Judy Garland in A Star is Born.
The words alone seem to indicate movie magic. Hardly any other performance in the Best Actress category has achieved such a legendary status, such a following and such a reputation for having suffered the worst Oscar loss in history – but I often think that losing the Oscar was maybe the best thing that could happen to this performance as it only increased its fame and keeps the discussion alive, even almost 60 years after the race.
I have often complained about Judy Garland’s work as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester in the past. I think it were mostly the high expectations that come when you watch a performance that is constantly referred to as one of the greatest in cinema history – which I didn’t get at my initial viewing. That’s also the same reason why I used to complain about Bette Davis in All about Eve very often. The constant mention of hers as one of the greatest performances ever didn’t really make sense to me – even today, I am still reluctant about it even though I gave her a perfect rating. The thing is that hers is more a performance I respect than love. It’s that lack of personal connection that makes me oppose some performances at first but the rating ‘respect, not love’ has helped me to judge these performances more properly. In the case of Bette Davis in All about Eve, it helped me to appreciate all the little miracles she does in the part even though I may not care for it too much on a personal level. And this view at certain performances also enabled me to discover what so many movie fans and critics have discovered long before – that Judy Garland is actually spectacular in A Star is Born.
Usually, it is not only Judy Garland who receives the praise for her work in A Star is Born – the movie itself is also mostly considered one of the great classics in movie history. But all this surely depends on your cultural background. I read a lot of times that movie fans in America praise Judy Garland while considering Grace Kelly a forgotten beauty who went off to become a princess somewhere in a country nobody knows. Well, where I come from it’s rather the opposite – I could walk out on the street and ask random people and be pretty sure that most of them know Grace Kelly while only a few could tell you anything about Judy Garland. It’s like The Sound of Music – some movies, no matter how big they are, are completely unknown in my country and so I didn’t grow up with them and have some sort of emotional attachment to them. And Judy Garland is another phenomenon that simply isn’t as remembered here as in other countries. The children-classic Mary Poppins? Sure, everybody here knows this one. But The Wizard of Oz? Try and find just two people here who ever heard of it – it will take you some time (that’s why I am so surprised that Wicked turned into quite a hit over here. I’ve seen it five times and during the second act, I can always feel how 99,9% of the audience have absolutely no idea what’s going on, have no idea who Dorothy is supposed to be or why the Wicked Witch is suddenly melting). So, I went into A Star is Born years ago without any previous knowledge of Judy Garland or the movie itself – and I was severely disappointed. Back then, I wanted my musicals more ‘traditional’, with more catchy songs, big dance numbers – simply some Broadway magic on the screen. Well, times have changed – a lot of performances and movies I used to love don’t excite me anymore today and vice versa. So, when I prepared myself for an overdue re-run of A Star is Born, I actually expected that my opinion might change because theoretically, this is a movie with all the ingredients I love – drama, comedy, tears, laughter, music and celebrated performances in the center. Well, my opinion did change – in some parts. I am still no fan of Judy Garland. I am still no fan of A Star is Born and I highly doubt that I will ever watch it again. As a movie, I simply refuse to think that it is flawless. Many of the musical sequences, especially 'Born in a Trunk', feel misdirected and go on much too long without any real connection to the plot (that’s the same reason why I don’t care for the “Broadway Melody Ballet”-number from Singin’ in the Rain or, to a lesser extent, the ballet in An American in Paris). But what puts A Star is Born above an average effort are the intriguing story which, even though clearly not overly realistic, gives a fascinating look behind the surface of glamour and fame, and, most of all, the two central performances by Judy Garland and James Mason.
This movie is certainly not the first one to take a look behind the façade of show business- and not even the first one by the name of A Star is Born. In 1937, Janet Gaynor already brought Esther Blodgett, who became Vicki Lester, to live – but unfortunately her sometimes too flat performance didn’t seem to fully catch the fact that this unknown young woman became a national superstar nor did the movie itself create the same aura of a devastating look at the private live of two stars who can’t share their success.
It’s a well-known fact that A Star is Born was Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle after various professional and personal setbacks – and it’s not hard to see why. The part of Esther Blodgett may have been created and realized by Janet Gaynor before but she seems tailor-made just for Judy Garland and gives her the rare chance to act within her own comfort-zone while constantly stretching her acting talents, her voice and her ability to captivate the audience with her distinctive screen presence at the same time. In this aspect, the new version of A Star is Born clearly surpassed the original as Judy Garland never left any doubt that Esther Blodgett is a superstar waiting to happen – even tough her transformation into an actress still seems rather banal as Esther is first and foremost presented as a singer and, just like in 1937, the movie never concerns itself with the question if she really has enough talent to make it on the big screen. But somehow, Judy Garland’s astonishing screen presence combined with her powerhouse-voice and her ability for dramatic as well as comedic acting never leaves a doubt that yes, Esther is destined for greatness – no matter in what area. Judy Garland’s talents float so high above those of most other entertainers in history that Esther Blodgett is clearly benefiting from this. Judy Garland demonstrates such a passion, such an understanding for the show business world in her early scenes and in the character of Esther that it is not hard to believe that, yes, she would be a great actress. There is so much life and energy inside the almost delicate body of Esther Blodgett that it seems impossible that singing is the only outlet for it. Of course, as the movie states, Esther is mostly starring in musical roles but I will certainly not say that these aren’t challenging for an actor – Judy Garland in A Star is Born is the proof herself.
