For Film Experience’s Hit Me With Your Best Shot series, my screencap for A Star is Born (1954):
There are a dozen iconic shots from A Star is Born: the “Mrs. Norman Maine” finale, Judy reenacting her day at the studio for James Mason, that gorgeous moment when Judy rushes at the camera and it’s blurry because technology simply can’t keep up with her joy. Or the early backstage scenes with red backlighting and ballerinas, an aesthetic that borrows more than a little from the Powell-Pressburger The Red Shoes.
I chose the above instead of any of the prettier or more recognizable scenes because it’s a scene I always forget, despite having watched A Star is Born probably about a dozen times, all told. It’s one of my favorite films, and I love every damn second of it: The overzealous off-screen fan mimicking the outdoor breeze, Judy explaining how everything is all “burgered together,” the tiny shower in that travel trailer, all of it. I love it so much that if you asked me on any given day, I’d tell you I have it memorized, and I would be certain I was telling you the truth.
It’s not the truth. I always forget the scenes that lead up to that moment above, with Matt Libby (Jack Carson) as the semi-skeevy, semi-adorable publicity agent for the studio, looking down on a passed-out-drunk Norman Maine (James Mason), remembering everything Norman put him through that night.
See, Norman Maine is a violent man. It’s shocking how violent he is, not just in attitude toward the publicity man, but the bullying of others, the punching and shoving, even of Esther (Judy Garland) while she was on stage. He got away with it because he was a star, because the spotlight just never caught him as he harassed everyone on stage after wandering out there drunk… and because Esther ended up falling for him.
We never know if she falls for him because he’s violent or despite it. All we know is that violence is the only solid recourse Norman has for any of his problems, whether it’s violence to others or himself. But even if it’s to himself, even if he thinks it’s the punishment he deserves, his violence always hurts others more than it hurts him. One of the people hurt is Matt Libby; as much as we’re supposed to believe the publicity agent is a rotten person — and he’s played by Jack Carson, just seeing him in the role means we’re to automatically regard him as underhanded and untrustworthy — no one deserves the treatment Norman Maine heaps on him backstage.
Libby gets Norman home and helps him into bed, as Maine’s butler assures him that Maine is out for the night and will sleep like a child. Libby’s face briefly falls into shadow as he muses, “Yeah. Like a child with a blowtorch.”