George Cukor is a legendary director. I praised his work on The Philadelphia Story in this very space not all that long ago. I own both Gaslight and Born Yesterday, just two of the many iconic films Cukor directed in his 40 plus year career. I have George Cukor bona fides, so I feel I am in a position to offer a critique of one of his most well remembered and should be forgotten efforts, his remake of A Star is Born in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason.
A Star is Born (1954A) takes the story of Ester Blodgett, so brilliantly and memorably played by Janet Gaynor, and makes it a vehicle for a Judy Garland one woman show. What once was a classic Hollywood tragic romance is now commandeered into what amounts to a Judy Garland concept album that occasionally pauses for some dialogue. The music and the design is spectacular but the story is a complete non-starter and considering it’s one of the greatest stories Hollywood has ever told, that’s not merely a shame, it’s a downright crime.
Judy Garland plays Ester as a singer performing with a big band at an event at the Hollywood Bowl. She’s on the stage when a drunken movie star, Norman Maine (James Mason) wanders on stage looking worse for wear. Ester improvises and dances with Norman making it briefly seem as if he’s part of the act and her move, temporarily, rescues Norman from another in a string of public spectacles that are slowly sinking his career.
So intrigued is Norman by Ester’s remarkable voice that he tracks her down to a late night club where she and the band are allowed to perform their favorite songs and sip on cheap booze. When Norman walks in, he's carried away by Ester’s performance of “The Man Who Got Away.” Norman then sweeps Ester away to talk and eventually convinces her not to go out on tour with the band but rather to take a screen test with him for the chance to become a star.
Ester takes that chance and after a few stumbles and a brief Norman disappearing act, he gets her a big shot with the big shots. Ester lands a lead role and wins the hearts of moviegoers everywhere. All this as Norman, her lover and her mentor slowly begins to fade away. With his star on the wane and hers on the rise, can Norman overcome his insecurities and ego for Ester or will he burn out like the great star that he was.
Flowery prose aside, the story is there but the team of Cukor, Garland and Mason have no interest in it. This version of A Star is Born is dedicated not to storytelling, not to an iconic Hollywood tale, but to the ego of star Judy Garland. That’s not to say it’s Judy Garland’s fault that I don’t like this version of A Star is Born, but she’s the one whose singing constantly interrupts and upstages the story.
It’s the dedication to showing Garland perform entire songs that likely explains why James Mason’s performance as Norman Maine has none of the energy or wit of Fredric March’s Norman in 1937. Mason appears completely checked out, he makes no attempt to connect with Garland romantically and without the romance, the tragedy doesn’t resonate as strongly as it should. No one seems to care however, because Judy Garland is hoofing and singing her heart out.
I genuinely do appreciate Garland’s talents. She’s an incredible performer, much better than the rest of the movie around her. The problem is, she’s so good and so talented, that this amazing story is buried beneath the monuments that George Cukor builds to her talent. Because of the fact that we see her perform so many full length songs, this version of A Star is Born is a punishing three hours long. I could get the same effect from a Judy Garland concept album as I got from seeing A Star is Born (1954).
The only part of the story that Cukor gets right, and that still remains from the exceptional, all time classic, 1937 version of A Star is Born, is the depiction of just how fragile the male ego can be. One of the few moments that works in the ‘54 version is a scene where Norman signs for a package and is referred to as Mr. Vicki Lester. Mason registers the pain in his eyes beautifully and given that the scene before was a lengthy, playful song, his turn of mood is really effective.
That one scene however, is not enough to overcome the miscalculations of this version of A Star is Born. This story is too great, too iconic and too deeply, romantically, tragic to turn into a simple minded star vehicle. William Wellman created a remarkable story with the help of some of the finest writers of his day and for a remake to trample that work as George Cukor does here is a crime against storytelling.
It's fair to say that I am bagging on this take on A Star is Born because of my love for the original. I'm not intending to ignore the good about the remake, I just can't get over how much I love this story, and these characters as they were played by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. I think Judy Garland is wonderful and her singing is rather divine, it's just badly misplaced here. This is a romantic tragedy, not a one woman show. It needs leads with chemistry and not a checked out leading man who's shoved out of the picture in favor of songs that only serve to lengthen the movie to an ungodly length.