Saturday, March 26, 2022

#2,729. A Star is Born (1954) - Classic Musicals Triple Feature


Rumor has it that when Grace Kelly won the 1954 Academy Award for Best Actress (for The Country Girl), Groucho Marx sent a telegram to Judy Garland – whose nominated performance for A Star Is Born made her the odds-on favorite that year – and said her losing was “the biggest robbery since Brink’s”.

Judy Garland was indeed stellar in this Warner Brothers musical extravaganza, but matching her every step of the way was co-star James Mason, delivering what might be his greatest performance as Norman Maine, an alcoholic movie star who takes a talented young woman under his wing and transforms her into a Hollywood sensation.

When singer Vicki Lester (Garland) helps him through an embarrassing drunken escapade at a benefit concert, renowned actor Norman Maine (Mason) shows his appreciation by offering her some career advice, telling Vicki to resign from her small band and try her luck in the movies. After a few false starts, Vicki finally lands a role in a major Hollywood production, and before long is on her way to stardom.

Over time, Vicki’s and Norman’s relationship develops into a love affair, and they eventually marry. But how will Norman deal with his new wife’s mounting successes while his own career is fizzling out?

Judy Garland is at her absolute best as Vicki Lester, and her musical numbers are impressively staged, especially “Born in a Trunk”, which Vicki performs in her first ever film. Yet as good as Garland’s voice is, she is even better dramatically, perfectly conveying the excitement, adoration, and eventual heartbreak that results from her character loving a man like Norman Maine.

Equally as superb is James Mason. From the moment we first meet his Norman Maine, we know he’s a loose cannon. The opening sequence, where he stumbles backstage at the benefit show, drunkenly accosting showgirls and fighting with reporters, gets the movie off to an uncomfortable yet engaging start. Mason successfully conveys Norman’s varying personalities throughout A Star is Born: the inebriated silliness with a hint of anger simmering just underneath; the self-loathing; and the genuine desire to help Vicki any way he can. Norman even manages to lure studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) into his bungalow one afternoon and sets it up so that he can hear Vicki sing for the very first time, and on the same day that another actress dropped out of a big-budget musical.

In addition, we see the love that Norman has for Vicki, and how he is willing to sacrifice everything - his career and more - for her. It’s a stunning portrayal by Mason, and it is he and Garland who carry A Star is Born to the lofty heights it ultimately reaches.

With director George Cukor in top form and a script by Moss Hart (which was partly inspired by the original 1937 film directed by William A. Wellman), A Star is Born - along with the strong performances of its two leads – also offers a less-than-glamorous glimpse into what happens behind the scenes in Tinseltown. Like Sunset Blvd before it, this 1954 movie exposed the seedy underbelly of the motion picture industry and, in so doing, went on to become a Hollywood classic in its own right.
Rating: 9.5 out of 10

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