Tuesday, May 29, 2012

On "Johnny Eager"

Let's take a "bromance" look at Johnny Eager.  The early 1940s crime drama starred Robert Taylor as the ruthless gangster, Lana Turner as the girl who captures his heart, and Van Heflin as his alcoholic best friend and often-ignored voice of reason.  Luscious Lana was a big new star when she illuminated screens as Johnny's romantic interest.
There's another heart in this gangster story to notice.  Society girl Liz (Lana Turner) loves Johnny.  She's excited by his macho mixture of class with a tough touch of the gutter.
Jeff (Van Heflin) loves Johnny too.  He believes the gangster can rise above that touch of the gutter.  Johnny knows how Jeff feels and, in his way, the criminal loves him too.  Jeff is like a boozed up, one-man Greek chorus telling Eager to beware of what his deeds can do to his destiny.  This won Heflin the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor of 1942.
If you've seen James Cagney give a magnificent performance showing us the downfall of a gangster in Raoul Walsh's 1939 classic, The Roaring Twenties, you need to rent Meryn LeRoy's Johnny Eager.  The heavy-hearted heavy drinker, Jeff, is to Johnny Eager what Gladys George as Panama is to Cagney's Eddie in The Roaring Twenties.
If you haven't seen it, I'm not going to reveal the ending.  If you have seen The Roaring Twenties, think of its last scene when you get to the ending of Johnny Eager.  There's a similiarity.  Both films, products of rival Hollywood studios, had the song "Melancholy Baby" as a main musical theme.  About six years ago, an executive at Logo TV asked me if I could suggest a few films for the channel  to air during Gay Pride month.  He wanted movies that folks didn't usually include when discussing gay images on film.  He added that he was open to showing some classics.  I pitched The Maltese Falcon and The Lady from Shanghai.  Gay male characters can be vital in crime dramas and film noir.  In those stories, you have to know that the lead man -- especially if he's the hero -- has a straight shot at getting the damsel in distress who ultimately may turn out to be a duplicitous dame.  That will give a double-cross a bigger pay-off for the audience.  Think of the twist in Polanski's film noir-in-color, Chinatown.  There was a major double cross in that one.  A double-Noah Cross.  In the 1940s days of the Hollywood production code,  director John Huston lets us know the crooks played by Peter Lorre (as Joel Cairo) and Sydney Greenstreet (as corpulent Kasper Gutman) are dangerous but not hetero.
If they were hetero, private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and the moviegoer could suspect that Brigid (Mary Astor) laid one or both of them to get what she wants.  The gay hoods raise no sexual suspicions about the leading female.  Orson Welles played a sailor who falls for a married woman we call The Lady from Shangai.  How are we sure he's got a direct route to her?  Look at the men in her life.  Mrs. Bannister (a blonde Rita Hayworth) has a husband who is older, physically infirm and not exactly handsome.
Could she be doing the grand horizontal on the down-low with her husband's big beefcake business partner?  Not likely.  Grisby is built like a quarterback.  But every time he opens his mouth to speak, confetti and pearls pop out.
He raises no sexual suspicions about Mrs. Bannister.  The sailor feels he's free to launch himself at her lips like a torpedo.  He's got no competition.
In this period of film-making, heterosexually-challenged male characters were not called "gay."  They were more gay-implied via skills of the director, screenwriter and actor.  Think of the musical trill and Spade's facial reaction in The Maltese Falcon when he sniffs the handkerchief he finds in Joel Cairo's wallet.  If that trill was a color, it would be lavender.  A way of making a gay male character "acceptable" within the margins of the old Hollywood production code was to substitute the orientation with liquor.  In Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend, the alcoholic writer had a girlfriend.  He had a same-sex attraction in the book.  The "bromance" of constantly hungover Jeff and the gangster works in Johnny Eager.  Jeff is like Johnny's personal assistant.  He knows all the babes who think they're "the real thing" in Johnny's life.  To Johnny, they're just cute squeak toys who start to squeak too much.  Jeff helps with the busted toys.
Jeff knows that Liz is different.  She's class.  Class attracted to a bad boy.  Her love could redeem Johnny.  She's also the District Attorney's daughter.  Johnny, out on parole, has fooled the town into thinking he's changed his ways.  He's still working every angle.  He loves Liz, but she's the D.A.'s daughter.  He could play that romance to gain even more power.  Will he use that angle?
The only guy Johnny would trust with his gorgeous girlfriend is Jeff. Of course.  The straight sexy gangster would wisely and absolutely trust a gay male friend to be with his hot babe sweetheart.  Taylor is very good as a true rat who has a chance at redemption.  Turner was always fine as a good girl seduced by the sensual thrill of being bad.  Heflin earned that Oscar.  The heartbreak and care is all in his eyes and his slowed body language.  It's an odd pairing.  He's an intellectual drunk with a uneducated, street smart thug.  Heflin plays Jeff as a guy emotionally afflicted with a gentle unrequited love, a guy who longs for a reason to stop drinking.  Van Heflin was a stage actor.  James Stewart won the Best Actor Academy Award for doing the role onscreen that Heflin originated opposite Katharine Hepburn on Broadway in The Philadelphia Story.
Besides Robert Taylor, Lana Turner, Van Heflin and Edward Arnold, there's another star in the Johnny Eager company.  Cinematographer Harold Rosson.  The final confrontation with its use of light and darkness and shadow is absolutely sensational.  It's a master class in lighting.  Once again, if you've seen James Cagney and Gladys George in The Roaring Twenties, watch Robert Taylor and Van Heflin in Johnny Eager.  Let me know what you think.  By the way, Logo TV didn't go with any of my recommendations.  They went with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

