The List can get pretty overwhelming if I start thinking about it in too much of a big-picture sense. I start feeling like there isn’t a second to spare. Gotta go fast.
So I was literally almost dish-throwingly angry when I checked out A Star is Born from the library, watched it, and then turned in a huff toward the book, apoplectic, wondering how this piece of shit made it to the List only to find that…I’d watched the wrong one.
I watched the original version, from 1937, which is pretty lame but, in a way, not so uninteresting; especially since I’m currently reading Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates, a big ambitious novel about the life of Marilyn Monroe; I’m still in the first quarter of the book where we see that Monroe’s mother, Gladys, was apparently one of these movie-drunk ingenues, a lithe and small and “hard-breasted” flapper-type, who adored film and the glamour of Hollywood life and was willing to do absolutely anything to be a part of it.
The hero of that 1937 version of A Star is Born is just such a character, and in that respect it’s an interesting movie because it’s a kind of early commentary on the nature of its own machine. We see Janet Gaynor living in a scuzzy hotel room and working demeaning catering jobs while tryna get her big break. The censors weren’t quite loose enough to tell such a story as it ought to have been told, with maybe some nods toward the reality of casting couches and exploitation and substance abuse and failure, but the movie rubs against the parameters of decorum in trying to address it.
Move seventeen years forward though and we’ve got George Cukor trying his hand at the same material (he’s appeared on the List so far with Gaslight, The Philadelphia Story, Adam’s Rib, and he’s also got a dark professional chapter having to do with his thankless couple years of pre-production work on Gone with the Wind), and while censorship till isn’t quite at a point where he could take it quite so far as he might have wanted, with portraits of backstage Hollywood and latenight parties (Cukor was known for his parties), his remake of A Star is Born is an absolutely wonderful, heartbreaking, uplifting and, to some degree, enlightening masterpiece that manages to present a wonderfully propulsive and nuanced story without skipping on “atmosphere,” a word I feel should go in quotes because I kinda railed against it, a few paces back, in talking about Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which I think is definitely a masterpiece in its own way but also one of those movies where a certain narrative poverty is said to be made up for with a wealth of atmosphere. I think it’s just a personal preference that I don’t see it that way (conversely, as a writer, I’m more than willing to concede that a booklength display of gorgeous prose makes up for a paucity of story).
George Cukor has proven, with his handful of features from the List so far, to be a kind of brilliantly efficient storyteller whose interest is in the story, the characters, a director who draws no attention to himself with stylistic flourishes (with the brief exception of a newspaper headline/photograph montage—which reminds me: I heard somebody say of Quentin Tarantino’s most recent movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, that, by doubling down so heavily on some of his trademark images, we’d reached a point where Tarantino is very clearly watching Tarantino). A Star is Born is the distinct kind of opus that comes from such a story-devoted hand. The Cinemascope widescreen shows us the breadth of Hollywood streets, of stages and night clubs, and by keeping our lovestruck heroes forever framed within the sweep of their environment he makes this a movie about that environment as much as about the characters. His lovers are the heart of a story that can also be seen as the story of an industry, an era, a town.
It’s so fucking good.
And my awestruck adoration for it is making me think of the Busby Berkley musicals of the 1930s (mainly 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933), of things like She Done Him Wrong and On the Town and Love Me Tonight)—movies that I went into with what I guess is this heteronormative conviction that, “Oh this isn’t for me, it’s for women, I’m not gonna like it.” And then, same as ever, I fall in love with the movie and I go about afterward feeling like my heart is swollen, this big goofy smile on my face. (Gene Kelly’s American in Paris is probably the only instance where I was completely right.)
Granted, I thought I was gonna hate this movie because, apart from thinking it’d be a gaudy flamboyant three-hour musical melodrama (which it did in fact turn out to be, but in a greater way than I could have imagined), I’d seen and disliked its 90-minute predecessor.
But Cukor’s talents are matched by his stars. Holy shit. Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis have shown that Judy Garland is obviously a fucking master; but, having some vague idea of her career arc, the drugs and how she was clinging to a spotlight that seemed to be drifting away, I thought that we’d be seeing here what we see toward the end of Ron Howard’s Pavarotti: the great singer is older, he can’t hit all the notes, but he compensates by bringing a lifetime of heart and theatrical understanding to the performance.
But no. Garland is better here than in either of her last two appearances on the List. Her voice is deeper, older, and she pilots it with an understanding that she’s no longer the bubbly bopper of those earlier films. Her voice is just…arresting, hypnotic, moving. Fuck. And I think she puts it to greatest work in an early segment, ina piano bar, where she and a small band are performing alone, for their own benefit. She’s singing the blues, digging deep, holding notes to the end of lungs’ capacity. Her knees are buckling, her eyes are bulging.
It isn’t just her voice that’s matured, it’s her dedication as a performer.
I read that, when she lost the Academy Award for this movie to Grace Kelly, she called Kelly up late at night, drunk, to call her a motherfucker and say that this had been her (Garland’s) last shot at an Oscar. If that’s true, you could see that Garland might be channeling a sense of her own struggle against falling out of the profession into her performance here as an ingenue trying to break into the profession.
And then fucking James Mason, good grief—lemme refer you again to the piece about Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (mayhaps even some detours to The Reckless Moment and The Man in Grey) to address this issue of Mason doing such a good job, time and again, of playing a vicious douchebag scoundrel that I can’t help thinking of him as such , and feeling a reflexive disdain whenever he truns up on screen. His portrayal of a blooming conscience in Reckless Moment did something to ameliorate that impression, but not much.
Here, however, as an alcoholic A-lister who’s fallen from the studio’s graces and appears to be on a fast track toward total ruin, mason at last seems…not just human and beautiful but also cumulatively tragic, like all of his nuanced douchery from those previous films have made his blustery, drunken, sweaty vulnerability and remorse here seem all the more powerful.
Like, at last the veil has fallen and we’re seeing the earnest man who’d been hiding beneath all those other roles.
I’m wondering if there was a kind of genius in Cukor looking at that flimsy 1937 original and seeing that it had the potential for something really great. Or was it just something personal?
I haven’t seen either of the remakes that follow this one and, frankly, since they involve stardom in music as opposed to film, I’m less interested. I love this one so much, though, I think I might venture toward the others just to explore how much of the magic has to do with the story itself versus the execution.