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Posts Tagged ‘A Star is Born’

Judy Garland on set. A Star is Born (1954).

Katharine Hepburn on location. Summertime (1955)

Since mid December 2010 on tumblr — a blogging site that seems best suited to sharing images quickly and seamlessly as a  kind of “blogging lite” — I have been playing with a theme, a meme,  of “lolling”.  Lolling as a way of selecting (from thousands) and sharing images from the movies and performances of Katharine Hepburn and of Judy Garland I have been collecting from fan sites and other means over the past few years.

[My main tumblr page is at msteketee [dot] tumblr [dot] com.  My “archives” page which displays text and image entries like a proof sheet, is at msteketee [dot] tumblr [dot] com [forward slash] archive.  The site is like the wild west and I’m not sure I’ll keep a blog there, but for the time being, there it is.]

I selectively have now made my way through the Hepburn oeuvre, then the Garland oeuvre, movie by movie (with the occasional play thrown in for Hepburn), in alphabetical order.  I select for image quality, I prefer black and white, and for this run through the riches it’s all about the lolling.

“lolling — present participle of loll (Verb)1. Sit, lie, or stand in a lazy, relaxed way: “the two girls lolled in their chairs”.2. Hang loosely; droop: “he slumped against a tree trunk, his head lolling back”.”— Merriam-Webster – The Free Dictionary

I have been playing with the idea that in these publicity portraits, production stills, screen captures, on set encounters something might be revealed about each actress.  Perhaps.  Lolling between takes and at rest and posing and chatting with colleagues.  Moments of repose in public by two women who lived very public lives.  Two icons, two women I greatly admire for their talent and in part how they each quite differently lived their lives.  One was present and reserved.  One was present and may have given, willingly given, a great deal of herself away.  In Anna Deavere Smith‘s show Let Me Down Easy (her musings through multiple characters on health and culture and end of life), she quotes the DC sports writer Sally Jenkins on the nature of athletes and their attitudes towards their mortal coil: “Athletes aren’t happy unless they’re actually used up.”  I wonder whether this personality attribute might relate in different measure to Hepburn and Garland.  Long-haul, family home to visit then live in, paced life style with consistency of routine and sense of place versus shifting residence, performance focused.  I refrain from further assertions or conclusions, but the concept is for me evocative.

Katharine Hepburn on set. Bringing Up Baby (1938).

We have beauty.  Check.  We have presence.  Check.  We have focus.  Check.  We have intensity.  Check.  And here we may be venturing into the areas that, from our vantage point outside the lives of these outsized characters …  I’ll reach for quotations by others now to elaborate some thoughts.  Then leave this post with some final images.

Hepburn’s great friend Garson Kanin, for a time estranged and finally reconciled, wrote of her and of her several-decade relationship with Spencer Tracy in 1971’s Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir.  (The fact of this book, that Kanin would dare to write about the open secret of their relationship, caused the estrangement from Hepburn.  At some point after  Ruth Gordon passed away and Kanin was married to Marian Seldes, there was a “life is too short” moment and all parties decided to forgive and be friends again.) Observations by a witty and fine writer about several witty and fine human beings, creates quotable language on almost every page about Kate.  Each word relates to the “lolling” meme in my mind: Hepburn had her own style in every moment, and a lanky ease.   Tracy and Hepburn, p. 152:

“In the largest sense, Katharine Hepburn’s popularity has never waned because people know (magically, intuitively) that she stands for something, even if many of them have no clear idea as to what that something is.  They recognize that in a time of dangerous conformity, and the fear of being different, here is one who stands up gallantly to the killing wave.”

Judy Garland on set. In The Good Old Summertime (1949).

Several contemporaries and colleagues of Garland provide reflections on her style, focus, intensity. John Fricke‘s Judy Garland: The World’s Greatest Entertainer (1992) features a range of intriguing commentary from the era of A Star is Born.  On page 145, Doris Day is quoted:

“Some Hollywood faces seem to have been made for cameras.  Judy had such a face — right, left, up, down, it didn’t matter…. She was one of the funniest, wittiest ladies I have ever known, a marvelous conversationalist who would set me laughing until I actually doubled over…. [Garland was] the most tightly wound person I ever knew…. She kept so much of herself locked up, but what she did let out was beautiful.”

Judy Garland and George Cukor on set. A Star is Born (1954).

And a final present.  Our women together on the set of the movie in which one starred, directed by the husband of the other.  Focus, intensity, beauty in repose.

Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland, Katharine Hepburn on set. Undercurrent (1946).

© Martha Wade Steketee (January 24, 2011)

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“Either you are or you aren’t — a Judy Garland fan that is.  And if you aren’t, forget about her new movie, I Could Go On Singing, and leave the discussion to us devotees…. You’ll see her in close up … in beautiful, glowing Technicolor and striking staging in a vibrant, vital performance that gets to the essence of her mystique as a superb entertainer.  Miss Garland is — as always — real, the voice throbbing, the eyes aglow, the delicate features yielding to the demands of the years — the legs still long and lovely.  Certainly the role of a top-rank singer beset by the loneliness and emotional hungers of her personal life is not an alien one to her ….”
Judith Crist.  New York Herald Tribune.  1963

Judith Crist wrote these words about Garland’s then current and ultimately final film, I Could Go On Singing.  Most of them, absent the “demands of the years” reference, apply to Judy Garland’s resonant, now again vibrantly restored, performance as Esther Blodgett who becomes Vicki Lester who proclaims herself Mrs. Norman Maine in George Cukor‘s (and Moss Hart‘s and Dorothy Parker‘s and James Mason‘s but ultimately Judy Garland’s) 1954 version of A Star is Born.  Screenings in LA last month as part of the TCM Classic Film Festival [see http://www.tcm.com/festival/#/films/astar]  and in NYC at Lincoln Center last night provide a taste of what we will see in the spanking new, shiny cleaned up version of the film that will be released on DVD  in June 2010.  (Bad taste on the part of the releasing company to gift the world with this gem on the anniversary of Garland’s death, June 22 — how much better to have celebrated the day of her birth earlier in the month, June 10, as many of us already do?)

I now join the voices of those who saw the new treatment of the film in LA and extolled its virtues.  This  is an exquisite restoration of the familiar 1954 version of the journey of Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) the 30-year-old band singer who has a powerhouse voice and persona who meets Norman Maine (James Mason) the movie star on his way down, who gives her a vision of her future, assists her entry into his home studio, and can’t stave off his own self-destructive demons.  As Norman’s pal Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) the studio head says at one point to Esther of Norman’s reduced capacities: “years of steady quiet drinking will do that to a man”.  Esther loves Norman through his journey, and ultimately stands in her own strength.  Esther’s story especially shines in this version of the film lovingly reassembled and released in 1983 [see Ronald Haver‘s adventure story A Star Is Born: The Making of the 1954 Movie and Its 1983 Restoration for this full ride]  restoring early plot sequences and two full production numbers cut after the original release to facilitate more daily showings and earnings for the studio.  This film’s version of this repeatedly-told story of love and conflicting career arcs and internal demons has been restored to vibrant life and now gives this dame who has seen this movie more times than she is able to calculate a series of new experiences in one familiar package.

So this blog entry is really a story of my journey to honor a performance that is well-known, and to see how the piece of art has been shined up.  Refurbished.  New details noticed.  Old interactions revealed.  Power reinforced.  All of this and more.

I choose to make Sunday, May 16th a day trip in to NYC from Philly in this pre-move era, where my life is in both places and my heart is increasingly in one.  The train to NYC is crowded at 1:40pm.  Beginning of business week for some and play time for gaggles of vacationers.  Amidst people struggling with wheeled luggage I am relatively carefree but focused.  Black coat, black slacks, black shoes,  and an mp3 player on which i listen to a certain soundtrack.

Buh buh bah BAH buh. …

A glorious New York day.  I amble from Penn Station east on 34th, then north-ish on Broadway to 40th, then east to Bryant Park where I reinforce the familiar with a pause among the trees.  I reject the proposed hang at the Algonquin (old familiar at 44th near 6th) floated by stay-at-home spouse in favor of dealing with my anxiety over the nebulous ticketing routines at the Walter Reade theatre.  I have an internet receipt in hand (thank you Heather) but I don’t know how the Box Office will deal with it.  And this screening is too important to me.  So I push northward toward Lincoln Center at this midafternoon hour to clarify the details.

Amble continues: 6th Avenue north to the Park, then west along Central Park South to Columbus Circle and north on Central Park West for a few blocks, west on 64th  into Lincoln Center.  Am I here to see Opera?  Theatre?  Ballet?

