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Wednesday, June 8, 2022

June 8, 2022: Judy Garland Studying: A Star is Born

[June 10th would have been Judy Garland’s 100th birthday. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Garland’s performances, leading up to a weekend post on LGBTQ icons.]

On two things about Garland’s profound talents that her version of a much-told and -retold story helps us appreciate.

I think this all probably became common knowledge around the release of the much-acclaimed and hugely successful 2018 version, but maybe not; I know this AmericanFilmStudier wasn’t particularly aware of at least one of the films in question until researching this post. So first things first: there have been four total films entitled A Star is Born. The first was released in 1937 and starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; the third from 1976 starred Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and the fourth, that 2018 version, starred Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (who also made his directorial debut). And in between, after a four-year hiatus from films, Judy Garland triumphantly returned in 1954’s A Star is Born, starring alongside James Mason and garnering a well-deserved Academy Award nomination (although she was robbed of the award itself, at least if you ask Groucho Marx) for her stunning, multi-layered performance as Esther Blodgett.

That nomination and performance alike can help us better remember and appreciate Garland’s talents as an actress, and I don’t just mean as a child star. Perhaps because she’s best known in terms of film performances for The Wizard of Oz (released when she was 17), and maybe second-best for Meet Me in St. Louis (released when she was 22), it seems to me that Garland is still often thought of as a youthful talent; that’s the case even when we don’t consider the Vaudeville career that she launched alongside her two older sisters when she was only 6, which of course only adds to the child star aura when we do add it into the story. She was indeed precociously talented from a young age, but those talents only continued to grow and deepen for the rest of her career, and no single performance better reflects her maturation as an actress than does A Star is Born (released when she was 32). Esther is a character who embodies just about every possible emotion across this one story, often pitched to the extremes that can very easily slide into full-on melodrama, and Garland keeps her quite powerfully and affectingly human throughout.

Esther is also a musical performer, however—a singer and dancer as well as an actress. That wasn’t the case with Janet Gaynor’s Esther from the 1937 film (she’s only an actress), so this was a change for Garland’s version of the character and story (and one that was of course kept for Streisand’s and Gaga’s subsequent takes). Because of how those multiple remakes have unfolded, it might seem like a no-brainer to make the character this kind of triple threat; but in truth, asking Garland to sing and perform so consistently throughout Star, all while giving that intensely powerful acting performance, was to ask quite a lot. And she did ever respond—Time magazine called the film “just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history,” and Newsweek wrote that its “best classified as a thrilling personal triumph for Judy Garland…In more ways than one, the picture is hers.” Few American performers have been as truly multi-talented as Judy Garland, and perhaps no work better showcases that combination than does A Star is Born.

Next Garland performance tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Garland works or moments you’d highlight?

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