Even with the Best Picture shock, La La Land was still the most awarded movie at this year’s Oscar. This review of A Star Is Born is also honoring La La Land‘s Oscar achievement with six awards, and next week I will similarly write about a movie related to Moonlight, the Best Picture winner.
La La Land was most inspired by the films of Jacque Demy, especially The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but American musicals played a big role in the inspiration as well. Ryan Gosling has a scene where he dances with a street lamp just like Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain. But the American musical that its story, and song “Audition (The Fool Who Dreams),” resembles the most is George Cuckor’s A Star Is Born.
Like Mia and Sebastian, A Star Is Born‘s Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) has big dreams that she’s in no position to fulfill on her own. Mia and Sebastian need each other to be the catalysts for their individual dreams to come true, even though it may cost their romantic relationship. Esther’s relationship with Norman Maine (James Mason) is what it takes for her to become a star. Just like for Mia and Sebastian, the sacrifice to become a star involves the very relationship that made the dreams possible in the first place.
Norman is in the advanced stages of alcoholism, and Esther knows it. She knows the pain involved in loving somebody in such a state. Yet this is exactly what she does. Their relationship is not merely professional for long, because she knows she’s in love with him long before he’s able to use his ability and stature as an already-famous Hollywood actor to help her achieve her own goals. Her love of Norman is not based on what he can do for her career. It’s not dependent on his willingness or ability to change or lack thereof. It’s real. It’s unconditional. It’s something probably very rare in real Hollywood, but in 1954 Hollywood was able to tell a beautiful and believable story about it set right in Hollywood.
The connection between dreams and sacrifice is found in movies and all art forms very commonly, but what makes Esther’s special is her willingness to sacrifice not for the sake of her dreams like Mia and Sebastian do, but to sacrifice her dreams themselves. Though she does eventually have success in Hollywood, she doesn’t use it for her own gain but to express her love for Norman. Until she meets Norman, she’s driven by her dreams but without any way of reaching them. Once she meets Norman, she has a way, but her love for him is her highest priority, far over her own career.
A Star Is Born is an interesting title, because the birth of Esther’s stardom under the stage name Vicki Lester requires the death of Norman’s career. His career was already pretty much dead because of his alcoholism, but the last bit of say he has in Hollywood he used to create Esther’s career. So her stardom is born but she is willing to dedicate it all to her husband and to live her life for him right in the midst of all the hurt aimed against her as a result his addiction. This loving postponement of a person’s own self interest is something movies rarely show. Esther Blodgett is much more than a movie star. She is a hero for loving a very unlovable person and loving him well.
This is the second version of A Star Is Born; the first 1937 starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Both gave great performances, but the movie settled for more conventional romantic plotting than the harsh sacrifice and tough love that makes this remake so remarkable. A third version was made in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It failed in every way possible except for its great song “Evergreen.” Next year, there is to be another remake, and it is set to star Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, but so far, none compares to this 1954 masteriece.