Perhaps a better critic than myself can explain why A Star is Born works. All I know is that it shouldn’t but it does. This is an overlong, overwrought musical with almost no catchy songs and a premise that is both clichèd and too melodramatic to believe. Credit must be given to director George Cukor, who was no stranger to handling spectacle, and its two stars Judy Garland, as a green lounge singer toiling away in little clubs, and George Mason, as the established star who gives Garland her break and is eventually eclipsed by her. The story is as old as Hollywood, it’s so durable that Cukor’s film is actually the second of three versions of A Star is Born, a movie Warner Brothers seemed to have made every twenty years or so starting in 1937. In fact, we’re due for another one. In Cukor’s version, Garland plays Esther Blodgett, who is discovered by Mason’s Norman Maine, a big star but a bigger drunk as he stumbles upon a performance of hers and she gracefully incorporates him into the song without embarrassing him. Sober, he seeks her out and gets her on as a contract player for the studio that’s been loyal to him for his entire career.
The movie spends a lot of time poking fun at Hollywood, lightly at first, and then sharply near the end (Cukor, an industry veteran who had been fired off of more good movies than many directors make, would know where all the pressure points are [also, Cukor has a fondness for the Wilhelm Scream that rivals George Lucas’s, I think I heard it 3 times in A Star is Born]). Garland trying to catch on at the studio is the funniest moment of the film as she shuffles around meeting people who all say “It’s nice to have you with us,” but barely look at her and when they do they look as if she won’t be around for very long. Eventually she’s told, “Esther Blodgett? Well, we’ll do something about that. Anyway, nice to have you with us.” When she goes to pick up her first check she finds out her name is now Vicki Lester. Due to a pseudo-audition cleverly orchestrated by Mason, the new Ms. Lester gets a job and is rocketed to stardom. She and Mason fall in love and, after a tremendously inventive proposal, are married. While she soars through the stratosphere, he descends into irrelevance and is fired by the studio boss who made him (Charles Bickford). His drinking increases and he goes from a happy drunk to a bitter, sad one. He crashes her Oscar acceptance speech, begging for a job and after a stint in rehab (with a brawny male nurse, ridiculously named Cuddles) he regresses and is about to be thrown in jail when she offers to take him into her custody. His drinking takes a toll on her as well as she can barely make movies anymore because of the stress and worry she has for him. Eventually, he destroys himself so that she can go on.
It’s incredibly soapy and the movie should sink under the weight of its own importance but it never does. It isn’t helped by the fact that the music, written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by Ira Gershwin) adds very little. It isn’t a musical in the traditional sense where people leap up and gotta sing but one where the songs come out of the story so we get Garland’s early performances in her dumpy nightclub and some songs she’s performing on her movie sets. Only “Swanee” (written by George Gershwin), the set-piece in the middle of the film, though a far cry from other shows-within-the-shows like in Singing in the Rain and The Red Shoes, has a wonderful energy and is beautifully staged. It isn’t perfect, but by the time Cukor got to My Fair Lady’s race track number, he would have the showstopper down. Another set piece, “Someone at Last”, flips “Swanee’s” formula. Instead of seeing the number as it would appear in the fictional film, we have Garland performing it in her living room just for Mason, complete with her famous imagined close-up. Those two are the only remarkable musical bits in the movie and when you’re looking at 3 hours, we need more than that. Still, the movie works on a definite emotional level. It’s horribly sad and though we should roll our eyes, we’re closer to tearing up. I usually don’t go for Garland’s wobbly voiced theatrics but it stays within reason here and she is a revelation, coupled nicely with Mason’s cool understated class. Even as a drunk, he’s got dignity and that’s perhaps that’s why he’s so sympathetic. Yes, he falls back off the wagon at all the obvious and preordained times but he projects his suffering enough to make us care. “I destroy everything I touch,” he protests to Garland when they discuss marriage. She doesn’t care and when he does destroy himself she stands by him. This is an impossibly good woman.
The film does have a lot to say about the nature of celebrity and finely presents the cruel march of time, publicity, and memory. And as a David O. Selznick production it is flawlessly designed and costumed, but more importantly it seems impervious to the snares that would bring down other movies. It’s first third is far too long, repeating sequences and including unimportant ones as Mason searches for Garland. The publicity man bent on destroying Mason makes for a bad and unconvincing villain and Bickford’s studio head turns on a dime from uncaring businessman when the script needs him to be to best friend when the script requires that. Yet, all I’m doing is listing complaints about what is a very good film. Despite itself, A Star is Born makes for a thoroughly emotional experience, one that stayed with me longer than the material would suggest.