Monday, May 28, 2012

"Shining Through" with Susan Isaacs

One of the best summer reads I had in the 1980s was Shining Through, another bestseller from novelist Susan Isaacs.  I read that book twice.  Smart, surprising, action-packed, provocative...and it had a very cool love story.  The lead character in action is Linda Voss.  Thank you, Susan, for that character.  Susan Isaacs is one of the most fascinating and generous people I've had the pleasure of meeting in my career.  In fact, she helped me during the early part of my career when I was co-host of a live show on WISN TV, Milwaukee's ABC affiliate.  After arguing with the executive producer who felt that writers were boring guests, I booked Susan.  She killed.  Not only a good writer, she's very funny.  The studio audience loved her.  We hired a new executive producer.
I found out that Milwaukee was part of Susan's book tour.  Her first novel, the bestselling comedy/murder mystery Compromising Positions, made me laugh so loud as I read parts of it while browsing in a Milwaukee bookstore that I pulled out my wallet and purchased it.  That book was worth every penny.  The new book she was promoting, Almost Paradise, also delivered belly laughs.  This was my first professional TV job.  Susan was flattered that I wanted her on our show.  Even more flattered when she realized, from my intro and questions, that I'd read the books.  Our interview segment was like a really great first date.  I wanted to see her again.  Fortunately, I did.  Susan kept in touch.  She called me from her New York home and suggested I set my  sights on a TV career in Manhattan.  I did and I got there in 1985, the following year.  I did more TV interviews of Susan when she had new novels on the bookstands.  Shining Through deserves re-appreciation -- especially today when America has so many women who served in our 9/11 wars.
Linda Voss is a legal secretary in Manhattan in 1940.  She speaks fluent German which makes her an asset on the job.  She's also of German-Jewish descent and extremely concerned with the news coming out of Germany.  Hitler is on the rise.  Lonely and alone after a humiliating romance, she enlists in the war effort.  She wasn't right for one man in Manhattan but she's right for Uncle Sam.  Linda trains like an Olympic hopeful to do espionage work for the OSS (predecessor of the CIA).  Her skill with German is valuable.  Think of the old movies from the 1930s and 40s.  When Hollywood showed women in uniform actively serving overseas, they were usually nurses.  A rare case, A Guy Named Joe, had Irene Dunne as a military pilot flying missions along with the men.  Women did fly B-17s during WWII.  Linda has to learn physical combat and how to handle guns in her OSS training.  After she's passed all her courses, she gets her orders.  She's to work as the new cook in the home of a Nazi officer.  This is where the tension and action really start.  One of her contacts is a homosexual member of the OSS who charmed a Nazi officer's wife.  He covers as a festive gay German fashion designer who can supply glamour while also partaking in "girlfriend" gossip about other Gestapo wives and their husbands.  Like Susan's first novel, Compromising Positions, this tale was also turned into a movie.  The movie was so-so.  Not Susan's fault.  She didn't write the screenplay.
Susan took sort of a second honeymoon European vacation with her husband and sent me a couple of postcards during the trip.  She was also doing research for Shining Through while overseas.  Susan wrote the gutsy Linda Voss character with Debra Winger in mind.  THAT would've been perfect casting.  To me, the movie adaptation diluted the great feminism of Susan's book.  Linda was less an action hero.  Melanie Griffith starred.  The 1992 movie is a bit on the Working Girl Goes To War side.  In our post- 9/11 era, Shining Through is ripe for a remake -- a TV mini-series remake for HBO.  That's my pitch.  Susan should be consulted for a remake.  A strong female lead character.  A story about women in wartime that was largely overlooked during and after World War II.  We're ready for it.  I want to read the book again this summer.  Here's some movie trivia for you:  Susan Isaacs was tapped to write the screenplay for a possible late 1980s/early 1990s remake of the classic, Sweet Smell of Success.
A new version of the 1957 drama did not get a green light to go into production but the idea was to make it a gender-bender remake -- with the Burt Lancaster part of powerful gossip columnist J.J. Hunsecker to be written for Faye Dunaway.
Imagine Faye saying "I'd hate to take a bite outta you.  You're a cookie full of arsenic."  Today is Memorial Day.  My dad was a sergeant who served in the segregated Army of WWII.  To all our veterans past and present, male and female:  Thank you.