Esther Blodgett seems to be so easy for Judy Garland while appearing as an incredible challenge at the same time – she was re-written and re-created from 1937 to give Judy Garland the chance to use every bit of her talents in the way that is most comfortable for her and allows her to demonstrate various dramatic and musical heights without ever having to struggle to reach them.
What is probably the biggest achievement of Judy Garland in this role is that even though Esther Blodgett is a tailor-made character for her and brought to life by her splendid talents, she can always show the difference between them. The biggest advantage Judy Garland had in this part was the simple fact that the audience already knew about her talents – but she never rested on that. As if by magic, Esther Blodgett never feels like a mere vessel for Judy Garland’s talents but instead she mystically stands on her own and remains surprisingly unique. Esther Blodgett and Judy Garland never appear to be the same nor does Judy Garland’s own familiar voice and looks ever overshadow the character she plays – at the end, Esther Blodgett somehow became herself, an independent creation that may use the talents of Judy Garland but came out as her own person. For a woman of such distinct vocations as Judy Garland, this is certainly an almost miraculous achievement – not only disappearing into a character but actually using these vocations and make it seem as if they come from this character.
I have mentioned James Mason a few times by now and it seems only appropriate since both actors benefit so much from their co-stars – neither James Mason nor Judy Garland appear like typical romantic leads but they both create a wonderful, warm and, most importantly, believable relationship. There is nothing child-like about their love, instead they both mix maturity with the rush of falling in love so sudden absolutely charmingly. The movie may be designed as a showcase for Judy Garland but she still owes a lot of her success to James Mason. Her number ‘Someone at Last’ wouldn’t be half as memorable without his reaction shots. In fact, this is one of the numbers that I was talking about earlier – going on too long, misdirected in some sense but Judy Garland beautifully was able to not only play the musical numbers in A Star is Born but she becomes always more interesting in the psychological aspects behind those numbers. Despite the cheeriness of the situation, she always hints at Vicki’s desperation to be there for Norman, do the best she can do to get him out of his personal low. During the run of the movie, Judy Garland always demonstrates that Vicki lives for the stage and for her art – but she isn’t obsessed with it. Vicki never becomes Edith Piaf but it’s so fascinating to see how Judy Garland and Vicki Lester are so distant and yet constantly intertwining because even though Vicki Lester may not be obsessed with her art, Judy Garland constantly appears to be. At every moment of A Star is Born, Judy Garland seems to be obsessed with her role and her execution of the part but she never consign this on the character of Esther/Vicki who always appears rather light even in her darkest moments or working on the stage.
On paper, the stories of The Country Girl and A Star is Born seem rather alike – two washed-up, alcoholic actors come to the low points of their lives while their wives struggle to keep their marriage and their lives intact. But Judy Garland’s part does go much further – she herself works in her husband’s business, too, she even outshines him and becomes a star while he becomes slowly forgotten. Vicki’s live consists of more than simply taking care of her husband and Judy Garland is heartbreaking in slowly demonstrating how Esther doesn’t only feel desperate for watching her husband slowly destroy himself, but also for succeeding in the business he used to be so famous in. Her breakdown in her dressing room is a devastating moment, even if the use of make-up and costume is working against Judy Garland – I realize that her outfit is supposed to be a stark contrast to her inner pains but it somehow is more distracting than fitting. Still, in this scene, Judy Garland’s intensity in showing her inner troubles becomes almost overwhelming. There is something unbearable in her delivery of the line ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen to us’ – her words evoke the feelings that this couple is doomed, that there is a tragic connection between them. And Judy Garland also gets some bonus points from me to not going for the expected “tears behind the smile” when she has to perform another take of ‘Lose that long Face’ after her breakdown – instead, her performance feels completely authentic at this moment and proofs how much she is a part of the show business world, how she lives for her work and is able to switch from ‘Esther’ to ‘Vicki’ in one second. Unlike Janet Gaynor, who always remained the sweet girl from Dakota, even after she became a star, Judy Garland finds certain ways to show that Esther and Vicki, even though the same, are two different creations. Vicki is the star who can hit notes in ‘Born in a Trunk’ in a way only few can and Esther remains the private person, the woman who worries about her husband and her future with him. It’s not a clear cut between these two but somehow Judy Garland is able to save her capturing charisma for the scenes as Vicki while she has something charmingly ‘every-woman’-like about the more private scenes. Esther may have transformed herself but this transformation is only in parts. She’s a living artist and yes, a star was born but this wasn’t something that she forced – Esther depends on the stage and her works just as much as she does on her private life.
