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Tribute To A Star Is Born (1954 Version)

Norman Maine is a movie star and an American Idol, and on his way down the Hollywood ladder. Too many brawls, and out of control temper tantrums have tainted his image, and speared his soul. He is damaged and spinning out of control. Esther Blodgett is a talented, attractive singer with dreams of success. They meet, fall in love, and as they both learn, sometimes love does not conquer all.

The trailer.

Born a few months before the twentieth century on July 7th, 1899, Cukor was a man of medium height and solid, stocky build, and sharp features. His movements, gestures and eyes all gave the same impression: a contained but constantly flowing energy. The Mouth, thickly lipped, opened and closed like a trap. The hands darted and swooped. When he laughed, which was often, everything seemed to gleam. He retired and rose early, didn't smoke, and drank like crazy (a Dubornnet, sometimes two, before dinner.) He was also the ultimate actor’s director. He never claimed to favor women; although he was known to pull out more Oscar nominated Female performances than any American director.

When he was approached by Sid Luft (Judy Garland’s then husband, and producer of A Star Is Born) Cukor was thrilled by the prospect of working with a grown up Garland. They had already worked together very briefly in “The Wizard Of Oz” (Cukor was eventually fired and replaced by Victor Fleming). He knew of Judy’s temperament, and her long struggle with drug addiction, but he thought this would be the perfect comeback vehicle for what he called:

“America’s greatest forgotten actress.”

His work is deft. It is subtle, tremendous, sweet, and all encompassing. He tells the story of these two people with great care and with immeasurable compassion. He never once allows us to pity either of them. The camera is our eye into the world of Hollywood and its old star system. Cukor’s best talent was his ability to force his actors to go to emotional places they were uncomfortable going.
The fact that Garland is playing a woman who’s taking care of a man with a drug problem is a literal dichotomy. And forcing Mason to dig deep into a place of regret and rage is compelling to watch. Cukor’s best scenes involve the two central characters being in love and attempting to deal with the outside world. He closes up the space with his camera, and then uses bright, grand movements when the world at large is closing in. It’s masterful work. Unparalleled in its generosity and its scope. Grand and intimate.

James Mason was an accomplished English actor of both British and American films. Born in Yorkshire, he attended Marlborough and Cambridge, where he discovered acting on a lark and abandoned a planned career as an architect. His early career depended on his ability to instill proper British attitude into otherwise seedy characters. Mason was thrilled to get a chance to play Norman Maine. He relished the chance to get to the under belly of a man at his breaking point. Interestingly, Mason starts the movie at the very bottom of his luck. With any other actor, there would have been nowhere else to go, but with Mason’s bravura performance, he manages to bring a lost civility, and a sense of tarnished manners to Norman. We’re actually on his side. His warning to Esther that she has “…come too late.” Is heart wrenching. His eyes twinkling and his stomach almost physically turning, we want Norman to be saved.

Mason is extraordinary in this role. His violent and hideously embarrassing speech at the Oscars is sadly and remotely pathetic. Consider his scuffling along the steps like a punished child as he confesses to the Hollywood big shots that he “….needs a job. I need a job!” It’s so simple. It’s heartbreaking in it’s delivery and again reminds us as to why we root for Norman. He’s in the Church begging the choir for a spot back in the chorus, and no one is listening. He turns the table on us, and that’s due to his amazing ability to never once play the tragedy of who he is. Or was. It’s a stunning performance.


He should not be confused with the American actor, Jim Mason, aka James Mason, who appeared in silent films, particularly Westerns in the Twenties and Thirties.

An avowed pacifist, he refused to perform military service during the Second World War, a stance that caused his family to break with him for many years.

Was responsible for getting an unknown actor from New Zealand his first major film role. That actor was Sam Neill.

Was scheduled to play James Bond 007 in a 1958 TV adaptation of From Russia with Love, which was ultimately never produced. Later, despite being in his 50s, Mason was a contender to play Bond in Dr. No (1962) before Sean Connery was cast.

Turned down the role of Hugo Drax in the 1979 Bond film Moonraker.

In 1952 while remodeling his home, he discovered several reels of Buster Keaton's "lost" films (Mason had purchased Keaton's Hollywood mansion) and immediately recognized their historical significance and was responsible for their preservation.

