Thursday, June 10, 2010

Birthday Girls: Judy Garland

Judy Garland, A Star Is Born
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1954 Best Actress Oscar to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl)

Why I Waited: Some form of gay honor code, I suppose, though that could just as easily have been a reason to have screened this years ago. Some residual hope that the footage excised by studio birdbrains might one day be recovered, though it seems fairly clear this will never happen. A dream of being in the right place and time for an in-cinema projection, though none has ever come my way. But really, the real reason is that even by the time I had 100 performances left to screen, this was the one that attracted the most reverential praise from fans, and the most durable controversy about just how scandalous it was that Judy didn't win. Plus, she sings, she dances, she emotes, she acts with James Mason (always a plus), she keeps it going for several hours, and she revisits and expands upon the foundations laid by Janet Gaynor, who was the first Mrs. Norman Maine but also the first Best Actress. So doesn't this seem, at least in theory, like an ideal capper to my loving archaeology of this category?

The Performance: Vicki Lester (née Esther Blodgett), as exploded into life by Judy Garland (née Frances Gumm), turns out to be an even more fitting alpha and omega for this project than I had realized. Having seen the previous Star Is Born with Gaynor and Fredric March, I of course should have anticipated that the Academy Awards themselves would figure prominently in the plot of the 1954 version, offering a more than fortuitous leitmotif given the context in which I watched the movie. The scenes at the Oscar ceremony furnish a kind of full, blooming resolution to the central, crescendoing chord of my nutty enterprise, which has been building in slow steps for so many years. As many of you know, Vicki wins the Oscar in A Star Is Born and gives the beginning of a very touching speech before a sudden, scary, and very sad interruption. I would still find this episode heartbreaking, I'm sure, even if I weren't completely over-invested in precisely the sort of glorious moment Vicki is enjoying until, abruptly, she isn't. And of course it's no easier watching Vicki essentially get Kanye'd by her own husband if we're preoccupied, as I couldn't help being, with the knowledge that this is the closest Vicki/Judy is ever going to get to a competitive Oscar. By the end of 175 minutes, and frankly much earlier, a truth for the ages has emerged, and it runs thus: if you're going to charter a peer academy of filmmaking professionals in order to honor annual feats of excellence in popular cinema, and you're not going to bestow one of these laurels upon Judy Garland's exhilarating, athletic, funny, nuanced, and sublimely grief-stricken performance in A Star Is Born, then you can pour, blast, and gild as many of those statues as you want, but you may as well just smash them against a wall or hurl them down the stairs.

Garland is beyond being the best of her group, which is hardly a shabby one. She's one Blanche DuBois away from being the strongest nominee of her decade. (No, I'm not forgetting that miraculous 1950 constellation.) She achieves so exemplary a fulfillment of every formidable ambition ingrained within George Cukor's brilliant film—a supernova of electric pizazz, an acute melodrama that pulls no psychological punches, a fond time-capsule of multiple forms and techniques of entertainment, and a metafilm about the production, the aesthetics, and the semiotics of Hollywood studio movies—that she actually makes you see what's missing, by comparison, in comparable characterizations as stupendous as Barbra Streisand's Fanny Brice and Liza Minnelli's Sally Bowles and Francine Evans. Not that I spent a single one of those 175 minutes thinking about anyone or anything else besides Vicki, her husband Norman Maine (made indelible by an equally heart-stopping James Mason), the movie they're in, the movies they make, the people who employ and applaud and punish Vicki and Norman (three categories with multiple overlaps), the private relationship they continually fight to preserve, and the final, catastrophic implosion of at least one of them.

And yet, no Oscar: he's the real Man That Got Away. And while I'd rather sing Garland's praises than use them as a glittering cudgel by which to beat up on the champ in her race, the injustice of this result, even by AMPAS's dubious standards, is pretty overpowering. I know well the look in my partner's eyes that says, "So do you see, then, what a cruel and absurd competition this always turns out to be? Are we ready to move on now to something else?" Sometimes he makes it easier and just says it with his mouth. In the case of A Star Is Born, it isn't just the external voting outcome that engenders disillusion but a message within the story and the filmmaking, holding that the ways in which we revere our actors tend to have built-in expiration dates. And even when this isn't the case, our ardor can look an awful lot like merciless aggression.