Friday, May 25, 2012

4 Women Directors: Stamps of Approval

I've blogged about these four fabulous females before and it's my pleasure to blog about them again.  If you go to the post office, you can now buy new stamps honoring four classic Hollywood film directors:  Frank Capra, Billy Wilder, John Huston and John Ford.  Each one gave us several enduring classics.  There were women who broke into that predominantly male club.  The Post Office should honor women directors who also put actors through their paces.  From silent movies and early all-talking films in 1929 to the early 1940s, Dorothy Arzner was the first woman to shatter that Hollywood glass ceiling in a pair of sensible shoes.  She dressed in a way some called "mannish."  To this day, Arzner is the only woman director who has 16 Hollywood features to her credit.
Apparently, many stars had no problem with her attire.  She directed Clara Bow, Fredric March, Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Merle Oberon and Rosalind Russell.  In this photo, she's directing Lucille Ball.  Ball starred in one of Arzner's best films.  Dance, Girl, Dance cast Ball as a tough-as-nails burlesque queen who becomes a star and rivals a tasteful ballerina, played by Maureen O'Hara.
Ruth Chatterton, so memorable as the middle-aged wife ferociously trying to cling to her youth in Dodsworth,  also worked with Arzner.
Arzner directed Chatterton in Sarah and Son.  Chatterton played a single working immigrant mother.  She was the first performer directed to an Oscar nomination by a woman.  Chatterton was a nominee for Best Actress of 1929-30 thanks to her Arzner-directed work in Sarah and Son.  Following Arzner was a glamorous Hollywood actress-turned-director.  Coming to films in the 1930s and really hitting her stride at the Warner Bros. Studio in the 1940s was the lovely and talented Ida Lupino.
The New York Film Critics selected her as Best Actress of 1943 for playing the tough woman determined to make her sister a star in The Hard Way. Ida could hold her own opposite top male stars like Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Ida continued to star in films while also proving to be just as talented behind the camera.  She paved the way for women like Barbra Streisand.
Onscreen, Ida did solid work in They Drive By Night, The Sea Wolf, Deep Valley, Devotion, Lust for Gold, The Big Knife and Junior Bonner opposite Steve McQueen in 1972.  Behind the camera, she directed tough black and white dramas such as The Bigamist, The Hitch-Hiker and Outrage.  In 1966, she gave us a Catholic comedy in color.  The Trouble With Angels starred Rosalind Russell as the Mother Superior of an all-girls convent school.  Sister had a most mischievous student played by Hayley Mills.
Many years before Sister Act, there was The Trouble with Angels.  This light family comedy is also a very dear look at the longevity of female friendships.  Rosalind Russell had been directed onscreen by both Dorothy Arzner (the 1936 drama, Craig's Wife) and Ida Lupino.  In the 1950s and '60s, the actress was also one of the busiest and most sought-after directors in episodic television.  Ida directed everything from westerns to sitcoms.  She was quite the pioneer.  Italy gave us Lina Wertmüller.  She made the history books as the first woman to be an Academy Award nominee for Best Director.
For 1976, the year of Rocky and Network, Wertmüller was nominated for directing Seven Beauties.  From the same film, Giancarlo Giannini was an Oscar nominee for Best Actor.  He played an Italian prisoner in World War II who has seven unattractive sisters.
A New York City acquaintance of mine was in that film.  She was an extraordinary talent. The late Shirley Stoler was unforgettable as the German prison camp commandant.
Other films by Lina Wertmüller are Swept Away, A Night Full of Rain and the 2004 film, Too Much Romance...It's Time for Stuffed Peppers.  That film starred Oscar winners F. Murray Abraham (Best Actor, Amadeus) and Sophia Loren (Best Actress, Two Women).  Abraham and Loren (the lady in red with Wertmüller) played an older married couple in Lina's 2004 dysfunctional family comedy/drama.  I wish it was available on DVD.
Like Wertmüller, Kathryn Bigelow got an invite to the Academy Awards for directing a story that takes place during a war.  Hers was a drama about our modern-day war in Iraq.  Bigelow made Hollywood history as the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar® -- and she won for directing The Hurt Locker.  The film won for Best Picture of 2009.
What do you think?  Stamps for approval -- those four women in film.  Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Lina Wertmüller and Kathryn Bigelow gave us good entertainment.  They contributed to the art of film and they made history.  Four fabulous females.  To read about others, click onto my March section and read "Women in the Director's Chair."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Overlooked by Oscars