Starred with his wife Clarissa Kaye in the original 1979 version of Salem's Lot, although they never appeared together on screen.

Can be seen visiting the set of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) in Vivian Kubrick's TV documentary "Making 'The Shining'" (1980). Stanley Kubrick didn't usually allow visitors to his set, but made an exception for Mason, who had memorably played Humbert Humbert for him in "Lolita" (1962).

Was the original choice to play Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase" (1973), but had to turn down the role due to poor health. John Houseman, who had acted in only one other movie in a bit part, was cast and won an Oscar.

Was rejected by fellow student Alistair Cooke for an acting role whilst at Cambridge. Cooke asked Mason what course he was studying. "Architecture", replied Mason. "Then I think you should finish your degree and forget about acting." advised Cooke, in one of his rare lapses of judgement.

"In a noisy world he spoke quietly, and yet his voice will be remembered by millions who never knew him." –Bill Fairchild

"How do I wish to be remembered, if at all? I think perhaps just as a fairly desirable sort of character actor."

"I'm a character actor: the public never knows what it's getting by way of a Mason performance from one film to the next. I therefore represent thoroughly insecure investment."

On not showing up at the 27th Academy Awards, even though he had been nominated as Best Actor for "A Star is Born" and had agreed to go: "The Oscar show is always a little better when things go wrong, so I had no need to feel guilty about letting them down."

Judy Garland immediately attracted attention in such films as Pigskin Parade (1936), Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938) and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), but Judy Garland didn't truly become a star until she was cast in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Her performance as Dorothy won her a special Juvenile Oscar, and it was this role, of course, that gave her her most famous song, "Over the Rainbow." She then appeared in a long string of classic MGM musicals and instilled in them a sense of realism never before experience by the American movie going public. She was the girl next door, and was MGM’s reigning musical star for almost 20 years.

By the time A Star Is Born came along Judy was considered washed up. She knew this, and she wanted to make good. Garland’s performance is arguably one of the best performances, musical or otherwise, in American cinema. She sings, she dances, and she’s completely and utterly honest. As Esther Blodgett, her love for Norman and her guilt of rising to the top of her game is apparent in every scene. She is tender and loving and sweet and yet determined and powerful. Her rendition of “The Man That Got Away” is a 3 act play in and of itself. Garland’s uncanny ability to transform herself when she’s singing is unlike anything on film. Before they settled on the final version that's recognizable in the fim, that had many altered takes. Here's a rare clip of one of those. Garland's still magnifiecnt. I don't know how they chose.

Think of how Garland, as Esther, is explaining her life to Norman in his car as he drives her home. She is embarrassed and yet elated as her eyes wander and her hands flutter.

“You don’t really want to hear all this….do you?”

And then there’s the outburst as she sits alone in her house after Norman’s death. The rage and the fear come pouring out of her at an alarming rate. She does everything but physically punch Danny. She stands valiantly, and defiantly screaming how she’ll stay where she is, and mourn how she needs to mourn. And then, after Danny’s wonderful speech about throwing his memory back into the ocean along with his body, Garland literally acts with her shoulders and the back of her head. There is a physical release, and we see her come out of her self imposed silence and self pity.

It’s a miraculous moment.

Judy was extremely proud of her performance in this film and justifiably so, when the finished product was finally shown. However, when Jack Warner cut the final print, and left the film in tatters, it became unrecognizable. Judy only watched it once in her life, and then never saw it again. Judy was nominated for an Oscar for this fiom, but ultimately lost out to Grace Kelly in “The Country Girl”. Groucho Mark sent her a telegram that said:

“This is the biggest robbery since Brinx.”

Thankfully, her searing, almost naked portrayal of a star on her way up is forever engrained in the American psyche. An iconic performance, no question.


She was considered an icon in the gay community in the 1950s and 1960s. Her death and the loss of that emotional icon in 1969 has been thought to be a contributing factor to the feeling of the passing of an era that helped spark the Stonewall Riots that began the militant gay rights movement.

She married Mark Herron on June 12th 1964, although her divorce from Sid Luft was not settled. They were married in the Mandarin by a Buddhist priest, and the validity of this marriage is not clear.