As Nathaniel pointed out in the comments on yesterday's Country Girl post, one needn't work too hard to align that film with A Star Is Born in relation to a thematic dialectics of success and failure. In lots of ways, A Star Is Born could not be more literal in this respect, given its famous chiastic structure by which matinée idol Norman Maine (né Ernest Sidney Gubbins) sees the bottom drop out of his acting career just as his discovery and eventual wife Esther/Vicki gleams like an arcing comet in the Hollywood firmament. Compared, however, to The Country Girl and to Georgie's crabbed efforts to keep her husband's stage career afloat, A Star Is Born is even more skeptical that anyone's creativity can be nourished or abetted by anyone else. Norman gives Vicki her crucial breaks, yes, and as he singles her out for praise, reapplies her makeup, applauds her routines, and enjoys her success, Garland and Mason alike contribute some of the most sensitive, tender acting in the film. But for all that you can cunningly escort someone into a studio head's office, there is not a single scene in A Star Is Born that suggests that Norman is capable of making Esther/Vicki a greater talent than she is, or that her love can defibrillate his sagging artistic energies.

Still less can you reverse the equation and extend your own creative prowess as a permanent balm to someone else's breaking spirit. But you can sure as hell try, and Garland's Vicki gives this form of exuberant nursing the fullest, funniest, most fiery test-run that anyone ever has. She comes home to a depressed and under-stimulated husband and launches into an impromptu, improvisatory living-room version of the lavish production number she's apparently been practicing all day, as though her virtuosity can lift him up. Temporarily, it seems to work, and it certainly works on us. Norman is absolutely delighted by Vicki's ingenuity, counter to my fears that A Star Is Born would generically require him to sour on Vicki's singing, dancing, and acting abilities once her star began to shoot higher than his. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen an on-screen spouse of a hoofer and belter take such mood-lifting, joyous pleasure in his partner's talent, just as I'm not sure I've ever seen anyone conjure the feeling, range, and exactitude of a major production number with the kind of vividness Garland attains, nailing her steps and her notes but, more importantly, implying a luscious series of visual tableaus where only a living room exists. (Granted, it's quite a living room.) Still, her victory is pyrrhic and quick. His mirth evaporates. Her incandescence dims before our eyes, even as she sits there in a rosy flush.

So, she creates tremendous entertainment out of thin air, and then it disappears just as swiftly back from whence it came. It's not just that Garland stops wailing and twirling but that she has to project the strange aura of the superpowered medium who is suddenly, once again, a mortal. Her performance, like the film, thus circles back to some subtly handled questions. What is this strange thing, creative magic? Where does it come from? What can it accomplish? Where does it go as the creator himself or herself starts to dissipate, or when the creator is forced to draw on more practical, more domestic, more emergency energies on behalf of someone else? Even while the story of A Star Is Born preoccupies itself with the practical ups and downs of commodifying, sustaining, and regulating artistic labor, the filmmaking and the acting seem charged at all times with—forgive me—a metaphysical reckoning with the vivid, slashing, booming, scary fact of human expressivity. Norman sees it in Esther, immediately, just as quickly and certainly as she sees that it once persisted, even quite recently, in him. So Mason has got to seem credible as a storied actor in the twilight of an august career, even though his character never gets to do a bit of acting—and this Mason accomplishes, and much else, unimprovably, through manipulations of manner and voice. Garland, meanwhile, has got to seem possessed not just of talent but of phenomenal, turbo-powered self-transportations. If all you do is sing a song well in the company of your buddies, then you'll still seem like a foolish opportunist, and/or like a clichéd character from any number of Ruby Keeler movies, when you quit your band of friends on the eve of a big tour, in order to pursue the eager but soggy promises of a tottering lush with industry connections. But, if you power your way through "The Man That Got Away" the way Garland does here, swelling your voice to huge, muscular volume before your body even looks like it's woken up; and then you start arcing your back and extending your arm in ecstatic, passionate service of the song; and then you power down into a giddy but embarrassed satisfaction immediately after the final note, as though even you cannot believe you can be the conduit for such sonorous, extravagant forces; then the audience will believe that Esther has to take Norman's advice, that their story is about something so prodigious that nothing smaller than the elephantine Hollywood apparatus could ever properly feed it, or be fed on it.

