How 'A Star Is Born' Became One Of Judy Garland's 'Biggest Heartbreaks' | Connecticut Public Radio
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How 'A Star Is Born' Became One Of Judy Garland's 'Biggest Heartbreaks'

Feb 5, 2019

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The latest version of "A Star Is Born" is nominated for seven Oscars, including best picture, leading actor and leading actress. This is the fourth version of the film. The 1954 version, starring Judy Garland, is a classic. Garland's daughter, singer and actress Lorna Luft, has written a book about "A Star Is Born" and what her mother went through while making it. Luft's father, Sid Luft, produced the 1954 version and was married to Garland when it was made.

Judy Garland's performance in "A Star Is Born" has special meaning for our guest interviewer Sonari Glinton, who we invited to talk with Luft. You're probably familiar with Sonari from his reports on NPR. I'll let him take it from here.

SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: Books, films and dissertations have been written about why Judy Garland appeals to the gay community. I'm not really sure why other gays love her. Maybe it's that we're not afraid to admit that we love her. But for me, there's one movie - actually, one number that says it all. And it's this number.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STAR IS BORN")

JUDY GARLAND: (As Esther Blodgett, singing) I was born in a trunk in the Princess Theatre in Pocatello, Idaho.

GLINTON: "Born In A Trunk" is a 26-minute, ridiculously elaborate musical sequence plopped in the middle of a three-hour-plus movie. This number - no, this movie in a movie features Judy Garland in character onstage and in the spotlight. And she sings a fairy-tale version of her story of growing up in a small-time show-business family and how, through hard work and perseverance, she became a star. And as a curious, attention-hungry kid, that scene made me think beyond Chicago's South Shore or a good steady job and want to be a part of the show. And it's kind of funny that I could perform this entire sequence as a kid. As you can imagine, my parents were a little concerned about me prancing around singing Judy Garland songs - not really because she was a gay icon but because I was a little black boy singing "Swanee."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWANEE")

GARLAND: (Singing) Swanee, how I love you, how I love you. My dear old Swanee, I'd give the world.

GLINTON: "Swanee," in the 1980s, while Prince and Michael Jackson were climbing the charts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWANEE")

GARLAND: (Singing) D-I-X-I-E-ven though my mammy's...

GLINTON: But this was my big bang - discovering Judy Garland, Harold Arlen and the Gershwins. And soon I'd have these very definite opinions about the American Songbook - I'd fall in love with hip-hop later. But I didn't stop at "A Star Is Born." I moved onto Astaire and Rogers, Sinatra and Fitzgerald. And pretty soon, I was obsessed with old-time radio. And now I'm sitting in NPR studios in Culver City, the Heart of Screenland, less than a mile away from where Judy Garland filmed all her MGM musicals and "A Star Is Born." So that's the story behind why I'm so honored to speak with Judy Garland's daughter, Lorna Luft, who wrote the book "A Star Is Born: Judy Garland And The Film That Got Away." Lorna Luft, welcome to FRESH AIR.

LORNA LUFT: Thank you so much.

GLINTON: Your mother made "A Star Is Born" a few years after kind of the most iconic part of her career. You know, she made movies like "Wizard Of Oz," the "Andy Hardy" movies, "Meet Me In St. Louis." And she was MGM's highest-grossing star. When filming of "A Star Is Born" began, where was she at in her career?

LUFT: So when she and my dad were together and wanted to do something together, she said, you know, what I've always wanted to do? I've always wanted to do "A Star Is Born" as a musical. She had been fired from MGM at this point in her life. And she didn't think that she was able to make another blockbuster film. And my dad said, yes, you can. And that's when they decided that "A Star Is Born" was going to be it.

GLINTON: And Jack Warner is, you know, the head of Warner Bros. Studios at the time. And they gather in retrospect what looks to be, like, just the most amazing array of people to be in this movie. They have George Cukor, who is, you know, famous for being a, quote, "women's director." He famously directed Katharine Hepburn, Ira Gershwin of - you know, Ira Gershwin, Harold Arlen, who wrote some of the best songs ever. And then you have Judy Garland. How could it go wrong?

