“Either you are or you aren’t — a Judy Garland fan that is. And if you aren’t, forget about her new movie, I Could Go On Singing, and leave the discussion to us devotees…. You’ll see her in close up … in beautiful, glowing Technicolor and striking staging in a vibrant, vital performance that gets to the essence of her mystique as a superb entertainer. Miss Garland is — as always — real, the voice throbbing, the eyes aglow, the delicate features yielding to the demands of the years — the legs still long and lovely. Certainly the role of a top-rank singer beset by the loneliness and emotional hungers of her personal life is not an alien one to her ….”Judith Crist. New York Herald Tribune. 1963
Judith Crist wrote these words about Garland’s then current and ultimately final film, I Could Go On Singing. Most of them, absent the “demands of the years” reference, apply to Judy Garland’s resonant, now again vibrantly restored, performance as Esther Blodgett who becomes Vicki Lester who proclaims herself Mrs. Norman Maine in George Cukor‘s (and Moss Hart‘s and Dorothy Parker‘s and James Mason‘s but ultimately Judy Garland’s) 1954 version of A Star is Born. Screenings in LA last month as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival and in NYC at Lincoln Center last night provide a taste of what we will see in the spanking new, shiny cleaned up version of the film that will be released on DVD in June 2010. (Bad taste on the part of the releasing company to gift the world with this gem on the anniversary of Garland’s death, June 22 — how much better to have celebrated the day of her birth earlier in the month, June 10, as many of us already do?)
I now join the voices of those who saw the new treatment of the film in LA and extolled its virtues. This is an exquisite restoration of the familiar 1954 version of the journey of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) the 30-year-old band singer who has a powerhouse voice and persona who meets Norman Maine (James Mason) the movie star on his way down, who gives her a vision of her future, assists her entry into his home studio, and can’t stave off his own self-destructive demons. As Norman’s pal Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) the studio head says at one point to Esther of Norman’s reduced capacities: “years of steady quiet drinking will do that to a man”. Esther loves Norman through his journey, and ultimately stands in her own strength. Esther’s story especially shines in this version of the film lovingly reassembled and released in 1983 [see Ronald Haver‘s adventure story A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration for this full ride] restoring early plot sequences and two full production numbers cut after the original release to facilitate more daily showings and earnings for the studio. This film’s version of this repeatedly-told story of love and conflicting career arcs and internal demons has been restored to vibrant life and now gives this dame who has seen this movie more times than she is able to calculate a series of new experiences in one familiar package.
So this blog entry is really a story of my journey to honor a performance that is well-known, and to see how the piece of art has been shined up. Refurbished. New details noticed. Old interactions revealed. Power reinforced. All of this and more.
I choose to make Sunday, May 16th a day trip in to NYC from Philly in this pre-move era, where my life is in both places and my heart is increasingly in one. The train to NYC is crowded at 1:40pm. Beginning of business week for some and play time for gaggles of vacationers. Amidst people struggling with wheeled luggage I am relatively carefree but focused. Black coat, black slacks, black shoes, and an mp3 player on which i listen to a certain soundtrack.
Buh buh bah BAH buh. …
A glorious New York day. I amble from Penn Station east on 34th, then north-ish on Broadway to 40th, then east to Bryant Park where I reinforce the familiar with a pause among the trees. I reject the proposed hang at the Algonquin (old familiar at 44th near 6th) floated by stay-at-home spouse in favor of dealing with my anxiety over the nebulous ticketing routines at the Walter Reade theatre. I have an internet receipt in hand (thank you Heather) but I don’t know how the Box Office will deal with it. And this screening is too important to me. So I push northward toward Lincoln Center at this midafternoon hour to clarify the details.
Amble continues: 6th Avenue north to the Park, then west along Central Park South to Columbus Circle and north on Central Park West for a few blocks, west on 64th into Lincoln Center. Am I here to see Opera? Theatre? Ballet?
Pretty and inviting but no no no. Through a bit of construction across 65th I see my goal — and up a single escalator flight outdoors I locate the Box Office. Almost no checking of my email receipt and I am awarded my ticket. Gee, that was simple. Its only 4:30pm and my showing is at 7pm. What to do? Scope it out and, Girl Scout that I am, use the facilities before wandering further afield.
