The Untold Story of A Star Is Born

Interview   The Untold Story of A Star Is Born
Lorna Luft, entertainer and daughter of Judy Garland, shares intimated details about the making of her parents’ version of A Star Is Born, her new book about it, her childhood, and going into the family business.
<i>A Star is Born </i>by Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance
A Star is Born by Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance Turner Classic Movies

The Hollywood classic A Star Is Born returned to the screen this fall starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in what is remarkably the fifth incarnation of the story, a Hollywood myth about a pair of star-crossed stars whose doomed relationship plays out against the Hollywood fame machine.

The story of undiscovered actor Esther Blodgett whose meteoric rise to stardom is set in counter to that of her husband Norman Maine, a self-destructive Hollywood leading man who discovers her just as his own career sputters out, has drawn both stars and audiences for over 80 years—since the premiere of What Price Hollywood? in 1932.

Four years after producing (the original) What Price Hollywood? for RKO, David Selznick released his own adaptation of the story, which introduced its new and enduring title: A Star Is Born. George Cukor, the director of RKO’s 1932 progenitor, had been approached to direct Selznick’s 1937 remake, but declined due to the striking similarities between the pictures.

Cukor had a change of heart 17 years later, signing on to direct Judy Garland’s 1954 imprint on the story for Warner Bros. A Star Is Born was a comeback picture for Garland, who was eager to reignite her film career after she was let go by MGM in 1950 after years of erratic behavior, resulting from her addiction to studio-prescribed amphetamines. The beloved Wizard of Oz star, who made a dizzying 29 films in the span of 15 years, found herself unemployable in Hollywood by the time she was 28.

Invigorated by her acclaimed comeback on the concert stage—including her famed runs at London’s Palladium and Broadway’s historic Palace—Garland and her third husband Sid Luft produced A Star Is Born, ensuring that the star would have a degree of creative control.

Broadway master playwright Moss Hart (who penned the screenplay), tailored the role of Esther Blodgett to showcase Garland’s talents as a singer, recasting the role of Esther as an undiscovered band singer-turned-movie-star re-named Vicki Lester. Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen, who delivered Garland’s signature song “Over the Rainbow,” signed on to contribute songs for the film along with lyricist Ira Gershwin, resulting in another instant classic, “The Man That Got Away.”

Studded with several show-stopping musical numbers by Judy—including “The Man That Got Away” (shot in a single take) and the lavish 11-minute “Born in a Trunk” sequence inspired by her recent Palace performance—the 1954 version was the first to establish music as a driving force in the narrative. Its lasting impact shaped both the 1976 Barbra Streisand remake and this year’s Bradley Cooper-Lady Gaga version.

Garland’s performance in A Star Is Born is legendary. Incorporating biographical nods to Judy’s personal life—including her struggles with addiction—audiences were fascinated and enthralled by the film, which was tinged with the poignant double edge of knowing Garland was both Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine.

But many don’t know the behind-the-scenes story of the making of the film and its premiere—the biggest in Hollywood history at its time—and the tragic butchering of the original 181-minute theatrical release, which was cut down by 30 minutes at the order of Warner Bros execs. Only those lucky few who saw A Star Is Born during its early theatrical release were witness to the film that Garland, Luft, and Cukor set out to make. The original negatives were all destroyed. To this day, a complete version of the original release has not been located.

Restoration efforts in the early 1980s were able to restore the original audio track from Cukor’s original cut, along with footage of several lost scenes, including two stand-out musical moments for Garland: “Here’s What I’m Here For” and “Lose That Long Face,” an exuberant tap number that bookends a shattering scene for Garland. Photos taken during the filming were panned and scanned, and incorporated fill-in over the restored audio track.

Garland and Luft’s daughter, entertainer Lorna Luft, has just published a new book chronicling the history of the film, its release, and its legacy with co-author Jeffrey Vance. A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away includes never-before-seen photographs from her family collection that capture Garland on set, and at home during the making of A Star Is Born.