For huge stretches of A Star Is Born, most famously the 20-minute portmanteau of nested numbers called "Born in a Trunk," narrative recedes entirely, and there are no book scenes. Consequently, Garland's notes, her rhythms, her dancing, and her gestures carry the whole burden of showing that Esther's abilities are further burgeoning before our eyes, even though we don't have a lot of preceding impressions to compare these to. These same exertions, though, must also prepare us to grasp the complex ambivalences that start clawing at Esther's life with Norman the moment she leaves the theater. And we have to believe Esther knows most of this, even while she's selling the hell out of her songs and dance routines.... even when the lyric through which Garland has to filter all of this is the astoundingly mundane refrain "Pocatello, Idaho." Try singing that with ecstatic and multi-layered feeling. A Star Is Born, then, and Garland's turn in particular, doubly obligate themselves to set new, enthralling standards in note-perfect, emotionally shaded musical performance while also portraying a woman who increasingly perceives that her mastery in these areas is failing to shield her husband from disaster, or herself from abject unhappiness, even though her talents are in no way causing the disaster or the unhappiness. Her virtuosity gratifies her husband, buoys him up, but it also ensconces her within a profession that is busy sloughing him off. And it puts her in touch with an almost uncanny, purgative, expressive power which is the same one he has lost—or is so widely perceived to have lost that it amounts to the same thing—so in some ways it widens the gulf between them, even though neither of them wants that to happen.

Garland's numbers and her deliveries of them are often required to dramatize this kind of crisis, most obviously on the occasions when Norman asks Esther to sing for him and she gently obliges while nonetheless looking scared to go all the way—an unexpected reluctance, maybe, from a woman who belted "The Man That Got Away" to kingdom come after no more than a glance at the sheet music, before an audience of zero. Garland's phrasings of the lyrics and her modulations of sound tell us all we need to know about when she's thinking of the number, or thinking of Norman, or thinking of herself, in more or less that order. Sometimes, she has to run through the same routine twice in this movie, giving her all in the way that is Vicki's job and Garland's job, but signaling different forms of effort or preoccupation each time. The exemplary case here, of course, is the "Lose That Long Face" number which Garland has to put over like gangbusters after arriving on the set looking glum and distracted. Then she has to duck out between camera setups so she can completely decompose herself in tears, panic, and choking helplessness on the semi-warm shoulder of studio-head Charles Bickford (and in very close to one long take, incidentally). Then, after drying her eyes and wiping her nose, she has to reprise the same number for an encore in close-up, cognizant that her audience knows what kind of effort it's requiring for Vicki to bear out the injunction of her own song, especially in the face of an even more intrusive camera. But Vicki has to do that, without seeming lost in her own despondent thoughts, because the whole point of A Star Is Born is that she's a trouper, in work as in love, before she is anything else.

What Garland ultimately presents is an astonishing synthesis of Gene Kelly's indefatigable physical energy and Bette Davis's dramatic intensity, including in moments where her acting stands wholly apart from musical performance. You have to have real mettle to survive the unexpectedly vicious tirade that a studio publicist unleashes on her when Vicki won't attend an Academy benefit in the final minutes of the film, for patently obvious reasons. Garland survives it, and then bellows back with her own redoubtable gust of jealous self-defense, even as the character's nerves are obviously, completely frayed. But not all of Garland's acting is scaled so high or so loud. She's much more simply compelling making an earnest plea to a disgusted judge, and showing up for her bewildering first few days of work at a movie studio. She exercises just the right amount of idolatry, attraction, lucidity, and bashfulness that we believe her love of Norman eclipses her gnawing concerns about his alcoholism and unreliability. It's obvious she's heading into this relationship with both eyes open—in some ways returning the favor of how he "saw something in me no one else ever did," and she refuses to act surprised or victimized when the going gets very, very tough, no matter how devastated she gets. More than once, Garland's odd penchant for reacting to ephemeral little stimuli that no one else even seems to register cuts the daringly high-pitched histrionics of A Star Is Born down to a smaller, more humorous, more offhandedly accessible size: i.e., the way she darts her eyes around now rooms when she enters them, often perplexed, or how she emits a girlish chuckle at the size of a very large sandwich that Norman hands to her.

