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‘A Star is Born’: Remembering Judy Garland’s iconic 1954 performance

Judy Garland in "A Star is Born". (Warner Bros.)

The new version of A Star is Born, featuring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, released Friday. It’s the fourth take on one of Hollywood’s favorite tales, and we thought we’d take a look back 64 years ago when perhaps the best of the four, starring Minnesota native Judy Garland, came out.

In the 1954 edition of A Star is Born — a remake of the 1937 original — Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a talented aspiring singer with her own band. She saves Norman Maine from embarrassing himself after he bursts on stage where an orchestra is playing by making him seem like he was part of the act. Maine is then inspired to help Blodgett, and the two of them later star in a musical together. But when her career begins to soar, his continues to decline, forcing her to choose between growing her career or saving him.

Even though the character she plays experiences a lot of success, throughout her career Garland struggled with the pressures of being a lifelong star. Although she worked for MGM for 15 years, she suffered from alcoholism and mental health issues that made it difficult for her to meet the expectations of her contract. After her MGM contract was terminated she went down a new path. She often appeared on Bing Crosby’s radio show, and went on a four-month concert tour where she played sold-out concerts throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Just a few years after she was let go from MGM, A Star is Born was hailed as Garland’s Hollywood comeback, but that’s not how she saw it. As her daughter Lorna Loft told the Los Angeles Times, “My mother always said she never went away. She said, ‘Where did I go?’”

The remake of A Star is Born was initially popular among audiences, but nonetheless Warner Bros. was never able to make up the full amount of money it spent on the movie, which, ironically, tanked after they cut 30 minutes of George Cukor’s film.

Nonetheless, it was an artistic triumph for Garland, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. “The Man That Got Away,” a song from the film, was indelibly associated with the star and became a standby of her live performances.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker writes that the subsequent awarding of the Academy Award to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl was “one of the all-time worst” Oscar blunders. “It closed a chapter on Garland’s movie stardom,” he writes. “Only when the film was revived, three decades later, was it finally recognized as the heroic endeavor it was.”

In a new book co-authored with Luft, Jeffrey Vance writes about the film’s rapturous reception and the disastrous consequences of the studio’s clumsy cut.

Reviews were laudatory toward Garland, and the film as a whole won virtually unanimous praise. Those who saw the original, uncut film were mesmerized. […] Garland had accomplished a miraculous feat. She rose like a phoenix from the ashes of her failed movie career of just four years earlier and produced a masterpiece. However, like the story, A Star is Born the film was to end up as the Hollywood story without a happy ending. […] Sadly, and almost incomprehensibly, given the positive critical and public reaction to the original cut of the film, A Star is Born effectively ended Garland’s career as a major movie star.

After A Star is Born Garland appeared in more movies, a number of television specials, and had her own show, The Judy Garland Show. She died in 1969, at age 47.

Simone Cazares is a student at Saint Paul College. Originally from Miami, Fla., she survives Minnesota’s cruel winters by immersing herself in the Twin Cities music scene.