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A Star Is Born

(8/10)

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Current Rating 9/10 | 8 Votes

     It hurts to criticize this movie. Firstly, because this is an established classic: a favorite of musical fans, the "Cahiers du Cinema" crowd, and diverse other folk. Secondly, because, since this was Judy Garland's last great role, for which she didn't win the Oscar, and so posthumous recognition of her work is what's required of the tactful critic. And finally, because this movie is directed by one of my favorite old Hollywood directors, George Cukor, a man of infinite craft and skill, who made classics like Dinner At Eight; it's said that this was his favorite of his own films. There are many reasons why I don't want to say negative things about this movie.

And yet...there's something about this very emotional movie that just doesn't connect with me. I'm pretty sure it's not the mere fact that this movie has "raw emotion", Hollywood-style, in it; so does Minnelli, and I love him. No, there's something that I suppose is warped in my nature, making it impossible for me to understand the euphoria surrounding this work. Check out an IMDB user on this work: "My user rating for this film is a 10, only because they don't have a rating of 15." Now that I'm done defending myself, on to the actual review.

A Star Is Born is the story of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland, absolutely wonderful, unfortunately robbed of her Best Actress Oscar by Grace Kelly), singer in a big band. At an awards ceremony, she stops big star Norman Maine (James Mason, equally good) from making a drunken fool of himself onstage. When he wakes up and is sober, he's in love. Not only that, but after hearing Esther sing, he decides she's movie star material. She is, and as Esther's fame begins to grow, Norman's career withers away, leading back to heavy drinking which he'd abandoned after marrying Esther.

Thankfully, A Star Is Born isn't a "scathing critique" of Hollywood. That gets old quickly. Instead, it's a story about real people, alcoholics and otherwise, who happen to be famous and whose problems are exacerbated by that. The only time they're overshadowed by show-biz is in the character of savage PR man Matt Libby (Jack Carson, one of several miscellaneous big parts in his career, which also included Mildred Pierce), who's the most amoral press man since Kirk Douglas in The Big Carnival (only, unlike Douglas, he never repents, which makes his character ridiculously cartoonish). Libby serves as the story's resident villain, which is a mistake: surely Maine's drinking couldn't be jumpstarted after a few flip, if cruel, comments by Libby. That is the story's one big misstep.

Aside from plot points: at 181 minutes, this film is flawlessly paced. Furthermore, the cinematography and occasionally garish color are perfect (especially the film's first post-credits shot: the crackle of spotlights noisily coming to life), and the musical numbers are excellent (especially Garland's "Somewhere There's A Someone" number, which mocks opulent MGM production numbers). And Charles Bickford, as studio chief Oliver Niles, is an idealistic surrogate father. So what's my problem? All I can say is that the plentiful emotion of this movie connected rarely with me (the awkward, restored footage featuring still frames was also distracting). And it didn't feel rote or manipulative either. It actually felt real. So I apologize to the creative forces I dissed in this review, and encourage you to make up your own mind (and check out Dinner At Eight, if you want to see my favorite Cukor movie).

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