George Cukor did not live to see the restored version of his A Star Is Born, the wholesale slashing of which, following the film’s lauded New York premiere, led Bosley Crowther, head reviewer then for the New York Times, to redub it A Star Is Shorn. In truth, the “restored” 1983 version is a misnomer since much of the original footage has been lost forever; stills indicate these gaps. Fortunately, the soundtrack for the deleted scenes has survived almost intact.
But any way you slice or shear it, Cukor’s lavish musical remake, Judy Garland’s big comeback vehicle after having been dropped by M-G-M, is inferior to William A. Wellman’s 1937 version—the one that’s a classic—in almost every way. Garland certainly isn’t as good as Janet Gaynor in the original version—or as good as all those “Oh, she really should have won the Oscar!” remarks down through the years would have us believe. Although not so ridiculous as she would be in Judgment at Nuremberg (Stanley Kramer, 1961), another misguided attempt to recast her as a deep dramatic actress, Garland emotes rather than enacts the role of Esther Blodgett. She bears down mighty heavily, smiling through suppressed tears at one moment, sobbing like I don’t know what at another. Her singing sounds great, in that latter-day version of her voice where contralto deepens and darkens. Indeed, this is the film that includes Garland’s phenomenal, jazzy debut of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s “The Man That Got Away,” sung here with devastatingly ironical smiles, not conventional tears. Still, her performance must ultimately be judged on the basis of her acting, not her singing or razzle-dazzle, show-stopping entertaining. Garland is passing-fair. For the record, I would say the same thing about Oscar winner Grace Kelly’s performance in Clifford Odets’s The Country Girl—another instance of heavy-duty emoting rather than genuine characterization, and helped additionally to the prize by the corny ploy of having beautiful Kelly appear frumpish.*
The story is the same as in the 1937 original, whose original screen story, by Wellman and Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Wellman converted into a script.** Norman Maine, alcoholic waning movie star, is “covered for” one night by Blodgett; they become lovers, and she becomes his wife and a movie star whose career eclipses his. People point out similarities between Wellman’s film and the earlier What Price Hollywood? (1932) directed, again (or, rather, first), by Cukor. However, once the show-biz cobwebs are erased from their eyes, sophisticates should recognize the American novel that all these films are pilfering: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.
This story is great, and it exemplifies (although less brilliantly than Fitzgerald does) the theme of marital difficulty, even impossibility, wherein the male and the female are bound to be, consciously or unconsciously, in some sort of competition, in a seesawing power relationship, with one partner ascending as the other wanes.
I have two quarrels with Cukor’s A Star Is Born, whatever the swank of its décor, and the irresistible nature of Garland’s voice and vibrato. One has to do with the lead actor’s performance. The other has to do with the thin nature of the film itself.
In the original version, Fredric March, perhaps the greatest American-born film actor of all time,*** plays Norman Maine. He is superb. Mason is wonderful, too, in Cukor’s remake; his technical flair compensates for Garland’s technical inadequacies. There is a problem, though: Mason repeats March’s performance. I suppose there would be even more of a problem if Mason-aping-March proved a better March than March; but March is better as Maine—way better. (In much reduced versions, Loretta Young, always talent-challenged, “did” Irene Dunne in the late 1930s and Joan Crawford in the late 1940s, and Jeanne Crain in 1948’s An Apartment for Peggy is Dorothy McGuire’s 1943 Claudia.)
This quarrel of mine with Cukor’s film—Mason aping March—is minor compared to my other quarrel with it. Cukor’s film doesn’t investigate the marriage whose failure it presents. Whereas in the Wellman film (whose script Dorothy Parker principally wrote) the failure of the Maines’s marriage is central, with the individual psychologies of the two characters contributing to the clarification of this theme, and the entity of their marriage becoming apparent to us as real in and of itself, as more than the sum of its two participants, in Cukor’s version, I’m sorry to say, it’s all show-biz. The marriage of the Maines, there, is no more than a piece of the show-biz plot. Wellman’s film is more closely connected to Fitzgerald’s novel, where neither Dick nor Nicole Divers is in show business, and the failure of their marriage has to do with the collision of their personalities and psychologies, and, ironically, early on, the complementary nature of their emotional needs and neuroses. It may be a cruel thing to say, but, for all its rich entertainment, Cukor’s A Star Is Born doesn’t seem to be about anything.
Some of the widescreen use, expert, electrifies. Garland’s striking out in every direction within the frame while singing “The Man That Got Away” remains the most thrilling instance in any movie of a singer singing a song.
* Kelly, though, had a great year, giving much better performances, for Alfred Hitchcock, in Rear Window and Dial M for Murder. The National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle both named Kelly the year’s best actress for all three films—The Country Girl and the two Hitchcocks. Garland, however, was named the year’s best actress—well, actually, the next year’s best actress, 1955’s—by the critics polled, nationwide, by Film Daily. Both Garland and Kelly won Golden Globes in different categories.
** Wellman and Carson won Oscars. Brace yourself: this was Wild Bill Wellman’s only conpetitive Oscar.
*** March is at least the most complete American actor—the only one, I believe, to win or have won both two Oscars for his film work and two Tonys for his work on the stage.
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