Viewer Guide: A Star is Born and Restless with Richard Peña

August 17, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | A STAR IS BORN

This week’s classic is 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; and this fall, watch for yet another version, this one co-starring Bradley Cooper and no one less than Lady Gaga.

REEL 13 CLASSIC | RESTLESS

This week’s indie is Restless, an offbeat romantic drama from 2011 directed by Gus Van Sant.

Henry Hopper plays Enoch Brae, a serious, formal young man living in Portland, Oregon with his Aunt Mabel, played by Jane Adams. A solitary figure who keeps to himself, Enoch isn’t in any hurry to choose colleges and think about his future, preferring instead to pursue his curious habit of crashing the funerals of complete strangers. For reasons that take time to emerge, Henry seems drawn to bearing detached witness to other people’s grieving, quietly blending in and then slipping away before attracting suspicion.

It’s at one such memorial where Enoch meets Annabel Cotton, played by Mia Wasikowska. Telling Enoch that she’s a volunteer in the hospital wing dealing with “kids with cancer,” Anabel starts tagging along to join Enoch in his unusual pastime. Gradually, a bond between these two misfits begins to form: Enoch learns of Annabel’s high regard for Charles Darwin, as well as her interest in birds and insects—and Annabel learns more about Enoch’s other eccentricities, such as his aversion to riding in cars.

After Enoch meets Annabel’s mother and watchful sister, he returns the favor by taking Annabel to meet his parents—or at least, to see their gravestone, slyly getting around the circumstances of their untimely demise. Yet despite all his seeming openness, Enoch does harbor a few secrets—such as his friendship with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot. Indeed, it’s only when Enoch’s spectral friend confronts him with some hard truths that he starts to realize the bright future he imagines for himself and Annabel may not be so easy to attain after all.

Selected as the opening night film of the “Un Certain Regard” section of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Restless had its origins at New York University, where screenwriter Jason Lew was a classmate of producer-director Ron Howard’s daughter Bryce Dallas Howard. Initially interested in directing the script himself, Ron Howard was ultimately not available due to scheduling conflicts, but stayed on as producer of what had now become his daughter’s project along with his longtime partner Brian Grazer. Looking around for a replacement, the team daydreamed about finding a “Gus Van Sant-type director,” someone who could provide the perfect mix of warmth and quirkiness—yet they never expected that Gus Van Sant himself might actually be interested. Once Van Sant signed on, it was full speed ahead, the script going into production just a few weeks later.

Gus Van Sant is the rarest kind of filmmaker; over the course of his 35-year career, he’s made big-budget Hollywood hits, then followed them with eccentric experimental works. He seems to re-invent himself and his filmmaking for every new project, and Restless is no exception. Utilizing locations around his adopted city of Portland, Oregon, Van Sant imbues the film with a nostalgic, mid-century feel with the look of his two young stars: Henry Hopper’s dark suit and tie and Mia Wasikowska’s short haircut and Sixties fashions bring to mind teenaged wannabe versions of French New Wave stars Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg. Sadly, the film’s central theme of confronting mortality was also not far off camera: just before the start of production, Henry Hopper’s father, legendary actor-director Dennis Hopper, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, ultimately succumbing to the disease in May of 2010. And just in case you’re wondering where you have seen Schuyler Fisk before—the young actor who plays Annabel’s sister—her familiar look might just be because she’s the daughter of Sissy Spacek.

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