A review requested by Mark Falconer, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

My sense is that the 1954 version of A Star Is Born is thought of first and above all, and maybe to the exclusion of all else, as a Judy Garland vehicle. That's fair, because Garland's work as upcoming movie superstar Vicki Lester nΓ©e Esther Blodgett is one of the greatest offerings of 1950s American cinema, and should be right in the middle of the conversation about the best performances given in any era by any onscreen performer. It's also not fair at all, because it implies that A Star Is Born really wouldn't matter as much without Garland, and that's completely untrue. This is, in fact, a sublime movie in just about all the ways movies can be sublime - hell, Garland isn't the only world-class movie star giving a career-best performance here, and I think if James Mason had literally any other scene partner, it would be a lot likelier that he would have been given more credit through the years for what he's up to. As an exemplar of the Hollywood factory doing all the things it was best capable of doing, as it existed in the transitional decade of the 1950s, this might be second only to Singin' in the Rain in its wall-to-wall perfection.

The film is a remake of an already-terrific film: the 1937 A Star Is Born, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, is one of the finest melodramas of its day, on top of being one of the loveliest Technicolor films made prior to 1938. So it's no little thing that the '54 Star (written by Moss Hart) improves upon its model in almost every way: the sophistication of its writing, the metanarrative complexity of its backstage Hollywood drama, the grandeur of its spectacle (though the '54 film doesn't have quite as solid a handle on the technical challenges of CinemaScope as the '37 film did with Technicolor; there's a tendency towards slightly distorted, flattened images throughout). It's the last great film in the career of director George Cukor, who'd worked with the material once before - he directed 1932's excellent What Price Hollywood?, of which the 1937 Star is a sand-off-the-serial-numbers copy - and tended to be at his best in making urbane character comedies, but he nevertheless triumphed with the extravagant scale (the movie runs to nearly three hours in its most fully-restored extant version), lavish production numbers, and roiling emotions required by this domestic epic, not to mention his invisible skill in prying one of the all-time great works of screen acting out of a uniquely unpredictable leading lady (and here, at least, the film was right in Cukor's wheelhouse: he was one of the best directors of women in classic Hollywood). It is a film that flies by, using its running time to build up one of the most effective studies of romantic codependency in American cinema, and to create one of the most insightful self-examinations of the American movie industry, and to carry the audience along one of the thorniest emotional journeys of any 1950s tearjerker. It's exquisite - the whole thing is just damned exquisite.

It's barbarically simple, from a far enough remove: Norman Maine (Mason) is one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and he's also crippled by alcoholism. One night at a premiere, he almost makes a fool of himself by jumping into a pre-film musical act, but is rescued by the singer, Esther. He takes her out to thank her, and later has a chance to hear her sing with her her band in a closed nightclub. Realising that she's got more talent than she'll ever know what to do with, he encourages the shy, unconfident Esther to make a push to get a contract at his studio, and her career rises to the most extraordinary heights right at the same time that his starts to disintegrate into a boozy fog. Along the way, they marry, and at their worst, they still have a deep and powerful emotional commitment to each other. But the worst is very bad.

Not too much "there", given the expansive running time (What Price Hollywood? is less than half as long as the '54 Star Is Born), but in the hands of Cukor at company it expands to fill that space with beautiful scenes: beautiful because of how happy they make us feel, or how sad, or simply beautiful to look at. It's difficult to know where to start talking about a movie in which everything is so good, but let's offer Garland the privilege of place she has long enjoyed as the finest part of a very fine movie. It's a role that tests every single skill Garland ever displayed as a performer: her apologetic nervousness, her enormously appealing giggle, her ability to swiftly inhabit wounded melancholy with a speed that suggests it was always secretly hiding there (aided by how haunted and solemn her rest face was), her gift for frustrated reaction shots timed perfectly for comedy or pathos, and, of course, her one-of-a-kind stage presence and ability to belt out a song from all the down in the pit of her belly.

Any incarnation of A Star Is Born hinges its entire soul on the moment that Norman first sees Esther perform (change the names as needed to accommodate the utterly foul 1976 edition with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), and gambles its entire first half on the actor playing Esther being able to simultaneously present a character who is enormously, unquestionably gifted, but sufficiently insular and self-doubting that she needs to have someone intercede with the world on her behalf. Garland ticks all of those boxes as easily as breathing, while also showing that Esther's talent is sufficiently undisciplined to justify keeping Norman around as a mentor. I could with very little effort launch into a series of small moments in her performance that are just perfect and take up more than the rest of the review, but I'll try to limit myself. Take her scene after she leaves the stage where she's just improvised new steps to save Norman's reputation: as soon as we hear her talking, we can immediately clock the nervous patter of someone who only now realises what the hell they just finished doing, the "tell me I didn't fuck up and I'll keep talking till you do" wiry energy of someone who lives in a constant state of neurosis.

Skip ahead! Upon learning that the studio has changed her name to "Vicki Lester" without even bothering to inform her, Esther rolls through the process of convincing herself that this is okay despite how obviously it upsets her. Simply by repeating the words "Vicki Lester" three times, in three different registers (disgust, resignation, chipper determination), while slowly unwinding her tense-up shoulders and spine, Garland walks us through the entire process of preparing oneself to be a cog in the soul-destroying Hollywood machine, and deciding it's probably worth it.

Skip ahead again! Faced with eating a giant sandwich prepared by her down-on-his-luck husband, Garland laughs abruptly and surprisingly, overwhelmed by the domestic contentedness of the moment.