Her record "Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall" from 1961 garnered 5 Grammy Awards and remained at the top of Billboards charts for two months.

Originally screen-tested and signed to play in Valley of the Dolls (1967); ultimately replaced by Susan Hayward.
Her funeral was held 27 June 1969 in Manhattan at the Frank E. Campbell funeral home at Madison Avenue and Eighty-First Street. Twenty-two thousand people filed past Judy's open coffin over a twenty-four hour period. Judy's ex-husband, Vincente Minnelli did not attend the funeral. James Mason delivered the eulogy.

Judy heard the same phrase in two movies: For Me and My Gal (1942) and Easter Parade (1948). In both, her love interest (played by Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, respectively) says this: "Why didn't you tell me I was in love with you?"

The day she died, there was a tornado in Kansas.

Liza Minnelli said that Judy planned on calling her autobiography "Ho-Hum".

Liza Minnelli originally wanted Mickey Rooney to deliver Garland's eulogy, but she was afraid that he wouldn't be able to get through it. So James Mason did it instead.

According to singer Mel Tormé, she had a powerful gift of retention. She could view a piece of music once and have the entire thing memorized.

In 1997, Judy Garland was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Garland's album, "Judy at Carnegie Hall" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Hedda Hopper later reported that her loss to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl (1954) was the result of the closest Oscar vote up till that time that didn't end in a tie, with just six votes separating the two. In any event, it was a heartbreak from which she never really recovered and which has remained a matter of some controversy ever since.

In 1952, received a Special Tony Award "for an important contribution to the revival of vaudeville through her recent stint at the Palace Theatre."

Reporter: "I understand you have a very large gay following, Miss Garland." Judy: "I sing to people!"

"How strange when an illusion dies. It's as though you've lost a child."

"Well, we have a whole new year ahead of us. And wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all be a little more gentle with each other, and a little more loving, have a little more empathy, and maybe - next year at this time - we'd like each other a little more."

"[MGM] had us working days and nights on end. They'd give us pep-up pills to keep us on our feet long after we were exhausted. Then they'd take us to the studio hospital and knock us cold with sleeping pills... Then after four hours they'd wake us up and give us the pep-up pills again so we could work another seventy-two hours in a row."

"Hollywood is a strange place if you're in trouble. Everybody thinks it's contagious."

"'Over the Rainbow,' is a part of my life. It is so symbolic of all my dreams and wishes that I'm sure that's why people sometimes get tears in their eyes when they hear it."

“I want to be remembered as a good mother. That’s all.”

A Star Is Born Trivia

• Because the role of Norman Maine is that of a has-been actor, it was rejected by Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Cary Grant (who at first accepted it) before being finally accepted by James Mason.

• The sequence in which Esther receives a studio makeover was inspired by Judy Garland's similar experience early in the filming of The Wizard of Oz (1939).

• In the scene after the movie premiere, Matt Libby is at a party where he passes a man and says, "Hey, Ray! Great score, the best!" The man is Ray Heindorf, musical director for this film.

• WILHELM SCREAM: during the song "Somewhere There's a Someone".

• WILHELM SCREAM: In the projection room while playing the western.

• This was George Cukor's 37th film, his first musical, and his first full production in color.

• Early tests were made using WarnerScope (Warner's own wide screen format) and WarnerColor. Both were judged to be unsatisfactory. The film was shot in CinemaScope (licensed from Fox) and Technicolor.

• Filming took 10 months to complete.

• After filming the Academy Award scene where Esther/Vicki is inadvertently slapped by a drunken Norman Maine, the whole side of Judy Garland's face was bruised.

• Hugh Martin, who was hired as vocal arranger, stormed off the set after a row with Judy Garland over her interpretation of "The Man That Got Away".

• The 15 minute "Born in a Trunk" medley was designed by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe. It was inserted into the film when it was decided that none of the three Arlen/Gershwin songs submitted supplied an acceptable conclusion to the first half of the film.

In case you’re wondering what "The Wilhelm Scream" means, you can go here. Basically it has to do with a 1950’s African Western, Luke Skywalker, and “The Purple People Eater”.