Garland can uncork a ferocious vibrato, and often does, but she also has the tender comic timing to gently chuckle at her husband when he asks her to perform in private, as though she knows it's an odd way to express love, as well as a stirring one and, for her, an easy one. She can look very moved and serious and only a little rattled during a dingy jailhouse wedding, despite having been pushed to the extremes of despair (and, it must be said, of regrettable overacting) after a similar scene in Vincente Minnelli's The Clock in 1945. She can get laughs singing a jingle about peanuts, accompanying herself on maracas, even while she sings it better than anyone else could. A cartoon drunk saunters by asking incongruously for "My Melancholy Baby" instead, and as it turns out she can also put over "My Melancholy Baby" with creamy, lavender ease. She can react to a horrifying smack as though she knows it's not deliberate and must immediately be covered over, for the benefit of an entire room, and to keep her intimate life sustainable; she can react to someone else's opinion of her husband as though this is the horrifying smack, while nevertheless implying that she cannot in every sense discount what this person is saying. She can charm as much as Irene Dunne ever did by just rattling off a list of hamburger options on a menu. She can look emptied out inside by a splotchy, sluttish makeover she didn't want. She can give three versions of the same dance in a subtly altered costume, in a line of nearly interchangeable and identically dressed women, playing up the ridiculousness of the routine while handily implying just how much time is probably passing between repetitions, and how much she's giving her best while wishing she were somewhere else. Outside a sidewalk box office, she can make the almost silently mouthed words "Thank you" ring just as powerfully as almost anything else in a film brimming with violent colors, bustling Cinemascope frames, tapping shoes, waves of song, lens flares, crane shots, and starkly lit chiaroscuro farewells.

What else could anyone want, AMPAS voter or otherwise? When Garland comes out to offer her final, notorious line reading, it would be specious to give her sole credit for all of the ironies that reverberate from this one sentence. The set, the lighting, the sensitive camera movements, judiciously spaced-out edits, and sublime direction from master George Cukor have all put Garland in a place from which her Vicki Lester, her Esther Blodgett—in many ways, this is a dual performance rolled into one ceaselessly renegotiated package—can saunter out as both the triumphant survivor and the foreclosed bride of death. She says, "I'm Mrs. Norman Maine," and we receive it as both a final tribute to her most voluminous love, spoken by a woman taking her first solo steps toward her own glorious horizon, and as a possible signal that every spark of vitality Vicki/Esther has emitted for 175 minutes is destined to be muffled. What if, from this moment on, she constrains her whole life into an extravagantly humbled memory of his? Is this what she has in mind? You can't, as an actor, read the words "I'm Mrs. Norman Maine" and pour all of that into it without a vivid, ambitious, multifaceted film behind you, one that's ceaselessly doing all kinds of work beneath, around, and in sync with your own performance. But you can give the kind of performance that inspires and grounds such a line, and such a film. If this is the last time Vicki Lester introduces herself as Mrs. Norman Maine, Garland has shown us a Vicki whose fluorescence and resilience we can capably project for years into the future, even as A Star Is Born fades to a close. If, however, this marks the first day of thirty or forty consecutive years of wearing her widowhood like a self-effacing shroud, notwithstanding the jewels and the spotlights in which she currently stands, Garland has shown us just how much the world will lose by losing Vicki, while also forcing us to appreciate her own devotion, edging us closer to accepting her sacrifice of herself. Either way, working in beautiful tandem with her co-stars and her off-screen colleagues, she has completed a detailed characterization in the combined mediums of movement, sound, and dramatic impersonation, and she has carried musical drama to the cathartic, precarious, philosophically provocative plane of opera. If that's not deserving of an award called "Best Actress," I'll never know what is.

The Best Actress Project: Completed!

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Blogger James T said...

It's past 8 am in Greece, I've only slept 3 hours and I'm very drunk but I just couldn't not read that.

Congratulations on completing your ambitious project in such a brilliant way! I'm sure you were quite relieved to have loved the performance (and the film) and you should feel proud of yourself for making that decision years ago. I surely heard the bang :)

I haven't seen the film but I'm definetely going to.

You made me go to bed feeling happy after a hard day. Thank you.