Luft is also set to make her New York return this month with the premiere of To L and Back at Feinstein’s/54 Below October 23–25 in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Luft, who is a breast cancer survivor, plans to get personal in what promises to be a special engagement. She opens up about her Feinstein’s/54 Below run, and the release of her new book, a testament to her parents’ legacy.

Congratulations on the book. It’s so beautiful. It’s clear that A Star Is Born was a labor of love for your mother, and now, for you, with this book.
Lorna Luft: These photos have been with me for such a long, long, long, long time. And I thought to myself, “I think it's time to share these wonderful photographs with people who were fans of the movie. When I read that Beyoncé was doing a version with Clint Eastwood, I showed my agent these pictures. She said this would make a great book, but then the movie just sort of fell apart. So, I thought, “I’ll wait.” And I did. That was almost ten years ago.

But then when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga were doing the movie, I thought it was a fantastic, brilliant idea. And then when I showed my agent the proposal and they said, “Let’s do it."

And so I called my agent. I still remember that proposal to drag it out and let's go and do this book. And that's what I did. And I'm proud of it. I'm extraordinarily happy that people like it.

There was a lot riding on this film for your mother. She said it had to be better than anything she’d done before, and it shows on screen. She’s so vulnerable and honest in some of those key moments. You notice how moments of the film brush up against her own life, and everyone on the picture was aware that she was Esther, but she was also Norman. Was that something she ever brought up?
She really didn’t. Movies were work, like we all have. If you're an actor, it's a job. It's something that you put your heart and soul as an artist into. And then, when it's over you, close the door, and say thank you and move on. She didn't come home and talk about movies or anything related to that. I don’t wear makeup around. I know this sounds weird, but I associate a lot of things with work, for instance, makeup. I don’t wear wear any, and if I do, it’s because I’m working. I just associate it with singing, and performing and what I do for a living. And our mom was like that. When she was home, she was just our mom. That’s who she was.

There’s a wonderful picture of you during your London debut at the Palladium in 1976, behind you is a wonderful portrait of your mother in A Star Is Born. What was that like, making your debut in a place that was so special to her and her fans?
I think it's just so wonderful. It was given to the Palladium many years ago. The wonderful actor director Richard Attenborough, I think, was one who presented it. It means a lot. And because she was so beloved in England, and because English audiences… They were very, very extraordinarily loyal to her. And she filled that theatre, and she felt at home in that theatre, as she did the Palace, and so many theatres, including Carnegie Hall. And it’s special, because that portrait hangs right in a place where everyone who goes to the theatre sees that photograph.

Both of your parents had a lot riding on A Star Is Born. This was really their project together.
It was because they hadn’t done anything as far as all of that. My mom had been let go. And so when my father met her, he said, "You know, let's go back to revisit you being the stage performer that you started out to be as a child." She said, “I haven't done it for years.” He said, “Well, maybe this is a new challenge.” And then she mentioned that she'd always wanted to make A Star Is Born, because they'll have the two movies before, starting in 1932 with What Price Hollywood?, and then Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937.

My mom thought the story was so poignant because of the emotional value of the story and it did mirror her life in the sense of she went from being Francis Gumm into being Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett becomes Vicky Lester. So, it mirrored. And that's what she loved about it. It was that story that, that she loved, and all of the things that come along with fame and this business and relationships. I've always said that I never thought A Star Is Born is about Hollywood. I've always thought it was about human nature. That's why it keeps getting made. We can all understand about love and loss, and fame and addiction, and tragedy. But in the end, it's all about triumph.

There’s a theme of resilience in your mother’s life that is also mirrored in the film, and it’s part of what makes this film so special and captivating to watch. She had so much riding on this picture.
I think there's a story about resilience in all of the versions of A Star Is Born. Whether it’s the early films, the ’54 version, or the latest one, it ends triumphant after you have had your emotional rollercoaster on the ride of the film.

Bradley Cooper introduced the 1954 version yesterday on TCM, and he talked about the homages that he paid to the 1954 version in his adaptation. I wrote a note to the producer of the film, just saying, thank you.

