Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A Star Reborn

A Star Is Born (1954) will go down in film history as a vandalized masterpiece. Intended as Judy Garland’s triumphant return to film, produced by husband Sid Luft and released by Warner Brothers, the project had all the ingredients for critical and financial success. With a cast including James Mason, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan and Jack Carson; songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin; screenplay by Moss Hart and legendary director George Cukor at the helm, there was little chance that it could fail.

The story was a classic that had been filmed several times, most notably by David O. Selznick in 1937. But the new Garland musical version would be far more spectacular, boasting a budget that swelled to more than $6 million and filmed in the brand-new widescreen process of Cinemascope. The plot was a familiar Hollywood fable—fading actor falls in love with fresh new talent. She rises, he falls. Mason would play alcoholic matinee idol Norman Maine, and Judy would portray singer Esther Blodgett, who is transformed into movie superstar Vicki Lester.

When sneak-previewed for industry insiders, A Star Is Born received standing ovations at every performance, and earned reviews that artists and performers could only dream about. The critics ran out of superlatives for the film and its talented star.

But the film, at over three hours, was deemed too long by theater owners, and Warner Brothers was pressured to get the film down to a length that would allow more viewings (and dollars) per day. Director George Cukor begged to work with an editor to carefully “bleed out” minutes without harming the overall storyline, but head of production Harry Warner was impatient, and instead authorized a series of lethal cuts, excising not only scenes and songs but entire sequences wholesale. The nuances of the story were sacrificed for the almighty buck.

In the edited version, Mason hears Garland sing at the after-hours roadhouse and offers her a screen test, which (it seems) she takes the very next day. In the original version, however, Norman Maine is whisked away on location and Esther is forced to take a job as a waitress on roller skates after giving up her steady job singing with the band. It’s only many weeks later that Norman Maine finds her to make good his promise.  Another deleted scene had Esther asking Norman to pull over as they drove to a premiere of her first picture, so she could throw up.

Many more beautiful moments were cut.  So charming was the deleted scene in which Norman proposes to Esther in the recording studio on an open microphone in front of all their coworkers, as she lays down a track of “Here’s What I’m Here For,” that years later Barbra Streisand recreated the sequence around her own Oscar-winning song “Evergreen” in the 1976 Star Is Born remake.

Judy Garland was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the picture, as many of the Academy members had been treated to the full-length preview version of the film. But Garland lost the Oscar that year to Grace Kelly, who won for The Country Girl. Most believe that Harry Warner’s bad decision to amputate the heart and soul of A Star Is Born lost Judy the Academy Award, which she deserved and badly wanted to crown her film comeback—and secure her volatile career and income potential. Judy Garland went on to make a few other films and a television series, but she never headlined a picture this big again.

In the early 1980s, film historian Ronald Haver went searching for the lost footage at Warner Brothers and partnered with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to produce a restored version, which was released in 1983 to great acclaim. However, not all the deleted footage was found, and for many of the early scenes, production stills were used against a still-extant soundtrack of the dialogue. (Rumor had it that some of the surviving stars like James Mason and Lucy Marlow had even secretly rerecorded some dialogue, and that Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli had provided the speaking voice of Esther Blodgett for some of these sequences.) Fans didn’t seem to mind the stills, which filled in a lot of the narrative blanks in the story.

Today, when they buy or rent the DVD or Blu-Ray editions of A Star Is Born, audiences always see this restored and now-definitive version. No one ever bothered to sell the shortened, chopped-up Star, which Garland always joked that “Harry Warner gummed to death.”

Though not restored entirely to its former glory, the film now has a narrative that makes sense and the relationship of Mason and Garland has the depth and dimension originally intended to properly label this film one of the all-time tearjerkers, and Judy Garland’s most riveting and versatile film performance.

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