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135 of 139 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Great Classic Restored On DVD, September 16, 2003
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This review is from: A Star Is Born (DVD)
Many films have a convoluted history, but few so much as A STAR IS BORN. The basic story of a famous Hollywood alcoholic who promotes the career of an unknown--only to see her star rise as his falls--was based on the lives of a number of silent-era figures and first filmed in 1932 as WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? After a number of plot changes, the story reemerged in 1937 as A STAR IS BORN starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Then, in the 1940s, A STAR IS BORN was recycled into a radio play--and the leading lady was Judy Garland.

Garland's private life was difficult, and in 1950 she made a highly publicized suicide attempt. When she proved unable to recover herself quickly, she was fired by MGM amid much negative publicity, and it was assumed her career was over. But within a few years Garland reemerged as a powerful concert performer, and momentum began to build toward a screen comeback. Garland, who recalled her radio presentation with fondness, suggested A STAR IS BORN.

The production was plagued with problems. A number of leading actors turned down the male lead before James Mason accepted. A considerable portion of the film was shot when Warner Brothers decided to present it in Cinemascope, and this entailed scrapping all previous footage reshooting from scratch. Garland herself proved typically highstrung, and her temperament led to numerous delays. The budget ran out of control, and by the time A STAR IS BORN arrived on the screen it had become the single most expensive film made up to that time.

The film's opening seemed to justify all the difficulty and expense. Critics were positive and the public was eager. But Warner Brothers remained concerned about the film's length--and although director George Cukor offered to recut the film gratis, the studio hacked it apart. It was soon apparent that critics and audiences alike were considerably less enthusiastic about the edited version, and the film ended its theatrical release with a whimper.

During the decades that followed the film gained a reputation as a mutilated masterpiece. A lackluster 1970s remake fueled interest in a restoration, but the missing footage could not be relocated. In 1983, however, the full, unedited soundtrack and many of the missing scenes were rediscovered. In working with the film, conservators pioneered the use of still photography to fill in the still-missing scenes, a technique that would be used to restore such classics as GREED, METROPOLIS, and LOST HORIZON. And upon release, A STAR IS BORN was once again hailed as a masterpiece.

Stylistically, A STAR IS BORN is an aggressive film filled with bright colors, bombastic music, and larger than life performances. As such, it seems typical of "blockbuster" films of the 1950s and 1960s. But A STAR IS BORN uses this "bigness" to a considerably different end than its counterparts: rather than containing garish display for its own sake, it contains it for thematic purpose.

The theme developed by writer Moss Hart and director Cukor (who considered this his masterpiece) is one of the various levels of artificiality intrinsic to show business, and differences between degrees of artificiality are carefully drawn in scene after scene. The audience enjoys a show--never knowing that the star is blind drunk. The set crew prepares to film an upbeat musical number--never aware that the leading lady is having hysterics in her dressing room. A wife watches a private screening of a film--not realizing that her husband is being quietly fired in an adjoining room.

The performances that drive A STAR IS BORN are perfectly in line with the film's juxtaposition of reality and artifice. Garland offers a justly famous bravado performance in broad strokes and with an undercurrent of artifice that becomes increasingly noticeable as the film builds, underscoring her gradual immersion in and consumption by the film industry. Mason, in equally brilliant fashion, contrasts her with a performance that becomes painfully realistic as the film progresses. The dissonance created is quite startling: it is easy to see why the two characters attract each other, but it is also easy to forecast how they will self-destruct.

Although musical numbers abound, A STAR IS BORN is not typical of the genre, for the music does not form the primary structure of the film. Still, like most other elements in the film, the songs feed into the film's themes--and always in the most ironic way possible. Near the film's conclusion, Maine ask Vicki to sing for him while he, unbeknownst to her, prepares for suicide. The song she sings is "A New World." And indeed after Maine's death it will be all of that, a world in which unreality will go unchecked and Vicki will win applause by introducing herself as "Mrs. Norman Maine," turning her private grief into box office salvation.