For two years, I was one of the supporting players on the Whoopi Goldberg national morning show for Premiere Radio.  Once, during a break, our ragtag in-studio team started talking about a certain remark some nominees make at awards time during celebrity interviews.  The remark:  "It's an honor just to be nominated."  Whoopi, as you know, is an Oscar® winner.  She enthusiastically stated, "It is an honor just be nominated."  She and I are both classic film fans.  Together we added that some famous actors worked for decades doing great work in great films and never got the Oscar love that Kim Basinger did with L. A. Confidential.  So this blog looks at some actors who were overlooked by Oscars.  Let's start with the versatile and gifted Edward G. Robinson.  One of my favorite Robinson performances is as Keyes, the moral compass whose insurance company co-worker has sex and murder on his mind in Billy Wilder's classic Double Indemnity.  Robinson's work here should've been up for Best Supporting Actor.
Wilder's film lost the Best Picture of 1944 Oscar to the sweet Catholic corn of Going My Way.  Barry Fitzgerald played the irascible aging Irish priest in that film opposite Bing Crosby as the new priest with fresh ideas.  Fitzgerald was nominated in both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor categories for the same movie.  He won the Supporting category.  Academy rules were then changed.  From Little Caesar in the 1931 to Double Indemnity, The Sea Wolf, Key Largo and The Woman in the Window and All My Sons to The Cincinnati Kid with Steve McQueen in 1965, Robinson never got an Oscar nomination.  Put Joel McCrea in that same league.  Maureen Stapleton thanked him when she won her Oscar for Reds because he was her favorite actor.  McCrea, star of such classics as Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges, was overlooked by Oscar.
Like Robison, he worked a long time giving some solid performances in films like William Wyler's 1930s dramas Dead End and These Three.  Before Rock Hudson and Doris Day shared a party line telephone in Pillow Talk, he shared a wartime apartment with single girl Jean Arthur in The More The Merrier directed by George Stevens.  For Hitchcock, he was a wartime Foreign Correspondent.  Known for westerns, one of his last films was one of his best.  The 1962 western, Ride the High Country, deserves way more attention than it gets.  As Steve Judd, the man who says "All I want is to enter my house justified," McCrea should've been an Oscar contender for this film and his body of work.
He never got a nomination.  Neither did actress and humanitarian Mia Farrow.  Critics thought for sure she'd be a Best Actress nominee for her excellence in the New York City modern horror story Rosemary's Baby, one of the big box office hits of 1968.
She didn't make the Oscar race for that.  Nor did she ever make it for the witty and wonderful work she did for director/writer Woody Allen in Alice, Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose or Hannah and Her Sisters.  Farrow's Alice is funny and wise fantasy ride.  Alice starts to break out of her cocoon of Manhattan privilege by becoming invisible.
Richard Gere has been a song-and-dance lawyer in Chicago, he's been An Officer and a Gentleman, he's been an American Gigolo.  He's never been an Oscar nominee.
After her popular lead roles as crimefighters in blaxploitation flicks, did you see Pam Grier as the hooker in 1981's Fort Apache, the Bronx starring Paul Newman and Ed Asner?  Wow.  Amazing, she was.  Another good veteran actor who never got invited to Hollywood Prom Night via Oscar nominations for fine work is Donald Sutherland.  He was Homer Simpson (yes, Homer Simpson) in Day of the Locust, a detective named Klute opposite Oscar-winning Jane Fonda and the grief-stricken dad with an emotionally distant wife in Ordinary People.  That family drama was the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1980.  As the smart loser who was not handsome enough for manipulative network TV game show executives, John Turturro was a knock-out as Herb Stempel in Quiz Show.  Robert Redford won an Oscar for directing Ordinary People.  It was the first film Redford directed.  He won over Martin Scorcese for Raging Bull.  Redford later directed Quiz Show which, to me, is a better film.  Veteran director Wayne Wang was overlooked for 1993's The Joy Luck Club as was its cast of remarkable actors in that fine adaptation of the best-selling Amy Tan novel.  From 1979's Breaking Away to The Right Stuff, Everybody's All-American and Wyatt Earp, Dennis Quaid always brings something good.  He was at the top of his game as the closeted, controlled macho 1950s suburban family man in Far From Heaven co-starring Julianne Moore.
He really got the soul of that character and took you to the brink of disaster with giggly tension.  Watching him get surprisingly queenier with each cocktail at a party was like watching a fabulous accident about to happen.  Every time he takes a sip, you want to shout "Oooh, girl, slow it down and butch it up!  Your wife's watching!"
Now that the Academy got it together and finally gave actor Gary Oldman a nomination, it's time to give some attention to Ewan McGregor.  Look at his versatility and acting chops in Trainspotting, Young Adam, Moulin Rouge!, Big Fish and the bold satire, I Love You Phillip Morris.  Another fine actor is Billy Crudup.  Rent Jesus' Son, Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous and Stage Beauty one week to see how talented he is.  Those are some actors I like who've done golden work onscreen but have never been nominated for that golden boy called Oscar.  Early this year, when some entertainment reporters commented that Meryl Streep, Oscar nominee for The Iron Lady, hadn't won an Oscar in 20 years, I wanted to shout "But she's got TWO already!"  Ida Lupino never got a single nomination.  She was a top movie actress and a groundbreaking movie director.  Lupino's celebrated film career spanned the 1930s to the 1970s.  Tell those reporters that having even one Academy Award is a blessing.  Full disclosure:  I've got 25 years of TV work, national and local, to my credit.  I've never been nominated for a national or local Emmy.  Believe me.  It would be an honor just to be nominated.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Bravo, Arsenio Hall

On Sunday, comedian/actor/TV host Arsenio Hall was the winner on NBC's Celebrity Apprentice.  I don't follow that show every weekend, but it sure was good to see Arsenio back on television and in a good network spot.  I sincerely hope the network exposure leads to him getting work opportunities to consider.  He deserves that.
I've never met Arsenio Hall.  I would really like to interview him on TV.  I'm a fan.  I watched his nighttime talk show regularly.  I wish he'd get good movie script roles offered to him.  I'd even like to see him do like friend Eddie Murphy and show his chops with a dramatic role.  I had a prime time talk show on VH1 the same year Arsenio started his phenomenally successful entertainment talk show on Fox.  Our shows had different tones.  I'm not nor have I ever been a stand-up comedian.  He does stand-up.  I didn't have a band and a studio audience.  He did.  We both had A-list guests, I'm proud to report.  My show was on VH1 when cable was still pretty much in its infancy.  Cable was not as predominant in households then as it is now.  His audience, of course, was bigger.  But, being an African-American in the TV industry, I'm positive Arsenio Hall had to overcome even more hurdles than millions of his fans realize.  Getting the job is hard.  Getting attention is harder.  Getting the next job can be even harder, despite your success.  That's what I'd like to focus on in an interview.  PBS stations recently premiered an American Masters: Johnny Carson documentary.  Excellent feature.  Arsenio is seen giving respectful and sharp insight about Carson and his late night reign.  In Carson's later years, his new young friend, David Letterman, was on the scene.  Letterman would get dissed by NBC.  Conan O'Brien would be able to bond with Letterman on similar treatment years later.  Jay Leno would take the late night NBC spotlight.  CBS got into the late night talk show wars with a popular talent and lots of promotion.  Remember The Pat Sajak Show?  Sajak received a major profile in an edition of the Sunday New York Times Magazine section before his CBS late night premiere.  Press gave us the impression he'd be the new Johnny Carson or Merv Griffin.
Arsenio Hall did not get that kind of attention from, shall we say, "upscale" media outlets.  They under-estimated the increasing power of the "urban" (minority) audience and influence in current music and movies.  And this is nothing against Sajak.  Full disclosure:  I became one of the monthly semi-regulars on Pat's couch.  He liked my talk show.  Also, VH1, MTV and CBS are under the same corporate umbrella.  Arsenio Hall brilliantly brought the MTV daytime audience into nighttime.  Rock acts seemed out of place appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  On Arsenio's show, they were a perfect fit.  Hall had broken new ground.  His was the show that publicists wanted to get their big name celebs on -- not Pat Sajak's show.  Remember this moment with future President of the United States, Bill Clinton?
It was that kind of iconic pop culture moment and popularity that lead to Arsenio Hall getting this kind of attention -- the cover of Time magazine.  He made TV history.
A black host, still rare on the late night talk show field, had changed the late night talk show game.  Unexpectedly.  Pat would return to Wheel of Fortune, driven off the late night road by Arsenio's ratings within a year.  Arsenio opened a big door for us minority performers with his achievement.  His Paramount show ran from 1989 to 1994.  He has not been on TV a lot since.  There was a Star Search host spot from 2003-2004.  Guest appearances on other shows -- like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.  Months before he was announced as a contestant for the recently-concluded season of Celebrity Apprentice, he casually let it be known on Twitter that he'd like to do another talk show.

