A Star Is Born ★★★½

Watched as part of the July 2017 Letterboxd Scavenger Hunt
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#23: A film starring Judy Garland

2017 movie viewings, #116. I'm pretty sure I've never seen a single Judy Garland film besides The Wizard of Oz in my entire life; so when this particular scavenger hunt task came up last month, instead of picking something obscure I decided to just go for one of her most famous films, one that is still highly regarded to this day and that has had a series of equally famous remakes made in the decades since (including one just about to come out starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, which I guess replaced the all-black hiphop version that was in development for years).

For those who don't know, it's the story of a young bar singer in Los Angeles named Esther Blodgett (Garland) who has recently started picking up odd jobs in the entertainment industry, which is how she randomly crosses paths one day with Norman Maine (a scenery-chewing James Mason, as if there were any other kind of James Mason), a former matinee idol whose growing age and worsening alcoholism has just recently started putting his career into a tailspin. He convinces Esther to reluctantly start auditioning for actual acting roles in Hollywood, and her resulting early success draws them into a romantic relationship; but even as the newly named "Vicki Lester" becomes a sort of golden girl, including winning an Oscar just a few years after her screen debut, Norman's downfall is just as swift and brutal, caused in large part, as explained by one studio head, by this now being "the new Hollywood, where studios don't put up with that kind of behavior anymore" (the very definition of irony, as we'll see in a moment).

It's actually not a bad little script, surprisingly dark and realistic for its times, which can be credited to ghostwriting help from the excellent Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner Jr. (among the other six screenwriters who are officially credited with having their hands on this script at one point or another). But after actually sitting down and watching this movie, I suddenly have a kind of appreciation and understanding now that I simply didn't before about how exactly the term "camp" came about in these years, why it was the irony-loving gay community that first embraced camp, and why Judy Garland ended up being one of the first idolized icons of gay camp Hollywood. Because in a word, this movie stinks; but it doesn't stink in a way that makes it awful or unwatchable, but in a way that somehow makes it delightful and riveting, a kind of special '50s awful that becomes enjoyable precisely because of knowing that '50s audiences took it so seriously and so much at face value, when to modern audiences like us it's so ridiculously over-the-top as to become an unintentional comedy.

Part of that has to do with the production itself, which is the very definition of Mid-Century Modernist low-ebb Hollywood, the exact kind of bloated, overly lit dreck that movements in these same years like the French New Wave were directly fighting against. And part of it has directly to do with James Mason, who if he got any more flaming than he does here would be on goddamn fire. (And yes, I realize that Mason wasn't gay in real life, so save your angry comments; but that didn't stop me from imagining him muttering in his unflappable British accent at the onset of every romantic scene, "And now, young lady, we will commence with the sexual intercourse. I will now be placing my penis inside your vagina, my dear, and I will enjoy it immensely, as the heterosexual male I undoubtedly am.")

But the biggest reason this is so enjoyably camp is actually part of the production's tragic quality as well, alluded to before: because in real life, Garland was actually going through the exact kinds of substance-abuse problems that the fictional Norman Maine goes through in the movie (not just alcohol in her case but also morphine-laced prescription pills); but unlike him, the production of A Star Is Born willingly went through several complete shut-downs that lasted weeks at a time, as Garland checked herself into various dry-out facilities and hospitals in an attempt to get back into shape. The problems were certainly nothing new at that point -- Garland in the previous ten years had already been through an involuntary institutionalization, electroshock therapy, and two suicide attempts -- but after a five-year hiatus from movie-making, A Star Is Born saw the onscreen appearance for the first time of the late-career Garland that made her such a camp icon; the one with a cracked, husky voice, the one with fluctuating weight problems, the one with a histrionic edge to her acting style. And thus, every time she delivers another panic-laced monologue in this movie about how her husband deserves more empathy and tolerance than Hollywood is willing to give him, it's impossible in hindsight not to see these as desperate pleas from Garland to her audience about her herself, a kind of pulsating "greedy/needy" relationship she developed with her fans in the last decades of her career.

For better or for worse, this is an integral part of camp; or as John Waters put it in his infamous guest role on The Simpsons regarding this subject, "It's the tragically ludicrous! The ludicrously tragic!" Homer's response to this in that episode is meant as a throwaway joke -- "Oh, like when a clown dies!" -- but that's ironically the exact thing that makes A Star Is Born so terrible and entertaining at the same time; like so many camp icons from these years (think Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, etc), what we're witnessing here is the act of a clown dying, a last great Oscar-nominated hurrah from Garland before her movie career went into a permanent tailspin and never recovered again. (Interestingly, her career as a public entertainer lasted another 15 years after this, but almost entirely as a singer instead of an actor, before finally dying in 1969 of an accidental overdose of barbiturates at the age of 47, after which an autopsy revealed that she would've died soon anyway from either cirrhosis or malnutrition even if the overdose hadn't happened.) Jesus, no wonder when this movie received a rescreening at Radio City Music Hall in 1983, both of her daughters in attendance openly wept throughout the entire running time, knowing by then what they did about Garland's tortured middle-age years.

So, a mixed bag today, to say the least. Certainly you shouldn't go into this expecting a legitimately great movie, like the fawning praise it received from contemporary 1950s audiences and critics; but it's a hell of a lot of fun anyway, perhaps despite the intentions of the original producers instead of because of them. Absolutely it's a glowing, almost textbook example of everything that had gone wrong with Hollywood by this time, and why the mavericks of "New Hollywood" revolutionalized and almost entirely took over that industry starting just ten years later; and in this, it's worth watching alone just for the history lesson it provides. For younger viewers especially, I encourage you to watch this with that kind of attitude, and not necessarily as a simple piece of entertainment like its original audience did.