The Aisle Steat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


A Star is Born

One of the premiere home video events of 2010 has to be the release of 1954's A Star is Born. The film is available for the first time ever on Blu-Ray starting June 22. It is also available on DVD, On Demand, and for download via online digital distributors like Amazon Video on Demand. This is one of the classic movies I'd never seen but wanted to. The Blu-Ray provided an occasion to finally catch up with it. I tend to hold off on classics until I can see them in as pristine a condition as possible. A Star is Born is not only presented in its original CinemaScope widescreen aspect ratio, but it has also been fully restored by Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging. It's quite possible that the movie has never looked so stunning. All the bonus goodies and the collectable packaging sweeten the deal even further.

The plot is one of the most effective in the history of cinema. James Mason plays Norman Maine, once a major movie star, now an alcoholic working his way down the career ladder. He meets an aspiring young singer named Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland), and is so convinced she's got what it takes that he finagles a studio contract for her. Esther is renamed Vicky Lester by studio heads, who feel this is a more appealing moniker. Vicky is an undeniable talent, and her career ascends rapidly, while Norman's proceeds to go downhill. Their eventual marriage is also tested by his drinking and his under-the-surface resentment of her fame.

A Star is Born marked a comeback for Judy Garland, who had suffered years of personal trauma by the time it was made. She's in top form, beautifully belting out the film's signature numbers. Her performance as Esther/Vicky is also brilliant. Garland really nailed the nervous energy of a newcomer as well as the seasoned confidence of a star. While it's technically her show, James Mason deserves just as much credit. He plays the boozing Norman without ever falling into cliche. Although he often behaves like a jerk, we empathize with Norman's insecurity when he realizes that he's not the biggest name in the room anymore. The two actors are superb together, creating a dynamic that is never less than gripping to watch.

Director George Cukor, I can see, was ahead of his time. His portrayal of behind-the-scenes Hollywood business is not sugarcoated. Whether the characters are at a big movie premiere, attending the Academy Awards, or on the set of a blockbuster, Cukor's visual style makes us feel like we're a fly on the wall, finding out about the political maneuvering that is an indisputable part of the movie biz. Directors like Robert Altman (in The Player) went on to strip the business of its veneer, but Cukor did it with particular skill. This is part of what makes A Star is Born is a great movie about the messed-up nature of fame.

Not long after opening in 1954, the studio decided to chop 28 minutes from Cukor's 182-minute cut. The director felt his vision had been compromised. The Blu-Ray release of A Star is Born attempts to reconstruct Cukor's version. Film historian Ronald Haver located the entire audio track for the film, then used still photographs on top of it where no footage could be found. Mostly, what was lost is a lengthy section of the story in which, after promising Esther a hand, Norman is dragged off to a location shoot; upon realizing that he's left his prodigy in the lurch, he finds his way back and makes good on the promise.

Haver was able to restore all but six minutes. The restored footage gives us a better idea of what the director had in mind. Personally, I think three hours is just a tad long for the film, but then again, this was designed to be a lengthy "roadshow picture," complete with intermission. (Seems so foreign in today's multiplex society, doesn't it?) That aside, A Star is Born totally lives up to its reputation. The performances are great, and the story is the sort that completely sucks you in. The restoration is gorgeous, with crisp colors and clear sound. All in all, a great way to see a classic.

( 1/2 out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

As fantastic as the main feature is, the bonus materials are just as much of a selling point. This is a two-disc set, with the movie on the first disc and the goodies on the second. It all comes in an accompanying book, with 40 pages of photography, press materials, and essays related to A Star is Born. Without a doubt, it's one of the most impressive looking packages I've come across.

There is about four hours of bonus material here, including alternate takes of many sequences, including the famous "The Man Who Got Away" number and Norman's dramatic exit from the film. You'll also find deleted scenes, excerpts from Judy Garland's audio recording sessions, and trailers for all three versions of A Star is Born (1937, 1954, 1976). There's even "A Report from Jack Warner" in which the legendary studio chief introduces clips from his then-upcoming release. All this vintage material is really interesting to watch, especially if you're into Hollywood history.

I want to focus, in particular, on a couple of bonus features that particularly struck me. For the movie's premiere - which was the biggest of its kind at that point - Warner Bros. hired some camera crews to shoot CinemaScope footage of the event. This breathtaking footage really conveys the thrill and excitement of an old-time Hollywood premiere. It made me want to hop into a time machine and go there.

In a similar vain is a half hour TV broadcast from the red carpet on the night of the premiere. This bonus is absolutely priceless. Luminaries like Lucille Ball, Tony Curtis, Danny Thomas, Dean Martin, Liberace, and others stop before the cameras on their way into the theater, each of them offering a few hasty words about their excitement. It's fun to see these legendary stars in their prime. At the same time, it's funny to see a forerunner to the kind of red carpet coverage that is now commonplace on the E! network and other channels. Today's celebs are media savvy in a way the older ones didn't need to be. Most of them appear slightly uncertain of what to say, as the host fumbles for things to ask them about. Enjoyed on either level (or both), it's enormously entertaining to see so much screen royalty. I was riveted.

A Star is Born is a wonderful movie, in a set packed with top quality extras. All told, you get seven hours of enjoyment from watching the two discs. It's well worth adding to your Blu-Ray collection.

A Star is Born - Own it on DVD/Blu-Ray June 22

Download it in HD from Amazon Video on Demand

A Star is Born is unrated but generally acceptable for all audiences. The running time is 2 hours and 57 minutes.