A Star Is Born

Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away


By Lorna Luft

By Jeffrey Vance

By Turner Classic Movies

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New York Times bestselling author and daughter of Judy Garland tells the story of A Star Is Born — at once the crowning achievement and greatest disappointment in her mother’s legendary career. This is a vivid account of a film classic’s production, loss, and reclamation.

A Star Is Born –– the classic Hollywood tale about a young talent rising to superstardom, and the downfall of her mentor/lover along the way — has never gone out of style. It has seen five film adaptations, but none compares to the 1954 version starring Judy Garland in her greatest role. But while it was the crowning performance of the legendary entertainer’s career, the production turned into one of the most talked about in movie history.

The story, which depicts the dark side of fame, addiction, loss, and suicide, paralleled Garland’s own tumultuous life in many ways. While hitting alarmingly close to home for the fragile star, it ultimately led to a superlative performance — one that was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history. Running far too long for the studio’s tastes, Warner Bros. notoriously slashed extensive amounts of footage from the finished print, leaving A Star is Born in tatters and breaking the heart of both the film’s star and director George Cukor.

Today, with a director’s cut reconstructed from previously lost scenes and audio, the 1954 A Star is Born has taken its deserved place among the most critically acclaimed movies of all time, and continues to inspire each new generation that discovers it. Now, Lorna Luft, daughter of Judy Garland and the film’s producer, Sid Luft, tells the story of the production, and of her mother’s fight to save her career, as only she could. Teaming with film historian Jeffrey Vance, A Star Is Born is a vivid and refreshingly candid account of the crafting, loss, and restoration of a movie classic, complemented by a trove of images from the family collection taken both on and off the set. The book also includes essays on the other screen adaptations of A Star Is Born, to round out a complete history of a story that has remained a Hollywood favorite for close to a century.


A pensive portrait of Judy Garland taken during production of A Star Is Born (1954). Photo by Bob Willoughby.


I PURSUED THE IDEA OF THIS BOOK TO CELEBRATE MY FAMILY TREE—a tree of entertainers, that begins with my grandparents owning the only movie theater in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and whose branches grew all the way to my sister and myself. These branches have spread throughout my mother’s legion of fans, from ages eight, to eighty, and beyond. Millions have been mesmerized, awed, and entertained by her movies, recordings, television shows, and concerts. And by her earth-shaking talent, charisma, and artistry.

Our family tree is a vision of beauty, strength, love, commitment, and resilience. It has also been a lightning rod for tragedy and sadness. More than anything however, this tree has always been a beacon of hope for myself, my children, my grandchildren, and for everyone that can look up toward the sky and experience A Star Is Born.

My coauthor, Jeffrey Vance, and I have been working on this project on and off since 2010. As a film historian and author of several books on the history of film, he is the perfect person to explain the genesis of A Star Is Born and how this book came about, which you will find in the Introduction.



“A CAREER IS A CURIOUS THING,” NORMAN MAINE TELLS ESTHER Blodgett, brilliantly portrayed by Judy Garland, early in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954). “Talent isn’t always enough. You need a sense of timing—an eye for seeing the turning point—for recognizing the big chance when it comes and grabbing it.” A Star Is Born depicts the perfect storm of a great chance and the luminous talent to realize it. But despite the confluence of genius and ambition that find themselves simultaneously portrayed and manifested within A Star Is Born, the film failed to achieve the Hollywood apotheosis desired by its star, Judy Garland and its producer, Michael Sidney Luft (known as Sid Luft). This book tells the compelling story of the making of A Star Is Born, the film that was to be Garland’s crowning achievement but instead—and undeservedly—marked the end of her great career as a motion picture star.

The main focus of our book recounts the behind-the-scenes narrative of the making of Judy Garland’s A Star Is Born, and explores the film’s successes and failures. It has been a long gestating project for Lorna, who visited the film set as a baby, and jokes that A Star Is Born is the closest her parents ever came to making a “home movie.” Lorna’s informal conversations with the film’s costar, James Mason, augment memories and tales of the production heard from her parents. Newfound information has been culled from the massive amount of documentation that survives in the Warner Bros. Archives held at the University of Southern California and the many relevant collections of papers (including those of director George Cukor) held by the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. My collaboration with Lorna began in 2010, when she encouraged me to interview people associated with Judy Garland and A Star Is Born, including the various notables who attended the film’s extraordinary star-studded Hollywood premiere. Over the next two years, I was able to speak with thirty people. Over a third of these interview subjects have since passed on. Those precious interviews, whether referenced or not, have informed the text in myriad ways.

