Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot - A Star is Born

Written as part of The Film Experience's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" series.

A Star is Born must be one of the most durable properties in Hollywood's archives, having been made first in the 30s (with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March), then in the 50s (with Judy Garland and James Mason), and then in the 70s (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). There was even talk recently that Clint Eastwood of all people wanted to do a new version with BeyoncĂ© (of all people). Each version has its ardent fans, but when people talk about A Star is Born, they're usually talking about Judy Garland - at least in my experience.

And it's with good reason. This is Judy at her Judy-est, digging deep within herself and coming up gold right and left. There isn't a single scene here where she isn't on fire. It's not just a great performance, it's Judy Garland at her absolute peak, giving the kind of performance that would define any actress with a less-impressive resume than Garland's. Judy's "Mrs. Norman Maine" is everything you want and expect from Judy Garland, dialed up to eleven.

Director George Cukor knows from well-crafted women's pictures, so the entire enterprise is well-shot and perfectly pitched (if a little long). Picking a best shot should be difficult, but it isn't. At all. There may be other more beautiful, more meaningful shots, but there is only one shot that matters in A Star is Born, and I will not hear anything otherwise. The shot comes at about a minute into the clip below.

Jesus Christ, but has there ever been an actress who can get to such deep emotions so purely, not to mention so easily?

Yes, Judy is amazing here, but this isn't the best shot of A Star is Born just because of her. Literally every single thing about this shot is perfection. Even though she's constantly moving around, Judy is always in the center of the frame, because Cukor is so in tune with the (ridiculously high) artistic level she's working on that he knows just when she's going to move, and where to, and how far. And he knows exactly when to zoom close and when to pull back. It's incredible.

Shooting a solo musical number is a tricky, tricky thing, and this one is aces not just because of the performance (which earns its legendary status about a hundred times over), but because of the directorial decisions involved. Other directors would have cut to Norman watching her at least once during the number, and given how good James Mason is, that might have worked. But Cukor knows that when Judy Garland is singing like this, you don't cut away. You keep the band mostly in shadow, you keep her in mid-frame except for the big moment when she comes right at you, you pull back to let the audience catch their breath, and then you pull in again ever so slightly for the quiet end. It's the movie in miniature, it's a brilliant performance, and a master class in how to stage, light, and shoot a solo musical number. Brava!

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