James Mason: A Star is Born ’54
A film known for its memorable songs and emotional valleys, George Cukor’s 1954 musical remake of “A Star is Born” is also an effective parody of the Hollywood machine. Its circular events calendar and more circular narratives, lack of willingness to open doors, the 1950’s craze of finding the most groomed instead of the most able (I’m looking at you, Grace Kelly), vampire-like treatment of its talent whom they perceive as expendable, lack of respect for its talents’ privacy in dire times, absolute falseness, exoticization of the rest of the world and disseminating that information into the American household, misguided and hateful press agents (Jack Carson), how it separates loving couples. I suppose Norman Maine shouldn’t drinking that much or that his problems aren’t caused by Hollywood, or that Esther Bloodgett/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland), but Hollywood still looks bad.
It also looks bad because Esther, one of its victims, has so much humanity and pathos. She gets discovered by alcoholic superstar Norman Maine (James Mason), and her soaring career coincides with his self-destruction. I can’t pick out her shining moment in the movie. While she’s in the car with Norman, she seems to belong to her big city present with hints of the small town little girl of her past. As she’s in between the musical movements of “In the Trunk,” she goes from caramel-voiced actress then breaks out into song, holding back tears of joy and gratitude. In her dressing room, still in a jolly costume as an androgynous newspaper girl, she tells Oliver Niles of how she hates Norman for failing but says it with sorrow and remorse, and brings audiences to tears.
James Mason gets a moment too. It’s the last movie played in his retrospective, and what other way to end it than with his performance in this movie. Playing opposite Garland takes a lot of subtlety. But my favourite scene for him is when he ‘Kanye’s‘ his wife at an Academy Awards ceremony. He tells those who are attending the banquet that he knows them by their first name, convincing authority from a man who is there to beg. It’s horrible for him to do, but we still feel his pain. I also just inexplicably like it when actors stutter at the right moments. Both Mason and Garland play off each other well in this scene, even if they don’t look like a good couple in a few other scenes. And his “Why do you disgust me” in the first scene brings laughs too.
The movie’s a circular one, beginning and ending both in a Hollywood benefit show. Esther returns to the place where she met Norman, filling his place. She appears to her audience as Mrs. Norman Maine, positioning herself as a traditional wife, as one of Hollywood instead of just being a newcomer. As she belts out in one of her numbers, the show must go on.
Oh and if you like Mondrian, you’ll love this movie too.
A good ten minutes of “A Star is Born ’54” are just monochrome film stills accompanied. Those ten minutes seemed thrice its length, almost ruined the experience, I wanted to walk out and get my money back. I should have known that film executives cut it up because the original three hours was apparently too long by test audiences at the time. Thankfully the last inserted parts of the film ended by the 70th minute, and the meat of the film and its musical numbers are intact. I was eavesdropping other people’s conversations after the screening, women in their forties strongly saying that the stills added nothing to the film. I hope to hear the other side of the argument someday.