Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson
Director: George Cukor
There have been several versions of A Star Is Born, and there’s set to be another one out this year. There’s something about the story of the meteoric rise of the starlet while her famous love and mentor takes a massive fall that’s so dark and fascinating. I love that so often musicals have that darkness hidden under cover of the lightness of song, romance and dance numbers.
And personally, I think there’s something extra special about this version with Judy Garland. This film was her big comeback. She had been fired from the studio because her drug use made working with her impossible, and yet the studio had raised her from childhood and prescribed the drugs that ruined her life and career. Here she is in this film, thinner than she should be, a little older and perhaps more cynical, belting out The Man That Got Away in that heart breaking way that only she can.
She’s Esther, the star on the rise, taken under the wing of Norman, played beautifully by James Mason, a man whose career is in tatters because of his substance abuse. He gets her into films, gets her name up in lights and convinces her to marry him, but soon finds that his inability to stop drinking and the damage he causes when drunk is dimming the light of the woman he loves and destroying them both. There’s a scene in which a tearful Esther talks about what it’s like to live with an addict and how she loves and hates him, and wants to save him but can’t. And it’s all the more poignant and real because you know, she’s really been there herself.
There’s a lot in this film and it’s a long film. I happened to come across a great version which had lost and deleted footage added back in, and it’s well worth seeking out because it adds some nuance to the story and shows how Esther is willing to struggle for her art and that she’s genuinely determined and interested in her career. The musical numbers are really wonderful, and Hollywood pokes fun at itself in this film, showing the darker side of the star life under the studio system, without ever really ruining that sense of Hollywood magic.
It’s a beautiful and tragic tale that lifts the spirit one moment and breaks your heart the next, and the masterful performances of the two leads, the comeback of a great and almost ruined Hollywood starlet and the masterful direction of George Cukor make this the best, the definitive A Star Is Born.
See It If: you’ve ever loved and lost. Romantic, hopeful and moving, a classic Hollywood love story musical.