I have a confession to make. I only selected A Star is Born (1954) for this week's edition of 'Best Shot' as an excuse to talk about one of the all-time greatest movie scenes. I'm talking All Time All Time. The scene is the shot and the shot is the scene and the scene justifies the whole movie's title... although it might be more accurately titled A Star is Reborn. I can't let it stop me that several people have already chosen it as their Preferred Shot though this will have the unfortunate effect of making a quite extraordinary whole movie look a little front-heavy since The Scene comes very early in the film.
Take it honey. Take it from the top...
And so she does, glancing over sheet music, humming the melodic line, and easing herself into her spotlight as the mood sweeps over her. She then unleashes one of the great Garland performances, which keeps shifting incandescendantly between three separate modes: tossed off AM rehearsal goof with the boys, fully detailed showmanship of a PERFORMANCE to come, and internal musical reverie. Judy Garland is giving three spectacular performances at once all of them bleeding into each other organically in this one continuous shot. It wouldn't be half as moving or incredible if George Cukor had broken it up into little bits.
But who needs to jazz up a scene with different camera angles when "The World's Greatest Entertainer" is giving you so many character angles already?
The night is bitter. The stars have lost their glitter.
The winds grow colder. Suddenly you're older.
And all because of the man that got away.
No more his eager call, the writing's on the wall.
The dreams you dreamed have all gone astray.
The man that won you, has run off and undone you.
That great beginning has seen a final inning.
Don't know what happened. It's all a crazy game!
Coupled with the very smart screenplay, which aptly describes this very performance immediately afterwards as filled with "little jabs of pleasure" and George Cukor's astute understanding of what to do with Cinemascope (the mise-en-scène throughout the movie is A+), it's a performance for the ages. Garland's emotionally intricate performance (her best ever as she's just as good in the "book" scenes) is, if you stop to really consider what's happening in the frame, explicitly choreographed in every way possible to provide this bracing cocktail of performance, rehearsal, improv, and narrative while also hitting so many marks which work with very smart choices in Art Direction and Cinematography. Consider, for instance, that the dominant color in this scene is red which was also used to character Norman Maine's drunken madness in the film's opening scene but here the red is suddenly warm and cozy rather than garish and unnerving.
That this shot/scene feels so genuine, spontaneous, and possible rather than like a set piece engineered to mechanical perfection is one of the great miracles of Hollywood Showmanship. The crazy part is this: the movie's just begun! Big glitzy awesome musical numbers for Garland are still ahead of us and Vicki Lester hasn't even been "Born" yet but no matter; Judy Garland came roaring back to life right here.
Quite unfortunately just as this killer scene hooks you into the film for the long haul -- and it is a long haul as running times go though the movie is gripping -- it stops looking like a movie and starts looking suspiciously like film stills. I didn't even know it was National Preservation Week when I selected this film for this date in the series. Let's call it a happy accident and thank film preservations everywhere for their efforts. A Star is Born was notoriously butchered during release when the studio suddenly decided they wanted a tighter running time and started chopping scenes. So the movie that Oscar voters screened and voted for (six noiminations but absurdly shut out of Picture & Director) was not the version that many Americans saw in late 1954 and early 1955 as it made its way around the country. The version that's most readily available now is this Frankenstein version which tries to stitch in the missing scenes where they would have appeared in the film.
On one level it's thrilling that these shards of old scenes are there since the movie itself is so wise and "deliciously sarcastic" (thanks, Vince) about The Hollywood Machine in all of its devouring glory. But I think the reason that A Star is Born is so enduring -- and I swear it improves on each viewing it's so sophisticated -- is that it combines this biting wit with genuine empathy for the Willing Human Casualties of that machine.
On the other level, these half-scenes distract me from the pleasure of the picture and I'd almost rather watch the compromised version that survived. A Star is Born tries to make peace with its own compromises in the Maine marriage, very movingly. On this particular viewing I was quite struck by two bookend shots from Esther's Vicki makeover.
In this first shot, Norman is forcing Esther to wash off the horrible studio mandated makeup but she objects already convinced that she has an "awful face" and "no chin". Norman only objects to the first comment and Esther finally laughs aloud at his aggressive but supportive commands. In the second shot, Norman is still controlling her but he's unearthed her natural beauty and "extra something" that stars have and has forced her to see her it. Maine's occassionally violent always controlling Svengali instincts are maddening but the complexity and tragedy of the marital drama in A Star is Born is that "Esther Blodgett" has always needed his heavy hand to finally realize her inner "Vicki Lester" and she may be truly lost without him. By the movie's end she's abandoned both women in favor of "Mrs. Norman Maine."
NEXT: DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) on May 1st
Nine Stars Waiting For Their Big Break...
She Blogged By Night on Norman Maine... "like a child with a blow torch"
We Recycle Movies "How A Star is Born Changed My Life"
Film Actually gets uncomfortably privy to Norman Maine's headspace
Cinesnatch Vicki Lester Steals a Moment
Antagony & Ecstacy on the Judy Garland Meta Narrative (and more)
Amiresque shares four vivid memories of this picture
Dancin' Dan a master class in how to shoot a musical sequence
Alison Tooey sees a good sense of distance between the characters
The Film's The Thing looks at ALL THREE film versions. Overachiever!
...or see all the choices Sequentially