*This post is part of Nathaniel’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series.
Generally speaking, I have a very weak memory of films. Even the films I love most and have watched repeatedly over time aren’t ingrained in my memory with vivid detail. My recollections are limited to an assortment of shots, scenes, lines and moods. I remember how I felt watching a particular film, but ask me the details of its plot and I’ll just stare back at you. In many ways, I see that as a blessing because it allows me to rediscover precious moments over and over again. I remain in awe of a film’s achievements like the very first time I experienced them. The point being that I’ve almost never known what shot I wanted to pick as my favorite before I revisit the film Nathaniel assigns us. There are, however, exceptions to every rule and George Cukor’s A Star Is Born proved to be just that.
I remembered four particular moments most vividly: the resplendent silhouette of Esther and Norman’s first kiss after their secret marriage, against a backdrop of a Green neon-lit doorway (and reminiscent of that famous Green silhouette in Hitchcock’s Vertigo produced four years later), Norman’s portentous walk toward the sea against the orange hue of Sunset, Esther’s heartbreaking public appearance after the passing of her husband (where her “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine” brings tears to my eyes every time), and the shot you see above.
In this early sequence, Esther, having saved Norman’s grace with her astute theatricality on stage earlier, has retired to a worn out bar with her band for an after hours practice session. Norman, who’s sobered up after his drunken public faux-pas, has been searching to find the unknown young actress who came to his rescue and he arrives at this location just as Esther is about to start her now famous rendition of The Man That Got Away. With her arresting voice, she mesmerizes Norman and the audience, alike, and when the song ends, Norman takes her for a ride that essentially begins the film’s narrative.
Cukor frames Judy Garland as if she is at the center of a painting. She’s under a spotlight where everyone else is faded to black.The lighting is at her service and so is the band. She seems to big to be contained in the frame. This one shot effectively encapsulates the entire progression of her rise to stardom, as if to reaffirm what being a star really means: the venues might be small but a star’s light shines bright. The persona – Garland’s and Esther’s – is larger than life and here, that fact is materialized in image. A star is born, indeed.