Let's go back to the 1980s and '90s and think of folks who hosted national talk shows:  Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher, Pat Sajak, Craig Kilborn, Rosie O'Donnell and Arsenio Hall.  They would all go on to new talk show host opportunities.  Except for Arsenio.  Yes, even Pat Sajak got another talk show.  On Fox News Channel in 2003.  The one talent mentioned in the PBS American Masters special as the one person who challenged Carson's popularity is the one talent in that group who didn't go on to a second talk show.  That is rarely, if ever, mentioned by entertainment reporters or TV columnists.

Was Arsenio Hall not offered another talk show opportunity after 1994?  If not, why not and what does that say about the state of racial diversity in television?  Did he do something he regretted on the show?  I'd like to ask him those questions.  Rosie didn't have to tweet that she wanted another talk show.  She got one.  From Oprah. 

More full disclosure:  During my VH1 talk show host time, I got very flattering reviews from the New York Times, from TV Guide and from People magazine.  I loved my three years on that job.  After my VH1 contract ended in 1990, was I ever offered another national talk show host opportunity?  No.  Did I want one?  Yes.  Once again, it was great to see Arsenio Hall back on television.  I hope we see more of him, on a regular basis, soon.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cukor's A STAR IS BORN (1954)

The Oscar nominees for Best Director of 1954 were:  Alfred Hitchcock for Rear Window, Elia Kazan for On the Waterfront, George Seaton for The Country Girl, Billy Wilder for Sabrina and William Wellman for The High and the Mighty.  Wellman's all-star crippled airliner sky drama was the Titanic of its day, box office wise.  Today, some of his glossy melodrama plays a lot like Airplane!, the hit 1980 parody that parts of it inspired.  You're not supposed to laugh, but you do. George Cukor  should've been a Best Director nominee for his masterful reinterpretation of a story originally directed by William Wellman in 1937.  Cukor's A Star Is Born has anger, violence, alcoholism, self-loathing, suicide -- and musical numbers sung by Judy Garland.  This is one of my top five favorite films.
You know the plot and you know that this was Judy Garland's critically-acclaimed movie comeback.  She wowed the critics with her dramatic work.  Garland was a Best Actress Oscar nominee for playing Esther Blodgett, the band singer who's discovered and mentored -- and loved -- by Norman Maine, a fading movie star with a serious drinking problem.  James Mason, in peak form, was a Best Actor Oscar nominee for playing Maine, "the man that got away."  Both Wellman and Cukor saw great advancements in movie technology during their careers.  Compare Wellman's The High and the Mighty to his 1927 silent film, Wings, the first film to win the Best Picture Academy Award.  Cukor directed Fredric March, the original Norman Maine, to his first Oscar nomination in the stage-bound satire of The Barrymores, 1930's The Royal Family of Broadway.  Both veteran directors were now working with the advantages of color, wide screen and stereophonic sound.  As Garland artistically reinvented herself with her bravura performance, Cukor reinvented himself as a director.  His psychological use of color in A Star Is Born is brilliant, as is his use of Cinemascope for added dramatic texture.  When first we see Esther Blodgett, she's the singer with a big band.  This Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie opens with a splashy red carpet gala benefit show at the Shrine Auditorium.  Red, signifying fame, is the predominant color.  Norman Maine is the big attraction. But the handsome, volatile movie star has been drinking. He gets violent backstage and studio handlers try to keep him offstage.  Hurriedly, the schedule of acts is changed and the big band goes on instead of Norman Maine.  Singer Esther Blodgett  takes it all in stride.  She sees the hubbub, chuckles at the backstage upset and remarks to her friend, pianist Danny McGuire, "Mr. Maine is feeling no pain."
To the left of the screen, curtains of bright red.  That's where the stage is, where the stars appear.  Directly behind Esther, a panel of blue which will become the color of the anonymous performer, the non-star.  She wears a bright red boutonniere, a red that matches the curtains.  Esther and two back-up singer/dancers do the rhythm number, "Gotta Have Me Go With You," with the lyrics "...this line I'm handing you is not a hand-out.  As a team we'd be a stand-out, no doubt!"  Her future mate, Maine, is in the wings about to stagger on and disrupt the number.
He drunkenly enters.  Their first encounter is rough.  He rudely shoves her away in a dark spot onstage.  Quick-thinking Esther takes his arm and spontaneously turns him into a special guest dance partner.  The audience loves it.  She saves the number and Norman Maine.  In the wings, he gives her a pat on the cheek, a bit too forceful because he's drunk.  This will be rhymed later and harder in the famous Oscar speech disruption scene.  A humbled and now gentlemanly Norman Maine thanks the singer.  Taking her red lipstick and drawing a valentine on the wall with their initials in it, he commemorates when "Esther Blodgett saved Norman Maine from making even more a fool of himself than usual."  Esther wears a light blue overcoat as she prepares to leave with her loyal friend, Danny McGuire.
