100 Movie Musicals #23: A Star Is Born (1954)

A bravura dramatic and musical performance from Judy Garland and some striking visual compositions, but ultimately dragged down by a soggy, melodramatic plot that runs a solid hour longer than necessary. Watch the first hour and bail.

a solid decade or more ahead of its time

It’s an interesting movie because it doesn’t quite work, but the ways in which it doesn’t work are fascinating. Garland’s delivering a great performance here, but she’s also miscast as the showbiz grinder turned rising Hollywood star married to a charismatic former star skidding down a long alcoholic decline — her own very public battles with addiction and weight loss and the way the studios eventually cast her aside as too difficult to work with when there wasn’t anything more to get out of her is so much closer to Norman Maine’s story than it is to Esther Blodgett’s. That would have been perhaps a little too grim, but as it is you’ve got a clearly struggling Garland delivering a passionate speech about the inscrutability of what drives someone you love to drink and it’s not not about her own issues.

Visually the movie is pulling some tricks that you wouldn’t see more of until the downbeat musicals of the 70s, with a muted, gritty aesthetic that isn’t quite real but evokes a noirish squalor more than anything around it; the shift from the backstage Hollywood cotton candy of Singin’ in the Rain is thunderous. The sound design, too, particularly in the first hour, is similarly muted, with a lot of the same kind of overlapping dialogue and background chatter than Robert Altman used frequently.

a gorgeous use of natural lighting to convey a mood as esther stops to throw up in a construction site

This is yet another backstage musical, where all the songs are happening diagetically, with professional singers and dancers performing for an in-universe audience. There’s definitely some selection bias to this list, but it is wild that we are in the heart of golden age of Hollywood musicals and there’s so little here that follows modern musical conventions or metanarratives. The best song in the musical, the closest thing A Star Is Born has to an I Want song, is Esther rehearsing “The Man That Got Away” with her band in a bar after hours while Norman looks on.

god, can she sing

I’ll admit that my interest in the movie wanes after the first hour, when all that downbeat visual flair mostly drops away. The second act has some bravura moments, including an extended, baffling centerpiece number that’s meant to represent Esther’s breakthrough role, and which sprawls from a non-blackface minstrel number through a stylish fashion fever dream, a non-dancer’s dream ballet sequence. It’s gorgeous, and screenshots incredibly well, but it’s narratively inert and drags on for ages and ages.

striking visual compositions, tho

Though the plot itself is no great shakes, either, an utter slog of a story where you’re just watching Norman grind through a plot that announces itself coming a million miles away. There are no surprises there, despite all the technical craft and innovation the movie is bringing to bear, and not a ton of chemistry between Garland and James Mason; the studio originally wanted to cast Cary Grant as Norman Maine, and he might at least have injected some life into the character, some charm to offset the acres of red flags that Maine waves constantly. As it is, Mason feels like a poor man’s Michael Yorke, but without the vulnerable melancholy that lies behind Yorke’s best performances. The movie also never shows us Maine’s alcoholism affecting his life — we’re told he’s missing work, or that he’s unreliable, physically miserable, dangerous to himself and others, but we never actually see it. It’s a lot of time to spend with the man and know so little directly about the defining characteristic of his life.

maine, after a three day bender, faces a judge in a still immaculate suit; It’s a Wonderful Life got grimier than this!

He eventually walks off into the sea to free Esther from him, in another gorgeous shot, but the movie is so unwilling to show us anything too grim that it all comes across with a pinch-faced primness that’s hard to take seriously. Alcoholism’s a real rough road, but what we’re shown makes all the concern feel like an HOA head angrily trying to shoo a barbecue into the backyard because people can see your husband drinking a beer, Agnes and it robs the drama of any pathos. The last third is such an incredible slog it robs the movie of any joy or interest it had; we were so relieved when Maine died because it meant we could stop watching, and that’s probably not the mood they were going for, no.

it’s a shitty thing to do to your wife, dude

1 Response to “100 Movie Musicals #23: A Star Is Born (1954)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: