Birthday Girls: Judy Garland
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(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 filma 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 moviesthat 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 withforgive mea 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 actingand 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 lostor is so widely perceived to have lost that it amounts to the same thingso 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 wayan 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 openin 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 Blodgettin many ways, this is a dual performance rolled into one ceaselessly renegotiated packagecan 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!