“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” the central Selma (Björk) of Dancer in the Dark (2000) sighs as her world shatters before her very eyes. Such a sentiment is true for Singin’ in the Rain, for Grease. But Selma has likely never seen 1954’s A Star Is Born, one of the most devastating of cinemusicals. So marred by tragedy is it that even its most genuinely “happy” of moments are consistently primed to melt away. It is a melancholy epic, courageous and emotionally heartfelt.
But in a film as sprawling as this one, issues arise from the running time alone. Consider that the newly restored version stands only five minutes away from the three-hour mark. Consider that its musical sequences, long and unnecessarily protracted, add little to the film besides showcasing Garland at her waning prime.
Prominent is a feeling that George Cukor, among the Hollywood Golden Age’s biggest talents, had a hard time leaving things on the cutting-room floor, which is understandable: Garland and co-star James Mason give two of the greatest performances of their era. But the film doesn’t know how to be concise — its beginning and end are stunning, with the middle being, well, middling.
I am reminded of Roger Ebert’s review of Funny Girl, which he gave four out of four stars solely due to Barbra Streisand’s excellent portrayal of Fanny Brice. “It’s hard to find much to praise about the rest of the film,” he remarked after calling its leading lady magnificent. I feel the same for A Star Is Born, though I am not moved enough by it to still give it a perfect A rating. Throughout its length, I was in awe of its performances. It acts like a cinematic greatest hits for Garland, showcasing her tremendous singing abilities, her dancing talents, and, above all, just how great of a performer she was when given the opportunity to act her ass off. For Mason, who takes the role of the tragic figure, we can only ponder why he wasn’t given more leading roles during his lifetime.
But everything else about A Star Is Born is unsubtly imperfect. The storytelling, slow burning and time consuming, has an inevitable quality that makes each event act as a spotlight for Garland and Mason to be reactors, players to make a situation ring more authentically. The musical sequences, while exquisite, are stretched out much beyond their limits; clearly, they are there to prove why Garland’s Esther became such a big star in the first place, but they lose their potency as Cukor suddenly goes from a credible filmmaker to the role of a superfan. Though coming to his defense isn’t a challenge — Garland is awe-inspiring.
The film, famously, details the marriage of Esther Blodgett (Garland) and Norman Maine (Mason), a pair of opposites that attract against the odds. As the movie opens, Esther is a small time jazz singer impressing small audiences weeks at a time; Maine is an alcoholic, once-gigantic star of the silver screen about to hit the unforgivable floor of rock bottom. Their love begins when Maine hears Esther’s voice for the first time, which makes him feel things deep in his heart that have been kept cold and haggard for years.
Without much self-confidence, Maine takes it upon himself to use his celebrity to get Esther a studio contract — and, despite efforts by the studio to make her a blonde, to change her nose, to change her name, she remains herself, exclusively keeping the title of Vicki Lester as a stage name. She and Maine eventually get married. It only takes a single film to catapult her into super-fame, and it is only a short while before she wins her first Oscar. Most in Maine’s shoes would turn away from alcohol after finding a new love to make life have a purpose again. But it isn’t so.
It is suggested that Maine, self-involved and lacking self-esteem, doesn’t marry Esther to show adoration in the way she does for him — he likes her, appreciates her, but is much too lost in his emotional instability to care for anyone else. And so their marriage is constantly interrupted by his drunken blunders, most injuriously when she wins an Academy Award and he cringingly cuts her speech short just so he can publicly wallow in the embarrassment of being let out of his contract by the studio. Their union can only end in tragedy.
Esther’s rise to the top is supremely exciting in the way that it’s told, and the closing is cataclysmic, tear-jerking, even. The commentary in the direction of Hollywood is eye-opening and refreshingly honest in an age where telling the truth wasn’t an option for most studios. But I cannot say that I spent the length of A Star Is Born entertained; I felt more appreciative toward its bold moves, more willing to glance at the time than become enamored with the sum of its parts. A depressing feeling, if anything — everyone considers it to be one of the best musicals ever made, and yet I find myself reaching out only to clench a ball of air instead.
In Lauren Bacall’s fantastic memoir By Myself (1978), the actress describes being in Garland's presence during the taping of the Oscars. At the time, Garland was in the hospital, in the grips of childbirth, and a camera crew was sent just in case her speech (she was the front-runner for Best Actress) needed to be broadcast to the public. But she unexpectedly lost to Grace Kelly for the now-forgotten The Country Girl. Bacall praises Garland for keeping a brave face in front of her friends, her family. Yet she could see that the loss utterly destroyed her, perhaps heightening the misery that would lead to her untimely death in 1969. If only Hollywood weren’t such an unforgiving place. B-