, there are moments when the alcoholic fallen star narrative feels like it should actually apply to her. Her real life descent into drug addiction was happening around this time, and it sadly shows up in her performance at times. Sometimes she looks a little too spacey, other times her acting feels a little hysterical, and there are moments where the real tragedy seems to be her, especially viewing the movie in retrospect of her tragic death.

But that aside, A Star Is Born was actually quite an enjoyable movie. It may be advertised as a musical, but this is actually a really great drama about the perils of Hollywood fame.

Starring Judy Garland & James Mason
Written by William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell & Moss Hart
Produced by Sidney Luft
Music by Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin
Cinematography by Sam Leavitt
Edited by Folmar Blangsted

Favourite Scene: Esther gives an emotional speech about Maine’s alcoholism to his producer late in the film, and it’s a powerful scene.
Scene That Bugged Me: One musical number features a rather questionable section about the Chinese that made me feel a tad uncomfortable.

Watch it if: You like your musicals with a touch of darkness
Avoid it if: You’ll be thinking of Eddie Izzard’s James Mason impression the whole time

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Posted on September 13, 2013, in 1950s, Drama, Musical, Romance and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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