Star Is Born, A (1954): Cukor-Judy Garland Masterpiece–Part One

Part One    
In the summer of 1953, Cukor accepted with great enthusiasm producer and husband Sid Luft and Judy Garland’s offer to direct their new musical version of A Star Is Born.
A Star Is Born was Cukor’s first musical and also his first picture in color. The story of a doomed Hollywood couple, she on the way up while he on the way down, was a remake of the 1937 film with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, and it also resembled Cukor’s own film What Price Hollywood? Cukor used his comedy skills to introduce some lightness to the story’s more tragic elements.
Ten-Month Shoot
In August, Cukor took one week off in San Francisco to get some strength for what he knew would be a pretty rugged picture. Indeed, the production took about 10 months: shooting began in October 1953 and post-production was not completed until July 1954. The deal between Luft’s Transcona Enterprises and Warners called for a film budgeted at 2.5 million dollars, but it ended up costing 6, much above the average for the time. Cukor was blamed for the exorbitant budget, but he didn’t care: making this film was so absorbing and stimulating that he could hardly wait to get to the studio each day.
George Huene came back from Spain to serve as the film’s color consultant, soon overextending himself and getting involved in “matters of taste” in every department. Huene saw his function in coordinating the production’s color design, sets, props, and costumes. He never understood why there was such a loose liaison among the various elements in color pictures. The model for the film was Moulin Rouge; Cukor knew that the success of John Huston’s picture was due to a large extent to its exciting use of color.
Casting the Male Lead
A Star Is Born was made for Garland–it was a comeback vehicle for the actress, who hadn’t made a film since MGM had dropped her from Annie Get Your Gun in 1950. Cukor’s chief problem was casting the male lead, Norman Maine the alcoholic actor, whose career is on the skid row. Separately and jointly, Cukor and Garland courted Cary Grant, but he had serious doubts about the role.
Cary Grant
One afternoon, sitting by the swimming pool of his house, Cukor watched the great Cary Grant read the part.  He had tears in his eyes–it was the finest performance he had ever seen Grant give. “Please, think about it again,” Cukor told Grant, “It’s a terrific part.”
This time, however, Cukor knew he was bound to lose. Grant was considering retirement from the screen, but Cukor knew there was another reason for his refusal. The film’s plot was too similar in some respects to the reel and real career of Grant, whose recent films were not successful.  The star feared that the public might see this link between life on screen and off.
Stuart Granger
At that time, British actor Stuart Granger was informally approached by Cukor for the role. “We started rehearsing in his garden, with his goddamn dogs licking at me,” Granger recalled, “But the first line I ever said, George started correcting me. He said, `No, no, no, not like that,’ which completely threw me. He was immediately correcting me, instead of letting me find my way.”
Unfortunately, there was no deal signed. “George would ring me up and say, ‘Hey Jim, let’s rehearse tomorrow.’ It was done very unethically. I should never have gone there until I had a firm offer. And at the same time I was doing it, they were trying to get Cary Grant, so there was all that shit going on.”
Granger rehearsed with Cukor for three mornings, two of them with Judy. “Judy was really funny,” said Granger, “If Judy was upset, she just popped a couple of pills. Nothing worried Judy, because she’s not quite such a sensitive actor as I am.” “The whole thing was set for her, Maine was subservient to her, which was not the case in the original. Fredric March was the important part in the original, but Cukor’s was obviously a musical about the woman.”
“In the end, I couldn’t take it,” Granger said, “so I got a bit drunk one night, called George up and said, `I’m coming down to see you.’ He said, `Oh, no, no.’ I drove down to his house and said, `George, sit down and shut up. Don’t wag your finger at me, and I will tell you how to play this fucking scene.’ I played the scene, and he said, ‘Why didn’t you do that before?’ `Because you wouldn’t give me a chance. You can take the script and stick it up your ass.’ And I walked out.” Granger bragged that “James Mason was very good, but he would have been much better. “I can play a shit, like Fredric March was,” he noted, “James is a wonderful actor, but he wasn’t right for the part, he wasn’t a shit.”
James Mason
By the time James Mason was cast, Cukor had been turned down by every major star in Hollywood, including Humphrey Bogart, Marlon Brando, and Montgomery Clift. Mason jumped at the opportunity, for this was a most prestigious project, for which he would receive his best pay to date, 250,000 dollars for a 22 week shooting schedule. Cukor was pleased about Mason, whom he later described as hard-working, modest, and one of the most charming actors he’d ever worked with.
In public, Cukor told everyone that Mason was a most agreeable actor, but in actuality, they didn’t get along. After the film’s preview, Cukor reported to Mason that the audience was moved by his “extraordinarily fine performance,” but also added, “You see what comes of paying heed to your director.” Mason would receive the best reviews of his career and his first (and only) Best Oscar nomination.
Cukor had very specific ideas of how the part of Norman Maine should be played, and he tried to impose them on Mason, but the actor wanted to do something more personal. Mason’s wife, Pamela, later told Stewart Granger that she had never known him to be so upset on a film; Mason was actually ill for two weeks. “George used to drive him mad,” Granger said, “giving him intonations, telling him how to say his lines.”
In the end, Cukor relented and let Mason do his own thing. In the scene where Maine breaks down and decides to commit suicide, Mason asked Cukor to just keep the camera close on him for a long time, to register slowly and intimately the many changes in his feelings.  Cukor listened, and it became one of the film’s most emotionally powerful moments.





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