With 2018’s remake still ringing in our ears and the Renee Zellweger biopic of Judy Garland winning big over the 2019 awards season, this 1954 comeback vehicle is essential viewing, even if the running time of this restored version is a punishing three hours plus. Garland has become known as a gay icon, but she meant a lot to a mainstream audiences too, and George Cukor’s musical drama gives her plenty of opportunity to belt them out, notably the celebrated (and extended here) Born in a Trunk number.
Given her own issues with alcohol and drugs, it’s tricky to watch Garland as the upcoming ingénue who ascends to the top while husband Mr Norman Maine (James Mason) falls apart; with only one musical feature after this (the rather 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 all 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. Unlike the Bradley Cooper version, this Norman 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; friends and 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.