Jill of sittin’ on a backyard fence sponsored a contest where the winner would win the new Judy Garland biography, Judy: A Legendary Film Career by John Fricke. As a life-long Judy fan, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to submit my two cents on my favorite Judy Garland performance. Here is five cents worth of my two cents…
I LOVE JUDY!
That was, very nearly, my entire entry on this topic. I have been a Judy Garland fan my entire life. Picking one “best performance” is a near impossibility or, at the very least, disturbing. Who the hell wants to choose just one? But, I did. I chose one. And after much debate and cajoling (with myself), I am convinced there is only one choice. But let me mention why it was difficult to decide – at first.
Judy Garland, you see, was an outstanding actress. I don’t think many would label her so, but she was. And never was her acting more profound, more truthful, than when she interpreted a song. I can pick and choose from hundreds of examples, but I’ll mention just two: “Friendly Star,” sung by a woman searching for her one true love after realizing she is in love with her sister’s fiancé, in the 1954 film, Summer Stock. It is as sincere, as heartfelt a plea as you’ll ever hear. When she tells her little sister to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” in Meet Me in St. Louis, we miss the love and happiness she has not yet lost.
Song after song, movie after movie, year after year in her amazing career – there is an endless array of genius performances, each – regardless of the film – more affecting than the last. Everyone can recognize the extraordinary gift of her voice, which came from heaven knows where. But the voice was only part of it. It was her interpretation of the songs that make them pockets of brilliance. But pockets in films they mostly were. That is, until 1954 and her tour de force performance in A Star Is Born. I made a true effort to not be cliché. To choose something out of left field and not the performance that earned her a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. But, I failed. Miserably.
This 1954 version of A Star is Born hasn’t a new story. It hasn’t any surprises. Except that the uber-talented Judy Garland outdoes herself. How can that even be possible? The difference here, from the many examples that flew through my head all week, is that this one is not made of occasional moments of brilliance accompanied by music, as is the case for so many of her other films. This one is 161 minutes (premiere version) of Judy Garland at the top of her game. And to this point, it was a hell of a game! This is not a Judy Garland picture. This one is a Judy Garland experience!
Judy plays Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, the star who is birthed, with raw sincerity. The familiar Garland innocence and pain are palpable. She simply is this woman in the circumstances depicted in the film. The longing, the love, the desperation, are all real. Then, she steps it up a notch for the songs. I’ll describe only one, perhaps the most famous, “The Man that Got Away.” The scene takes place in a small nightclub, after hours. Present are Esther, the boys in the band, and THE VOICE. This simple scene, or not so much because it packs quite an emotional punch, was shot in one take. She starts to hum with the music and then simply sings, joining the horns as if she too picked up her instrument to swell when called for. Except, there is nothing simple in the song or the songstress. Suddenly she hits a note, her arm flies up, she tussles her hair in that familiar/signature way, rushes toward the camera at another instance, when she talks directly to the man – the one that got away. Framed by the band, each word is impeccable, each gesture truthful to match. “Ever since the world began, there is nothing sadder than, a one-man woman, looking for the man that got away…the man that got away.” What a fool!
That scene is early in the film. We are not watching a star in the film. She is not yet Vicki Lester. What we are watching is a legend. And the film’s just getting started, folks. The true drama has not yet begun.
As the film progresses, simple, innocent Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester and the greatest star. She becomes much more sophisticated but never quite the sophisticate, thanks to the drunk, but earnest, Norman Maine. With Vicki we take quite a journey in this film – a journey of emotions. From innocence to guilt. From hope to joy to sadness and shame – and on to pure, unadorned heartbreak. Part of the lyrics of one of my favorite songs in the film, “Born in a Trunk,” go like this…”But it’s all in the game and the way you play it, and you’ve got to play the game, you know.” Well, Ms. Garland knows this game and she wins in every single scene.
It’s simple. Judy Garland is not good in this film. She is outstanding and she is unforgettable. She didn’t deserve the Best Actress Nomination. Or not just. She deserved to take that baby home! The statue, I mean. This is, arguably, the best entertainer of the 20th Century in the film role of her life. Has there ever been a role more fitted to an actress? Or an actress better fitted to a role? I think not (no, not even the wonderful Vivien Leigh and her unforgettable Scarlett). And I rest my case. A Star is Born doesn’t feature Judy Garland’s best performance pitted against other Judy Garland performances in film. It features one of the best, most complete performances by an actress pitted against all others in cinema.
I’ve said enough.
Oh, except…in my next life I want to be born in a trunk at the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho!
WORTHY OF NOTE: This entry is all about Judy. But I’d be remiss not to mention that the entire film is wonderful, as are its players. Just a few worthy of note are James Mason as Norman Maine, the music and lyrics (mostly penned by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin) and director, George Cukor. A memorable film on all counts!