Monday, September 29, 2014

Judy Garland's Comeback

"He gave me a look at myself I've never had before. He saw something in me nobody else ever did. He made me see it, too. He made me believe it."

Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (Judy Garland)

We're overdue for another remake of "A Star is Born."

The original version, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, was made in 1937. The first remake premiered 60 years ago today, and the third version, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, hit the theaters 22 years later.

Of the three versions, the one that premiered on this day in 1954 was superior to the others. After all, it starred Judy Garland, and no one could sing like Judy Garland. Her co–star was James Mason as the fading star who tries to give her a boost as his career begins its descent.

Apparently, it was treated as Garland's comeback, given the fact that it had been about four or five years since her last movie. She was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, and everyone seemed to assume she would win. She couldn't attend the Oscars ceremony because she had just given birth to her son so NBC, which broadcast the Oscars in the 1950s, sent a camera crew to her hospital room so she could give her speech on TV.

Except she didn't win. Grace Kelly did — for "The Country Girl."

I suppose, if one is going to launch a show–biz comeback, being in a movie that is about show biz is a pretty good way to do it.

Director George Cukor's story certainly must seem predictable to 21st–century viewers. Considering that it was a remake, it should have been familiar to viewers in 1954, too. After all, it was faithful to the story that was told in the Janet Gaynor–Fredric March movie.

Garland played an up–and–coming singer/actress who married an alcoholic actor on the downside of his career. She relied on his wisdom at first, but, as she became more self–sufficient, she needed his intervention less and less, and Mason's character, already struggling with alcohol, retreated deeper into the bottle.

It was a battle his character did not win. Although he sought treatment and seemed to recover, he suffered a relapse when Jack Carson, playing a publicist, accused him of living off his wife's income. This sent Mason's character on a drinking binge that led to his arrest.

When he realized that Garland had decided to sacrifice her career to care for him, Mason committed suicide in the famous scene in which he walks into the sea and drowns. (Well, March did it first.) His hope was to free Garland to pursue her destiny as a star — but, instead, she became a recluse.

A friend snapped her out of it by telling her she was wasting the career that Mason's character wanted to save, and she agreed to appear in public again, introducing herself as "Mrs. Norman Maine."

When I was younger, I thought Streisand and Kristofferson gave the movie its musical spin even though I knew Garland was in the 1954 version. But I was wrong. Garland gave it its first musical spin. She sang lots of songs in "A Star Is Born." If you went to a theater 60 years ago today hoping to hear Judy Garland sing, you weren't disappointed.

But people who hoped for a blockbuster of a movie were disappointed. By 1954 standards, it was very expensive to make. It made more than $6 million — an impressive figure for 1954 but not enough to recover the investment that was made in it. Was that a factor in the Oscar vote that year?

"A Star Is Born" was nominated for six Oscars and lost them all.