The book’s illustrations draw mainly from Lorna’s own extensive collection, and many have never before been published. The majority of these photographs derive from a complete keybook set of all the behind-the-scenes stills taken by the film’s unit photographer, Pat Clark. Important images from special shoots by celebrated photographers Robert “Bob” Willoughby, Sanford H. Roth, and John Engstead supplement Lorna’s materials, along with classic scene stills, frame enlargements, and ephemera, to chronicle the A Star Is Born story both in words and images.

A Star Is Born is a film with a rich history and one of Hollywood’s favorite stories since 1932, when the precursor film, George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?, was released to theaters. Director William A. Wellman did his own version in 1937, rechristening it A Star Is Born, and actress Barbra Streisand produced her own rendition in 1976. I have included essays on all of these productions, to provide context for Judy Garland’s film.

Even when What Price Hollywood? was conceived in the early sound era, movies about the movies were nothing new. Hollywood always has been fond of self-regard, and, sometimes, self-flagellation, reflecting back its own image comically, tragically, and—with the advent of “talkies”—musically. In the ancien régime of Hollywood, Charles Chaplin conjured comedy shorts such as the one-reel The Masquerader (1914) and A Film Johnnie (1914), as well as the two-reelers His New Job (1915) and Behind the Screen (1916), depicting the behind-the-scenes workings of moviemaking. Notable silent feature-length films with a backdrop of Hollywood include Maurice Tourneur’s A Girl’s Folly (1917), the Mabel Normand starring vehicle The Extra Girl (1923), Rupert Hughes’s Souls for Sale (1923), James Cruze’s Hollywood (1923), the Colleen Moore–starring production Ella Cinders (1926), and King Vidor’s Show People (1928), starring Marion Davies.

Judy Garland with daughter Lorna Luft, 1953. Photo by John Engstead.

Hollywood always has been fond of self-regard, and, sometimes, self-flagellation, reflecting back its own image comically, tragically, and—with the advent of “talkies”—musically.

What Price Hollywood? was the most significant self-examination of Hollywood culture of the early talking-film period. Other notable film-centric films of the 1930s include Raoul Walsh’s Going Hollywood (1933) starring Marion Davies and Bing Crosby and Hollywood Hotel (1937), both musicals of the 42nd Street (1933) variety. Hollywood Cavalcade (1939) is a nostalgic view of Hollywood’s early days and employs many silent-film veterans. The next decade produced at least one outstanding Hollywood tale: Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941), which concerns a movie director, disillusioned with Hollywood high-style comedy, who hobos through the countryside in search of true-to-life inspiration.

In the 1950s, Hollywood looked in the mirror more often. Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) delves into the deepening madness of fictitious silent movie queen Norma Desmond, played by real-life silent movie queen Gloria Swanson. Nicholas Ray’s film noir In a Lonely Place (1950) involves a tormented screenwriter suspected of murder. Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) features four former studio colleagues who reflect on the flexible ethical standards of their industry. Hollywood history and pretense are satirized in the musical comedy brilliance of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

After the 1950s, the notable films reflecting moviemaking culture decrease in number but nevertheless include such greats as Federico Fellini’s (1963), the filmmaker’s avant-garde autobiographical exploration of a director experiencing a creative block, while François Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973) presents the professional and personal problems facing the cast and crew during production of a movie; The Stunt Man (1980) features a fugitive of the law who stumbles onto a movie set and becomes a stuntman for the film’s autocratic director; and Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) is a black comedy (containing many celebrity cameos) in which a film executive murders a screenwriter, courts his girlfriend, and gets away with the crime, while ending up the head of the studio. Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994) is a celebration of movie-making as practiced by the low-budget filmmaker Ed Wood. Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) delves into the creative world of film pioneer Georges Méliès. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist (2011) reconsiders the falling movie idol/rising star fable, but transfers it to Hollywood of the silent-film era and gives it a happy ending. The Artist is an homage to the original A Star Is Born story, made by a French director and with two French stars, filmed on location in Los Angeles. It is an outsider’s valentine to the enduringly fertile, derided, yet beloved setting: Hollywood. La La Land (2016) muses on the power, but also the fragility, of dreams, sets those dreams to music, and ravishingly photographs them in real Los Angeles locations. All of these movies draw on Hollywood life as it was formed in the first half of the twentieth century: Some were cautionary tales; others chronicled the myths that quickly grew up around the motion picture industry and the culture it engendered.