Pretty and inviting but  no no no.  Through a bit of construction across 65th I see my goal — and up a single escalator flight outdoors I locate the Box Office. Almost no checking of my email receipt and I am awarded my ticket.  Gee, that was simple.  Its only 4:30pm and my showing is at 7pm.  What to do?  Scope it out and, Girl Scout that I am, use the facilities before wandering further afield.

Turns out it’s intermission time for the first showing that started at 3pm, so there’s a line. In that line of smiling faces is a woman just behind me, encounter one, just a bit older than me, who speaks of seeing Judy at the Palace in 1967 when she was a teenager (her mother convinced her to go, to which I responded “smart mother!”), saying Garland spoiled her for anyone else.  The energy and commitment.  She speaks of the 1983 A Star is Born restoration showing at Radio City (the current cut without the digital enhancement and refurbishing the current release has received).  And as is true of the Garland fans I adore, she speaks of these events in 1967 and 1983 as if they happened yesterday.  In the loo line we bond and beam.  I send her off to the second half of the first showing and she wishes me a lovely time at mine.  And this is all for me before the overture, all before seeing Judy’s image myself today.  She’s just here.

There is espresso in this lobby and my notepad and only a few hours to wait and what the heck, I decide to stay.  First in line, on a bench by a rope, like a Star Wars groupie or something.  And by 6:30pm I am in my seat middle of the 3rd row.  From here I experience chance audience encounter two. This is an audio Jeopardy question.  A comment overheard that I prefer to leave unattributed.  An adult male voice behind me, of a man clearly new to the movie and perhaps brought to the showing by one of his several chattering male companions.  “Isn’t it Pride next month?  Shouldn’t they made this part of fag appreciation month?”  I am reminded once again of Crist’s words, of my own counsel, of the core creative emotional hold this performer has for me. I refrain from retorts.  And I wait for the overture.

The crowd is serious and content, and wonder of wonders, finally, A Star is Born is about to begin.  We applaud credits.  Those familiar with the resolution and images of this work of art from the past gasp at the clarity of the image — the pop of the reds, the definition of outlines, the crispness of shadows.  And I wait with bated breath through the first exciting movie minutes of klieg lights igniting, people in fancy dress arriving (and the gushing female interviewer of one female’s choice of hair adornments “and the diamonds in the hair!”) for the first shots of Judy as Esther the band singer, waiting backstage with her musician pals, waiting to perform.  And those legs.  My goodness, those legs.

screen cap courtesy of Meg Meyers

I could fill this entry with splashes of dialog that I love (for example, Norman’s speech to Esther telling her about “that little something extra” that defines a star), but I’ll try to refrain and talk for the balance here about moments that popped for me differently because of this restoration and because of the fine screening facilities at the Walter Reade Theatre at Lincoln Center.  Criminy the credits alone and the explosion of klieg lights in the first moments heralding the first benefit alert you.  You are, by gum, going to pay attention when the lights pop on in your face like this.

On the whole, to these eyes long familiar with various cuts of this movie through various media (late night black and white commercial broadcast television, VCRs, early DVD, bad prints projected in film society blank walls), the great gifts of this new version of the film are newly visible small details that bring tears of joy.  The nuances.  The various flowers among the wall of red during Esther’s “Born in a Trunk” movie within a movie sequence — there were poppies in there!  The various textures and hues of glove and gown and shawl in the “Melancholy Baby” sequence within that number.  The freckles cried off and reapplied during “Lose That Long Face”.  The exquisite sparkle of the substantial diamond clips in Esther’s hair in her final formal ensemble, seeing the lipstick scrawled love note, and going onstage to proclaim to the world her identity as “Mrs. Norman Maine”.

The power of the imagery and framing of shots hit me anew with the screening, a testament to Cukor’s vision.  Two particular images haunt me.  First, Esther at the Academy Award ceremony on stage after she has been presented with her Oscar, in a long shot.  Esther the human being down left, and Esther as projected on a screen for the attendees at the ceremony at the right.  Luscious use of widescreen format.

screen cap courtesy of Meg Meyers

And a second image: a different kind of composition and intent later in the movie.  At the end of Norman’s life.  He is brought home after a several-day drunk, Esther proclaims she is going to quit the business for a while and take care of him, and he is devastated by this  — her career is his lasting legacy.  He gets up, plays the happy camper, proclaims his intent to swim before supper, leaves Esther after one last look at her (sob), and exits the house toward the beach.  It the moment after he closes the patio door behind him that I speak of — he looks back at the house to his right with an empty sorrow-filled face, resolute, the setting sun to the left of the screen, warmly welcoming him into the waters.  It’s chilling and mesmerizing and gorgeous.

screen cap courtesy of Meg Meyers

Rich saturated color.  Framing often just exquisite. And the story of two humans who fall in love.  And entertain us along the way.  I’m training toward Philly by midnight.