12:21 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

This is like a zillion popping fireworks. What a way to finish! Such an exhilarating love-letter to a great performance it's all I can manage not to bunk off for three hours right now and watch the movie again. You really can't say fairer than that.

2:20 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

This was astonishing. As was this whole crazy project. As are you. Congratulations on reaching the summit, and while I thought it sort of insane that you (of all people) waited over 30 years to meet this movie, how right you were -- imagine if you'd had to close out this chapter of your life with, say, Doris Day in Pillow Talk. It'd be enough to break any actressor's spirit.

I can't really comment on the film or performance now -- you've honestly said everything. (I only have one mundane concern: you make repeated reference to 175 minutes, but my DVD -- which claims to be comprehensive -- boasts only 169. What are these 6 minutes I've missed? I'm crushed.)

It's been a joy watching (or reading, rather) you see this whole thing through. Thank you.

3:30 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Julien said...

I guess this is the right time to tell you how captivating this whole project has been. I discovered you via Nathaniel's blog a few years ago, and it's a quite thrill to see you finally complete this crazy endeavor. To be absolutely honest, I don't think anyone has ever dug as deeply and as beautifully into the essence of acting as you have.

I live in France, land of the auteurs, where the director is almost always considered sole responsible for the success or failure of a film, and where discussing acting performances is considered trivial. Boy would I love these arrogant asses at Les Cahiers du Cinéma to read your write-ups. That should teach them one thing or two about their line of work.

I'd say you deserve a good rest, if I wasn't so anxious to read more of your unbelievably brilliant prose.

Thanks ever so much.
Cheers from Paris.

4:20 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

Congratulations from Germany on your wonderful project!

A wonderful and glorioius review on a performance that never really thrilled me very much but your words made we want to re-watch "A Star is Born" and maybe find what so many others have found already.

4:36 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger The Jaded Armchair Reviewer said...

Maestro, please, take your bow. You deserve it.

Congratulations Nick! :)

5:27 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

Congratulations on crossing the finish line!

I concur with Julien - you deserve a nice long break... but not too long!

Also like Julien, you've really opened up ways of thinking about performance for me. Your eye for both detail - for instance, Garland's reaction to the sandwich, which I vividly remembered as soon as you mentioned it - and for the larger sweep, the way a performance's arc supplements, disrupts or complicates the dramatic arc of the film, is really remarkable. I learnt more about how to think through performances from your take on Nancy Kelly in 'The Bad Seed' than I did from any other single source (I'm really not into so-bad-its-good, but the oddly rhythmic build and release of Kelly's hysteria has now made it into my personal pantheon. Kelly for the 56 Oscar!).

Your five-star reviews are always a particular pleasure - unlike a lot of writers, you seem to do your very best and most enjoyable work in talking about what you love, rather than the inverse - so what a great way to cap the last few weeks in particular. I hope, as you hinted a while back, this project does find itself between the covers of a book someday.

So, seriously - thank you.

5:57 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger David Giancarlo said...

I haven't really been a commenter to your site, but I have been referencing your best actress section since 2007, and I have to say, I have seen more of your personal winners than I have of Oscar's. What a thrilling conclusion to this endeavour!

*Cries for Darrieux, though. (Avoids this Sophie's Choice by using IMDb dates before 1990.)*

6:05 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...


6:56 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

Oh, and I think that supporters of Judy shouldn't put all the blame on the Academy since Grace Kelly also won the NBRA and the NYFC award that year (and the Globe but so did Judy).

Overall, Grace also had the advantage of having been in a movie the Academy clearly preferred (since it was nominated for all the important Oscars).

7:27 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

It has been a while since I saw this performance but I remember that Garland made me cry in a scene where she has a phone call in her dressing room?

Congratulations on completing this feat! It must be kind of devastating in a way, but there are always wonderful Actress performances to be found from the unlikeliest of places. I'm happy that your final nominee turned out to be so worthwhile. Thanks for all of the write-ups!

8:27 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Excellent, and I'm go glad you get to finish your work, if we can call it that.

It's so odd that you mention Francine, because I always think of Judy here and Liza there as parts of the same. Liza's never looked as much like her mother as she did then and Judy isn't as simultaneously
strong, expressive and still reticent as she is here. It's weird how they both do their best work (to me) playing such similar characters.

