Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Star Is Born

Andrew At Encore Entertainment has asked for entries in a musical blogothon. Coupled with The Self Styled Siren’s excellent write up on the subject of this film’s precurrser, I was more then happy to review A Star Is Born.

A Star Is Born tells a simple story, or a drunken nearly washed up star who takes the time to train a protégé on the way down. Her star begins to rise as he crashes to the bottom. And they have a doomed romance on the way down.

A Star Is Born’s problem is that it peaks in its first fifteen minutes. It’s a stunning scene that threads between off stage and on at a Hollywood benefit. in which a lifetime of resentment finally boils over for James Mason. At his worst Mason coasted by on a sort of bored ultra feyness. At his best, as in here and Bigger Then Life, he has a kind of curdled grandeur to him, turning self destruction to an art. It’s a collage of styles taking both full advantage of Cinemascope’s grandeur and color, while using handle camera’s, lighting, and if my eyes didn’t deceive me even a jump cut or two in a way that’s almost cinema verite. Truth be told, I have purposefully avoided this film, familiar with this sequence through Martin Scorsese’s A Personal Journey Through American Film, and convinced the movie couldn’t live up (ala My Dream Is Yours) and while to a certain extent this is the case, the movie never loses sight of the dark heart and bitter taste of its opening scene.

Its not the type of expirimentation that Cukor is known for, having more often credited to his contemporary Vincent Minnelli. Similar, less successful, experimental scenes run through the film. Such as an abstract production number that looks like Bubsy Berkley via De Stijl (It also features Judy Garland crying “Mammy” backed up but a chorus in black face playing banjos. A sight just as surreal as anything the production design might have to offer.) Cleverly Cukor uses another scene to take the opposite approach, with Garland pantomiming an entire elaborate production number for Mason, alone in her living room.

Cukor was of course one of the most skilled comedy directors of the forties, which in turn makes him one of the most skilled of all time. And he’s able to keep the film from becoming a slog, putting in some deft comic scenes that never feel out of place, including one nice sequence that turns a killer running gag out of the simple phrase, “Glad to have you with us.”

Garland was a little old for the role, but that just adds pathos to the part. Even in something as light as her parts with Mickey Rooney Garland carries with her a certain air of fragile, doomed sadness. In a part as relentlessly melodramatic as A Star Is Born she looks as though she’s performing with a death sentence over her (Did she and Montgomery Clift ever star in a movie together? And if so how was it didn’t open up a rift in the fabric of time and space and consume the Earth in a black hole of infinite sadness when it was released). And Mason matches her beat by beat, clearly showing the good man inside even at his worst.

Oh yeah, there’s music here to. I’ll admit I’ve never payed to much attention to Garland before, ubiquitous as she is. In musicals I’ve always been attracted more to the great dancers then singers, and though Garland could certainly dance she was no Astaire. But the screening of Girl Crazy in Austin that I attended changed my mind to a certain extent. She just has a natural charisma and screen presence, and few know how to use a close up better. Her singing voice like her persona is a beautiful fragile thing.

She, Mason and Cukor turn A Star Is Born into a real rare and wonderful thing, a piece of artifice that unlikely cuts straight to the heart.


Andrew K. said...

Judy and Monty did star in a film together (though they didn't really star in it together, they had no scenes) - it was Judgment at Nuremberg, and they're both depressing (excellently so) in it.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ AEE: Thanks for the info. Phew it looks like the Earth dogged a bullet on that one.

Unknown said...

That's a lovely description of Judy. She WAS tragic indeed, the poor thing. She's absolutely fantastic in this one.
And Nuremberg is actually a terrific movie beyond Monty and Judy.

Bryce Wilson said...

Hey thanks Jose. Much obliged. Nuremberg is definitely on the list.