“A little something extra.”  Holy cow.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 17, 2010)

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Rick Blaine, Ilsa Lund, Casablanca (1942)

from Sidney Skolsky.  Don’t Get Me Wrong — I Love Hollywood (1975), p. 246

“That’s how it is, recalling scenes, having a movie memory.  It’s a game. You can play it by yourself and be amazed by what comes out of your past into the present.  You can play it with a group of people.  Throw them the lines or describe the scene and see if they can name the picture.  Try it and see.  It’ll give you a fast insight into people.”

Norman Maine, Esther Blodgett, A Star is Born (1954)

And this is how I live my life.  And it’s not a game.  The scenes from movies (and literature and stage moments, truth be told) inform my imagination and my every day speech and writing referents in equal measure.  Mrs. Norman Maine and Ilsa Lund and Tracy Lord and others are as essential to my intellectual and artistic life as any other elements in my basic building blocks of thought and image.  In fact, as prior blog entries tiresomely testify, these characters and the artists who create and embody them actually are for me some of the building blocks of my thought process.  There they are … myth and literature and fairy tale and spiritual concepts and lives created on page and stage and screen.  It’s all story telling.  It is all of a piece.

Tracy Lord, Macaulay Connor, The Philadelphia Story (1940)

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The characters portrayed on film by Judy Garland often provide succinct reflections on the art of communicating a story in song.  It’s about instinct.  It’s about commitment.  It’s about craft.

Lesson 9: Singing is storytelling.

“I figure you have to know what you’re singing about before you can get the idea over to other people.”

Babes in Arms (1939), Patsy Barton to Mickey Moran

Lesson 10: Singing is second nature.

“I can remember my first job singing with the band.  And then, one night stands clear across the country by bus.  Putting on nail polish in the ladies rooms in gas stations.  Waiting on tables.  Wow, that was a low point.  I’ll never forget it, and I’ll never never do that again.  No matter what.  But I had to sing.  I somehow feel most alive when I’m singing.”

A Star is Born (1954), Esther Blodgett to Norman Maine

Lesson 11: When you have it you have it, don’t second guess yourself.

Esther: “What makes you so sure about me?”

Norman:  “I heard you sing. You know yourself, don’t you.  You just needed somebody to tell you.”

Esther:  “I’m certainly mixed up now.  I thought I was doing just fine…. sleep on it … you fixed me for sleep all right.”

Norman:  “Whether you do it or not, don’t ever forget how good you are.  Hang on to that.  Because I’m right.”

A Star is Born (1954), Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 24, 2009)

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I embrace the fact that I have indeed learned (or had reinforced) some valuable life lessons in movies that feature Judy Garland.  My next several posts will feature dialog (and some images) from movies in which Judy Garland appeared throughout her career.  The credit for the language certainly goes to the screenwriters.  The credit for the delivery of these charmers must go to Ms. Garland and her colleagues.

I select and group the following items in ways I find personally entertaining.  Because, to quote Manuela Alva in The Pirate: “If I didn’t laugh I should be very annoyed.”

Lesson 1: Natural talent communicates and Ellen Terry was wise.

“If you’d never seen a bullfight before you’d know a great bullfighter from the minute he stepped into the ring. From the way he stood, from the way he moved. Or a dancer. You don’t have to know about ballet. That little bell rings inside your head, that little jolt of pleasure. … Ellen Terry, great actress long before you were born. She said that that’s what star quality was. That little something extra. Well, you’ve got it.”

A Star Is Born (1954), Norman Maine to Esther Blodgett

Lesson 2: Dream big and be prepared for the sudden opportunity.

“A career is a curious thing. Talent isn’t always enough. You need a sense of timing, an eye for seeing the turning point or recognizing the big chance when it comes along and grabbing it. A career can rest on a trifle … like us sitting here tonight. Or it can turn on somebody’s saying to you: you’re better than that. You’re better than you know. Don’t settle for the little dream. go on to the big one.”

A Star Is Born (1954), Norman Maine to Esther Blodgett

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 20, 2009)

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