Other artistic forms have also explored the American film industry. Predating What Price Hollywood?, Merton of the Movies, a 1922 novel by Harry Lean Wilson was adapted into a successful Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly. (Merton of the Movies was adapted into a feature film in 1924 and again in 1947.) Another key theatrical work in this genre is Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1930 Broadway hit Once in a Lifetime, a satirical comedy about Hollywood during the transition to sound. (Moss Hart also wrote the script for Garland’s version of A Star Is Born.) No serious consideration of the literature concerning the American movie industry would be complete without mentioning such superb novels as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished roman à clef of 1930s Hollywood The Last Tycoon; Nathanael West’s 1939 The Day of the Locust; and Budd Schulberg’s 1941 What Makes Sammy Run? Hollywood culture during the studio system even enjoyed a serious ethnographic examination. Anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker’s 1950 text Hollywood: The Dream Factory, remains a fascinating study of the American film industry as it existed in the late 1940s.

Holding a special place across the decades of classic films, important novels, and theatrical works that stand alongside it, A Star Is Born continues to resonate. What is it about the Star Is Born story that proves so compelling as to always find it being remade? One answer is that, at its basic level, it examines the father/daughter dynamic. This would have appealed to Judy Garland due to her unresolved relationship to her own father and also relates to her own marriage, as the older man nurturing the younger woman certainly reflects aspects of the Sid Luft–Judy Garland relationship. But while the tale told in A Star Is Born in any iteration no doubt boasts many superlative elements, it is Judy Garland that audiences remember. This is attributable not only to the film as a showcase for her immeasurable talents, but also to the sentimental mirroring of reality for Judy Garland herself within the narrative, especially as it relates to her comeback to films after a four-year absence.

Garland’s impressive relaunch of her brand included triumphant concert engagements at the London Palladium and New York City’s Palace Theatre in 1951–1952.

A Star Is Born was Garland’s turning point, but was also George Cukor’s. The film was the director’s first musical, his first film in color, and his first in the widescreen format. The ambitious project was met with much skepticism within the industry. Judy Garland’s career—beset by severe personal and professional setbacks, which included dependency on prescription medication, unreliability at the studio, suicide attempts, and depressive episodes that left her unable to function—appeared to be moribund by 1950, only to be reawakened that year by the magical kiss of her crafty Prince Charming, Sid Luft. As Garland contemplated some kind of show business return, she and her new partner in the “Judy Garland business,” realized that there was not enough money in radio; she had no record contract; and television was in its infancy (not to mention that she had no interest in the medium). Garland’s impressive relaunch of her brand included triumphant concert engagements at the London Palladium and New York City’s Palace Theatre in 1951–1952. After the successes of her live performances in London, New York City, and California, a movie—a big one—was the natural next step. A motion picture comeback with all the bells and whistles could be one ticket to regaining her celluloid stardom.

Garland touches up her makeup during a break in filming the famous “Born in a Trunk” sequence of A Star Is Born (1954). Photo by Bob Willoughby.

Meanwhile, movie studios were scrambling to combat the growing threat of television. Studio bosses developed new technologies, even resorting to gimmicks, to pry Americans off their sofas and back into movie theaters. Concurrently, the government required the major studios—Paramount; Loew’s Incorporated (the parent company of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer); RKO; Twentieth Century Fox; Warner Bros.; Universal; Columbia; and United Artists—to divest themselves of their movie theater chains, in order to break up a monopoly as a result of the landmark antitrust case United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 US 131 (1948). The sale of the theater chains meant the studios no longer were obliged to create product to fill screens fifty-two weeks a year, nor did they need to keep a stable of stars under long-term contract. The antitrust case, along with the popularity of television, was the beginning of the demise of the Hollywood studio system.

