Eighteen months ago, the collective got its knickers in a twist about a remake that was announced. Word was that Clint Eastwood wanted to direct Beyonce in a new version of A STAR IS BORN. “Sacrilege!” they cried, “Scandal!” they hollered. “How could he think of doing this to a classic?” they begged.
I have a thought or two on the matter, but let me discuss the action before getting to the reaction.
1954’s A STAR IS BORN begins by taking a grotesque moment and turning it into a moment of grace. When a former headliner named Norman Maine (James Mason) arrives at a star-studded function, he drunkenly makes his way to the stage even though he is in no shape to perform. Without missing a beat, the chanteuse in the act on stage makes like he’s part of the act and spares him most embarrassment. The singer who saved Maine’s bacon is named Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), and as he realizes what she has just done for him, he reaches out to her in gratitude.
The two performers find themselves intrigued by one-another, and soon Maine – determined to make her a star – has taken Blodgett under his wing. Sure enough, a star is what she becomes, complete with a new name: Vicki Lester. However, as Lester’s star begins to rise, Maine’s continues to crash to earth. Their love eventually brings them together in marriage, but the coupling of a rising talent and a falling one is a tragedy waiting to happen.
Interestingly, what made me most smitten with A STAR IS BORN was an afterthought. When the film was first released, a lot of scenes – including entire songs – were cut from the film. This was a studio decision, and a bad one to boot. Much of the footage that was cut was lost, so when the scenes were reconstructed for a 1983 restoration, the missing moments were shown as a photo essay.
You’d think that such a change of tack would seem jarring, but for me it played wonderfully. It comes at a moment in Vicki’s career where she’s midair jumping from one stone to the next. She’s not at the top of her level like she was when Maine met her, nor is she making her bones in the big time. She’s doing what she can to stay afloat, working odd jobs and keeping a low profile. In essence, these are scrapbook moments from the days in between (or a 16mm film for one charming moment), and they are unlike anything I’ve seen in a musical from Hollywood’s golden era.
Another element of the musical that I like is its weight. Many of the classic musicals are bright and shiny, underscored all the more by the plucky and romantic songs within their score. While A STAR IS BORN is no stranger to a show-stopping number, much of the film spends time in murky, uncertain waters…whether they are Esther timidly trying to break in, or Maine struggling valiantly to clean up. It could have been very easy for the film to follow the scene/scene/song rhythm of a film like MY FAIR LADY. However, in stretching things out, and grounding the musical numbers as productions within the production, the story is able to keep us grounded.
Elements like that are what make me see A STAR IS BORN as something rather special. many of the musical numbers aren’t interested in being catchy so much as they want to be grand. In fact the whole film plays very grand in its melodrama, its design, and even in its photography. Look at how long and narrow the still images in this post are – that’s the wide CinemaScope framing in action, working to provide as broad a canvas as possible for both the subtle and the spectacle to play out.
While I’d never count myself a Garland aficionado, I have to hand it to the woman in this film. She owns it. Actually, she owns it. Fans of the film will often sing the praises of scenes from “Born In a Trunk” like “Swanee”, but the moment that resonates most for me is her performance of “The Man That Got Away“.
She starts it out so unassumingly…as if it’s a song she used to know, or is still just learning. With the band casually following, playing to an audience of none (well, one, but she doesn’t know that) she starts to sing those long, warm notes so. fucking. effortlessly. Soon, what first appeared to be a rehearsal becomes a virtuoso performance – and one that the singer barely breaks a sweat to pull off.
What I especially love about this is that it’s the now-familiar moment in the now-familiar-story when a hidden talent is discovered. What usually drives me nuts about that moment in films is the way it never seems very truthful. We watch as someone in position to push a talent to the next level flips over a performance and think to ourselves “Really?”. Here though, having this be the moment that Maine is sold on Esther’s talent seems…earned.
So with all of that in mind, what to make of Eastwood’s plan to remake it all? For starters, as much as I loved it, I don’t think it’s fair to see this film as the holy relic many would consider it. For starters, this version is itself a remake of the 1937 film of the same name starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. What’s more, the 1954 version was later remade in 1976 with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. So considering that Hollywood chose to retell the tale twice already, what’s the harm in a third time?
All I hope is this: That moment that our heroine’s die seems cast…that kick-ass song…that has to be an electric moment. Whichever star, male or female, that Hollywood decides to drop into the story this time, they better be damned sure that they have the talent to do Ms. Garland proud.
I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for May (so far)…
Allison watched NIL BY MOUTH
James McNally watched L’ATALANTE
Dave Voigt watched THE CARDINAL
New contributor Kirk Haviland watched THE DEER HUNTER
Sean Kelly watched BAD BOYS
Courtney Small watched DOUBLE INDEMNITY
Jake Cole watched IRMA VEP
Max Covill watched BRIEF ENCOUNTER
Bob “I’m Still a Rare & Precious Snowflake” Turnbull watched NANOOK OF THE NORTH and PATHER PANCHALI
Steve Honeywell watched FROM HERE TO ETERNITY
Dan Heaton watched WILD STRAWBERRIES