Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!
Hollywood likes to tell stories about itself. One of the most famous tropes is the rags to riches story, where a Hollywood ingenue finds success, only to realise that it comes with great sacrifices. The 1954 version of A Star is Born is one of the most beloved exponents of this trope. Not just because Judy Garland is great in it (and she is), but because of who Judy Garland is. Her painstaking rise to success led to the deterioration of her mental, physical and emotional health, which in turn proved detrimental to the career she sacrificed so much for.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
A Star is Born was to be her big comeback. She was out of a contract with MGM, and while this gave her a certain freedom, it also cost her the protection of the studio marketing machine. Sid Luft, her third husband, got her the one-off deal to make A Star is Born, a three hour musical melodrama that initially failed to recoup its massive costs. To be able to run the film more often and potentially make a profit that way, it was butchered. Whole musical numbers were cut, and in its abbreviated form, the narrative became incoherent. It took until 1983, long after Garland’s death, to restore it to its original length. Some of the footage had since been lost, as Warner didn’t bother to retain a print, and so – jarringly – stills have been superimposed over the remaining audio in order to tell the whole story. In the restored version Garland shows, like no other actor possibly could, the price of being a performer. In the part of the story where she is working on “Lose that Long Face” (Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin) her producer enters her dressing room. Still in her short wig and ridiculous stage make-up she gives a shattering monologue about living with an addict. Then she redoes her fake freckles, marred by tears, with an eyebrow pencil and goes back on stage to belt out “put that frown upside down!”, showing just how much personal pain has to be swallowed down in order to go on with the show. The film should probably have swept the Oscars that year, it was nominated for half a dozen, but it failed to win any. Whether this was due to the slashing of the film, or because of Garland’s portrayal of the messy realities of the industry is anyone’s guess. The fact Garland lost to the immaculate glamour of Grace Kelly in Country Girl, however, is telling.
Though the film is a unique one, it is of course a remake. The second half, especially, is a blow-by-blow retelling of the 1937 A Star is Born in which we first meet Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine. Esther Blodgett, stage name Vicky Lester (Janet Gaynor), is the girl from the sticks who dreams of making it big in Hollywood. She gets to Los Angeles only to find out she has more chance of winning the lottery than to get her shot at fame. Enter the famous actor Norman Maine (Fredrick March), who gives her the first big break she needs to propel her to stardom. They fall in love and get married. While her star rises, his rapidly fades. He is a severe alcoholic and it has interfered with his work to such an extent that even his producer has to reluctantly give up on him. He tries to get sober, but his self-respect is gone, and despite his devotion to his wife he resents the disparity in their success, and falls off the wagon. When Esther gets awarded her Oscar, and starts to make a touching speech, Norman breaks in fall-down drunk, and starts ranting about how he deserves a prize for the “worst performance of the year”. This is the speech in which James Mason’s Maine drunkenly laments “I need a job!” in the later iteration, a version of which has remained in the script up until the fifth rendition in 2018. This early version of A Star Is Born with its dreams of escaping Depression-era America in order to become a big star, won an Oscar for best original story.
It was, however, decidedly not an original story. So much so that the writers of a film called What Price Hollywood? considered filing a lawsuit for plagiarism. In this 1932 film a waitress looking for her big break meets a perpetually inebriated Big Director who gives her the opportunity she needs to make it big in Hollywood. This, the nominal ‘first’ A Star is Born, originally titled The Truth About Hollywood was based on the Adela St Johns story, which in turn was reportedly based on the real-life relationship of Colleen Moore and John McCormick. There is an early scene in which Mary Evans (Constance Bennet ) schmoozes a picture of Clark Gable, reminiscent – in hindsight – of the ode Garland herself sang to him in 1937 (“You Made Me Love You”).
This pre-code version is interesting, because it is sharper edged than its successors. Early on when Mary serves a Hollywood parasite who offers her “a chance in movies”, she blithely accuses him of statutory rape. Director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) earns Mary’s eternal loyalty not just because he gives her her big break, but also because he doesn’t take advantage of her. What Price Hollywood? was directed by George Cukor, who was also asked to do the ’37 A Star is Born version but declined. He came back to the story in 1954 when Garland made it her own.
An eye-catching line all these films have in common is the phrase “Do you mind if I take just one more look” or “I just wanted to hear you speak again, that’s all” in the ’32 version, which occurs twice in the film. Early on, and then later as a last goodbye to the newly minted superstar.
Another thing these films have in common is the ultimate fate of the leading man, which has never changed since its inception. The director/actor, who finds himself a has-been in a system which treats him as a product, rather than a human being, ultimately takes his own life. Even in the 1937 version, an era in which happy endings were in vogue, Maine walks into the ocean, a sacrifice for his wife, who would otherwise have quit the industry to care for him. In 1932, Max, when confronted with his haggard face, numb from yet another bender and all but destitute, shoots himself in an extraordinary sequence which illustrates his shame in having come down in the world. James Mason, the Norman Maine in the 1954 iteration, copies the scene from the ’37 version exactly, when he walks into the ocean, as Judy Garland sings “It’s a New World” (Arlen and Gershwin).
And Garland herself? In real life, though much maligned by a paternalistic system and press which permeated the ‘60s, Garland was still on stage after she all but disappeared from movies. She made her way into people’s living rooms via TV. She still sang, most famously perhaps in Carnegie Hall. And though she died way too early, she was a star until her death. Much like her counterpart in A Star is Born, she suffered greatly from concern-trolling on the one hand and malicious gossip on the other, but unlike him she got up again and again and kept working. She tried to tell her own story via song, and ultimately even via taped diaries, but never quite managed to. So in the end, perhaps A Star is Born is a testament to her, and great talents before her who, though greatly loved, were ground up by a system which never quite allowed them their humanity.
After the 1954 Judy Garland version, the Star is Born in the music industry, rather than film. Lady Gaga being Esther Blodgett’s most contemporary heir in the 2018 version with Bradley Cooper, following the 1976 version with Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The rise of Esther/Ally is similarly meteoric, the fate of the leading man remains the same. After giving his Galatea her big break and marrying her, Pygmalion is all washed up.
Perhaps A Star is Born will find a new life in the internet age with a TikTok star or a social media influencer: starting as a duo while the followers of Victor Lester start to vastly exceed Norman Maine’s, who then slides into obscurity after having to endure the nasty comments the internet is heir to. But whatever the sequels of this long-lasting Hollywood myth will be: A Star is Born will always belong to Judy Garland, who made the original remake sing.