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: " 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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