A Star Is Born (George Cukor, 1954)
Watched this for the Next Picture Show episode about it, with relatively low expectations going in. I liked the new one fine and I'd seen very little from the main stars (The Wizard of Oz and North by Northwest, respectively), and the two Cukor films I've seen and liked (a lot) were in a whole different genre (both screwball comedies), and am generally skeptical of big expensive Hollywood films from this era. What I failed to take into account is that Hollywood was really good at making films about itself around this time.
Garland is amazing in this, and I now get why she's an icon. I kept thinking of Liza Minnelli in Cabaret (which, duh), but I might like this performance even more, perhaps because there is something so tragic about seeing her character confronted with someone suffering from addiction herself. She's also a tremendously impressive performer, which I suppose I should have expected but still. There's her voice of course, which I thought the first number was specifically showcasing though really she's belting off in every song, but the numbers here have her do just about everything short of acrobatics, with the most impressive being the one in which she reproduces the big number she's currently working on for Mason in their home. Born in a Trunk is an even more obvious showcase I suppose, the type that I'll admit I'm a sucker for (see also: the end of An American in Paris), and they both have layers upon layers of commentary on both the characters specifically and the industry at large (including pretty specific digs/nods, most of which probably flew way over my head).
The script is very sharp, and balances the inherent paradox within this type of film wonderfully. The film is simultaneously marveling at the grandeur and the beauty of show business while lamenting the cynicism of its enforcers and the way it ends up eating people alive. Melancholy, joy, grief and wonder, it has it all, truly. I'll refrain from comparing to the Cooper remake too much*, but where it differs most obviously is in the Norman Maine character. Mason portrays him as an endearing but tragic character, whereas Cooper's version is more self-pitying than anything else... I suppose they're both quite pathetic, but maybe it's harder to take Cooper seriously because it's much easier to see how he could just make comeback upon comebacks in the current landscape ? Whereas Mason's Norman Maine truly feels finished, from the very start of the film, and not just because of the industry he's working in. The ending is also handled much better, with the beautifully shot ocean scene and the choice Cukor makes to stop right before Garland starts singing. It makes its basic "One star rises, the other falls" point much more cogently and poignantly.
*or will I ?
I did watch the restored version with the still photos... they're not great, and the fact that they all come in a 20 minute period or so makes for a big lull in the middle of the film, and a pretty incomprehensible one at that - why you would cut some of scenes like their reunion is beyond me, but oh well. I'd be curious to watch the shorter cut, but I suspect that section would feel ever more disjointed, unfortunately. Who knows, maybe one day we'll find the scenes in some basement, like it happened for Metropolis ? IN any case, what' left is close enough to a masterpiece to me.