As Esther and Danny "hit the road," leaving Norman to his Hollywood studio friends and bosses, she stops, looks back and says "Drunk or not, he's nice.  Awful nice."  A romantic attraction.
Maine is a babe-chaser.  He likes liquor and the ladies.  He goes out on the prowl at night.  Yet he still has that "little dark girl, sings with the Glenn Williams orchestra" on his mind.  There's something different about Esther.  He tracks her down to a little after-hours club on Sunset Blvd.  Remember the color motif.  The club is in The Bleu Bleu Room.  Perfect for the non-celebrity.  Maine walks in to find Esther in a late night jam session.  She's singing for herself "...and for the boys in the band."  This is where we and Norman see star quality that Esther doesn't even realize she has.  She sings the blues number, "The Man That Got Away' and she's thrilling.  Esther connects to the lyrics in this jam session.  It's not just a song.  It's a spontaneous, unrestrained, electrifying performance.  Cukor puts her in a blue dress with a Peter Pan collar.  This long number is shot in one continuous take. No edit.  (Cukor said that's not easy.  It takes a strong actor to pull it off.)  A scrim gives the background bar area a rosy blush tint, a hint that stardom is coming.
This is a turning point in Esther's life and a very important number.  In the original A Star Is Born, we really don't see what made Esther a star.  Norman (Fredric March) was taken with her sweet face and true charm at a party.  Garland's performance of this blues number is powerful, majestic and cathartic.  We see this unknown singer's star quality.
Maine, totally impressed, makes his presence known.  He's gone from babe-chaser to respectful fan and mentor.  He's determined to give Esther Blodgett a big break.  A bigger break than she's ever dreamed of.  Steering her out of the cacophony of the next instrumental number and the bar's cleaning crew, he takes her outside to the parking lot where he tells Esther that she's "a great singer."  She thinks he's joking but she's glad to see him again.  He's not joking. He's "as sober as a judge" as he tells her how special she is.  "You've got that little something extra."  No one's ever talked to her like this before.  She listens intently.  Notice what Cukor does with color in this scene.  Norman and Esther at standing at his car in the parking lot.  As he seriously tells the bandsinger that she's got "star quality," above Garland's head we see flickering red street lights.  Behind Mason as Maine, more darkness than red light.
The band leaves for San Francisco in the morning.  Maine feels she should quit the band and stay there in Hollywood.  He believes this is the turning point of her career.  He gives her a ride back to her motel.  He continues to be warm and gentlemanly as he expresses his belief in her.  Her dream is small but it's big to her.  She hopes to have a hit record one day.  Moss Hart did the screenplay and this is a beautifully written scene.  Beautifully directed and acted too.  On the rooftop of that low-rent building, he tells her that the dream isn't big enough.  He tells her, whether she quits the band or not, never to forget how good she is.  They are seated before a little rooftop pond.  There's a trickle of water spouting up from its fountain between them.  Water will come between them again at the end of the story.
The motivation works.  Esther quits the band.  But Maine has to be on location for several weeks making a picture.  He loses contact.  He's falling in love with Esther.  Finding her again becomes more important to him than the movie he's making.  He finds her new apartment building.  She's on the rooftop, having just shampooed her hair.  This is some of the footage that was notoriously excised by Warner Brothers against Cukor's will when the film went into general release after exclusive engagements.  I'll tell you more about that daytime rooftop scene at the end of this article.  Maine makes good on his promise and gets Esther to his studio for a screen test.  But, in studio's hands, they think she'd be better as a blonde with a new cosmetic nose.  Norman breaks up laughing at this Hollywood "better idea" from the studio.  Esther's dress -- rose-colored.  Stardom nears.
Maine takes control of Esther's on-camera look personally.  He gets "all that junk" off her face, discards the blonde wig and redoes her make-up.  She looks natural again.  He brings out the real her, and we see more of his tender feelings for Esther.
The studio changes Esther's name to Vicki Lester and, with Norman pitching, takes a chance on her when a star is suddenly available to star in a musical.  Norman tries to calm the nervous performer on their way to see a sneak preview of her film debut.  Again, Cukor inventively uses color and utilizes the Cinemascope for foreshadowing.  From screen left to the middle, we see folks heading into a Hollywood movie theater.  A big red sign reads "Preview Tonight."  Under it, on the marquee, is the name of the regular feature.  It's a movie starring Norman Maine.  The colors surrounding his name on the marquee are blue.  To the far right of the screen, we see Esther and Norman crossing the street on ther way to the preview.  Each happens to be under the sign of a corner drugstore.  Above Esther are the words "Best-buy."  Above fading star Norman, in a red neon light, are the words "Cut rate."
Of course, the preview is a hit.  Remember the rosy blush behind Esther when she sang "The Man That Got Away"?  There's now a solid red wall of flowers behind her as she -- newcomer Vicki Lester -- begins the big "Born in a Trunk" production number.