I met Lady Gaga at the premiere, and she is so real, and so generous, and so kind. She's so confident and she really knows who she is. And Bradley Cooper seemed so genuinely touched by my loving his version, and they were both so wonderful in the film. So when I saw that yesterday on TCM, I thought, “That’s the kindest thing.” You know, the generosity of these two artists who have just done their own, new version.

Obviously, your mother’s work has been present throughout your life. But, was there ever a moment, with something like A Star Is Born, where you remember watching it and experiencing it in a new way?
It’s been an ongoing part of my life. But, you know, the reason that I wrote this book is because so many people don’t know the history of my mother's version of the original film, and the tragedy and the complete devastation of what they did to that movie. Can you imagine putting a movie out now and then taking it back two weeks later and then telling a projectionist to cut up the movie in certain spots?

Try doing that to a Spielberg film! And that’s what the book is about: the film that got away. Because when I would watch it growing up, I saw all kinds of different versions, and at that time they didn’t have footage of the stills from the restoration. I've never seen the uncut original version, and I don't think it exists.

I used to think, “This movie makes no sense?” I do vividly remember going to my father, about the scene where Norman says, “Think of a man eating a nut burger.” My father would explain to me how they shot all these scenes that had been cut. Since then, I’ve seen every version of it.

The thing that makes me laugh is that I grew up on the furniture. When I was watching it on TCM this week, I thought, “I remember those white chairs. I grew up on those white chairs!” My dad bought all the furniture from the Malibu house in the film. So I grew up on that furniture.

The film captures some incredible musical performance from your mom. It’s incredible to think that that entire 15-minute “Born In a Trunk” sequence wasn’t filmed as part of the initial script. It feels like so much of the picture has been building to that number.
They shot that six months after production wrapped on the film. Because somebody realized that when they do walk in to watch this film that she has made, they never filmed the production that they were watching.

So when they went back to film this massive production number, everybody had moved on. George Cukor wasn’t around for that, he had gone on to another film. I think everybody had to have just about had their fill of fighting with the studio. You know, after they pulled the film and cut it, and then set it back out—George Cukor never saw the film again. He said, “I won't watch it because that's not the movie I made. And he never saw it again. It hurt him.”

You’re making a special homecoming this month at Feinstein's/54 Below.
54 Below has become a very special venue for me because of the way that I am accepted, the way I'm treated there. It makes me happy. My mother had favorite venues, and 54 Below is the top of my list. I love New York City, and I love New York audiences because you know exactly where you stand. They don't suffer fools. They don't sit there politely, and applaud. They give their whole entire heart and soul.

And yes, this month is also special cause it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and I have been battling it for six years, and we all know that six months ago I had a brain tumor. So to step on the stage of my favorite venue, and to do that will be overwhelming for me.

I may need some Kleenex to share not only my story, but to share with so many many women who are just getting diagnosed, and are going through this, and who we have lost.

You’ll also have some close friends joining you for these special concerts.
Well, the show is called, To L and Back. I have guest stars, and all of them have been with me for this ride.

There’s a wonderful photo of you as a young girl where you and your brother Joey are standing outside The Palace Theatre with your mother during her last engagement there. Your family, particularly you, your mother, and your sister, have lived your whole lives with this other person in your life—your audience. What did you learn from experiencing that as a young person?
I grew up with audiences. I watched my mom. I grew up in a family where my mother adored her audience. She loved their respect, and their excitement, and their real trust. She was so honest with them, and they were honest with her. They never gave up on her. I grew up watching that. And when I just decided to just go into the family business, I thought, “That’s what it is.” What I have learned is that those are the people that are going to be with you through the good times, the bad times and all of that. You have to respect your audience. You have to give them what they want to hear, what they want to have from that evening—which is that they want to feel.

Is watching your mother’s film’s ever a complex experience for you?
They’re my home movies. I honestly think, “home movies” when I walk by the TV and they’re on. What I’m able to do, which is so gratifying, is that I have three grandchildren—and I'm watching my four-year-old watch The Wizard of Oz. She comes over to me and she says, “You know what? That's Triple G.” Because that's what they call her. They call me GG, and they call her Triple G. Watching them discover their heritage and their legacy is really, really special to me. And I get to watch a brand new set of eyes watch her.

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