With 2018’s remake still ringing in our ears and a Renee Zellweger biopic opening soon to kick off the coming 2019 awards season, this 1954 comeback for Judy Garland is essential viewing, even if the running time of the restored version is a punishing three hours plus. Garland has become known as a gay icon, but she meant a lot to a mainstream audience, and George Cukor’s musical drama gives her plenty of opportunity to belt them out, notably the celebrated and extended Born in a Trunk number. Given her own issues with alcohol and drugs, it’s tricky to watch Garland as the upcoming ingénue while Mr Norman Maine (James Mason) falls apart; with only one musical feature after this (the maudlin I Could Go On Singing), A Star Is Born marked peak Garland, whereas Mason had highlights like North by Northwest and Lolita to look forward to as well as a career stretching out to the 1980’s.
Garland doesn’t always look comfortable here; one of the ironies of the A Star is Born films is that the leads are never ingénues, but established divas, and Garland seems more on message as Vicky Lester than Esther Blodgett. This restored version, with still frame sequences and alternate versions, gives the impression of a chequered production, with Cukor not involved in several sequences; as in the 1936 version, Hollywood is seen as somewhat venal, and the way that business interferes with private life is well caught. All four A Star In Born films have their merits, but taken as a quadrilogy, it’s interesting to see how they reflect the changing nature of male-female relationships. Normal Maine does not snort coke, ride a motorbike, play Glastonbury, attend SNL or urinate in his own pants, but he’s still a toxic male, even when played with enormous charm by Mason. And this is Garland’s show; fans of Judy will want to see her swing successfully for the fences here in a performance that fascinates because of how it does, and does not, reflect the truth of her troubled career.