Skip ahead a final time! In the midst of giving what sounds like a heartfelt but boilerplate Oscar acceptance speech, Vicki freezes solid when an extravagantly drunk Norman crashes the stage. It's Mason's scene, and Garland puts in no effort to take it from him (not that Cukor's framing would permit her to do so), but look at her in the background! That's not just standing still, letting the other guy have his lines; that's not even standing still, exuding mortification and embarrassment on his behalf and hers. Look again! that is rigid, planted-to-the-floor terror you see in the way Garland holds her arms and drains her eyes of anything but intense staring. That is the feeling of ice cold fear down in your bowels, working its way up to your gag reflex, when you know that something horrible has passed the point of no return and has to run its course, ideally without killing anybody.

That's all before we even nod in the direction of her singing, which is legendary and deserves to be. Her first number, trying out a new song with her band (the film has no book numbers, which makes it even clearer that these are showcases for Garland), is one of the most beloved musical moments in all of cinema, with Garland pouring her soul and Esther's into "The Man that Got Away", as the camera steadily tracks back from her, until she strikes a final tableaux using her body to channel the energies flowing through her the way a Pentecostal minister begins speaking in tongues. I've talked about it before, but there's no exhausting how utterly marvelous this scene is, how immediately it proves to us Esther's talents. It's all a bit of Hollywood bunk - that performance, after just glancing at the song? I do rather doubt it - but it's a reminder of how much we need bunk, how much we need to believe in the steel will and buttery soul of the more-than-human movie stars up on the screen, an illusion that A Star Is Born critiques and analyses through its depiction of how studios constructed star biographies, its presentation of Norman's inability to cope with being in the movies except by poisoning himself and his relationships - but also an illusion A Star Is Born heartily encourages, by presenting Garland, one of the most abused movie stars the studio system ever devoured and shat out, as an indestructible, godlike force of nature.

With Esther/Vicki's talents as the driving engine for the whole movie, A Star Is Born does trade pretty heavily on Garland's star power, but it's never just red meat for the fans. The single most obvious "Look at Judy!" gesture in the film is the "Born in a Trunk" number that takes us to the intermission (not directed by Cukor, incidentally; he'd already left for his next project before all of the musical numbers were complete); it's something like 20 minutes long, and it makes no more sense in the narrative of the film than the "Broadway Melody" ballet in Singin' in the Rain. For that matter, it doesn't even appear that it makes much sense in the content of the Vicki Lester scene for which it was ostensibly filmed. But see what I said above in re: Hollywood bunk. Sometimes you just need a great show done up by a great trouper, and "Born in a Trunk", a long tribute to the indefatigable souls of the American theater, is 100% that. Even this isn't just a Garland showcase, though: she's making very clear decisions about how she'd play the numbers, how Esther would play the numbers, and even how Esther would have her own character play the numbers. And proceeds to sock us in the face with nonstop singing, some very fine dancing, a couple of extraordinary minimalist sets - the elevator full of male mannequins in suits and a red-white-black emptiness around them is an uncommonly striking image - and give us a real great time at the movies, whether we're watching A Star Is Born or we're inside of it, watching the film inside the film.

But anyway, like I said, it's not all Garland. Hell, the main character arc isn't even really Esther's: it's Norman coming to grips with the fact that he has made horrible choices, nobody is to blame for his sorry lot but himself, and he's in the process of destroying his beloved wife - the only thing in his life that turned out as well as he hoped it would - along with him. And so he must decide what to do about that. Mason is terrific in the role, playing a particularly scary kind of drunkenness, all the more so since he's so giddy with delight as he makes an ass of himself and terrifies those around him. He's even better when Norman is sober, delighting in the splendid actor and singer Esther is becoming - watching him watching Garland belting her brains out is entirely captivating in its own odd way, and letting a sense of guilt and self-hate crawl up his face like a storm rolling in. When he tries to turn Esther away, citing his fear of hurting her, it's not just posturing - he knows that this will not end well, and he can't help himself. And for her part, Garland makes it clear that Esther knows that Norman is a drunk and it will take more than the proverbial love of good woman to save him, if indeed anything in this world can.

The filmmaking generally isn't show, outside of the numbers, but Cukor and his crew do exactly the right amount of work to frame the character drama for greatest effect: weirdly, given how prosaic most of the settings are, this is one of the earliest films to use the disorientingly wide CinemaScope frame to good effect. Sometimes its putting it to its proper use, filming busy crowd scenes and the enormous beehive of activity that is a movie set. Sometimes the film uses negative space to great effect, like when it pairs the two lovers in the center of a bleak, empty, white stage during Norman's breakdown at the Oscars; or when Esther looks trapped and isolated in the alien world of film soundstages.

Everything about the film is simply, elegantly achieved: Cukor was a great film director and never one to be particular fussed with anything more than serving the story and actors as best he could. Other than Garland's own force of personality, nothing is actively showy in A Star Is Born, with even its biggest production numbers treated in a sensible, no-nonsense way - nothing like if the film had been made at MGM, but then MGM's musicals were not, generally speaking, also severe character dramas. This is, in all its relatively stripped-down, direct way, the best version of the material it could be, leaving it a wholly absorbing, bombastically entertaining, and deeply heartbreaking tribute to the men and women and industry whose job is telling lies for our entertainment, as well as the hard, cold truth that those lies exist to overcome.