She was hundreds of years old, the oldest star ever, if you count emotional years, the toll they take, dramas galore for a dozen lifetimes. She was ‘She,’ who had stepped into the Flame once too often. – Kenneth Anger on Judy Garland, Hollywood Babylon (1975)
TINY JUDY GARLAND (she stood four feet eleven inches) was a performer of colossal talent, though her gifts were frequently overshadowed by just as enormous tendencies toward self-sabotage. Pills, illnesses (real and psychosomatic), chronic lateness to or absences on the set, suicide attempts: All contribute to the legend of “She,” still remembered, forty-two years after her death at age forty-seven from an overdose of Seconal, as the greatest casualty of Hollywood, of nonstop performing that began when she was just two and a half years old.
Viewing any Garland movie, thirty-one of which (nearly her entire filmography) will screen at the Walter Reade Theater, is undoubtedly affected by knowledge of her offscreen tribulations. And no Garland vehicle invites a biographical reading more than George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954), which boasts one of Garland’s most titanic performances.
A CinemaScope musical about Hollywood dreams and nightmares (and an adaptation of William Wellman’s 1937 movie of the same name), A Star Is Born was Garland’s comeback role after MGM, her employer since 1935, suspended her contract in 1950, a result of her inability to complete several films. (In between her MGM dismissal and work on A Star Is Born, Garland performed in an acclaimed vaudeville-style show at the Palace Theatre on Broadway; she would return to the venue several more times during her life, and daughter Liza Minnelli would mount a comeback of sorts there in 2008.) Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a singing and dancing hopeful promoted by the constantly pickled Norman Maine (James Mason), an A-list actor whom she saves from public embarrassment at a benefit concert at the Shrine Auditorium. They fall in love and marry, though their bonds are strained more than once as her career ascends and his flames out.
Esther, renamed Vicki Lester when she becomes a contract player—just as Frances Gumm would later be rechristened Judy Garland—represents an idealized version of the actress who plays her: always on time to the set, devoid of neuroses and self-destructive urges, steadfast in her care of an unwell spouse. In Norman, we’re painfully reminded of Garland’s own ignominious episodes, particularly when his studio drops him after twenty years of service, and during a stint in a sanatorium to dry out. (Following a nervous collapse during the filming of 1948’s The Pirate, Garland would convalesce in a private institution, one of her many hospitalizations.)
“What is it that makes him want to destroy himself?” Esther sobs to kindly, paternal studio head Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford), losing hope that Norman will ever get better. Garland fans, then and now, have wondered the same; her mistreatment and exploitation by MGM, especially during her adolescence, may provide one explanation. But to dwell too long on the etiology of the actress’s personal misery and dysfunction—though Garland’s torments certainly inform the vulnerability so often associated with her persona—risks not fully appreciating the staggering power of her genius in A Star Is Born (and at least a half dozen other titles). “There are certain pleasures you get—little jabs of pleasure,” Norman tells Esther, describing his experience watching her sing “The Man That Got Away” at an empty after-hours club. Those jabs become tremors as we watch Garland, now as flawless headliner Vicki Lester, exult during the ecstatic musical number “Lose That Long Face.”
A Star Is Born screens July 31, August 5, and August 9 at the Walter Reade Theater in New York as part of the series “Judy Garland: All Singin’, All Dancin’, All Judy,” running July 26–August 9. A complementary program, “Judy Garland: The Television Years,” plays at the Paley Center for Media in New York July 20–August 18.