A Star Is Born (1954)

George Cukor seems like the master of the lumbering, epic musical. I have a love-hate relationship with the director; but you can't deny his influence on cinematic history. With "A Star Is Born", he takes Judy Garland and makes her a viable lead for her last truly great role (one that almost won her an Oscar). For the entire movie—though it could be a seen as a commentary on Hollywood—belongs to Garland alone.
Norman Maine (James Mason) is a real drunk, not a fake one (in case there was any confusion). He's a star near the peak of his fame and he can't keep the alcohol out of his system. When a benefit gala comes around, he is not to be found; and as the acts pass in and out, the managers find Norman as drunk as he's ever been. He stumbles on stage while Esther Blodgett (Garland) is performing with a few other singers. She tries her best to salvage the situation by dancing with Maine and courting him offstage. He is eternally grateful to her...or at least, that's what he slurs at her. He demands that he be allowed to take her to dinner, but she has another engagement and manages to duck out of dinner with the actor.
Maine is taken home and left to sleep off his stupor. He wakes up a few hours later, sober as the day he was born and decides that he should be kind to the woman who saved him from utter embarrassment. He scouts the town, looking for the mystery woman and finds her singing in a bar near closing time. Her voice resonates with him and he takes it upon himself to make her a star. Promising her the world on a silver platter, he asks that she give her job up and trust him implicitly...which is something that we both do and don't want her to do. We don't want her to trust him because he's a lush and his word means nothing; but we also want her to trust him because we want her to be famous...and let's face it, we know it's going to happen because of the title of the movie.
So she gives it all up, as we knew she would; but it's not as easy as all that. Maine is taken away for a job the next morning as he's asleep and Esther is left by herself, waiting on her prince to come and save her from the misery of everyday life.
We expect Maine to forget all about her, but he doesn't. He fights for his people to find her and make her a star...something easier said than done.
"A Star Is Born" employs odd techniques here, using still photographs to tell its story, which makes me think that some of the original footage got lost; but whatever, it still works.
Eventually Maine tracks Esther down and gets her to sign with his studio. Instead of being a star, now she is an extra in many movies, an un-faced body just there to fill the space.
But her break is coming and it's thanks to Maine that it comes. He pulls all the strings that he can and manipulates the system...but it comes down to Esther's undeniable talent that gives her the edge over everyone else. Garland has never sounded better than she does in "A Star Is Born".
Cuckor is unsteady with the camera in the movie. He likes to take loads of time to found certain characteristics of the movie and then briefly touches upon others...it's uneven. Yet the movie itself, as unromantic as it is, is a great and resounding success. Garland is mostly to thank for this.
James Mason gives a good performance as the aging man who is easily taken aside by the drink; but there is no comparison with the performances here. Judy Garland gives an epic turn as the girl who wants to be famous, but never loses her virtues.
Looking back on the picture itself, it's a long movie and it doesn't say much; yet it never feels too long, Cukor is in good form here, but the movie isn't perfect.

Score: ★★★½

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