Sometimes I feel that Judy Garland was a bit too old for this role but she never lets this become a problem. In her hands, Esther turns into a woman who has spent years in show business and for whom Norman Maine not only offers her first but maybe also her last chance for success. Judy Garland also never tried to turn Esther into a bubble of charm but instead kept her performance in harmony with her own age – with a quiet intensity and calmness that shows the years of experience that went into both Judy Garland’s and Esther’s performance and that is more captivating than any loud excitement could ever be.
Even though I love musicals and the performers in them, it’s somehow always the non-singing scenes that interest me the most. In the case of Judy Garland in A Star is Born, this is also true but I can’t deny that her voice is something extraordinarily that escapes explanation. The only thing I can say is that, for some reason, I always associate voices with geometrical forms (yes, I know how that sounds) – and in the case of Judy Garland, I always think of a circle, or better a balloon, that blows up with the volume of her voice, a volume that goes in every direction and fills every part of the frame but never becomes too much or threatens to burst the balloon. Her performance of ‘The Man that got Away’ is such a moment and it’s almost impossible to understand how her voice can be so powerful and yet so delicate at the same time. Judy Garland also used this moment wonderfully in demonstrating the joy Esther feels at this moment – this isn’t a diva moment but Judy Garland treats it as what it is: a couple of people, having fun, playing around, practicing and enjoying their lives. Some movements or gestures may feel a little too over-the-top in this scenes but when a sound like this comes out of her, Judy Garland is certainly allowed to be. And even though the level of sophistication may be not as high here – but how great is her Shampoo-song?
But the sad twist of fate is that Judy Garland gives a challenging performance of an actress who doesn’t seem to give truly challenging performances. What I mean is that the short clips of performances Vicki gives never truly indicate that she is really an award-winning actress. Or to put it better – the films that Vicki stars in never seem to use the talent that Judy Garland can actually offer. Of course, 'Born in a Trunk' shows off her pipes gloriously but would she really win an Oscar for this sort of film? I realize that we never see the movie for which she wins an Oscar but it would have been nice if the makers of A Star is Born had shown that Vicki was able to do more than put on strange costumes and make-up in her movie roles. But the fascinating thing is that the film clips never really appear to be show-cases for Vicki Lester in the context of her own supposed career – but they are always a great show-case for Judy Garland in the context of A Star is Born.
Judy Garland tells the story of great success and personal tragedy in a larger-than-life way while putting her heart and soul into every scene she appears in. Even in Esther’s happy moments, she constantly shows a nervousness in this character, a feeling of uneasiness – Esther certainly didn’t fall in love with Norman Maine without knowing about the consequences. She knows that his problems could destroy his and her life and when she says that she thought she was the answer for Norman, it’s a heartbreaking moment that shows how Esther doesn’t seem to find any escape anymore. Overall, Judy Garland brings an intensity to the role and evokes a sense of happiness and tragedy that not many performers could. Her loud outburst of grief at the end, her quiet ‘Thank you’ after the movie premiere to Norman Maine, her reaction to the slap at the Oscar ceremony which seems to indicate that she is more worried about him than anything else – all these scenes are done with dedication, seriousness but also openness. And who can forget her final scene? Janet Gaynor delivered the famous last line in a more dedicated way as if she had known for a long time that she would say this. Judy Garland finds a heartbreaking core in this sentence, as if she realizes it for the first time herself – she carried the guilt of not having been able to save Norman but maybe she will find salvation by being able to carry his name.
A Star is Born doesn’t make me want to see more performances by Judy Garland nor hear more of her songs or learn more about her as an entertainer – because, as I said, it’s a performance I respect but don’t love and Judy Garland is an actress I respect but don’t love. It’s like a capsule that contains an incredibly raw performance that represents a high-level execution of everything one can look for on the screen but that doesn’t mean I am interested in more. It’s a star-performance (and it should be considering the movie title) and a character study in which Judy Garland gives everything and lets Esther/Vicki take over herself just as she takes control over her. I may rave about her even though I don’t truly appreciate her in the way others do but what convinced me in the end was that Judy Garland creates the illusion of giving a performance that seems simply complete – there is still much more to tell about Esther but Judy Garland created a whole life and a whole existence before our eyes in a way not many other performers in this category did.