Picks and Pans Review: A Star Is Born
by Ronald Haver
The author's unbridled love for the Judy Garland-James Mason film classic spills over onto every page of this book, which is subtitled, "The making of the 1954 movie and its 1983 restoration." In fact, from the overblown way Haver deploys much of the material, an untutored reader might think he's reading a book about the first talkie rather than a book about a musical remake (granted, a terrific musical remake) of the 1937 original starring Janet Gaynor. In a 16-page prologue Haver paints a portrait of Los Angeles and the United States as they were on the day of the movie's premiere, including the number of tourists in L.A., the cost of a new Ford convertible, the cost of a two-bedroom house and a 17-inch television set, the prevailing interest rates and the other movies in production. Indeed, one expects Haver to write, "What American does not remember where he was and what he was doing Sept. 29, 1954?" The author's account of the movie's preproduction and production is, let us say, exhaustive—let us say, shot by shot. There are biographical sketches of all the principals and many ancillary folk. Haver describes how long it took Sid Luft to convince the owner of the film rights, producer Edward Alperson, and studio boss Jack Warner that there should be a remake and that Garland should do it (MGM had fired her because of her "unreliability"). He details the problems in finding a leading man. Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Tyrone Power and Cary Grant all rejected the role of drunken has-been Norman Maine. Mason grabbed it "because I was not getting anywhere very fast." Haver also limns the technical challenges (CinemaScope had just been introduced, and all the studios wanted to jump on the wide-screen bandwagon), the artistic egos, the tripartite battles between Luft, by this time Garland's husband as well as the movie's producer, director George Cukor and Warner. The critically acclaimed finished product ran a bit over three hours until Warner—some say brutally—snipped out 27 minutes, and production costs ran past $5 million. This was "an astronomical figure," says Haver, making it at the time Hollywood's second most expensive film ever. (Duel in the Sun then ranked first.) The most interesting chunk of the book deals with the efforts to locate the footage excised by Warner and return the movie to its original three-hour glory. Haver, head of the film department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and a devotee of A Starts Born since he first saw the movie as a 16-year-old, was instrumental in the restoration. His description of painstaking and often fruitless searches through myriad film vaults and cans of footage, the false leads and false hopes read almost like a detective story. As for the rest of the book, well, this one is strictly for Garland fans. Make that Garland fanatics. (Knopf, $24.95)
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