A STAR IS BORN is profoundly bitter film that for all its brashness operates in a remarkably subtle way to make a very dark statement about Hollywood fame: the entertainment we enjoy on screen is an illusion with a price, and that price is a confusion of reality and fantasy played out with stakes of life and death. The DVD offers the film in its restored state, in Cinemascope, and with television broadcast footage of the Los Angeles premiere. If you're serious about film, this is a must-own, must-see.

--GFT (Amazon.com Reviewer)--
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Tracked by 5 customers

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Showing 1-10 of 17 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Dec 28, 2009 2:09:27 PM PST
Your review is tremendous and I especially appreciate the elucidation of theme.

One nuance bothers me, though: At the private party where a movie is screened, the host is Oliver Niles, owner of his own film studio. Although he says that the lush days of studio wastefulness are over, I'm not aware that anyone fired him -- or was able to (deny him financing, maybe, but that's not the same as control).

In reply to an earlier post on Dec 28, 2009 3:39:30 PM PST
Ah! A glitch in the review. I was, of course, refering to the scene in which Esther encourages guests to watch a film--during which Niles quietly and discreetly fires Norman in an adjoining room. Thanks for pointing out the error--I'll correct it.

GFT

In reply to an earlier post on Mar 13, 2010 9:56:03 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Mar 13, 2010 10:00:55 AM PST
Fred C. says:
Does anyone know if the new Blu-ray version of this film contains any of the lost footage that was not in the DVD and was entered into it with stills and voice overs? I guess what I am asking is it complete in the BD version or is it just an updating of the film into the latest video with new technology.

Posted on Apr 9, 2010 12:31:50 PM PDT
Phrehdd says:
The 1940's version was full budget A pic with writing that left James Mason's character as being unsympathetic. It was either the writing or Mason but either way, the Gaynor-March version is far more likable as far as characters go. While the Gaynor-March version might seem a bit sappy, if you consider the times it was rather a well executed film and allowed you to feel for both characters as one's star rose and the other fell. Mason's version (though I like Mason very much) is whiney and self absorbed with no real sense he cares for his wife's success the way that you find with March.

In fact, I found I didn't care for Garland's character much either.

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 9, 2010 7:34:23 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Apr 12, 2010 5:56:06 AM PDT
Unless you're talking about the radio play, there is no 1940s version of A Star Is Born. I assume you mean the 1954 version.

Best wishes,

Gary

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2010 8:43:03 AM PDT
He meant the 1937 original production with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 24, 2010 1:34:48 PM PDT
Sure about that? He very specifically refers to "1940s" version as starring James Mason and then very specifically refers to the 1937 version as starring Gaynor and March. The only thing I get out the posting is that he finds the Gaynor-March version sappy but likeable and the Garland-Mason version unsympathetic. Which is a big part of the point of the Garland-Mason version: the exposure of Hollywood as unsympathetic. But whatever!

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 7, 2010 11:55:16 PM PDT
I would hardly describe the 1970s version as "lackluster" it was actually a very big success and Barbra Streisand was quite wonderful in the role of Esther Hoffman.. I personally love BOTH versions of the film.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 8, 2010 12:09:32 PM PDT
Oh, I think I was generous when I described the Striesand version of A STAR IS BORN as lackluster. It would be more accurate to describe it as embarassing.

Posted on Dec 24, 2010 10:49:34 AM PST
Ted Nite says:
Excellent review I dont like musicals whatsover, in fact i think I can say Ive really never seen one. But when I first saw this on a crappy 4x3 tv screen i was intrigued... I like Judy Garland in a Wizard of Oz kinda way and also am a fan of James Mason's work as well. Alas when I was finally able to see this in full blown widescreen and digital sound It blew me off my couch. This is a dark story dressed in full Hollywood regalia. Absolutely amazing film. Ive never seen Judy Garland perform like this... a piece of hollywood history history for sure. Not only Technicolor, and anamorphic widescreen 2.55 to 1... But also shot on 65mm tod ao!!! We'll never see a movie made like this ever again sadly. I want to order this but im very concerned about the stated 1.77 to 1 ratio. Anyone have any clarity on this? Id rather have it letterboxed than have half the frame removed on some p.o.s. transfer.
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Gary F. Taylor "GFT"
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Location: Biloxi, MS USA

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