Bring a Torch, Judy
Judy Garland’s A Star Is Born
by Andrew Chan
The 1954 version of A Star Is Born is distinguished from the rest of the Hollywood musical canon by the big, broken heart beating inside it. The film owes much of its enduring allure to the fact that, over the course of its three, bloated hours, there is never any mistaking as to whom that heart belongs. From Top Hat (1935) to Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to The Band Wagon (1953), the musical genre’s high-water marks up to that point were odes to sociability and conviviality, propelled by the ecstatic vibes exchanged among performers who seem to possess instinctual foreknowledge of each other’s talents. When Astaire and Rogers break into song, all the words and moves somehow falling into place, they are making us privy to a secret joy that’s communally defined, and all the more infectious for its lack of inwardness or psychological specificity. A Star Is Born, on the other hand, is a rupture. Not only does it drill deep into private wounds (even the few joyful moments seem conjured to amplify sorrows ahead), it all but flaunts the fact that those wounds have one very famous owner. Under the weight of all her public struggles—her notorious unreliability on set, an acrimonious departure from MGM, two suicide attempts—Judy Garland on screen in 1954, at the age of thirty-one, would have transformed any standard-issue showbiz musical into a vessel for autobiography, recasting the role of singer-actor-superstar as confessor.
Despite how inextricable Garland’s personal pain is from A Star Is Born, the arrival of catharsis twenty minutes in feels audaciously premature. At this point Garland’s character, an unknown singer named Esther Blodgett, has been established only in broad strokes, so what demons would she have to exorcise? A few scenes earlier, we saw her performing up a sweat around movie star Norman Maine (James Mason) to keep his inebriated intrusions on stage from ruining a glitzy Hollywood benefit. It’s clear he’s the one with the problems. The specter of Norman emerging from the wings, threatening to rip the mask off Tinseltown politesse, casts a long shadow on the film, and it’s Esther who anxiously endeavors to get him—her soon-to-be mentor, husband, tormentor—under control. Yet, as we head into the film’s most soul-baring musical number, he’s sitting on the sidelines, tamed by awe. So is the man at the helm, Hollywood’s beloved “woman’s director” George Cukor, who captures the bloodletting in one unadorned long take. No cutaways, no quick pans, no ostentatious angles to stoke the drama. In a film marked by lavishly moody CinemaScope compositions and bar-raising production values (at the time, it was one of the most expensive movies ever made), this four-minute stretch of directorial forbearance is a ceding of the floor. The filmmaker is made to tremble before the singer’s power.
This scene, which made Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s gorgeous torch song “The Man That Got Away” a fixture of the Garland repertoire, starts off somewhere between casualness and cliché. While in the previous number we heard Esther tossing off a sweet and flirty trifle (“You want a love that’s truly true/you gotta have me go with you”), here we can immediately intuit, as the band warms up, that she’s about to dig into something brassier and bluesier—even the exterior establishing shot of the after-hours club tips us off with a neon sign reading “Bleu Bleu.” But nothing inside gives us any sense of incipient climax. Surrounded by Edward Hopper shadows, Esther sits at the piano, admiring her male bandmates as they play. A waiter brings a tray of drinks. The perpetually gum-chewing pianist instructs Esther to “take it, honey,” as if throwing her a bone, and she reaches for some sheet music. As she vocalizes for a few bars, face-to-face with the trombonist, her first notes wispy and noncommittal, she’s neither ingénue nor diva but a professional musician feeling her way into a melody. This minimization of fanfare is crucial to the scene’s impact. Four minutes later, we’ve witnessed how the rawest emotional expression can emerge from the guise of workaday craftsmanship, and how quickly it disappears again behind it.
From the kaleidoscopic patterns of Busby Berkeley to the most ambitious set pieces of Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen, great musical numbers tend to be admired for their spectacular choreography and design, while the singing goes virtually unnoticed. Maybe it’s because the Hollywood musical has not typically been the province of conspicuous vocal artistry, or because the fundamentally embodied nature of dance shames the lip-syncing and dubbing associated with onscreen singing. Or maybe it’s because, as Wayne Koestenbaum explains in his book The Queen’s Throat, the voice “exposes interiority, the inside of a body and the inside of a self”—the very things that get obscured in a genre so invested in surface beauty. But if ever a narrative movie could be said to fulfill some sort of ideal of a “singer’s film,” A Star Is Born is it, both in the way it serves up the aural pleasures of great singing and how it visually mythologizes the singer in the act. What better testament to a singer’s capacity to devastate her listeners than the fact that, well before her character weathers any of the film’s melodramatic calamities, Garland is able to grip us with a lament about some nameless archetypal heartbreaker? Where most emotionally driven musical numbers serve as outlets for what’s being felt in the heat of a given moment, the anguish surging through “The Man That Got Away” exists independent of any apparent catalyst. Garland’s voice becomes all the more compelling for having wriggled out of contextual constraints, for stopping us in our tracks without the justifications of narrative or character development.
