The 1954 version of “A Star Is Born” (starring Judy Garland and James Mason) is undoubtedly the best. Made when the studio system was teetering towards disaster, the film perfectly captures the contradiction of Hollywood in the ‘50s: filled to the brink with glitzy sets and lavish musical numbers, the story betrays the human destruction behind the glamor.
This film was actually cut down after its initial release, and 30 minutes of it famously went missing. The director, George Cukor (who also directed “What Price Hollywood?”), was furious, and claimed that the picture had been seriously maimed. The soundtrack to the missing footage was found by film restoration legend Ronald Haver in 1983, and all but 11 minutes were fully restored. Those 11 minutes were added in with black-and-white studio shots playing over the dialog, which frankly I find presumptuous, but that is a rant for another day.
The major change between the 1954 version and its predecessor has to do with the films’ different handling of Vicky and Norman’s relationship. In the original, Vicky Lester has a dual identity as Norman Maine’s wife and rising star. However, in this version, since Norman is the first one to believe she has potential (even before she believed it herself), Vicky’s love and identity are wrapped up in him. She is a star, but her first priority is always her husband – until he sacrifices himself for her career. This Pygmalion-type effect Norman has on Vicky also works in reverse: he sees her as the one good thing he’s accomplished, and feels the need to protect her and the career he created.
This may seem a little more cynical than the original, and elements of it are, since the ‘54 version effectively does away with the grandmother character whose single function is to blurt out the moral of the story like a walking talking Aesop’s Fables. The 1954 film is less allegory and more tragedy, as it focuses more on Vicky and Norman’s relationship and less on the trappings of stardom and the studio system. There are fewer scenes depicting studio life, and more depicting Norman’s decay and Vicky’s attempts to save him.
Undoubtedly, most of the tragedy comes from Judy Garland’s performance. It is hands down the performance of her career. (Judy was nominated for Best Actress that year, but lost to Grace Kelly, who did not deserve it.) Garland vacillates between hope and heartbreak with incredible dignity, sometimes several times within one scene. And then there is that amazing voice:
Everything in her performance is designed to tear the audience to shreds. However, I can’t help feeling like some of this comes from the autobiographical nature of the film for Judy Garland. Judy’s life story moved from the hopeful Vicky Lester to the jaded, drunk Norman Maine as she struggled through divorces, addictions, and studios turning from her. Maybe the reason she plays Vicky Lester so well is because she knows firsthand how difficult it is to love a Norman Maine (or a Judy Garland).
Despite all this, “A Star Is Born” bears affection for the Hollywood Dream Factory. After all, Vicky Lester’s dreams do come true. As the wide-eyed starlet and the washed-up star, Vicky and Norman personify two real types that are part of the Hollywood legend. Hollywood’s mystique lies not only in its successes, but also in its failures, which is why Hollywood Boulevard is lined with portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and the other stars who lived and died tragically in the public eye.