Chapter 12—A Golden Deal and a Death in a Parking Lot
"A career is a curious thing," says Norman Maine, the movie star hero of A Star Is Born. "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 and grabbing it." The person to whom he is giving such perceptive advice is Esther Blodgett, the character Judy was to play. But he might as well have been speaking to Judy herself, for in 1953 Judy, too, had arrived at a turning point. If her remake of A Star Is Born succeeded, her career would be secure as far as she could see; if it failed, she really would be through in Hollywood. She had been given a second chance; a third would be in the nature of a miracle. Her whole future was riding on just one picture, and Judy knew it. A Star Is Born, she told one columnist, could not merely be very good—it had to be the greatest.
A product of some of the brightest talents in the business, the original, made in 1937, scarcely needed improvement. David O. Selznick had produced it, William Wellman had directed it and Dorothy Parker was one of those who had shaped its shrewd and knowledgeable script. Janet Gaynor, the recipient of the very first Oscar for best actress, for 1927's Seventh Heaven, had played Esther Blodgett, the Midwestern innocent who dreamed of movie glory. Fredric March, who had won his Oscar in 1947, for The Best Years of Our Lives, had played Norman Maine, the alcoholic Pygmalion who not only transformed Esther into a star—Vicki Lester—but made her his wife as well. What elevated that otherwise predictable plot above the ordinary was the rude reversal of fortunes in the picture's second half. Maine, the matinee idol, found his own career falling as fast as his wife's was rising, and, rather than ruin her prospects, too, he drowned himself in the waters off Malibu.
The birth of one star inevitably meant the death of another—there was limited space in the Hollywood heaven—and in a town where many careers had plummeted as precipitously as Norman Maine's, A Star Is Born was a film that had touched many. Belying his cynical screen reputation, Humphrey Bogart, for instance, ran it on a home projector every Christmas, crying each time as if he had never seen it before. It was a movie both loved and admired, and anyone who attempted to do it again, with music no less, was following a tough act indeed. But that was the challenge chosen by Judy and Sid, who was assuming Selznick's role as producer.
"Those two alley cats can't make a picture," Arthur Freed said of the Lufts, and he may have been right. But the crafty cats at Warner Brothers could, and, with the studio's help, Judy and Sid assembled some of the finest talents of their own day. Moss Hart, who had collaborated with George S. Kaufman on some of Broadway's wittiest plays, was hired to revise and update the script. Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin were picked to write the songs, and George Cukor, whose very name spelled class and distinction in the movie world, was brought in to direct. So it went down the credit list, the best being added to the best.
The only real problem was the male lead. Who could play Norman Maine? It was a difficult role, requiring a combination of bluster and sensitivity, egotism and charm. Cary Grant, the personal favorite of Judy and Sid, refused the part; so did Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier. Tyrone Power and Richard Burton were busy on other projects. Three stars who did want the job—Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Erroll Flynn—were turned down. "Understand Want Me For Star," the vacationing Flynn telegraphed Warner Brothers. But he was wrong. "James Mason Set Starborn," replied the studio. And so Mason, an English actor who had not attracted much attention in the United States—the German general Erwin Rommel in The Desert Fox was probably his biggest role—was offered, and instantly grabbed, the lead in the most talked about picture of the year.
By autumn everything was in place. Even before the first scene was shot, A Star Is Born had the look of a champion. Everything about it—script, songs, cast and crew—had the feel of quality, Hollywood moviemaking at its very best. As a gesture of his regard, Jack Warner assigned Judy the dressing room that had belonged to Bette Davis, the onetime queen of the Warners lot, and on Monday, October 12, Judy went before the cameras for the first time in more than three years. The bad habits of the past seemed behind her, and shooting progressed smoothly until, about ten days later, Warner Brothers abruptly slammed on the brakes. A Star Is Born, it decreed, was not to be filmed in the traditional way, but with an entirely new process called CinemaScope. The most important movie in Judy's career was caught in the middle of the biggest cinematic revolution since the introduction of sound.
© 2006 Gerald Clarke
Designed by Catografix