When the song ends, Esther laughs—as if to say she has sacrificed nothing of herself. Or is it that she’s embarrassed by such self-exposure? We’ve come out of the scene astonished, but for the boys in the band it’s just another night of rehearsal. The film abruptly dials itself back down, and all the passions and fears and yearnings that the song stirred up sink beneath the surface. Even when Norman approaches Esther to describe the “little jabs of pleasure” he received from eavesdropping on her singing, her first instinct is to brush off his praise, her girlish, stammering voice a disconcerting contrast to the leather-lunged belting we heard moments before. Does Esther’s performance reflect a grief the film has chosen not to divulge? Or was she simply drawing from the reserves of empathy and imagination to which great artists have access?
It’s Garland’s voice—the darker shades it acquired after two decades of performing, the violent vibrato, the breathing verging on gasping—that makes it difficult to dismiss the former scenario, to hear the song as anything other than an authentic cry of pain. And it’s their sharing of this same inimitable sound that makes actor and character impossible to disentangle. The scene assumes we understand that, in Garland’s hands, any sad love song is inescapably personal. Without her, such an unseemly outpouring this early in the film would lack all credibility. Esther necessarily becomes a palimpsest of the actor’s accumulated public selves, her voice containing the ghosts of younger, brighter Judy Garlands. And because we know the beauty of the singing originates from the depths of a life lived before A Star Is Born, we are led also to acknowledge an offscreen Esther, who for all we know may have suffered a pain that likewise preceded the camera. Garland’s public life, in its tawdry overexposure, sheds light on the places where her character has been granted relative privacy and mystery.
Ascribing authorship to a film can feel like a fool’s game, reliant as it often is on supposition. If we’re most comfortable finding the presiding authorial voice in the director’s overarching intentions, it’s partly because we suspect that to give greater weight to anything else is to risk advocating cinema by committee, or allowing theatrical or literary elements like acting or writing to (God forbid) take precedence over those that are intrinsically cinematic. In accordance with auteurist notions of dominion and cohesion, we end up totalizing the artwork. At the same time, we don’t need to look to the invention of the rewind button or the advent of YouTube to learn what has always been the case: we often love movies in fragments, and it isn’t hard for a strain of music, a beautifully lit shot, or a line reading to eclipse the whole in our memories. This is especially true with A Star Is Born, a film that at times feels so compromised and fractured it cries out to be enjoyed as a series of isolatable moments, ranging from the garish to the sublime.
Cukor, ever the perfectionist, never forgave Warner Bros. for slashing more than half an hour from the final cut in order to tack on the “Born in a Trunk” sequence, an expertly performed but ill-conceived medley meant to demonstrate Esther (now renamed Vicki Lester) finally rising to fame as a result of Norman’s professional grooming. Corroborating the fact of the project’s splintered conception, Ronald Haver’s book on the film describes a tumultuous production process shared among stakeholders as various as Garland’s husband, producer Sidney Luft, who orchestrated the deal to revive the star’s career; photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, who was brought in as a visual consultant due to Cukor’s discomfort with Technicolor and CinemaScope; and choreographer Richard Barstow, who compensated for the director’s lack of interest or experience in filming musical numbers. While the story’s melodramatic thrust bears Cukor’s unmistakable mark, echoing the themes of fame, glamour, and self-destruction he had explored with similar severity in his 1932 drama What Price Hollywood?, A Star Is Born is never more eloquent on these subjects than when it leaves Garland’s screen presence alone to do the talking.
