A new star is born consuming the detritus surrounding its burning aura, sustained by its own internal pressure. Director George Cukor’s Hollywood fable is as flammable as camphor and nitrate, revealing lives preserved in negative, cast upon the silver screen.
A caustic view behind the glitz and glamour, Cukor’s film has become one of the most damning purges of Hollywood where stars sometime just burn slowly away, gone and forgotten, the nuclear fusion of box office all that matters. James Mason portrays the aging actor Norman Maine, his blood alcohol level reaching mythic proportions. He nurtures a young nightclub singer named Esther Blodgett and gives her a chance to make it Big. She is soon transformed into Vicki Lester but retains the kindness and compassion intrinsic to her nature, unlike Norman who is a drunken and spoiled actor who may have once been a nice guy…once upon a time. Esther falls in love with her mentor but he remains a stranger: when they are married before the Justice of the Peace, Norman’s true name is revealed and Esther suddenly realizes that she doesn’t really know this man. But she gives it her all, sacrificing her career to keep her vows.
James Mason plays the perfect drunk, inebriated with liquid toxins and power, imbuing Norman with a spoiled angst that doesn’t quite diminish his soft spoken demeanor: he’s a jerk but not completely unlikable. Judy Garland as Esther is a bit too old for the part and looks as if she has a few years of benders under her belt, but her genial femininity and charm make the heart skip a beat or two, and her crying jags so full of emotional frisson the illusion is sustained. The film is padded with a few too many songs that showcase Garland’s outstanding vocal range, and it’s not until the third act that she really gets to perform dramatically. The songs are diagetic, contained within the story, except the Honeymoon suite which starts a capella before an off-screen orchestra joins in.
A STAR IS BORN is about the rise and fall of two Hollywood stars, but it’s also about the loss of male potency at a time when women where still considered subordinate. As Norman drinks himself towards oblivion, he cannot stand the fact of being supported by his wife: instead of helping her, he unconsciously attempts to destroy her. But in a sobered state, he makes the absolute sacrifice for his wife. And Esther’s final words subjugate her own identity to become Mrs. Norman Maine.
Final Grade: (B+)