LUFT: (Laughter) Yeah, I've asked myself that a lot. And the answer is that unfortunately the film ran long. And it was too long for the distributors to put extra showings in the movie theater. But the movie came out to rave reviews. But then the distributors in New York called Jack Warner and said, it's too long, and we can't get enough showings in, and you have to cut it. And then Jack Warner took the film away from them. And he cut it up, and he'd cut chunks out of this movie. In fact, he did send the movie to movie houses for projectionists to cut up, and they threw the film away. And so the only people that saw the uncut version of "A Star Is Born" with my mom were the people who saw it for the first two weeks in the theater. And then it was taken away and chopped up, and it never made any sense.

GLINTON: You know, what I wonder about this movie is - when it - by the time it premieres, it has the biggest budget in Hollywood, the biggest premiere - big, big, big. And I wonder now, in retrospect, why not start off with a smaller film, right? Why not build to something this large, you know? Do you get what I'm saying? It seems like so much pressure to put on someone who had just been through the mill.

LUFT: Yeah, I do. But she wanted to do it. She wasn't signed to Warner Bros. She didn't have a movie contract. So it's a huge task to do. But my mother was used to that. And when you see all the films that she did when she was younger, and that schedule was just brutal - it really was. I did a film that has sort of become a cult favorite. It was a movie that I'm very proud of. It was a film called "Grease 2."

GLINTON: Oh, we know.

(LAUGHTER)

LUFT: OK, all right.

GLINTON: Or at least I do. I'm sorry.

LUFT: OK. And the makeup gentleman on "Grease 2," his name was Charles Schram. He was the makeup artist on "The Wizard Of Oz." And he said to me - he said, do you know we used to do with your mom? He said, because she had to be on the set at 6 am, we would go to her house at 3:30 in the morning. And we would wake her up, and we would wash her hair. We would set it. We would do her makeup. And so we could drive through the gates of MGM in Culver City at 6 am, and she'd be ready to walk on a set. That's how they got around the union rules because there were child labor rules. Well, that's how they got around them. So when you start taking someone who's a child and putting them through all of the work that she did, and when you look at all of her films, the dance numbers, the singing numbers, all of that, she knew what she was going to do in "A Star Is Born" because this was her - not only comeback but this was her movie as an adult.

GLINTON: Well, let's talk about the production of the movie. The Broadway legend Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, and he adapted it from the previous films. But he tailored it for your mom. How did he tailor this film specifically for Judy Garland?

LUFT: Moss was so magnificent and so talented that he adapted from the previous films, but he also adapted to who was playing that role. And I've always thought that in the history of film, there's not a scene that will tug at your heartstrings as there is in, what I call, the dressing room scene. And those words that she is saying and those words and that entire scene is so hard to watch. And I once asked my dad years and years later, did she know that she was sort of talking about herself? And he said, that's why it's so brilliant.

GLINTON: We have a bit of that scene queued up. And one of the hearts of this film is not just stardom but addiction, which is what makes Moss Hart's writing so poignant, right? This is probably one of the best dramatic scenes in film, and as which - and it's a moment when during the movie, your mother, as Vicki Lester, is in the middle of performing an upbeat number. And the head of the movie studio, Oliver Niles, comes into her dressing room. And she has a breakdown.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A STAR IS BORN")

GARLAND: (As Vicki) He really wants to stop drinking, Oliver. He's trying very hard. I know he is. But what is it? What is it that makes him want to destroy himself? You've known him longer than anyone else. Tell me what it is, please. I don't care. Just tell me.

CHARLES BICKFORD: (As Oliver) Don't you think I've tried through the years to know why, to help him? I don't know, Esther. I don't know what the answer is.

GARLAND: (As Vicki) Well, I've got to find the answer. You don't know what it's like to watch somebody you love just crumble away bit by bit, day by day in front of your eyes and stand there helpless. Love isn't enough. I thought it was. I thought I was the answer for Norman. But love isn't enough for him.

GLINTON: One of the weird things about this film is the blend of what's true, what's not true. I mean, and this is - that's the - what I took away from this book is this confusion. And I wonder how you dealt with it because one of the things that really struck me was that your dad bought the furniture from the set and used it in your home. So you - not only did you go to the set as a young child, you physically grew up on the set of "A Star Is Born." I mean, like, how do you determine what's real and what's not real after, you know, so many experiences like that?

