The title of the new book “A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away” has multiple meanings even just on the surface.
It could refer to Garland’s well documented troubles on the set including her struggles against ill health and addictions while she was dealing with the intense pressures to make a major comeback with the film.
It could also suggest the botched editing from the movie’s original running time of 196 minutes – the longest length of any Hollywood film since “Gone With the Wind” at the time – down to 181 minutes for its Hollywood premiere (which was met with enthusiastic reviews) and then the severe cut to a disjointed 154 minutes to appease theater owners who wanted an additional daily showing. (Even worse: all the cut footage was destroyed.)
But it wasn’t until reading this book, co-written by Lorna Luft, Garland’s youngest daughter, that the true meaning became clear: “A Star is Born,” which had been difficult for Luft to watch because it hit so close to home, almost got away from her in the sense of understanding its true greatness and what the film meant to her mother. And if it had gotten away from Luft, we now understand, it would have gotten away from us all.
Luft was only 16 when her mother died – the same age Garland was when she played Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” – yet she understood her mother’s struggles as best a teen could, even taking on the huge responsibility of being her caretaker. So when she saw “A Star is Born” at age 18 for the first time, it was painful. At that point, she had only seen her mother on screen in her youthful work like “Wizard of Oz” and the Andy Hardy films. Now, she was finally seeing the mother she knew.
“The person I knew as my mother was right there on television in ‘A Star is Born.’ ” Luft writes. “This was Mama. After that first experience, I would watch ‘A Star is Born’ once in a while, here and there, without fully understanding the high regard some people expressed for it. It felt scattered, choppy, not the great piece of work I later – much later- came to appreciate. I eventually came to regard it as the film that got away.”