9:03 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@James: Glad you enjoyed this, even in a compromised condition! You should absolutely see the movie. Between this and The Emigrants, I'm so happy I scored two bonafide brilliant films in addition to two great performances in my final five.

@Tim: I had trouble watching the movie only once, and without the deadline imposed by the birthday, I probably would have done it before writing this up. Already excited for a second go-round.

@Guy: Lots of R1/NTSC DVDs have subtly longer run-times than R2/PAL ones, because the coding of the latter makes the movie run slightly faster. I bet you aren't missing anything. The idea of ending on Pillow Talk is too awful to think about, and I really have to thank Mike, who set a great example by saving Nashville and then Gone with the Wind for last in his march through the Best Picture nominees.

@Julien: Merci! That's a very, very moving compliment. Part of why I kept going with this is that I wasn't sure I had a lot of great ideas or role models for thinking about screen performance in a very specific way, which is a problem that academic film studies still confronts. This project has been a great boot-camp for thinking about ways around that blindspot. I really appreciate you writing in.

@Fritz: Part of my disappointment in this Star Is Born piece is that I'm not convinced I have said anything about Garland's performance that would open it up to someone who didn't already love it... so if it works for you, I'll be thrilled to know. I'd be curious to hear what you don't like about it, and should check your blog to see if you've written this one up.

9:52 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@JAR: It's really Judy who deserves the bow, but thanks - I'll take one, too!

@Laika: I'm so glad to hear that you find the positive reviews especially rewarding. In my job and on this site, I really do feel strongly that you can maintain high standards without being a cynic, or being impossible to please. And I wouldn't want to write about movies or performances if I weren't always hoping they'd be good. In some ways, sifting out what works and what doesn't in the half-and-half performances was the toughest task, but I'm so energized by the number of performers who so exceeded my expectations in this last push: Wood, Kerr, Hepburn, Signoret... They were really fun to watch and then to write about. (And that Bad Seed piece: I wrote it 12 years ago! I barely remember what I said, and the movie is well worth a revisit.)

@David: You are being very big about the Darrieux outcome! I didn't think she could be topped, honestly, and here's a dastardly admission: I never jerry-rig my own "picks" in any direction, but I'm always glad when I wind up off of Oscar's path a little, because I like shining a light on other work and feeling, too, that for all my inordinate focus on the AMPAS lists, my tastes haven't entirely been forged in their image. So, it was hard to let her go!

@Nathaniel: I'm so glad I loved your two favorites in these final ten so much, and frankly more than I even expected to. So nice to have more common causes with you!

@Fritz: That's true, and it's also key that Kelly was cited by the NBR and the NYFC for all three of her '54 perfs—meaning Rear Window and Dial M for Murder as well. I do wonder if she'd have won those prizes on the strength of any one performance.

@Cal: Well, there is the very devastating dressing-room scene between the two takes on "Lose That Long Face," and later there's a key and very tough phone-call scene that Garland also shares with the same actor, Charles Bickford, but in her house. I cried plenty at the end of this movie, so I can see it happening in plenty of junctures. There may well be a good cry in a dressing room, but I'm not remembering it.

@A:EE: Liza in New York, New York is, to me, one of those egregiously overlooked performances, as is the whole film, so my heart takes an especially big leap when I ever hear someone else coming out in favor. I agree that mother and daughter resemble each other uncannily in these two films, and the movies themselves actually have a lot of formal and structural symmetries that were a great surprise. It makes me think that, along with everything else Scorsese pulled off in NY,NY, he facilitated a deep, tough, but splashy valentine from daughter to mother, without making NY,NY or Liza seem subservient at all to the legacy of Judy or Star. Plaudits all around.

10:04 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

@AEE & NFP -- i'm so glad NY,NY has such devoted smart fans. I frankly couldn't believe how good Liza was in it when i finally saw it. I had assumed (quite wrongly) that for as much as I enjoyed her, she would never be able to even approach the vicinity of her Cabaret performance.

i wish NYNY were a little tighter (I think it would get more respect if it didn't seem so indulgent) but i do love it. and what production values.

10:29 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger par3182 said...


the only way this could have been more perfect was if you'd started the project with liza in cabaret

so....what's next?

