3 min

Oscar night 50 years ago

A Star Is Born - now that's show biz

The Oscars are always disappointing. Every year I wait for a washed-up matinee idol to smack the best actress winner during her acceptance speech and it never happens. A Star Is Born spoiled me. The 1954 Judy Garland version, that is. It’s full of such classic moments. And a more resonant exploration of show biz mythology you’re unlikely to find.

A Star Is Born tells the tale of Esther Blodgett, a struggling band singer who is discovered by alcoholic movie star Norman Maine. They fall in love, marry, and as Esther skyrockets to Oscar-graced heights, Maine hits rock bottom. In reality, it was pill-addicted Judy who had hit rock bottom four years earlier when she was fired from MGM. This was to be her comeback film, an act of revenge against her old studio.

She and her producer/hubby Sid Luft assembled an inspired creative team that included songwriters Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, screenwriter Moss Hart, leading man James Mason and director/gay daddy George Cukor. A Star Is Born was a smash at the premiere but was severely edited by Warner Brothers when theatre owners complained of its length. Judy believed these cuts robbed her of an Oscar and any chance of winning back the respect of the industry. Her film career never recovered. Her health deteriorated. She, in essence, became Norman Maine. Ironically, after she died of an overdose at age 47, it was James Mason who delivered her eulogy (the night of her funeral, the Stonewall Riots erupted in NYC’s Greenwich Village).

Some 20 years ago a portion of the discarded footage was discovered and reintegrated into A Star Is Born, and it’s this reconstructed version that’s presented on the DVD. Although most of the restored material is comprised of scene snippets and still photos, the “Lose That Long Face” number is a real find. Here Judy’s freckle-faced straw-hatted hoofing (juxtaposed with her freckle-faced straw-hatted sobbing) is orgiastic. Screw Grace Kelly. Cuts or no cuts, the Oscar was Judy’s.

Take the “Born In A Trunk” segment. This dark and dazzling medley-within-a-movie-within- a-movie charts Judy’s own rise to fame – and she’s electrifying in it. Who else could wring such raw emotion out of the phrase “Pocatello, Idaho?” And then we have the brilliantly conceived “Someone At Last” routine in which Judy gently mocks the schmaltz she left behind at Metro. Judy was hip. This number proves it.

And of course there’s “The Man That Got Away” which, I believe, is the second finest marriage of singer and song in film history. (The finest is “Over The Rainbow.”) Arlen and Gershwin out-torched themselves with this one. (So much so, in fact, that it makes Judy seem more like Mason’s long lost drinking buddy than his protégée.) As she growled during the recording, “Can’t you see… I’m a woman now.” On the DVD we get to see two rejected versions of this number and, although the pink blouse and the brown dress may be unbecoming, when the camera closes in she’s heartbreaking in both takes.

Indeed, many of the special features on this DVD are luscious. The live TV broadcast of the film’s Hollywood premiere is a banquet for show biz junkies. Who can resist a wink from Sophie Tucker? Or a sneer from Gloria Graham? Or a peek at Raymond Burr’s soldier-boy escort?

And to put everything into cinematic context, the DVD offers the original theatrical trailers for each of the three versions of the movie. The original 1937 version, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, differs in tone very little from the Judy version, but check out the trailer for the 1976 Barbra Strident/ Kris Pissedofferson debacle. (Perhaps if Elvis had agreed to do the picture he could have tamed Babs’ wicked fro.)

On Oscar night 1955, Judy was in a hospital maternity ward after giving birth to her son Joe. At her bedside was a television camera crew poised to broadcast her acceptance speech. When Grace Kelly’s name was announced, however, the crew callously gathered their gear and stranded Judy with nothing but a terrific anecdote. At this year’s award ceremony, Marcia Gay Harden’s water didn’t break and nobody smacked Charlize Theron. Show biz ain’t what it used to be.