This movie-within-a-movie will make Vicki Lester a star.  Norman Maine's discovery will be the hottest new property at the studio.
This lavish, long production number gives a big finish the first half of the film.  The second half starts with one of the most brilliantly shot sequences of Cukor's film career.  The movie theater doors whip open and there's major activity.  People are excited about the new star.  Esther and Norman exit, wearing brown top coats.  As they exit, moviegoers eager to see Vicki in person approach her and push   Maine out of the way.  He takes a place on the sidewalk, leans against a car and watches the scene.  "What about Vicki for the Morgan story," one pleased studio exec pitches, referring to famed 1920s/30s torch singer, Helen Morgan.  Through all the compliments, Esther has one question: "Where's Norman?"  She sees him, smiles,  and walks over with her hands outstretched.  She takes his hands and, with deep sincerity, says "Thank you."  Behind them, a movie usher in a red jacket has his arms out to keep the crowd back.  The way he's positioned by Cukor, he looks to be in between Vicki Lester and Norman Maine and pushing them apart.  Stardom, that red thing, will indeed push them apart in this second half.  His career declines as hers ascends.  Danny McGuire is now her music arranger on a new film.  She records "What Am I Here For."  After her vocal, Norman will propose marriage. The lyrics have a light and dark foreshadowing for Vicki: "...to share a journey that leads to heaven's door..."  They will wed.  Norman will wind up at heaven's door.  In the wedding scene, Cukor introduces a new identity in the "civilian" colors they wore leaving the preview.
We now know Esther Blodgett.  We saw her become Vicki Lester.  When a Justice of the Peace marries them in a smalltown jailhouse, we learn that Norman's real name is Ernest Sidney Gubbins.  We never know Ernest Gubbins and perhaps, in that identity, is the reason why Norman Maine drinks.  The last half of A Star Is Born shows the dreamer, Esther Blodgett, trying to manage the thing dreamed of now that it's come true. Stardom has not changed her or taken over her life.  We see a balance of the blue and red in the billboard poster promoting her new movie, "Happiness Ahead."  Norman's poster for "Black Legion" is being removed.  He'll be downsized into civilian life after he studio cancels his contract.  Even the movie titles relate to the state of their box office appeal.
Norman Maine is now basically a househusband.  He tries his hand in the kitchen to surprise Esther when she gets home from work.
Esther makes him laugh with an impromptu scaled back version of the big production number she shot that day at the studio.

She's in pink.  He's in the civilian brown.  Norman still drinks.  He's not Mr. Gubbins.  He's not Mr. Maine.  A deliveryman innocently calls him "Mr. Lester."  Maine's drunk when he publicly humiliates himself at the Oscars.  He barges onstage and pleads for a job on the heels of Vicki's acceptance speech.  This is where the slap from their first appearance onstage together is rhymed. He was drunk then too.  Again, these two performers who love each other deeply cannot be on the same stage at the same time without some kind of interference or public humiliation.  The Shrine Auditorium performance.  The intimate studio soundstage marriage proposal secretly recorded after Vicki's "Here's What I'm Here For" track.  And now...the televised Academy Awards.
The prophetic shot of Cukor's from early in the film is echoed in this famous scene.  When Norman Maine selflessly tracked down Esther Blodgett, unknown singer, to a boarding house in Hollywood, he stands on the sidewalk and looks up to see her on the roof shouting "Hello!" to him.  She is above him visually.  That will be true of their relationship when she wins the Oscar and he staggers onstage drunk and out of work.  Now Oscar winner Vicki Lester, she is above him in the eyes of Hollywood.

He's in a sanitarium as Vicki is shoots her next musical.  In her "Lose That Long Face" number, her emotional conflict is reflected in the costume and character.  It's a peppy upbeat dance number.  In real life, she's trying to balance the Vicki Lester stardom (red) with the married Esther Blodgett self (brown).

