Setting the gay agenda is tough work. You have to attend meetings, keep up with the goings on of Britney and Beyoncé, and have an encyclopedic knowledge of gay icon cinema. That is where I find myself at risk of losing my pink card. A Star is Born is one of the defining movies of beloved icon Judy Garland [Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester] and it has taken me all of my 31 years to see it. Knowing more about the actress’ personal life than the movie I was about to see, I settled in for some bittersweet viewing.
What first struck me while watching this Old Hollywood movie is, at the time, this was a new era for Judy Garland. This was a Hollywood for Garland where she was no longer tied to her childhood contract with MGM, and was working for the first time in her career on another lot.
The initial character development is a great mirror to Garland’s move from “girl next door” to a leading lady. As the movie progresses, you get the sense that this is not a difficult role for Garland to portray. The singing portion is second nature to her, it’s something she had been doing her whole life. The true brilliance comes in how her own rise to stardom [granted at a much younger age than Esther’s] comes out clearly in her performance. In real life, Garland’s name was changed from the undesirable Frances Ethel Gumm to the more Hollywood friendly Judy Garland. She was constantly harassed about her looks by studio executives and covered with make-up and outfits to conceal her true appearance and meet the studio’s idea of a star.
All of this makes the film feels like a biopic rather than a remake of a film from the 30s. The glaring difference is Esther’s upward arc reflects her early career, while Norman Maine’s downward arc parallels her later career and life. A Star is Born was made during this latter period, a time when Garland’s drug and alcohol use caused her to miss days of filming resulting in costly filming delays. The on-screen product didn’t suffer, but it would result in questionable post-production editing decisions [as noted below].
This background knowledge enhances the heartbreak of Norman Maine’s downfall and eventual death in the film as it foreshadows Garland’s real life demise. In a scene towards the end of the movie, in her dressing room, Garland may as well have been speaking about herself when she asks why Norman “is always trying to destroy himself.”
This film is rightfully regarded among the great musical films. The one issue I had is the strange series of still photos with voiceovers used in place of footage early in the movie. Portions of the relationship development were totally erased from the film in a haphazard way. Turns out, the film was cut down after release to allow theaters more showings each day, increasing revenue for the studio to cover the budget overruns caused by an unstable Garland. I understand that the movie is long [there’s a built in Intermission!] and expenses were high, but the removal of these scenes undercut the movie’s build-up.
From a pure filmmaking perspective, this was an incredibly successful endeavour for Garland. She was able to show off the voice that made her famous while appearing in an adult leading role. It’s a shame though that when the cameras stopped rolling, neither Norman Maine nor Judy Garland could stop their long walk into the ocean.