Jack L. Warner, as head of production at Warner Bros., was looking for a surefire hit in an uncertain period after the sale of the Warner theater circuit and as cinematic innovations were developed to enhance the moviegoing experience. 3-D required special glasses to experience its leap-off-the-screen surprises. Cinerama was a widescreen process utilizing three 35mm projectors simultaneously creating one enormous image for a very wide and curved screen. CinemaScope was a widescreen process without the expense of Cinerama. Television was basic and couldn’t offer such novelties, but it was free and right there in the living room. Jack L. Warner was ready to invest some funds from the theater divestiture to expand CinemaScope and Technicolor. A musical film with Stereophonic sound would be a bonus, but a comeback for an undisputed movie star of the first magnitude, Judy Garland, in a tried-and-tested property, A Star Is Born, appeared ideal. That was the opportunity Garland needed—a splashy, all-stops-out showcase. Sid Luft, a gambler at heart, needed to prove himself as well. Luft and Garland presented the idea to Jack L. Warner as a package deal, as they already had secured certain rights to the 1937 film version. Warner himself had seen Garland in concert at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium in 1952 and saw firsthand that she could bewitch capacity audiences with her talent and megawatt star persona.

The script made the character of Esther Blodgett a singer instead of a fledgling actress, to take advantage of Judy’s talents.

Garland and Luft carefully assembled a superlative team of colleagues to reimagine A Star Is Born out of its 1937 progenitor. Garland, a former top star of unmatched talent, also brought a lot of baggage onto the studio lot: a fragile constitution, dependency on prescription medication, habits of lateness and volatility, and unmanaged manic depression. She maintained that A Star Is Born couldn’t merely be very good; it had to be the greatest film of her career. The script, by Moss Hart, was based on the 1937 film screenplay by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Robert Carson (from the Academy Award–winning original story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson). Hart’s script is not a facsimile of the 1937 version but rather an improvement on the original; still, it embraces complete sequences from the original that Hart wisely concluded simply couldn’t be further enhanced.

The movie’s scenario, so unsettlingly comparable to Judy’s own backstory, is a meta–“Hollywood on Hollywood” tale: the consequences of the ascent of a new star, while her mentor, a major player in the movies, falls into decline and self-destruction. The script made the character of Esther Blodgett a singer instead of a fledgling actress, to take advantage of Judy’s talents. However, much of the plot remains the same as it was in 1937: Norman Maine meets Esther Blodgett and helps establish her film career as the renamed Vicki Lester. They ultimately marry and her professional career soars while his falters due to his severe addiction to alcohol. She plans to leave her career to save him, but he commits suicide to save her. At a Hollywood event shortly after his death by suicide, she memorably introduces herself not as Vicki Lester but as “Mrs. Norman Maine.”

Judy persuaded Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin to compose the film’s unforgettable music and lyrics, including “The Man That Got Away,” which became one of Garland’s signature songs. However, the film’s production was beset with troubles, fueling the Hollywood pessimists who maintained that it was doomed from the start. Jack L. Warner experimented with various technological enhancements early in the film’s production before selecting CinemaScope and Eastmancolor, which proved costly. Garland’s ongoing personal problems caused delays as well, escalating the film’s negative cost to $5,019,770 (not including distribution and promotion costs). Garland came close to admitting culpability for these overruns in an article published in 1957: “I’d be the last to deny the picture took an awful lot of time and went way over the budget. But there was a reason for all that. I’m a perfectionist; George Cukor, who directed, is a perfectionist; and so is Sid. We have to have it right; and to make it right took time. It was right too. It was a good picture—as good as we’d hoped it would be.”1

The crowds who mobbed the Pantages Theatre to be near the event were estimated to be over twenty thousand strong.

A Star Is Born premiered at the RKO Pantages Theatre in Hollywood on September 29, 1954. The three-hour film—the second-most-expensive Hollywood production at that time, after David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946)—drew an audience of more than 250 stars, including Gary Cooper, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, and James Dean. Warner Bros. lavished on A Star Is Born the biggest advertising and marketing launch in their studio history. They even touted the production’s expense (“$6,000,000 and 2½ Years to Make It!”) as part of their campaign.2

The crowds who mobbed the Pantages Theatre to be near the event were estimated to be over twenty thousand strong. In addition to a dozen radio stations, KTTV television broadcast the festivities live in Los Angeles as a half-hour local television special with a portion of the telecast aired on NBC national television on the New York City–based The Tonight Show. After the premiere, Jack L. Warner hosted a lavish party at the famous Cocoanut Grove nightclub at the Ambassador Hotel.