This conflict is voiced in her heart-wrenching dressing room breakdown scene with the studio head, Oliver Niles (played by Charles Bickford).  He's known Norman longer than she has.  "What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?" Vicki begs to know.  Then comes the admission that she sometimes hates Norman for not being strong enough to stop drinking.  She hates herself too because she's failed to help him quit.
In a way, Norman is Esther's addiction.  Norman is released from the sanitarium but the troubled, unwanted actor is still in a soul-crushing Hollywood community.  He's sober and orders only ginger ale at the racetrack but a humiliating fight with his spiteful former publicist, coupled with insults from onlookers, cracks open his addiction doors again.
His disappears for four days at Christmastime.  He's arrested for driving under the influence.  Called an "irresponsible drunk" by a no-nonsense judge, he's sentenced to 90 days in jail.  As in the wedding scene, the legal authority figure refers to his as Gubbins.
His wife, the Oscar-winning Hollywood star, devotedly heads to night court.  Church bells chime "O Come All Ye Faithful."  Esther will save Norman again.  She'll even stand before the judge, asking for Norman to be released into her custody, and repeat words she said when they married.  The stern judge asks her if she realizes the responsibility she'll be taking on.  She touchingly replies, "I do" as if renewing her wedding vows.
With love and conviction, Esther informs her friend and studio head, Oliver Niles, that she's decided to end her film career so she can take care of Norman.  "I'm just giving back the gift he gave me," she states.  Oliver tells her honestly that Norman's talents are gone.  But Esther will not be moved.  She loves and still believes in Norman Maine.  He overhears this conversation.  Maine decides to make the ultimate sacrifice so Esther will go on with her career.  (James Mason is achingly good in these scenes.) The arc of Cukor's remake will take us back to where the story started.  Several days after Norman's death and funeral, it seems as if Vicki Lester will fade away a recluse in grief.  She was scheduled to perform in a Shrine Auditorium benefit.  All Hollywood is aware of her tragedy and sends its condolences.  Danny McGuire (well-played by Tommy Noonan) snaps her of it and gets her to the show.  Vicki's will now be a surprise appearance.  She's wearing a Hollywood star version of her civilian colors.  As in the wedding scene, we are about to meet a new identity.  At the beginning, when Esther Blodgett was the showbiz hopeful with a dream, the backstage scene at the Shrine looked elegant and glamorous.  Before her entrance as Vicki Lester the widow, the backstage scene now looks vulgar and grotesque.  The music isn't upbeat and orchestral as before.  Now we hear a mournful Spanish guitar played by a man wearing eyeshadow and a hairnet. (Uncredited, he was played by renowned Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida).  A jab of heartbreak hits when Vicki spots the valentine Norman drew when first they met.  Like in "The Man That Got Away" lyrics, "no more his eager call, the writing's on the wall..."  Danny gets her to the stage.
The announcement that "Vicki Lester will appear" makes the audience gasp.  Just like the beginning, it's a packed Hollywood crowd.  Cameras are rolling.  Studio head Oliver Niles is in the audience.  Danny McGuire is playing piano.  On the stage, poised and smiling as she acknowledges the applause, she stands at the microphone.  Her new identity speaks with will and purpose.  "Hello, everybody.  This is...Mrs. Norman Maine."  An immediate standing ovation from the enthusiastic, loving audience as Cukor's camera pulls back to reveal a huge border of red curtain above Vicki Lester.  She will always be under that mantle of stardom.  In Cukor's hands, Judy Garland and James Mason each delivered a sensational performance, one of the best of their Hollywood careers.  They grab our hearts and take them on quite an unforgettable emotional journey.
Hoyningen Huene was a special color production design consultant on this project.  He really helped Cukor take his director's vision to a new height.

I wrote earlier the daytime rooftop reunion scene with Esther and Norman was some of the lost footage.  The audio track was found but production stills were used to replace the footage when A Star Is Born was restored in the 1980s.  To read about the history of Cukor's production, I highly recommend A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration by the late Ronald Haver.
When I was a talk show host on VH1 in the late 1980s, one of my favorite guests was popular TV actress Nancy Kulp, known to millions of TV viewers as Miss Jane Hathaway on the classic 1960s sitcom, The Beverly Hillbillies.  
She acted in classic films such as Shane, Billy Wilder's Sabrina, The Three Faces of Eve starring Joanne Woodward and Disney's original The Parent Trap starring Hayley Mills.

Cukor liked Kulp.  She had brief roles in Cukor's The Marrying Kind starring Judy Holliday and The Model and The Marriage Broker with stars Jeanne Crain and Thelma Ritter.  Nancy Kulp was in that rooftop scene with Garland and Mason.  You see Kulp in the "Norman finds Esther in a cheap rooming house" production still in Haver's book.  She told me that the rooftop reunion was one of the early scenes in Cukor's long shoot schedule.  He knew exactly what he wanted.  The scene would visually set up the eventual star power shift in the love story of Norman Maine and Esther Blodgett.  Maine will find the rooming house, stand on the sidewalk and look up.  "Come on up!" she calls down.  The sweet reunion would also foreshadow their career fates.  She'll be above him in popularity.  Together on the roof, Cukor would continue a theme established in Esther's big band number at the Shrine.  Esther and Norman were a good team but they couldn't co-exist on the same stage or in public without showbiz-related interference. During the "Gotta Have Me Go With You" number, he's the interference.  The Hotel Lancaster rooming house buzzes that Norman Maine is on the roof.
The neighbors interfere.  They come between Maine and Esther.  Kulp told me that Cukor directed her to be a pushy stage mother who wants to get her kid in the movies.  She'd literally come between Norman and Esther, pushing her little moppet towards Mr. Maine.  Lauren Chapin played the youngster.  This was about the same time Chapin made her TV debut playing the youngest daughter, Kathy, on Father Knows Best.  Like Nancy Kulp, Chapin would gain great national popularity for years on a hit sitcom.  Kulp added that Garland may not have been the most punctual star or the most reliable but she was one of the most talented, hardest-working and one of the friendliest.  Kulp said that Garland treated extras like they were co-stars.

How I wish a director's cut of Cukor's A STAR IS BORN existed. What was lost and what was restored increased my passion for film preservation enormously.

The deluxe edition DVD release of  A Star Is Born from Warner Bros. Home Video has a goldmine of extras on the Special Features disc.  About :45 seconds into the Introduction segment, you'll see brief footage of Cukor directing Nancy Kulp and Lauren Chapin after the narrator says "the incomparable George Cukor."  There's an audio outtake of "Norman and Esther on the roof of the Hotel Lancaster."  Play that and you'll hear Kulp's showbiz mom character badgering Norman Maine to take a picture with her daughter, "little Sandra."  This was Garland's second time playing Vicki Lester.  The Special Features include the 1942 radio play version she did during her MGM star years.


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