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Viewer Guide: “A Star is Born” and “Once Upon a River”

July 19, 2022 | Richard Peña


A Star Is Born (1954).

This week’s double feature begins with A Star is Born, the 1954 musical drama directed by George Cukor. 

Produced by Judy Garland’s third husband Sid Luft, A Star is Born was conceived as Garland’s high profile comeback vehicle after her four year absence from the movies. But in those four years, much had changed for Garland since MGM had unceremoniously dismissed her in 1950 after 15 years of being one of the studio’s top money-making stars. In addition to reinventing herself with a career as a concert performer, Garland had battled multiple personal issues—including drug and alcohol dependency, depression and wild swings in her weight. But the prodigiously talented star and her new husband were determined to restore her to her rightful place in Hollywood’s pantheon of superstars. 

For her return to the big screen, Garland pursued something other than another cheerful Americana musical in the style of her MGM films. Garland and Luft chose a property much closer to home, a remake of director William Wellman’s 1937 film by the same name, which had its own antecedents in the 1932 film What Price Hollywood?, also directed by George Cukor early in his career. Cukor had passed on directing A Star is Born in 1937, feeling he had nothing new to add, but happily took another run at this Hollywood drama about the knife-edge of celebrity in order to work with Garland. 

An A-team of collaborators was assembled for the new adaptation, headed by Moss Hart to update the original screenplay, with new songs by Ira Gershwin and Harold Arlen, including “The Man That Got Away,” which would become a staple of Garland’s concert repertoire. In the film, Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a talented singer who receives her big break from a chance encounter with Norman Maine, a major Hollywood star whose career is now in decline—largely due to his worsening alcoholism. Superbly portrayed by James Mason, Norman recognizes Esther as a diamond in the rough, taking her under his wing to personally groom her for a new level of stardom he knows she can achieve. Inevitably, Norman’s mentoring evolves into a romance and then marriage. But as her career rises, his career wanes, leading Esther on an increasingly desperate struggle to save her mentor and husband before it’s too late. 

Drastically cut after its initial premiere release, the film was re-released in a restored version in 1983, with still photographs filling in for several permanently lost film sequences, the version that airs tonight on Reel 13. 

Judy Garland had already starred as Esther Blodgett in a radio adaptation of A Star is Born in 1942, and had reportedly proposed the idea of movie remake late in her MGM tenure to studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Once Garland’s post-MGM comeback film was officially underway at Warner Bros. with George Cukor signed to direct, the hunt for a suitable leading man began, with Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, Tyrone Power, Stewart Granger, Humphrey Bogart, Frank Sinatra and Errol Flynn all discussed for the role of Norman Maine. Cukor wanted Cary Grant, but Grant declined, allegedly due to his wariness about Garland’s reliability—or possibly because of Jack Warner’s refusal to give him a percentage of the profits. Already friendly with Garland after working with her ex-husband Vincente Minnelli on Madame Bovary, James Mason happily joined the production to create one of the most memorable performances of his career. 

But once shooting began, the production was immediately plagued with problems, first due to a switch in wide-screen processes, and then because of Garland’s reoccurring struggles with exhaustion and “illness” resulting in extensive delays. After production was finally completed and Cukor had left on vacation, Sid Luft and Warner executives felt the movie lacked the type of classic production number that audiences expected of a Judy Garland movie, and proceeded with shooting the “Born in a Trunk” sequence, adding 18 minutes to an already long and very over budget film. 

Although the early test screenings produced euphoric commentaries from the public, Warner Bros. abruptly decided the film was too long for theaters to fit enough screenings into a day. The studio brass ordered that 30 minutes be taken out, without the slightest input from Cukor, Garland or Luft. Ironically, the studio’s hatchet job resulted in tons of bad publicity, and actually had a chilling effect on ticket sales, clearly a contributing factor to the film’s ultimate box office failure. Unable to attend the Academy Awards due to the recent birth of her son Joey, Garland was poised to accept the Best Actress Oscar via satellite from her hospital room—only to lose to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl. However, Hollywood wasn’t finished with A Star is Born; in 1976, a new adaptation appeared with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the lead roles; there’s also the 2018 film, co-starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. 


Once Upon a River (2019).

This’s week’s double feature continues with Once Upon a River, a 2019 coming of age drama marking the directorial debut of Haroula Rose.  

Set in 1977, Once Upon a River stars Kenadi DeLaCerna as Margo Crane, a 15-year-old adolescent living in rural Michigan with her father, Bernard, played by Tatanka Means. Part Native American, Margo is still adjusting to the sudden departure of her white mother, who left the family the year before to “find herself.” Adrift and restless, about the only thing that brings Margo any satisfaction is her expert marksmanship, a skill admired—among other things—by her father’s half-brother, Cal Murray. Intrigued by Cal’s invitation to join him on a hunting expedition, Margo’s relationship with her half-uncle takes a disturbingly inappropriate turn that quickly leads to a cascade of tragic events. Suddenly on her own with only her wits, a rifle and the winding river for her escape, Margo embarks on an odyssey to find her mother. After a brief romantic interlude, it’s only when Margo encounters an ailing recluse named Smoke that she begins to learn the real meaning of familial love and commitment.  

Based on the 2011 novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Once Upon a River is a prequel to Campbell’s 2003 novel Q Road, which follows the story of Margo’s yet to be born daughter Rachel as an adolescent. The production was almost halted due to the difficulty in finding the right actress to play Margo, with the casting of Kenadi DeLaCerna confirmed only a few days before the scheduled start of filming. Although theatrical release was squelched by the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was screened at many film festivals, where some audiences expressed discomfort with the ambiguous sexual relationship between Margo and her Uncle Cal. But director Haroula Rose wanted the narrative to dramatize a young woman finding her way in a man’s world, committing the same mistakes granted to adolescent boys in countless coming of age stories. As a musician and song writer, director Rose also designed the film’s soundtrack to be an integral aspect of her final film. And for anyone wondering, yes, Tatanka Means is indeed the son of Native American activist and actor, Russell Means.  

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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