With the “Garland Goose Bumps” still on my arm from The Wizard of Oz, it seems fitting that I move on to an epic film that is nothing but pure Judy. The story of a star who rises as another falls is not a new one, yet I’m more than happy to revisit it in A Star Is Born, Miss Garland’s first film in almost five years. This one has it all — terribly fake sunrises, cigarettes that seem ad-libbed in their frequency, the Hollywood bellboy from I Love Lucy, an eerie little visit from Liza, and of course, that unparalleled voice…
If you’ve never had the pleasure, I’d highly recommend finding, borrowing, or downloading any version you can find of the song “The Man That Got Away.” If you can locate the live version from Carnegie Hall, I say pounce! Since “Over the Rainbow” remains in its own category unaccompanied by any other, I can safely say that “The Man That Got Away” is my favorite song of Miss Garland’s. James Mason plays Norman Maine in the film, an actor falling deeper into alcoholism and further off the movie screen. Norman still manages to help Miss Garland’s character rise to the top as his fall accelerates — in one of his sober moments, he catches the unknown Esther Blodgett (Garland) and her band just as “The Man That Got Away” comes pouring out of her. He’s as hypnotized as I am by this tiny woman whose voice is still unlike anything I’ve ever felt or heard.
How that immeasurable voice fit into that tiny woman was all I ever wanted to learn in biology class — that’s one the few science tests I could have aced! How does she make the double T’s in “bitter” and “glitter” sound so amazingly painful that I can’t wait for more? In any event, that gorgeous song was more than enough for me to hop in my Oscar Time Machine and snatch the Best Actress Academy Award out of Grace Kelly’s hand (for The Country Girl) and place it in Miss Garland’s.
The fast-paced dialogue of old movies can be quite the workout for me, as I run behind the stream of words, trying to keep up. After Norman grabs Esther’s lipstick and draws a heart on the wall with their initials in it, she narrowly escapes his advances for a second meeting. Esther tells him “I’ll lay out a whole supply of lipsticks, and we’ll celebrate all over the walls.” That quick delivery, combined with such a scrumptious line, is one of the many loves I find on my journey through old movies. The confidence that stirred within me years ago with the witch’s hat and broom reappears again, perhaps a bit transformed, and a certain familiar half-smile forms on my face. I wanted my mind to work as quickly as hers, churning out the wittiest of comebacks without thinking. The gift of mimicry was always there for me — I can remember movie lines without fail, precisely as written and recited. Although I was usually called upon to perform such lines and flawlessly did so, a part of me still wished for some lines of my own.
Over the years I’ve discovered there’s an important piece of information that some of my generation go through life without… on March 12, 1946, Miss Judy Garland gave birth to Miss Liza Minnelli. This fact that I learned on perhaps my second or third week on this planet is still unknown to many — please pass it on! In A Star Is Born, a wonderful form of creepiness rears its two heads during the 15-minute musical number, “Born in a Trunk.” In the number, Miss Garland joins a chorus of dancing girls who all sport a rather short black wig. As she looks directly into the camera for just a moment, all those Cabaret fans out there will swear, as I did, that both Judy and Liza are inhabiting a single body.
If you do give this one a try, I’ll warn you that it’s quite the commitment — at just under three hours, A Star Is Born requires me to stop all liquids half a day before viewing if I want to make it all the way through. It is a film I return to often enough, and although Mr. Mason and the others give wonderful performances, I do sometimes fast-forward any scenes without my dear Miss Garland. There is another voice in the film, though far less powerful, that tinkers with my old movie memory just a pinch… with his big talk and big shoulders, Mr. Jack Carson plays one of the studio’s big shots who witnesses Esther Blodgett’s rise in Hollywood. Mr. Carson brings me to a favorite of mine that he was in a few years earlier; try as he might, his shoulders were no match for those of our dearest Miss Joan Crawford…
My Oscar Time Machine for A Star Is Born: Best Actress in a Leading Role for Miss Judy Garland (and Grace Kelly can just sit there).