BluRay/DVD Reviews

A STAR IS BORN

By • Aug 21st, 2010 •

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With Hollywood in a frenzy of remaking old properties, it’s very surprising that A STAR IS BORN hasn’t been considered for another go. It’s a property that’s been made three times as a movie (four if you count WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD?), and it seems that alone would be reason enough to update it for modern audiences. The classic story of a washed-up star falling in love with an up-and-coming actress and shepherding her career as he spirals into depression works during any time period as a microcosm of Hollywood.

WHATPRICE HOLLYWOOD? was directed by George Cukor in 1932. It was loosely based on both the relationship between actress Colleen Moore and producer John McCormick, and the nervous breakdown and suicide of director Tom Forman. In 1937, a suspiciously similar film called A STAR IS BORN was released to great critical acclaim and success. Strangely enough, Cuckor was a supporter of the 1937 film, and made some suggestions about the screenplay. In the early 50s, Cuckor decided to helm a remake of A STAR IS BORN at Warner Bros., and it, too, was a critical and commercial success.

The big draw of the 1954 version was the casting of Judy Garland. This film was her comeback after being booted from her contract at MGM, and fired from the 1950 film of ANNIE GET YOUR GUN due to her continuing drug problems (she was one of the first celebrities to have a publicly-known drug addiction). This Blu-Ray is pretty disconcerting to watch at times, since you can see that Garland’s drug addiction took it’s toll on her appearance, and she looks at least 10 years older than she was at the time of the production. The fact that she appears too old to be playing the role of an up-and-coming actress can easily be counted as a case of miscasting, but her performance is excellent. Garland’s character, Vicki Lester, intentionally parallels her own life, and once again, it’s bizarre to see an actor do this, especially in 1954.

James Mason is the real powerhouse here, though. He is perfectly cast as Norman Maine, the washed-up, alcoholic matinee idol who is on his last legs. Mason’s performance is heartbreakingly sincere and stunningly ahead of it’s time. The biggest strength of this film was how seriously Mason and Cukor took the character. Instead of just portraying him as a one-dimensional drunkard, they made him a believable, identifiable, and ultimately sympathetic character. It’s a brave performance, and by far the best aspect of the film.

The story involves Norman Maine falling in love with Vicki Lester, and as his career plummets, her career begins to take off. There’s surprisingly little conflict between the two leads; most of the outside hardships come from Hollywood itself. It’s the characters trying to survive against a location, instead of through a relationship, which is a welcome change, and a good twist on a melodramatic premise.

The film’s opening sequence especially eschews the melodrama, and feels years ahead of it’s time, with it’s oddly detached tone, gloomy performances clashing with entertainment gossip cheeriness, and the tense, cynical commentary on Hollywood. It is uncompromising, and the impact of it carries over the rest of the film.

Even with all its strengths, the film has some very distracting flaws. First and foremost is that George Cukor seems to have been the wrong choice as director. He films the dialogue scenes with great care and consideration, but once the film calls for something dynamic (except in the aforementioned opening sequence), Cukor starts using a very pedestrian directing style. The music sequences are, for the most part, not all that exciting to watch, even though Garland and co. are giving it their all, and the songs are pretty good. These sequences need to be exciting and memorable, not sedentary. I kind of wish Vincente Minnelli had directed this film, since he proved himself to be such a talent for this kind of musical – more a melodrama with songs. One very positive note about the direction though is that even though this was one of the first films shot in the CinemaScope format, the widescreen compositions are gorgeous and really add to the impact of the film.

A STAR IS BORN has had a pretty bizarre release history. Following its premiere, it was sloppily cut (without Cukor’s knowledge or consent) from 182 minutes to 154 minutes by Warner Bros. In 1983, the film was restored to a length of 176 minutes, and here’s where things get really frustrating. A soundtrack existed for almost all of the missing scenes, but in many cases, footage didn’t, or it was so badly damaged it was unusable. To cover this, a nearly ten-minute-long chunk of the film plays with production photographs underlined by the original audio (the same technique was used on the 1980s restoration of LOST HORIZON). It’s incredibly distracting, but necessary to elaborate on what’s going on. I’m honestly baffled as to why Warner cut the footage that they did. The scenes that were removed weren’t just throwaway bits dropped for pacing reasons, they were scenes that made the film a coherent whole and contained some of the best acting in the film. Even more baffling, is that there were other scenes present in the 154-minute version that were throwaway segments, and they could have easily been removed instead in order to improve the film without taking away its coherence.

The new Blu-Ray uses the same restoration from 1983 and it looks superb, almost reference quality, with vivid colors and incredible depth. The extras (housed on a second disc) are mostly transported over from the 1999 DVD. There’s a good assortment of material here, including a making-of TV special from the film’s release, and outtakes from the musical sequences. It isn’t quite the classic it’s touted as being, but it’s still a damn good film, and the Blu-Ray is the perfect way to watch it.

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One Response »

  1. “James Mason is the real powerhouse here..”

    There are many many fans of this classic who would disagree — Mason is superb – probably his best work – but Garland is his equal in acting and she is Judy Garland – singing and dancing her heart out – she is the reason this movie is beloved and all the unkind remarks about her addiction and appearance really seem out of place here –
    how Grace Kelly’s work in THE COUNTRY GIRL could have won the Oscar that year over Garland in STAR is unfathomable

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