NBC and Warner Bros. decided to take advantage of all the hype and publicity surrounding Garland's comback film, and WB contracted for A Star is Born have the world's first televised premiere. Hollywood stars were out in droves that night -- as well as thousands of regular Joes and Joans in the crowds outside the Pantages Theatre. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were among the many stars in attendance. The following is the dialogue between Lucy, and Desi, and one of the hosts, Larry Finley, then a Los Angeles media host of that era's Late Show.

Larry: "Uh... Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz standing offstage..."

Lucy: "Okay."

Larry: "Just back from Del Mar. And here she is the world's greatest handicapper..."

Lucy: "(Laughs) Hi Larry!"

Larry: "Hi Lucille, hi darling... hi Desi."

Desi: "Hiya Larry, good to see you."

Larry: "Good to see you. Well, it certainly is a night of nights here, isn't it, Desi?"

Desi: "It sure is wonderful."

Lucy: "It's the greatest!"

Larry: "It's the greatest."

Lucy: "It's the greatest. This -"

Desi: (Surveys crowd) "They're so excited about looking at pictures."

Lucy: "Judy, and James, and George Cukor, and everybody else in this picture are gonna take all of the..."

Larry: "Academy Awards?"

Lucy: "...Academy Awards that they have."

Larry: "I think you're right."

Lucy: "I'm sure of it!"

In fact, Garland lost the 1955 Best Actress Oscar (sources say by just a few votes) to Grace Kelly's performance in The Country Girl with Bing Crosby. James Mason (and Crosby) lost the Best Actor award to Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Director George Cukor was not even nominated. The film was nominated for - but lost - four other Academy Awards as well

A Star Is Born is a masterpiece of both filmmaking and performances. It boasts 3 individual artists at the height of their powers. It’s a story of love and power. It’s a fable that’s ending is more than just a simple lesson. It’s also unique in the sense that it is not a typical musical. Theirs is never a time when anyone bursts out into song. All the songs are either “performed” by the characters, or they are used as emotional tools. No one stands on a mountain or by a moonlit lake and sings a love song. This changed the movie musical forever. It is literally a story with songs attached to it. Remarkable for that time, and never equaled.
It could be said that A Star Is Born is a tragedy, but I remember the ending so clearly. It’s so vivid even though we never see Norman’s actual demise. Vicki Lester walking gallantly up the microphone, breathing heavy, and then, as if staring straight up the Heavens, she announces:

“This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

Maine is not dead. He will live on, and this time he’ll go on with fervor and hope and glory. Forever. Vicki’s deal with herself to keep him alive forever has been solidified. By her. She has taken back her dignity and her love. It is indeed tragic, as many lessons can be, but it has a sense of clarity. I love this movie. It is one that resonated with me when I first saw it, and still does to this day. At once a fairytale, and also, and forever, a tale of lost and found morality.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 3rd, 2005 07:36 pm (UTC)
A Star Is Born
Oh, Alexandra, you've hit the hot button. I saw the movie in 1954 and fell in love with Judy Garland then and there. I have seen it over 100 times, saw Garland in concert several times and even met her once (sat in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel for 2 days waiting for her to register--Michael S. now has the photo that she autographed for me). Steve's been telling me for months that you and I need to meet. Obviously two people devoted to Judy Garland have no business mixing with those Ethel queens. You pulled most of the best photos from the film, but you left out "I just wanted to look at you again," one of my favorites. --Bev
Dec. 6th, 2005 08:55 pm (UTC)
James Mason
I expected the tribute to Judy - which is like saying "I expected gravity to work today" - but I was touched by your lovely words for James Mason. The first movie I saw him in, "Journey to the Center of the Earth", has always been one of my favotires, and I would watch a movie purely on the basis of him being part of the cast. Not that I wouldn't have watched "20000 Leagues Under the Sea", "Evil Under the Sun" or "North by Northwest" anyway.
Thank you for a wonderful tribute to a great movie and an inspiring pair of actors!
Dec. 9th, 2005 10:17 pm (UTC)
Great Site
I really enjoyed this site. I was lucky enough as a child to meet James Mason and he was such a nice man. Keep up the great work!

Dec. 11th, 2005 08:28 am (UTC)
Re: Great Site
Welcome, Disneybear! Kick off your shoes, and stay a while!

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )