***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B
starring Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Tom Noonan
screenplay by Moss Hart, based on the screenplay by Dorothy Parker & Alan Campbell & Robert Carson
directed by George Cukor
by Walter Chaw A big, giant mess of a movie, big, giant mess of a director George Cukor's A Star is Born--a remake of the 1937 Janet Gaynor vehicle as well as Cukor's own 1932 What Price Hollywood?--finds big, giant mess of a gay icon Judy Garland quivering gallantly on the razor's edge of total mental collapse for 176 famously-restored minutes. A miracle of single-mindedness and dedication to the film-preservation cause? No doubt. A movie that could easily withstand 90 minutes of liberal pruning? Indeed. And unlike that question posed rhetorically of Joseph II in Amadeus, it's all too obvious which bits need trimming. Start with the 20-minute (might as well be 20-hour) "Born in a Trunk" number, inserted by Jack Warner unbeknownst to Cukor and intended to showcase Garland's then-healthy stage act. A "showstopper" in every sense of the word, it's unbelievably bad and, more than bad, it betrays everything that's worked about A Star is Born up to that point. A film-within-a-film-within-a-film, it has Judy vamping her way through a series of surreal set-pieces, telling her origin story while doing a medley of standards from the Warner catalogue. It's painful for all the wrong reasons.
When A Star is Born works, though, it's painful for the right reasons. Garland's Esther, dubbed Vicki Lester once she secures a studio contract, is ingénue, songbird, and discovery of screen idol Norman Maine (James Mason). But Maine, in stark counterpoint to Vicki's meteoric rise, is in steep decline, a victim of alcoholism and changing audience tastes. It's a tale oft-told, most recently in Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, but credit to Cukor for using the plot as a way to dissect Garland's crushing insecurity and her own history with drug abuse, alcohol, trips to the sanatorium, and multiple suicide attempts. Her mixing of morphine with booze--a makeshift laudanum, the narcotic of choice among Lake Poets--identifies her in my mind as something of a Romanticist. For Garland, the past was always sunnier no matter the volume and degree of loss (most notably of her father) and fracture hidden there. Her performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is a special kind of perfect for that native melancholia: Only Garland could convince us that the Technicolor fantasia of Oz was nothing compared to the drab geometric shithole of a brown Kansas. Vicki Lester represents Garland's faithfulness unflagging, while the indignities heaped upon Norman Maine represent her humiliations, disappointments, and finally her escape from this world. Ray Bolger, at Garland's funeral following her death at 47, said that she just wore out. The brilliance of A Star is Born is in its ability to capture a little of that psychic attrition.
Cukor, director of The Wizard of Oz for the duration of a cup of coffee and a cigarette, did in his time there insist that the image-makers not transform Garland into a bubbly-blonde Shirley Temple clone (MGM had wanted Temple but Fox wouldn't lend her out), an act of kindness homaged in A Star is Born when Vicki is made over into a hideous bombshell caricature, only to be restored to her usual hot mess by a compassionate Norman. Decades of being told she wasn't pretty enough, however, not conventional enough a beauty with her wild, broad expressions and anime features, took their toll on Garland. To see them re-enacted in CinemaScope is as difficult as the Montgomery Clift phone-booth monologue from The Misfits. No accident, I think, that both Clift and Garland were nominated for their devastated, broken performances in Judgment at Nuremberg; in the years leading up to their untimely passing, they were only ever really able to play their death scenes over and over. It does cause one to wonder at the benevolence of Cukor wanting so desperately to work with Garland. Maybe he wanted to craft the longest eulogy and epitaph in history. What it feels like is a Passion Play.
It's no wonder that A Star is Born plays so much like a horror film, with Vicki remarking early on that she's "got the willies. I'm scared stiff," a sentiment with which Norman is quick to agree, saying that, yes, they all are. And what of the prologue, one of those benefit revues that were the rationale for countless "let's put on a show" flicks--the "Broadway Melodies of"s in which Garland once serenaded a picture of Clark Gable. Watch as Cukor, a terrible visual stylist, finds, like the proverbial blind squirrel, a nut in A Star is Born's opening when he frames the boorish Norman, drunk as a lord, through a shattered mirror frame, unstoppable, implacable, just before Norman storms the stage and inserts himself, unwelcome, into Vicki's act. Every moment here is shot through with menace. When Norman sobers up later that night, he re-enters the Hollywood diaspora in search of an easy lay, lurking among the trees in the coconut grove in plumes of infernal smoke before spotting his mark, singing a song. He pulls Vicki bodily through doorways and out into an alleyway. He wants to save her from her perfectly happy life as a small-time chanteuse--he wants to without any consideration for what she wants. He talks her into quitting by gratifying, for probably the first time in Vicki's life, her vanity. Then he vanishes for weeks without a word as he's ferried off to location, his pickled brain incapable of remembering her address, or even her name.
This vital sequence, illustrating Norman's unreliability and Vicki's unwavering belief in him anyway, was elided and lost. When the original soundtrack for the complete film was unearthed, archivist Ronald Haver inserted sepia-toned production stills over the restored audio as a stopgap. It works like a photo-roman--like Chris Marker's La Jetée, in fact, thus invoking another heartbreaker. (Indeed, another variety of Romanticism.) I understand why these passages are presented in this way, of course, but what's fascinating is that A Star is Born gains a large measure of its sadness from not just these scenes' quasi-recovery, but also the way necessity has dictated their presentation. It's a happy accident, and a conversation should be had about how this restoration has changed--and in many ways amplified--the intentions of its maker. Even the dreadful "Born in a Trunk" is worth the same conversation in that its existence is the first clue of exactly how invested we've become in Vicki and Norman, and exactly how uninterested we are in the frankly terrible song-and-dance. Lump in, too, the interminable Honeymoon sequence (so much better as grotesquerie in Wilder's Sunset Blvd.), likewise easily consigned to the cutting-room floor; it primarily functions as a clue to how Garland's genius was her ability to convey character through grand, gaudy performance. If you're a fan, unabashed and unconditional, there can never be too much Judy--alas, for everyone else, this is too much Judy. Ironic, then, that Warner's much-publicized cuts resulted in a revolt at the box-office that, some have speculated, led to Judy not winning the Oscar she probably deserved. It makes the scene in the film where Vicki gets an Oscar (and then a smack to the face from Norman) sing with extratextual irony.
A Star is Born is a tragedy. Not only for obvious reasons intra- and extratextual, but for its ability to capture the drudgery of machine-tooled Hollywood at the height of the studio era as it turned to face the threat of television (no small irony that Norman rediscovers Vicki through the telly--no small surprise that this bit was snipped, too), and the collateral of careers and dreams this transition left in its wake. It's a glorious mess: though unwieldy and top-heavy, the film features a fine supporting cast allowed moments of complexity and depth in the best possible celebration of a studio system that made character actors family. It's at least an hour too long, but once you see it, you'll be thinking about it for days. When it works, when there's a palpable sense of foreboding to it (or a sense of camp doom, as when Norman and Vicki exchange vows before a Justice of the Peace, prisoners behind bars their witnesses), A Star is Born is disturbing, unshakeable stuff. When it doesn't, it's still fascinating for the extent that Garland, 31-going-on-71, laid herself bare and predicted her daughter Liza's own broken-down turns in The Sterile Cuckoo and Cabaret. It is at its best a remarkable metaphor for the person divided between a being of absolute sweetness and forgiveness, and a being of absolute self-destruction and self-loathing. At its worst, it's merely self-indulgent. What remains is as fine a portrait as there ever was of a consummate performer destroyed by the lifestyle of a performer--of a weak, disturbed personality who left two legacies: her immortal art, and the cautionary tale of how her talent ate her alive.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
An entire volume was written about the pains taken to rescue A Star is Born, a movie streamlined twice by nervous executives following its 196-minute preview screening to arrive at a final running time of 154 minutes; no negatives of the deleted footage were preserved. The 1983 reconstruction runs 176 minutes and has since been the only version available on home video--including Warner's DigiPak Blu-ray release, which misses a ripe opportunity to seamlessly branch the theatrical cut. Alas, no version drops "Born in a Trunk," a 20-minute sequence that honestly should be a short subject, perhaps played before the picture. Not that it's not good, mind, but it's bound to be less offensive when it's not destroying the narrative flow of the film in the most frustrating way imaginable. The first Warner title shot in CinemaScope, and then only after the studio experimented with its own proprietary process (necessitating a massively-expensive mid-film reshoot), A Star is Born comes to BD in a 2.55:1, 1080p transfer of immense clarity and depth, sourced from a 6K scan. The restoration was printed on Eastman stock, but the colours are digitally refurbished to their original Technicolor vitality, making the stock-footage inserts (of the premiere of The Robe) look all the more grainy and washed-out in comparison. There are times the picture betrays its age with early-'scope hiccups in focus and optical decay, and there's a bit of moiré pattern, of all things, on the hood of a green car, but these shortfalls are counterbalanced by an almost staggering level of fine detail. This presentation represents the culmination of the late Haver's efforts as it technically refines a patchwork quilt of disparate elements, though the opening titles are a bit overworked with DVNR in what one might call the Disney style. Reconfigured in 5.1 from the original four-channel magnetic soundtrack, the DTS-HD Master Audio is similarly marvellous. Garland's powerful lungs expand impressively across the soundstage; beautiful, if you're into that sort of thing. There are missed opportunities for atmospherics in the mix, but we're not really here to hear the waves crashing behind us, are we?
An accompanying DVD houses the extras--which, strangely, don't include a diary of Haver's efforts. Buy his book. Haver's obsessiveness transcends fan bias, like Paul M. Sammon's writings on Blade Runner. An "Introduction" (3 mins.) seems inadequate for a film that's just occupied so damn much of your recent life. "The Man That Got Away" (22 mins.) offers up multiple takes--some that are obviously test footage (a few via split-screen for comparison's sake), of Garland's performance. No evidence of her notorious fickle-ness or repeated illnesses that resulted in the production fast falling behind schedule, never to return. "Alternate Takes" (10 mins.) offers variations on four different scenes (three musical), while "When My Sugar Walks Down the Street" Outtake (1 min.) makes the already-endless "Born in a Trunk" sequence a minute longer. "Film Effects Reel" (1 mins.) shows more stock footage from The Robe premiere for some reason; "A Report by Jack L. Warner" (6 mins.) is a promo trailer for upcoming studio releases such as A Star is Born; and "Newsreel Footage" (8 mins.) is exactly that of the gala premiere for the film.
"A Star is Born Premiere in Cinemascope" (2 mins.) would be wonderful to see in HD. "Pantages Premiere TV Special" (30 mins.) shows the excitement attending the initial release of the picture--Garland's comeback after a few years in the stage gulag--via a vintage television special so popular it was run again. Friz Freleng's OK A Star is Bored (1956, 7 mins.) is not Looney Tunes making fun of this movie, although there's plenty to make fun of, but rather an extension of Chuck Jones's Hunting trilogy that relocates the Bugs-Daffy rivalry to Hollywood. (Daffy is maimed several times in his capacity as Bugs's stunt double.) Then it's on to a 107-minute "Audio Vault," featuring Garland's first run at Vicki Lester in a 1942 Lux Radio production, plus rehearsals, outtakes, and a breathless interview with the great Louella Parsons. Trailers for the Gaynor, Garland, and Babs incarnations of A Star is Born round out the platter, because six hours of Judy calls for a Streisand chaser. Pre-eminent Garland and Oz scholar John Fricke provides a comprehensive essay squeezed into the 36-page booklet along with oodles of production stills. In other words, the case insert contains the only real scholarship in the package; shame it wasn't more evenly distributed throughout the set. Fans of Garland will nonetheless have this one on the mantle, a light shining down on Judy and her jazz hands.