Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Thoughts on A Star is Born (Cukor, 1954)



Movies can both be enjoyable despite having a problematic message, A Star is Born being a great example. A tragic story of two lovers in Hollywood coping with success and failure carried by intensely personal performances by James Mason and Judy Garland. Judy Garland has a moment where she opens up to Charles Bickford's Oliver Niles about her relationship to alcoholic Norman Maine, and the mask of her character Esther Blodgett falls away, followed by the mask of Judy Garland the superstar, leaving us with a woman confronting her own faults and self-loathing. It becomes a difficult scene to watch as she tries to stifle her cries so people outside her dressing room can't hear her, but they bubble up in little choked whines - the door to that place down deep has been opened and we're witnessing her struggle to close it. Watching Garland and James Mason go back and forth in their symbiosis of self-pity and emotional support can get exhausting over the film's 3 hours, but you can't charge their relationship with being false. You see how they've become tangled up in each other's insecurities and selfishness - a toxic mix that can't end any other way than disastrous.

James Mason’s character seems unable to cope with not only being unemployed but that his wife is now the bread-winner for the family. His male pride is crushed when a postman refers to him as Mr. Vicki Lester, a moment that begins his push to even lower lows - like interrupting an Oscar telecast begging for a job. When he overhears Judy Garland tell Oliver Niles that she is willing to give up everything to save him, he neither accepts this selfless act nor does he become inspired to overcome his demons in order repay his wife for seemingly endless patience and caring. Instead he settles on a third option, rejecting her love by killing himself so that he doesn’t have to go through the trouble of getting clean - a scenario in which James Mason’s  Norman Maine can take center stage and overshadow his talented wife. Vicki Lester is told she must go on for Norman Maine, or else it’ll be like he never existed - that it is her duty to keep his immortal flame alight - a notion that sounds like the exact opposite of what he probably intended when he stepped into that ocean for the last time. In Vicki’s first public appearance since the funeral she introduces herself not as Vicki Lester but as Mrs. Norman Maine. Everyone applauds, dry eyes are nary to be seen, but the real tragedy is that she’ll never be free and that everything she is has been projected on to her by the men in her life. Her stage name given to her by the studio, her appearances dictated by what they believe is attractive, and now she serves the role they want her to - dutiful widow. Weep, but weep for Esther Blodgett - wherever she’s gone.

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