Turns out it’s intermission time for the first showing that started at 3pm, so there’s a line. In that line of smiling faces is a woman just behind me, encounter one, just a bit older than me, who speaks of seeing Judy at the Palace in 1967 when she was a teenager (her mother convinced her to go, to which I responded “smart mother!”), saying Garland spoiled her for anyone else. The energy and commitment. She speaks of the 1983 A Star is Born restoration showing at Radio City (the current cut without the digital enhancement and refurbishing the current release has received). And as is true of the Garland fans I adore, she speaks of these events in 1967 and 1983 as if they happened yesterday. In the loo line we bond and beam. I send her off to the second half of the first showing and she wishes me a lovely time at mine. And this is all for me before the overture, all before seeing Judy’s image myself today. She’s just here.
There is espresso in this lobby and my notepad and only a few hours to wait and what the heck, I decide to stay. First in line, on a bench by a rope, like a Star Wars groupie or something. And by 6:30pm I am in my seat middle of the 3rd row. From here I experience chance audience encounter two. This is an audio Jeopardy question. A comment overheard that I prefer to leave unattributed. An adult male voice behind me, of a man clearly new to the movie and perhaps brought to the showing by one of his several chattering male companions. “Isn’t it Pride next month? Shouldn’t they made this part of fag appreciation month?” I am reminded once again of Crist’s words, of my own counsel, of the core creative emotional hold this performer has for me. I refrain from retorts. And I wait for the overture.
The crowd is serious and content, and wonder of wonders, finally, A Star is Born is about to begin. We applaud credits. Those familiar with the resolution and images of this work of art from the past gasp at the clarity of the image — the pop of the reds, the definition of outlines, the crispness of shadows. And I wait with bated breath through the first exciting movie minutes of klieg lights igniting, people in fancy dress arriving (and the gushing female interviewer of one female’s choice of hair adornments “and the diamonds in the hair!”) for the first shots of Judy as Esther the band singer, waiting backstage with her musician pals, waiting to perform. And those legs. My goodness, those legs.
I could fill this entry with splashes of dialog that I love (for example, Norman’s speech to Esther telling her about “that little something extra” that defines a star), but I’ll try to refrain and talk for the balance here about moments that popped for me differently because of this restoration and because of the fine screening facilities at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center. Criminy the credits alone and the explosion of klieg lights in the first moments heralding the first benefit alert you. You are, by gum, going to pay attention when the lights pop on in your face like this.
On the whole, to these eyes long familiar with various cuts of this movie through various media (late night black and white commercial broadcast television, VCRs, early DVD, bad prints projected in film society blank walls), the great gifts of this new version of the film are newly visible small details that bring tears of joy. The nuances. The various flowers among the wall of red during Esther’s “Born in a Trunk” movie within a movie sequence — there were poppies in there! The various textures and hues of glove and gown and shawl in the “Melancholy Baby” sequence within that number. The freckles cried off and reapplied during “Lose That Long Face”. The exquisite sparkle of the substantial diamond clips in Esther’s hair in her final formal ensemble, seeing the lipstick scrawled love note, and going onstage to proclaim to the world her identity as “Mrs. Norman Maine”.
The power of the imagery and framing of shots hit me anew with the screening, a testament to Cukor’s vision. Two particular images haunt me. First, Esther at the Academy Award ceremony on stage after she has been presented with her Oscar, in a long shot. Esther the human being down left, and Esther as projected on a screen for the attendees at the ceremony at the right. Luscious use of widescreen format.
And a second image: a different kind of composition and intent later in the movie. At the end of Norman’s life. He is brought home after a several-day drunk, Esther proclaims she is going to quit the business for a while and take care of him, and he is devastated by this — her career is his lasting legacy. He gets up, plays the happy camper, proclaims his intent to swim before supper, leaves Esther after one last look at her (sob), and exits the house toward the beach. It’s the moment after he closes the patio door behind him that I speak of — he looks back at the house to his right with an empty sorrow-filled face, resolute, the setting sun to the left of the screen, warmly welcoming him into the waters. It’s chilling and mesmerizing and gorgeous.
Rich saturated color. Framing often just exquisite. And the story of two humans who fall in love. And entertain us along the way. I’m training toward Philly by midnight.
“A little something extra.” Holy cow.
© Martha Wade Steketee (May 17, 2010)