LUFT: Well, you know, I was born into a family of show business people. My grandmother owned - my grandfather owned a theater in Grand Rapids, Minn. And my grandmother used to play the piano for the silent films. So it was always about showbusiness. So I didn't think anything was strange about how I grew up. (Laughter) I'd sort of like to share with you what Christmas was like in our house.

When I was a small child, I used to go to sleep at night and - or in December. And I would wake up. And my whole house was decorated because my mother called the set decorators at MGM and said, come over and do the house (laughter). And then she would call them and say, all right. Take it all down. Well, that's how I thought you did Christmas.

GROSS: We're listening to guest interviewer Sonari Glinton talking with Lorna Luft, one of Judy Garland's daughters and author of the book "A Star Is Born: Judy Garland And The Film That Got Away." We'll hear more of their interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUDY GARLAND'S "THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the conversation that guest interviewer Sonari Glinton recorded with Lorna Luft, author of the new book "A Star Is Born: Judy Garland And The Film That Got Away." Luft is Garland's daughter. Luft's father, Sid Luft, produced the 1954 version of "A Star Is Born" starring Judy Garland.

GLINTON: I have a coming out story. I'm a gay man. And when I came out, there was this really dramatic moment talking to my mother. And I said to her - Ma, how could you not know I was gay? I was obsessed with Judy Garland since I was in first grade. And my mother, to her glory, said, Sonari, many young boys are obsessed with Judy Garland. I was like - oh, but we have one thing in common (laughter). Do you get tired of hearing those stories? I mean, there's a part of me that wants to avoid, you know, walking up to you on the street and being like, your mom - tremendously important to me. But how does that part of her legacy make you feel? Do people do that all the time to you?

LUFT: I'm incredibly proud, and I am incredibly grateful to the gay community for keeping my mom's legacy alive and keeping her relevant. I've heard many, many, many stories. And I think to myself, her life made it easier for you to come to a conclusion of saying to your mom and dad, this is who I am. And I think that's great. I'm on the board of a fantastic charity called the Stonewall Initiative Gives Back. And of course, the Stonewall riots happened the night of my mother's funeral, and that is when the beginning of the gay uprising started. I am a part of that history, and I carry that with pride. I take it very seriously.

GLINTON: Well, thank you for that. I really appreciate that. One of my favorite sequences in all of film is the "Born In The Trunk" sequence. It is a wonder to behold. Now, I love this number. I am also a black man, and there's a large part of it that's uncomfortable for me because there's a lot of sort of black dancers dancing to "Swanee." And it just - there's a bit of me that's like, oh. It is deeply uncomfortable, as are a couple of other, you know, films of your mom's, like, where she appears in blackface, et cetera. I mean, I wonder what you - when - in viewing the film now, what do you think about that part of it?

LUFT: I just realize it was a time. And you have to go back through history, and you have to go back and know what was not considered to be what we would consider today to be unacceptable. It was just what happened. I mean, we know that you can't do that today because it's just not right.

GLINTON: You end your book with - in pretty dramatic fashion. You had your mom reburied from New York to Hollywood Forever. I was surprised, when I was doing a story, to see her grave there. Tell me - why was it important for you to do that now?

LUFT: Because I had to wait for legal reasons for, basically, a lot of people to die. And when my mom passed away in 1969, we never had a say of where she was going to be buried because her husband at the time just made an arrangement. And that was it, and we had no say. And I always wanted to have her moved to - I live in California. I live in Los Angeles. I wanted to be able to go and see her, and I wanted to have a special place.

And Hollywood Forever was so wonderful. And I went out, and I saw it. And I said, this is where she should be. And then they have this fantastic whole building called the Judy Garland Pavilion, where she is, and it's so perfect. And that's what she deserves because that's where people want to come and pay their respects. And that's why I had her moved.

GLINTON: Lorna Luft, thank you.

LUFT: Thank you.

GROSS: Our thanks to guest interviewer Sonari Glinton and to Lorna Luft, author of "A Star Is Born: Judy Garland And The Film That Got Away." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be environmental photographer James Balog, who has been documenting the places, people and animals most affected by rising waters, extreme storms, massive wildfires and air pollution associated with climate change. The new documentary "The Human Element" follows him to those places. I hope you'll join us.

Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUDY GARLAND AND RAY HEINDORF SONG, "THE MAN THAT GOT AWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.