Have you ever seen a performance that immediately became seared on your brain, a performance so extraordinary and visceral that just thinking about it gives you goosebumps? If you haven’t, I have one recommendation for you: Judy Garland in 1954’s A Star is Born. With the role of Esther Blodgett, Judy was able to showcase all of the qualities that made her an unforgettable legend: the crushing vulnerability, the delicious humor, the toughness that came out of necessity more than choice. She is at once the silly vaudevillian, the breathtaking actress, and the exquisite vocalist. With each scene, you think that she couldn’t possibly get any better… and then she does.
Even at the time of its production, A Star is Born was one of the most important films in Judy’s career. After a painful four-year absence from Hollywood forced her to reinvent herself as a concert entertainer, the film was touted as Judy’s comeback and everyone wanted it to be a success for the beloved actress. Because of this, every aspect of it was crafted to highlight her innumerable talents, including Moss Hart’s script, which integrated pieces of Judy’s own life, thus personalizing the story and making her performance feel even more like an open wound.
In her life, Judy embodied not only Esther, but also Norman (an impeccable James Mason), Esther’s husband whose alcoholism destroys his film career. Show business turned Frances Gumm, Esther Blodgett, and Ernest Gubbins into Judy Garland, Vicki Lester, and Norman Maine, entertainers who underwent enormous tragedies at the price of fame. Self-destructive and washed up, Norman is no longer the great star he used to be. Booze-filled nights appear to be the only thing that he has left to live for, until he finds a purpose again: helping Esther. With her dependency on pills, Judy was very similar to Norman. She would be unreliable and seemed to sabotage herself at every turn.
One of the most honest and haunting scenes in the film is when Esther is talking to friend and former boss Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) about Norman’s addiction. It is shattering to watch Esther crumble before our very eyes as she admits the hatred she feels towards her husband for failing to recover. You have to wonder if Judy felt the same way, if she hated herself for never quite getting better. After this gut-wrenching confession, Esther must go back on set and instantly jump back into an upbeat number, leaving you to think, “How many times did Judy do this herself?”
Near the beginning of the narrative, Esther tells Norman, “I somehow feel most alive when I’m singing.” She struggles to explain just what singing means to her, but after witnessing her explosive performance of “The Man That Got Away,” we understand that no words could ever describe it. For Esther and the woman playing her, singing isn’t just an expression, it is a full-bodied experience, an extension of the self. When you hear Judy, you’re hearing her agony, her joy, and her sadness — she was incapable of being anything other than authentic.
Growing up at MGM alongside such beauties as Elizabeth Taylor and Lana Turner made Judy’s insecurities worse. She felt hideous and unlovable compared to them, yet no one else captured people’s hearts like Judy did. The moment where Esther is rendered unrecognizable by the studio’s make-up and hair department and the subsequent self-doubt they make her feel is poignant and all too realistic. Thankfully, Norman takes one look at her and immediately restores her back to the Esther we love, telling her, “Your face is just dandy!” I like to imagine that this scene was retribution for Judy, that Norman was an audience surrogate assuring Judy that we adore her for exactly who she was.
By film’s end, Esther has endured more heartache than she ever thought possible. But, even though everything within her is begging her to give up, we know she will be okay. She will be a survivor. And truthfully, despite all of the hell she went through, I think Judy was, too.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn and Esther Williams.