“The Man That Got Away” lingers like an aftertaste, an agonizingly short-lived moment of clarity that the rest of the film feels all the more poignant for failing to recreate. Despite the life experience that Esther’s voice wears so heavily, the scene is a portrait of an artist’s innocence, a reminder of how free this great singer sounded before meeting with the indignities of a callous industry and Norman Maine’s alcoholic self-loathing. No small amount of credit is due to Cukor for insisting on shooting the number as a long take, restricting Garland’s movements within the club’s claustrophobic space, and cloaking the instrumentalists in spectral shadows. It’s also Cukor we feel when, in one of Garland’s most extravagant gestures, she runs straight toward the camera with arms outstretched, highlighting a heretofore hidden intimacy between the performer and the filmmaker’s gaze. But in an age where we can pull up “The Man That Got Away” on YouTube, both in its original film incarnation and in a handful of increasingly harrowing live television performances, the singer’s career emerges as the most obvious authorial context. To privilege Cukor as the scene’s primary artistic engine seems about as accurate as attributing the genius of Billie Holiday’s Lady in Satin to Irving Townsend. While we might not be able to establish Garland as auteur in terms of ultimate authority, it’s all but unavoidable that we do so on the basis of indispensability.
Still, even with a performer as distinctive and strong-willed as Garland, the Hitchcockian perception of actors as cattle persists. Her much-publicized instability has led generations of critics to position her most crucial directing partners, Cukor and Vincente Minnelli, as intervening forces who, through a mixture of tenderness and discipline, were able to extract brilliance from her chaos. Since these were two gay filmmakers, the sexist assumption has given rise to a homophobic one: that the singer, who Mel Tormé once called “Queen of the Fags,” fell victim to a parasitic queer gaze that projected its sublimated anxieties and desires onto her. In Patrick McGilligan’s George Cukor: A Double Life, the director is described exploiting his star’s frayed nerves, goading her into outbursts, then winning back her trust with displays of compassion. Certainly this image of the female star inexorably being made subject to someone else’s authoring is borne out in the film itself, as it becomes clear that our heroine has no grand ambitions that are identifiably her own, and that her ascent is mostly spurred on by the hopes and dreams that Norman has foisted upon her. In the film’s finale, the stardom of Vicki Lester is cemented once and for all by a paradoxical self-effacement: “Mrs. Norman Maine,” she calls herself, to an audience’s rapturous applause.
But looking back at “The Man That Got Away,” it’s the self-knowing and effortfulness of the acting, the moment-to-moment decisions moving it forward, that foreground the song’s seemingly inevitable candor. Garland complicates an otherwise straightforward scene by varying her delivery, at certain points laughing or shrugging off a phrase, at others widening her eyes and gesticulating wildly as if the horror of thwarted love were suddenly bearing down on her. In keeping with these gestural extremes, Garland fought her vocal coach over the song’s key, and luckily prevailed in keeping the desperation of her rafter-shaking upper register. In “The Man That Got Away,” we catch glimpses of a shift in her acting style that becomes more pronounced as the film goes on. Like the hint of husk in her voice, the volatility she brings to the role could not be more different from her previous performance, in 1950’s Summer Stock, in which she managed to maintain her ingratiating, vaudeville-trained disposition even while her personal life was falling apart. Only a few years after Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando had mainstreamed the Method, Garland (who studied under Stella Adler) matches them with a twitchy hysteria, and we get to enjoy the spectacle of a classic Hollywood icon puncturing her old-school star power with a more relevant tempestuousness.
This newfound intensity gets its most prolonged expression in the “Lose That Long Face” sequence that comes in the film’s final hour. Sick with worry now that Norman has been admitted to a sanitarium, Vicki performs a cheerful routine that has her flanked by an ensemble of tap dancers and donning a ridiculous getup of straw hat and fake freckles. Consummate professional that she is, she obeys the song’s directive, turning her frown upside down for the cameras. Later, in her dressing room, she disintegrates into a tear-soaked breakdown in front of the kindly studio head, asking what it is that makes Norman want to destroy himself—a question we’re well aware is being leveled by Garland at herself.
The split-second of truth, though, occurs just before that, right after the director yells “Cut!” and we watch Vicki’s smiling face crumple from exhaustion. The filmmaker, in his detached authorial power, has captured what he needs, while the performer is left with all that emotional excess roiling inside her. It’s a brief but grotesque moment, one that evokes the end of “The Man That Got Away” in its obsessive chronicling of the singer’s transformations in and out of performance, and its cold observation of everyone else’s indifference toward the toll it must be taking on her. Finally, both of these scenes ask us to share in the stillness that envelops Garland as she exits the world of the song and stumbles back into reality. Both also yield so much ground to their star that they force us to reassess the belief that authorship should belong to he who sees rather than she who is being seen. In these silences, A Star Is Born honors the chameleonic dexterity and creative agency of the performer, whose constant self-making may exist within another’s vision but is never any less her own.