This fall, I have been teaching a course entitled Theological Crises and the Development of American Cinema. It’s a glorified film history course in which we look at the theological implications of cinematic representations of sex, violence, gender, race/ethnicity, and religion. A couple of weeks ago, I lectured on the Hollywood studio system that thrived through the late 20s and into the 50s. One key component of this system was what film historian Jeanine Bassinger calls the “star machine.” Hollywood manufactured, literally, movie stars out of the raw material, actors, available to them. Their constructions of beauty, femininity, and masculinity have shaped our pop-culture, collective aesthetic to this day. Along the way, riches were made, entertainment provided, and lives destroyed. George Cukor‘s A Star is Born (1954) captures all this and more.
A Star is Born tells the story of Vicki Lester (nee Esther Blodgett) (Judy Garland), a young actress in Hollywood who rises to fame after a fading star, Norman Maine (nee Ernest Sidney Gubbins) (James Mason) gives her the break she needs. As her popularity soars, his shrinks due in large part to his drunkenness. At firs, however, he is a perfect fit for Esther/Vicki, encouraging and supporting her. The two even fall in love and get married. However, he soon resents her popularity and resumes his drinking. At their breaking point, Vicki decides to give up her career to care for her ailing husband. However, Norman has other plans when he, quite literally, catches wind of her decision. I’ll keep the ending a secret here for those who might want to watch.
And A Star is Born is most certainly worth the nearly 3-hour run time. Its look at Hollywood during its Golden Era is spot on, from endless rehearsals to the re-constructive cosmetic department to the lavish productions and the name changes. This really is a good seat-of-the-pants film history. The musical numbers are catchy but not nearly as complex as a Busby Berkeley routine or as graceful as a James Cagney or Fred Astaire performance. But Mason’s and Garland’s performances are the stuff of memory here…both received Oscar nominations for their performances. One scene in particular sums up Garland’s performance. She sings a song about losing a long face…turning a frown upside down…a very peppy, optimistic number. At the break she goes to her dressing room and pours out her heart about Norman to Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford), the studio head and a friend. She is immediately called back to the set and, wiping away tears, resumes the upbeat number for close-ups without asking for any recovery time.
An important narrative thread in A Star is Born is the toll that fame and stardom can take on an actor. It is part of the reason we discussed it in a course on theology and film. The sense of worth a person gains or loses in the machine certainly takes a spiritual toll that can ultimately be destructive. Another important thread in the story is the length that Norman is willing to go to to support Vicki/Esther, a length that ultimately offers up some redemption for his self- and relationship-destructive acts throughout the majority of the film.
A Star is Born rides on a wave of emotions, particularly those of Esther/Vicki, conveyed most powerfully by Garland. Its ending is especially haunting because we see that Esther Blodgett, on the rise to fame, has been effectively erased by the star machine and replaced by Vicki Lester. However, there is a further erasure of Esther’s identity when the film concludes with Vicki announcing to an adoring audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, I am Mrs. Norman Maine.” While this certainly has implications for discussions of feminism and gender representation, we must also be cognizant of the fact that Norman is one of the least developed characters in the film, who has also had his original identity erased by the system as well. We know little about him except through his interactions with Esther/Vicki and Hollywood in general, and while we know that his drunkenness is due to his loss in popularity, we do not know what makes him long for that fame…other than the nature of stardom itself.
On a lighter note, perhaps Kanye West took a cue from Norman in his recent VMA debacle. Watch the videos and see.