10:31 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

No, I haven't written about Judy yet but 1954 is a year I would surely like to cover.

I am a little afraid that I might look like a fool when I review Judy because I have spent years now saying that I don't care about her performance but somehow I feel that I might actually end up loving her when I watch her again. It's probably been 5 years since I saw her and my love for Grace Kelly might have influence me too much but I think I have become more "objective" (if that's even possible when you review performances) now. I think my biggest problem is that I don't care much for "A Star is Born" itself (how I hated that endless musical sequence) and I also don't care much for Judy Garland - the singer...)does that make me a bad gay man? :-) )

10:35 AM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger joe burns said...

Great review! I really see what you mean when you described Vicki's relationship with Norman. This is one of the best performances ever and she should have won hands down. P.s I'm really sorry that I use think that you were a snob when I read your writing- I was being very judgmental. Again, I'm really sorry.

Fritz: Is 1954 possible for you? And it doesn't make you a bad gay man, lol! I'm gay as well and although I'm a huge fan of Judy, not every gay person is taken by her. But I hope you love her when you rewatch her in A Star Is Born!

1:33 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Laika said...

@Nick - Twelve years since you wrote the 'Bad Seed' piece? Good grief, that's a couple of years before I saw Joan Allen in 'Pleasantville' and realised what an individual performer could bring to a movie. It's older than my interest in actresses!

I read it a couple of years ago just after I first discovered your site (through the Film Experience). It's only a tiny piece of the review, but you captured Nancy Kelly's slightly amnesiac acting style so perfectly it made me laugh out loud, and afterwards I felt a little more confident in thinking about the specific bits of business and the whole arc of a performance in a dynamic relationship with each other - as well as how the actual technicalities of film-making play a huge part in how a performance is shaped (oddly, it had never really occurred to me that it wasn't at all the same as a stage performance, given as a whole thing). That's a lot of thought to provoke in just about three lines!

Also worth bearing in mind - as Joe Burns's comment above indicates - you might feel like you're just describing something obvious, but for some of us, you're illuminating some of the subtleties we've missed, or haven't quite registered...

2:12 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel: I wonder if I'd think now that New York, New York could be a little tighter, but I sort of like how "performance" takes on a kind of overwhelming life of its own in that film as in Star Is Born, and that they both kind of wind up being about how difficult it is to keep a lid on things.

@par3182: That would have been truly genius plotting. If only I'd been more forward-thinking when I was nine!

@Fritz: I don't think there's any foolishness in that at all. Remember that president we had over here who could never admit to a change of mind? I've been turned around more than once, even about things I had vehemently endorsed or dismissed -- for example, it wasn't until a month or so ago that I found out Elizabeth Taylor is pretty inspired in BUtterfield 8, and very close to exactly what the movie needs. One day, I'll write about that, and I'd rather admit it than feel like I should stick to my original statements on principle. And I'm sure you know my answer to the other questions: like what you like!

@Joe Burns: Well, I've been conscious of trying to sound less snobby or judgmental in my film writing over the years, so the source of your first impression could easily lie with either of us. Anyway, I'm really glad you enjoyed this piece.

@Laika: Again, thanks! I didn't mean to sound as though I take everything hear as obvious, but a lot of what's gotten me writing on most of these pieces is a real idea I got from the performance, usually a surprise. In the case of A Star Is Born, I thought the film was full of ideas, but on one viewing, I found it harder to fix any of them in specific relation to Garland's acting, especially since I was so much more struck by how much the film's ideas wouldn't work if she didn't have the talent, power, and flexibility to bring them off. Which is plenty! But I just worried I enthused - and at shocking length - more than I actually shed light on what I think she's doing. But I appreciate you saying otherwise!

2:22 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

Liz in BUtterfield 8 is one of those I enjoy when I am in the mood for it but I don't think I will ever really like her...

Oh, and I forgot earlier: Yes, your reviews are totally able to open up a person's mind and your review on Judy is no exeption (at least for me...or I should say that you really made we want to see her again and discover it for myself. It's like having read a book about a beautiful country and now I can't wait to travel there myself!).