The reviews were laudatory toward Garland, and the film as a whole won virtually unanimous praise. Those who saw the original, uncut film were mesmerized. The film grossed nearly $700,000 at only seventeen theaters in its first week of release, a figure industry trade paper Variety described as “A showing a little short of phenomenal” and described the film’s commercial potential as “Boffola box office, period. It will not only mop up as a commercial entry [but] sets a number of artistic standards. Fort Knox, move over.”3 Life magazine declared, “A Star Is Born, the year’s most worrisome movie, has turned out to be one of its best.… A brilliantly staged, scored, and photographed film, was worth all the effort.… But principal credit for A Star Is Born unquestionably goes to imaginative, tireless, talented Judy herself.”4 Time proclaimed that Judy “gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history.”5

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.

Two weeks after the premiere, Harry Warner, Jack L.Warner’s elder brother and president of Warner Bros. Pictures, decreed the film was too long and had to be cut by over thirty minutes from the original 181-minute running time to placate exhibitor demand for a shorter film. Although Gone With the Wind (1939) had been reissued in 1954 at 220 minutes (not including intermission) and proved one of the top-grossing films that summer, Benjamin Kalmenson, president of Warner Bros. distribution, dismissed this precedent and ordered A Star Is Born cut down to 154 minutes. The press and public condemned the decision. The film’s revenues and positive word of mouth quickly evaporated. The unique motion picture experience created by George Cukor and Judy Garland suddenly became a deeply unsatisfactory one. “A Star Is Shorn” headlined New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther’s 1954 assessment of the shortened version. Crowther lamented, “… virtually every cut in the picture leaves a gaping and baffling hole, so that not only the emotional pattern but the very sense of the thing is shorn.”6

Garland’s subsequent loss of the Best Actress Academy Award is still regarded as one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Oscars. Despite the superb showcase of her talent and the verisimilitude of her performance, Garland lost to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl (1954). The Academy’s rebuke of Garland and the film itself is demonstrated in the fact that out of the six categories in which it was nominated, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Art Direction, Costume Design, Music Score, and Song (“The Man That Got Away”), A Star Is Born didn’t win a single award. The dismissal of her film by the Academy and the film’s commercial failure meant the cancellation of her production company’s multipicture deal with Warner Bros. 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, she was forced to return to concerts and began to perform on television to earn a living and appeared in only a handful of films thereafter.

In 1982, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, through its Academy Foundation, spearheaded the reconstruction (a full restoration was not possible as all the footage could not be found) of the full-length version of the film. A new version was assembled using still photograph montages animating the missing footage with the whole original soundtrack running 176 minutes. Warner Bros., working with the Academy, supported this work and their involvement with the film’s reconstruction extended to supporting a tour of the new version in six major cities. The world premiere was held before a capacity crowd at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on July 7, 1983, and enjoyed a clamor of critical and popular acclaim.


  • "A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away is delightfully full of back story for the first four versions. Ms. Luft and Mr. Vance began their collaboration in 2010 and clearly did all it took to get the final product, a gem for Judy Garland fans, as well as for film buffs and Hollywood aficionados. This semi-biographical book is everything you'll ever want to know about Garland's 1954 version but never thought to ask.

    New York Journal of Books

On Sale
Sep 18, 2018
Page Count
248 pages
Running Press

Lorna Luft

About the Author

Lorna Luft is the daughter of Judy Garland and Sid Luft. She is the author of the bestselling book Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir (Pocket Books, 1998). After making her television debut on her mother’s 1963 Christmas special, Luft embarked on her own career as a singer and actress on the stage, film, and TV. She has performed on and off Broadway in Lolita, and Promises, Promises; in national tours of Grease and Guys and Dolls; at the Rainbow Room, the Hollywood Bowl, and the White House. Luft lives in Palm Springs, CA.

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Jeffrey Vance

About the Author

Jeffrey Vance is a film historian, author, and producer. His books include Douglas Fairbanks (2008) and a trilogy of volumes on comedy legends: Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003), Harold Lloyd: Master Comedian (2002), and Buster Keaton Remembered (2001). Vance lives in Los Angeles, CA.

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