PBS recently broadcast the restored version of Judy Garland's 1954 vanity project, "A Star Is Born" (George Cukor directed it, but it's Judy's world and her movie). I had seen this at the Castro Theater years ago and it was such a treat to see it again. If you can get past the odd little segments of restored photo stills that move the storyline along (Warner Bros. had cut out nearly 50 minutes of the original film, which made it a box-office bomb; it was restored with the stills in 1983), sit back and enjoy the drama.
It's rare for a musical to strive for tragedy, but Judy's rising-star, Esther Blodgett, and her great love for James Mason's hopeless alcoholic film star, Norman Maine, certainly qualifies as great Hollywood soap opera. And not because he raises her to stratospheric heights of fame while his career nose-dives into obscurity, but because his endless self-destruction mirrored Garland's own. In fact, she was playing opposite of herself and that's what I like most about the film: It's hyper-reality, with Gershwin tunes. Also, she was too old for this role and her weight kept fluctuating throughout the long (over-budget) shoot. And she was never beautiful to begin with. That's what makes it hyper-real, because it just kept mirroring life and career all the way through. And she got to stick it to MGM, the "class-act" studio that dumped her. She has several scenes that parody their star-making machine and musical extravaganza aesthetic. Plus she acted her heart out--it was supposed to be her big movie come-back but the end result pretty much convinced her to leave Hollywood and focus mostly on live-performing instead.
I couldn't help thinking how unrealistic the plot would be today. Barbra Streisand attempted a remake in the 70s but the results are god-awful. Not even enjoyably bad. AVOID. Norman Maine discovering Esther Blodget and nurturing her career to become super-star, Vicki Lawrence, would be the equivelant of some drunken star on the downfall--say, Keanu Reeves--discovering me drumming in Death by Stork one night and taking me under his wing until I became the reigning drummer of Hollywood rock legends...uh...Counting Crows Revival? How about a newly formed band featuring the boyfriend of Drew Barrymore, the boyfriend of Winona Ryder and a friend of Kate Hudson's boyfriend, Owen Wilson. And me. We would be called some typical garage-band redux name--let's see, The Killers, The Strokes, The Vines--these are all taken. How about The Drastics--that's about stupid enough.
During insomnia attack #4,023, I even imagined our initial "meet cute." I know--that is socially retarded of me--but insomnia leads to brain damage; everyone knows that.
Scene: Dark, smoke-choked bar on Telegraph Street.
Keanu: Oh my God! You are an awesome drummer! Just, totally! Can I buy you a drink?
Me: (Sputter!) Uh, Mr. Reeves? What brings you to the Stork Club in Oakland?
Keanu: I don't know how I got here, but it might have involved a bus and a drug deal gone bad.
Me: That's certainly interesting. Well, thank you, you're very kind.
Keanu (to bartender): I'll have a Southern Comfort straight up and a Heineken.
Bartender: We only have Milwaukee's Finest.
Keanu: I'll have four of those. (to me) Come away with me to Hollywood. You don't belong here! I want to introduce you to some boyfriends of friends of mine...
Me: And LEAVE the band? It's taken me all my life to get to this point.
Keanu: But this bar is completely decorated with special edition Barbies! And (looking around) Christmas trees?!
Me: Yes, but Jerry Brown lives right down the street. Don't you know this neighborhood will one day be completely gentrified by the year 2045? And Death by Stork will finally headline a Saturday night.
Keanu: You need to dream bigger. I'll help you. Everyone knows I'm a nice guy...
Me: And attractive, once you've showered.
Keanu: ...but don't get too involved! I'm crazy, sister, and I'm not kidding.
Me: Oh God, you think of me as your sister. Wait, did you just order a boilermaker?
Keanu: (getting distracted) Is that Star Trek Barbie? Cool!
And so I go on to great heights in those Hollywood Hills. But Keanu ends up on "Dancing With the Stars," Season 12. If he could just hold it together enough to make it to the semi-finals! We might re-write the end so that he finds Jesus: "A Star is Born Again." Or not.
Come to think of it, I did meet Keanu Reeves in this manner. Only I wasn't drumming; I was sitting on a stoop and he almost tripped over me. But it was at a bar and he was drinking boilermakers. See--anything is possible--if you have a stage mother and you can sing like Judy Garland. And, incidentally, her 18-minute show-stopper in "A Star is Born" (literally--many people think this musical number goes on waaaay too long) goes something like this, "I was born in a trunk at the Princess Theatre--in Pocatella, Ida-hoooooooooooooo!" Oh, and James Mason was awesome too.