A Star is Born (1954)

George Cukor | 3hr 2min

There is something universally compelling in the archetypal narrative of A Star is Born which begs to be updated every few decades, rewritten and recast with celebrities who typify the dominant culture of the era. With such a clean balance of light romance and dark tragedy moving in conflicting directions, it may be the closest thing Hollywood has to a modern fairy tale, firmly rooted in classical storytelling conventions yet inseparable from America’s modern entertainment industry. That George Cukor’s 1954 adaptation may be the most triumphantly successful version does not just speak to his own talents as a director, boldly building the fable out into a drama epic pushing nearly three hours and capturing it all on vibrant, widescreen CinemaScope. The immense emotional weight contained in Judy Garland’s performance is also largely responsible for guiding this story along its inverse trajectories, sending the career of Esther Blodgett to soaring highs while her personal life and relationship with Norman Maine plunges to soul-shattering lows.

George Cukor working where he did much of his best filmmaking – in a large-scale, Technicolor musical, making splendid use of the widescreen format.

The pattern of Norman’s drunken behaviour impeding on Esther’s public life is there right from the start, as he clumsily tramples over her performance at the Hollywood function where they meet. With some quick thinking and slick improvisation, she effectively turns his interruption into a charming publicity stunt, leading him by the hand into a dance. At this point in time, the troubles that this embarrassing sort of conduct will cause down the road are not entirely clear yet. For now, both are intrigued by the other, feeding an affectionate curiosity which eventually develops into full, besotted love. While Norman surreptitiously pulls strings with producers behind the scenes to draw attention to this great talent he has discovered, Esther wrestles with the beauty standards and rigid systems of an industry that makes over her appearance and forces a new, more attractive name upon her – Vicki Lester.

Fifteen years removed from her iconic performance in The Wizard of Oz, Garland approaches Vicki with more mature sensitivities, seeking to understand the tender discomfort of an actress whose job is to cover up that pain with acts of dazzling spectacle. This is never demonstrated so sharply as it is in her upbeat tap number ‘Lose That Long Face’, taking place on a monochrome movie set which highlights her at the centre bearing strong resemblance to her daughter, Liza Minnelli, with short black hair and an eye-catching red coat. Between takes of this song that preaches unwavering optimism, Vicki breaks down beneath the weight of all her personal troubles, uninhibited by rolling cameras or domineering directors, and yet the moment she is back on set again a mere few minutes later, the shift in her disposition is jarring. Quite ironically, Garland loses that long face in an instant, and replaces it with the smile that audiences pay money to see.

‘Lose That Long Face’ sets up the devastating contrast between Vicki’s joyful screen persona and her troubled personal life, letting her vividly stand out in her red coat on this otherwise monochrome set.

This formal contrast between the two sides of Vicki’s life is one that Cukor delicately extends all through A Star is Born, as it is only in the adoration he holds for Vicki at her most playful and passionate that her pain lands with real impact. Following her run-in with Norman onstage, the two meet again by chance in an after-hours club where she soulfully sings ‘The Man That Got Away’, soulfully pining for a lost love. Her dark blue dress cuts out a bold imprint against the bar’s soothing red background, but just as stylistically affecting is the way Cukor illuminates her face with an attractive, soft light and lets his camera follow her around this space in an unbroken take, totally under the spell of her magnetic presence.

Norman’s discovery of Vicki in this dimly lit, red bar is a stunning scene, softly illuminating her face while those around her sink into darkness.

Cukor’s production design and cinematography takes yet another leap up right before intermission as we watch Vicki’s breakout movie, where she dresses in a tuxedo and stands on a stage of lush red curtains and flowers, recounting her childhood and entry into the industry. As ‘Born in a Trunk’ and ‘Swanee’ burst to life in a Vincente Minnelli-style interlude, we disappear into expressive, imaginary realms, and not one to pass up an opportunity to indulge in his magnificent cinematic panache, Cukor defines them with striking, geometric sets, totally separating this artificial dream from reality.

The red flowers and curtains of ‘Born in a Trunk’ takes a turn into Vincente Minnelli territory with an imagery musical interlude, and Cukor doesn’t waste the opportunity to splash an exceptionally gorgeous visual style up onscreen.

Even outside the big musical numbers, Cukor brings a polished slickness to his mise-en-scène, absorbing Vicki into a world of ravishing opulence while Norman finds himself on the way out. At the exact moment she decides she is going to stay behind in Los Angeles and accept his offer of a screen test, a gorgeous sunrise manifests behind her in clear reference to the film title, illuminating her in a woozy, lovesick light. Later as we transition to the fateful Oscars ceremony, Cukor’s long dissolve-heavy montage dazzles us with the red carpet’s glitz and glamour, setting a stylish stage for her greatest victory and Norman’s most shameful humiliation, thereby cementing their ultimate fates.

“Those big, fat lush days when a star could get drunk and disappear and hold up production for two weeks are over.”

Glitz and glamour in this montage of long dissolves bringing us into the Oscars.
Strong storytelling in this visual choice, washing Norman in the waves of the ocean preceding his suicide.

In the couple’s attractive Malibu beach house, the reflection of the ocean in its giant glass walls wash over Norman as he wallows in disgrace and embarrassment, realising the sacrifices Vicki is prepared to make to her own career for his rehabilitation. Once again, the sun marks a milestone in their trajectories, though where it previously rose in the early morning with Vicki’s hopeful prospects, it now sets over the horizon, shedding a warm orange glow over Norman’s silhouette as he walks into the ocean.

A rising and setting sun at either end of these characters’ journeys, symbolically manifesting the title of the film with extraordinarily handsome lighting.

Not that his tragic suicide really solves any problems for his wife at all. This is not the start of a new career for her, but rather the end of any chance at the happiness she dreamed of, trapping her in an unresolved sort of misery known only to those who aren’t given the time or space to properly grieve. Even at Norman’s funeral, she is cruelly mobbed by a crowd of zealous reporters and fans, pulling the black veil from her head to expose her vulnerability to the world. Just as fading celebrities are cruelly discarded in show business, neither is there any dignity for those successful stars like Vicki who are ripped from their old identities and consumed by new ones, pushing them to keep up the act of perfect contentment. This is an industry of happy lies, not painful realities, but it is in its pointed balance of both that Cukor’s take on A Star is Born stirringly paints out the life cycle of those talented individuals we happily turn into beautiful, disposable commodities.

Darkness takes over Cukor’s mise-en-scène in the final minutes – Vicki will forever be tied to this tragedy.

A Star is Born is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

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