Blu-ray Review: A Star Is Born

Judy Garland's star had been so famously in decline by the 1950s that her return to the screen in 1954's A Star is Born, at the tender age of 32, was immediately considered one of the most triumphant comebacks of all time. Years spent hobbled by health issues, nerves, self-doubt, and the drug dependencies that would later lead to her untimely death at the age of 47 had turned the former child actor and Wizard of Oz star into a living example of celebrity gone wrong -- but in George Cukor's masterful film musical, Garland became a star reborn.

This week, Warner Home Video gives Garland's triumphant rebirth yet another resurrection in the form of a stunningly gorgeous high-def transfer to Blu-ray that improves further on Ronald Haver's grand 1983 restoration. At its full 176-minute runtime (including the two additional musical numbers and deleted scenes Haver re-inserted, sometimes using production stills where original film negatives had been destroyed), this is the closest modern audiences can come to watching the film as Cukor intended, and in the most vivid presentation possible.

Cukor's masterpiece, a remake of the 1937 Janet Gaynor-Fredric March drama of the same name, earned six Academy Award nominations (including one for front-runner Garland, whose loss to Grace Kelly was one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history). The film featured Garland as Esther Blodgett, a self-professed "girl singer with a band" who meets aging movie star Norman Maine (an achingly good James Mason) when she saves him from drunkenly embarrassing himself at a public benefit concert. He's grateful, she's smitten, and their fateful meeting is commemorated on the wall backstage where he joins their initials together in a lipstick heart.

After hearing Esther sing the quietly powerful number "The Man That Got Away" with her band in the back of a bar closed down for the night, Norman is captivated -- more by her talent and star potential than, perhaps, by her natural beauty. As Norman helps embolden the young singer to reach beyond her humble aspirations and expand her dreams of stardom, the two fall in love and marry. Thanks to Norman's mentorship, Esther blossoms into a star of the studio system nearly overnight, a matinee idol and musical star known by her new, more marquee-ready name: Vicki Lester.

But the more Esther Blodgett becomes superstar Vicki Lester, the faster Norman Maine succumbs to frustrations over his own dying career. By the time Norman hits rock bottom -- a drunken has-been whom no studio will hire -- his star has fallen as surely as Esther's has risen. His last gift to Esther brings A Star is Born to its tragic conclusion, but it also gives Judy Garland her strongest moment when she takes to the stage, heartbroken but alive, to utter five of the most deceptively pedestrian-sounding but meaningful words ever spoken on film: "I am Mrs. Norman Maine."

Garland's adoring fans may love her plucky Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz the best, or count her films Meet Me in St. Louis and Easter Parade among their favorite film musicals of all time. But A Star Is Born remains the defining, quintessential Judy Garland picture above all others -- as much for her powerhouse central performance and the film's sly tragic-satirical take on Hollywood as for the way in which it serves as an autobiographical account of the troubles Garland herself suffered from the pressures of international stardom throughout her entire life.

Like Esther Blodgett, Garland entered the studio system as a contract player, just a cog in the great machine of manufactured hits and even more carefully constructed stars. Garland's birth name, Frances Gumm, had that terribly homegrown ring that studio heads must have found dreadful back in the day; so, too, was she prodded at, recolored, and made-over in an attempt to transform her natural looks in the tradition of the more glamorous actresses of the day.

Garland had also rocketed to stardom in almost as short a time as Esther/Vicki, first as a child star paired nine times with Mickey Rooney, and then, at the age of 16, as the breakout star of The Wizard of Oz. That hit sent Garland on a moviemaking streak throughout the 1940s, but the pace and pressure also led to substance abuse, a string of nervous breakdowns and suicide attempts, and a reputation for missing rehearsals and getting fired from jobs that eventually led MGM to end her contract in 1950 -- just a week after her 28th birthday. Garland, in effect, had lived as both Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine by the time she mounted her comeback in 1954's A Star is Born.

(It must also be noted that A Star is Born benefited from adept supporting turns by Tommy Noonan as Danny, Esther's longtime band mate and friend, Charles Bickford as Oliver Niles, the sympathetic studio head, and Jack Carson as Matt Libby, a pragmatic studio publicist. Mason, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Norman Maine, displays heart-breaking torment as the proud, self-destructive actor who gives his life to preserve the thing he loves most.)

Warner's stellar new Blu-ray transfer brings this masterfully-told film musical to vivid life, even if it is the same cut that's already been released in standard definition. Meticulously transferred anew from the original film negatives at 8K resolution, this version offers incredible picture detail, even if some of the faded negatives were too damaged for full repair. Occasional background flickering does occur, showing the film's age, but multilayer color correcting treatment more than makes up for it. Colors pop with incredible vibrancy, highlighting Cukor's use of pinks and reds. The overall effect leaves Judy Garland herself as luminous as ever, as if she were singing and suffering in front of your very eyes.

For a definitive Blu-ray release of such a significant film classic, the special features are fascinating, if a bit sparse. Encased in a hardcover booklet with pages of stills and essays on the film's production, restoration, and star is an additional DVD featuring a handful of extras, including five alternate scenes/outtakes and a promotional behind-the-scenes short featuring studio head Jack Warner made to drum up ticket-buying buzz.

More intriguing is a vintage black-and-white segment taped at the film's red carpet premiere that shows which A-listers of the day popped up to give Garland their best wishes (and to show up for a quick photo op or two). Watching this particular scene as an entertainment journalist in 2010 is a funny thing; not too much has changed in the world of celebrity and publicity in six decades, especially when it comes to star-watching on the red carpet. Old Hollywood enthusiasts will delight in seeing the likes of Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Tony Curtis, Doris Day, Dean Martin, Hedda Hopper, and Liberace swing by for small talk ("It's a wonderful film!") before sweeping into the grand premiere decked out in tuxedos and evening gowns.

Another feature is more fascinating specifically for Garland fans. Entitled simply "The Man That Got Away - Deleted Scenes," this extra collects and juxtaposes a number of the 27 different full-length, one-take versions of the number that Cukor shot in various costumes, sets, and lighting tests. Part of the way into production, the studio demanded Cukor scrap what had been filmed and shoot in Cinemascope, and some of these "The Man That Got Away" scenes show that alteration. Would the number -- my favorite of the entire film -- have worked as well if Esther and her band were in a brighter, more artificial-looking club? Or if she were wearing a bright pink shirt instead? Or a brown dress? Probably not, but you can see for yourself here. Even more interesting, a few of these deleted takes juxtapose multiple takes on the screen at once, demonstrating the subtle differences in intensity and feeling that Garland poured into her performance for each of the 27 takes.

This Blu-ray release of A Star is Born is highly recommended on the strength of its new high-def transfer alone. But what makes it truly essential for fans of film musicals, of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and most of all, of Garland herself, is that there's so much of her in this film alone. Garland's past and her tragic future intertwined in this epic, yet tremendously personal, Hollywood fable about the tragic price of fame -- something Garland herself knew about all too well.

A Star is Born is available On Demand in HD as well as on Traditional Blu-ray Format.