The second version of the 1954 is also my second favourite - but almost by average. Inside this sprawling 154 minute song and dance extravaganza there's a beautifully acted tragic drama of around 90 minutes of equal quality and perhaps greater satirical scorn than the 1937 original. James Mason as the alcoholic jaded star Norman Maine is just as tragic as Fredric March's original, and perhaps moreso - there's just something particular in the hang-dog way he carries himself in the iconic awards ceremony scene that's utterly heartbreaking. This film also goes far further in satirising the Hollywood machine. There's a scene in which Judy Garland is made over by the press department - told her face is all wrong - which must have cut very close to the bone for an actress who struggled with her self-image and weight and fed pills since she was a teenager to keep her weight in check.
The problem is that surrounding all this drama are a handful of Judy Garland song-and-dance numbers. This is an interesting break with the original where we occasionally saw the renamed Vicky Lester act, but sort of took her breathtaking talent as read. In this version, we are very much invited to indulge in the talent of Judy Garland playing herself. the problem is that, for me at least, the numbers by Arlan and Gershwin just don't hold up. "The Man That Got Away" remains an absolute heart-breaker of a torchsong but the other setpieces just aren't memorable. You watch one to remind yourself of just how good Garland is, but after that - well, I'm sorry to say I hit the fast forward button - especially during a 15 minute medley that finishes the first half of the film.
The result is a film that doesn't hold up as well as the original because the music and format date it - hold up the story we actually care about - and distract from the central tragedy of Norman Maine. It's a film desperately in need of an edit and I am thoroughly unsurprised that the studio tried to hack it down, and that it proved a commercial flop on its initial release. That said, if you find the right scenes, does make an emotional impact, and hues very close to the original, with many lines transposed directly from one to the other. James Mason deserved an Oscar.
THE 1954 VERSION OF A STAR IS BORN HAS A RUNNING TIME OF 154 MINUTES.
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