The allure of success and eternal life through the magic of film has long been a draw for would-be Hollywood stars. Get the right role in the right film and you’re forever a part of the world’s popular culture and you reap the rewards for doing so. But it all seems to be something of a chess match where choice encounters and connecting with the right people become paramount to talent. But fame always comes with a caution. Although the images on the screen may live on, the sense of being in demand is finicky and finite. Just as one star comes along, others always follow. And just as it’s not always talent that gets someone in, it’s not always passing talent that gets someone out.
In this era of increased celebrity scrutiny, paparazzi stalkers and instant news coverage, perhaps some of our “stars” today should check out George Cukor’s A Star is Born, which charts the rise of one star and parallels it with the struggles for another to hold onto fame. Although approaching its 60th anniversary, the film remains timely for the themes of fame and success it explores with such great scope and emotion.
Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a singer in a three-piece band that is finding success in clubs but don’t really seem poised to break out much further. But Esther is discovered by Norman Maine (James Mason), one of the most famous names in Hollywood who has recently fallen on hard times due to his wild nature and reputation for not being the most dependable of professionals. So even though he has a hard time landing roles himself, Norman still has enough connections to get Esther a screen test. With that, a new star, Vicki Lester, is born.
While The Wizard of Oz is a showcase for the magic of film that Garland was an iconic part of, A Star is Born is a showcase for her immense talents. Power shoots from her mouth whenever Garland opens her mouth to sing. She brings her distinct combination of voice and showmanship to every musical number in the film. Just like the audiences, both big and small, that she sings in front of over the course of the three-hour film, I sat transfixed listening to her.
Cukor does a tremendous job charting Esther/Vicki’s journey from anonymous singer to the biggest star in Hollywood. He does so with more honesty than a lot of other self-referential films where Hollywood paints itself simply as a place where all dreams come true and everyone gets rich. While it does tell a story of success, it’s one that also comes with failure and tragedy. Although the goal of fame is achieved, it comes with several caveats that aren’t always touched on in films that either cast Hollywood in a spectacular light. The real strength comes in the balance that Cukor achieves between the props and cons of fame.
Despite its edge and warnings, A Star is Born is ultimately a love song to show business. It presents the best Hollywood had to offer in the way of music and star power. Perhaps it’s ironic that Garland would later succumb to a similar tragedy of her on-screen partner. While the circumstances may have been different, the untimely exit of one of the industry’s biggest is certainly a parallel worth noting.
A Star is Born brings out some of the best in Hollywood, even if it is something of a warning. Still timely and entertaining, it’s an essential film to watch by those looking to study the movie industry and how it represents itself.
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