2:35 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

wow. i wanna read that BUtterfield 8 piece because i really like the performance and it's one of those i've always just sort of casually mentioned from time to time without fully endorsing it because it seems like it's supposed to be a sin to love The Slut of All Time.

but then I find Elizabeth Taylor underrated in just about every way (except for in the celebrity way. She's rated plenty highly there and inarguably so)

3:08 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Meg said...

I've loved A Star is Born for a long time, but you've given me a new, beautiful appreciation for it. Your wonderful descriptions of scenes, Garland's character, and the film as a whole has made me see it in a whole new light, and I love it even more now.


6:13 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Meg: Thanks very much!

Though you may or may not be one of them, I do want to say hello to all the posters at the Judy Garland Message Board, who have very nicely been stopping by since Thursday night. What a great community.

6:58 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Guy Lodge said...

@Nick and Nathaniel: I can't tell you how comforting it is to know that not only are there other fans of BUtterfield Liz out there, but that those fans are you guys! Perhaps we should do a group performance-rehabilitation piece...

7:48 PM, June 11, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Just to add my appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor in BUtterfield 8. She's shamefully dismissed by many. Hers is one of my favorite of the early '60's. Perfect example, I think, of a star's fame and notoriety unfortunately blinding an accurate and serious critical look.

12:45 PM, June 12, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Nathaniel, @Guy, and @Robert: I'm sure that Liz's own frequent disparaging of that performance has not helped the reputation of the performance. Nor the whole tracheotomy affair, though the continued affection for Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce shows you can be shameless as you want around Oscar time and people won't necessarily kill you for it. But Joan loved her work in Mildred, and she wasn't nominated against anyone like MacLaine in The Apartment who people can point to as a regrettable casualty of her "win," so I'm not surprised Liz has it tougher.

The brave way the movie engages a kind of trash aesthetic also turns a lot of people off, surely? For me, the movie often elevates its luridness into something pretty tense and sophisticated, but I only "got" this recently. I'm sure I was predisposed on first viewing by its accumulated reputation, so I can't fault anyone else for being quick to take the bait.

12:54 PM, June 12, 2010  
Blogger Fritz said...

Mmh, I've seen BUtterfield 8 quite a few times already (yes, I know how that sounds...) and I always thought that Liz's performance perfectly fitted the style of the film but...since the film is so awful, what can poor Liz achieve. She has to handle some of the most awful dialogue in movie history and is paired with Laurence Harvey who (despite some talent) is horrible here. Plus, the constant melodrama in her performance too often makes hers a "so bad you laugh"-performance (the car crash at the end?).

but that's just my opinion, of course. And I can easily see that there people can find a lot to appreciate in her performance (the scene where she tells about her past is pretty good) but I think it all depends if one is able to accept the movie. And I just can't...

5:20 PM, June 12, 2010  
Blogger Paul Outlaw said...

What a great piece, Nick. You have said it all. And I was delighted to see the words "Francine Evans" in this review.

FYI: A 2nd Look at... New York, New York

9:46 PM, June 13, 2010  
Blogger ctrout said...

Nice job completing Best Actress. I tried doing this back in 2006-07. I never got to see A Ship Comes In, The Barker, The Letter, Sarah and Son, The Trespasser, Escape Me Never, Private Worlds, and The Constant Nymph. I don't know how you got your hands on them.

12:29 AM, June 14, 2010  
Blogger goatdog said...

Congrats, Nick. Next up: Best Supporting Actor!

Hey, don't cry...

7:26 PM, June 18, 2010  
Blogger brotherfrancis said...

I found myself here by way of curiosity and The Film Experience blog. This piece on Judy Garland's performance in A Star Is Born is astonishing in its insight and compassion. This is a film I've known and loved since I was a boy. You have teased out so many layers and shadings in the film and helped me understand my reactions to so much of what happens in it.
And most important, perhaps, you've helped me understand why I burst into tears every time Judy sings that climactic "Po-ca-tell-o-I-DAH-ho!"
Thank you.

2:55 AM, February 25, 2011  
Anonymous Picking up Women said...

As many of you know, Vicki wins the Oscar in A Star Is Born and gives the beginning of a very touching speech before a sudden, scary, and very sad interruption.

9:20 PM, March 23, 2011  
Anonymous online toy shops said...

I agree. She always has a challenging role everytime she does a movie. That's how good she is.

4:05 AM, September 07, 2011  

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