A STAR IS BORN, the 1954 comeback triumph for Judy Garland is—to its preceding 1937 and especially its subsequent 1976 versions—what Dom Perignon is to Cooks. Originally released at 181 minutes for Roadshow venues, it was cut to 151 for general release. Some deleted footage was destroyed but the audio tracks survived. The recovered version uses still photos to bridge the edited gaps. Restored to 176 minutes of glory in CinemaScope and Technicolor, it’s a long haul that could stand to have at least one lengthy musical number cut out, but so much is so good that an editing carp is trivial. Just go get a drink during the number you’d exclude—as long as it isn’t “The Man That Got Away” or “Born in a Trunk”.
Sensitively directed by George Cukor, the photography of period Los Angeles, superbly lit art direction, and rich overall detail of the production design are top studio gifts, with Warner’s lavishing $5,019,000 to give the fine Moss Hart screenplay the best package. Grossing $13,100,000 (#11 for the year), it was nominated for six Oscars—Actress and Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Music Score and Song, but came up empty-handed, with the loss of Garland to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl a bone to pick forever after with legions of Garland fans. Grace was good, but Judy put everything she had into this: she’s remarkable.
Worn to a frazzle by MGM tyranny, substance abuse, marital and family woes, Garland looks older than her 32 years, but that wrenching personal drama invested her acting with such a heightened degree of conviction that sheer talent overwhelms transitory conventional glamour and inner torment. Oh, yeah, she can sing, too. The crushing disappointment at losing the Oscar (she was considered a shoo-in) didn’t help her fragile psyche; the snub contributed to keeping her off the big screen for seven years before another critically acclaimed part in Judgement at Nuremberg.
James Mason likewise gives a career-high turn as the ill-fated Norman Maine. That walk into the ocean is one for books. He was riding high that year, with this dramatic triumph, the smash crowd-pleasing smash 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and as a chaser, a fun spin in the goofy Prince Valiant.
Along with the two stars, the great Jack Carson gets a plum supporting role, and there’s able work from Charles Bickford and Tom Noonan. Among a slew of familiar faces in support are Amanda Blake (23, just before starting 19 years on Gunsmoke), Frank Ferguson, Percy Helton, Henry Kulky, Grady Sutton, Nancy Kulp and Dub Taylor. John Saxon, 16, plays an usher. Look for Strother Martin in a quick bit as a mailman.
I’m not a raging Judy Garland fan (maybe ‘raging’ is an indelicate choice); I always just kind of ‘liked’ her as opposed to holding the feverish veneration her glee club bestows, but she’s hard to top as a show-biz trouper extraordinaire. Mason is superb. A great movie!