A STAR IS BORN
Review by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Judy Garland, James
Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford
Director: George Cukor
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.55:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 176 Minutes
Release Date: June 22, 2010
“Hello everybody...this is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
Two stars...one on the rise, one fading away. It's the stuff of impeccable drama, so much so that it was told not once, but three times so far. But it's the middle incarnation of A Star is Born that remains the most memorable and most popular by far.
Norman Maine (Mason) was once one of the screen's biggest and brightest, but we only hear about those days in this film. The man we see is already on the decline, both in box office numbers and personally, as his alcoholism brings out boorish behavior and embarrassments that his studio is finding harder and harder to clear up.
Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) sings with a jazz band, and has a chance to shine at a big Hollywood function that ends up a comedy of errors when the drunken Norman staggers on stage to join the act. Esther dances him around, keeps singing, and manages to make it all entertaining, and even the intoxicated Norman realizes there's something special about Esther...not only her talent, but her willingness to keep him from making an even bigger fool of himself.
In a rare sober moment, Norman seeks her out at a small club, and promises to get her a screen test. It goes slowly at first...her debut role only shows her hand...but Esther has a voice like Judy Garland that's too big to contain. By the time the first half of the movie closes with “I Was Born in a Trunk”, an epic musical number that showcased her full talents the way “Broadway Melody” did for Gene Kelly, there's no question that Esther, renamed Vicki Lester by the studios, has arrived.
But what of Norman? Happily married to Esther, he seems ready for a new chance at life. But the bridges he's burned have come back to burn him as well...his studio releases him, and he heads back to the bottle. While there seems to be no end to Esther's meteoric rise, Norman falls further and further into despair and public troubles. Esther finally decides there's only one real choice between the man she loves, the man who believed in her when no one else did, the man who made everything possible for her...or her own career. That leads the broken Norman to make a tragic choice of his own.
This movie was designed as a comeback showcase for Judy Garland, and if any actor or actress ever worked harder or put more into a role, I can't think of one. She had been a star ever since her youthful breakout role in A Wizard of Oz, but after years of personal struggles including two divorces and substance abuse, it was A Star is Born that cemented her legend for all time. This film really is all about Judy, Judy, Judy, and you know what? It's all the better for it.
James Mason has always been a favorite of mine, and in Norman Maine, he accepted a role many of Hollywood's leading men passed on: that of a has-been actor on the way out. It took an actor of Mason's class and ability to keep some sort of weak flicker of dignity in the fading Norman, not to mention willingness to put any ego aside for the sake of the part.
In one of movies' most colossal blunders, Warner initially acquiesced to theater owners' request that the movie be trimmed down so they could work in an extra nightly showing. About a half hour was mercilessly slashed from the original running time, which dismayed George Cukor so much he never watched his own movie again. Scenes of Esther, suddenly alone in Hollywood when Norman is whisked away for a location shoot, having to get by without a job or that screen test initially promised, were brutally purged for the sake of ticket sales.
Thankfully, most of the excised footage has since been restored, although many stretches had to be recreated with stills and audio recordings. It's a shame we couldn't really get it all back, but some cinematic treasures are truly lost. At least now we can see the broader scope of Esther's story and more of what Judy brought to the proceedings.
Even though the story was filmed once before, and would be once again, this is the one fans clamor for and always come back to. It's an epic musical with a surprising and effective air of tragedy, a love story, and more. Most of all, it's a living breathing monument to the unstoppable talent of Judy Garland at her peak and in her prime.
BONUS TRIVIA I: Judy Garland reportedly lost the Best Actress Oscar for this movie to Grace Kelly by a mere six votes.
BONUS TRIVIA II: Humphrey Bogart provides one of the voices requesting “Melancholy Baby”.
This is a fine high definition offering. Considering the age of the film and the recreation of some scenes with stills, Warner has delivered well. There is some softness here and there, and touches of grain, and when pieces of stock footage are used, they really stand out, but there is a genuine quality to the Technicolor images, with good detail throughout.
I've never heard the movie sound so good...DTS HD means the musical numbers really come alive with fuller sounding orchestrations, more bass, more directional mixing, and Judy Garland's voice having more power than you even remembered. An absolute pleasure!
Not exactly the commentary or documentaries I was hoping for, but this Blu-ray boasts a DVD of extra features that include four deleted scenes from “The Man That Got Away”, four alternate scenes, outtakes, an effects reel, a 'report' from Jack Warner, three featurettes on the film's premiere, trailers for all three incarnations of the movie, audio extras including outtakes and a vintage 1942 Lux Radio broadcast, and perhaps best of all, the classic Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cartoon short “A Star is Bored”. MAKEUP!!!
The disc is also handsomely packaged in a box that opens into a full color book with extra info and beautiful photographs.
A Star is Born is pure Hollywood entertainment at its very best, thanks to the undeniable star power of Judy Garland. This Blu-ray issue from Warner represents the best and most complete way to experience this fan favorite at home.