Let’s go back to 1951. America’s sweetheart Judy Garland shared with husband-to-be Sid Luft her desire to play one of her dream roles: Esther Blodgett, the character portrayed by Janet Gaynor in the 1937 hit A Star Is Born. Luft, in turn, thought that a musical remake of that film would be a great vehicle for showcasing Garland’s supreme talents. In 1952, the now-married Judy and Sid approached director George Cukor. A deal was struck at Warner Brothers. James Mason was signed on as Norman Maine. Fast forward to 1954, and the dazzling new version of A Star is Born was ready to shine. Packed with glossy musical numbers, the film was three hours long and– at $6 million– the second most expensive Hollywood production at that time. A Star Is Born enjoyed a gala premiere on September 29 at Tinseltown’s Pantages Theatre, with a “Who’s Who?” of Hollywood royalty in attendance. It also enjoyed ecstatic critical acclaim. This third incarnation of the timeless love story should have re-launched Judy Garland’s career as a major motion picture star. However, after a two week run, theater owners started to balk at the three hour running time, and Warner Brothers was concerned about decreased profits. Cuts were made to the film, which affected the movie’s quality, its critical reception, and ultimately its financial success. Worst of all, the movie’s cuts and subsequent disappointment at the box office was a personal and professional blow to Judy Garland, Sid Luft, and director George Cukor. It would be decades before the movie would be “rescued”: In 1983, the film was painstakingly reconstructed into a version as close to the original artistic vision as possible, using movie stills over music to recreate the now-legendary lost footage.
A new remake of A Star is Born is set to premiere on Friday, October 5, starring Bradley Cooper and a young singer/actress named Stefani Germanotta— better known as… Lady Gaga! In anticipation of the upcoming remake and as a testament to Judy Garland’s enduring status as a worldwide icon, a new book about the 1954 movie A Star is Born has just come out. Named A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away, the book tells the fascinating story of the movie as well as the story of Garland’s personal and professional experiences before, during, and after making the film. The author is someone who knows Judy Garland quite well: her daughter, singer/actress Lorna Luft. Ms. Luft has stated that A Star Is Born is her favorite movie of her mother’s; she also believes it to be Garland’s greatest movie of all time. In addition to the fascinating story about the 1954 musical and its leading lady, Luft also gives the background stories of the two films that came before Judy’s version as well as the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remake that came afterward. The book features dozens of eye-popping color and black-and-white photos, many from Lorna Luft’s own personal collection and many of which have never been seen before.
Born into a showbiz family, Lorna Luft was in front of the camera since childhood, making her debut on her mother’s TV series in the ’60’s. Ms. Luft has made her mark in TV, film, cabaret, and musical theater– and as we approach the end of 2018, she’s busier than ever. In addition to performing, Ms. Luft has been instrumental in keeping the legacy of her famous mother alive for new generations to come. A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away is Lorna’s second book. The first, Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir, was Luft’s best-selling 1998 autobiography and was the basis for a TV miniseries, with Garland played by both Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard. In both books, Luft gives her readers a realistically balanced perspective of her mother’s life: She writes about her mom’s many soaring personal and professional highs, but doesn’t shy away from telling us about Garland’s crippling lows as well. Informative and entertaining, A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away is a must-read for fans of Judy as well as anyone seriously interested in the history of American cinema.
Lorna Luft took the time to speak to me about her new book, her mother’s legacy, her upcoming concert dates in New York City, and… Lady Gaga!
JR: Hello, Lorna! Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations on your new book, A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away. It was a joy to read– and to look at too, with all those gorgeous photos!
LL: Thank you!
JR: In the introduction of the book, you tell us how you and your co-author Jeffrey Vance had been working on this project since 2010. What was it like for you to go back and explore your family tree: “a tree of entertainers”, as you call it? Did you learn anything new?
LL: No, I really didn’t. I started the book because I had all these incredible photographs. I was a fan of Jeffrey’s because he had written two books. One was about Harold Lloyd and another was about Charlie Chaplin. I really did need a film historian, because I wanted to make sure that this book was historically right. My mom’s movie is number three: the third A Star Is Born. We had read about Clint Eastwood and Beyonce doing this film next– and so we thought, “What a great idea.” We did a proposal. And then, their movie fell apart. So did our book. So… we waited almost ten years. And then when they announced Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, I immediately called my agent and said, “Remember that proposal? Dig it out.”
LL: Turner Classic Movies (TCM) wanted a book about all four movies… and that’s what I thought made it interesting. It gave it a different light. People don’t know the movie What Price Hollywood? They don’t know that that was the beginning film. They don’t know how it all took shape. And then the Janet Gaynor/Fredric March version came, and then my mom’s… and now the new one!
JR: Right! Jeffrey Vance, in the book’s introduction, called Judy Garland “an undisputed star of the first magnitude”. He goes on to call A Star is Born “a flashy, all-out-stops showcase”. The original version of your mom’s A Star Is Born, in its uncut form, is undoubtedly a masterpiece. The New York Times said, “Judy gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history” in their original review.
JR: (Laughs) Right! But I know that the experience of making the movie wasn’t always smooth…
LL: I’d like to see somebody say that they made a film that went smoothly! There are so many people involved– in the art direction, in the lighting, in the editing… You know, George Cukor was tough. He was a brilliant director, and he loved women, but he was tough. He did take after take after take after take. So, it was a taxing film. But Mama wanted it to be perfect. When you even look at the tests of the dress on The Man That Got Away and how many times they shot that in different costumes… I think that every single film has its ups and downs or whatever you want to call it. It’s…
LL: Yes, drama! And that’s what you are making too: drama!
JR: Yes! In the book, you mentioned how Judy refused to watch the shredded version of A Star Is Born that would occasionally air on TV.
LL: It wasn’t that she refused to watch it. She didn’t like watching it. George Cukor refused to watch it. He never watched it again.
JR: As a little girl, did you remember your mom ever talking about the experience of making the film?
LL: I remember hearing the stories when I was older. There are lots of stories about my father and the furniture in the beach house scene. My father was offered to buy all the furniture for ten cents on the dollar, which is a normal thing that happens in movies– and so he did that. Well, Jack Warner then wrote in his book that my father had “stolen” all the furniture. Well, he didn’t! So, my father sued him and won, because it wasn’t true. But I grew up on that furniture, so it was strange for me to be sitting on those white chairs and then watching this movie, and thinking, “Oh my God, it’s like I’m sitting in that house!” I was only two when they were shooting the movie, and so I was never fully aware of what the uncut version of A Star is Born would have looked like– but I do remember asking my mother and/or my father “What does it mean when this happens?” or “What does it mean when that happens?” There were some scenes that were here and some that were there; they cut up the movie so badly that it didn’t make any sense.
JR: Yes! It’s been widely established that the original film that they showed at the star-studded premiere on September 29, 1954 was praised, and people were crying in the audience, and some critics called the event “A Star is RE-born”– because this movie was supposed to re-establish Judy Garland as a major film star. But then, it was released to the general masses in a cut version…
LL: When it was released to the general masses, it ran in movie houses in its original uncut form for two weeks. Then, they called it back. Then, they sent out notes to projectionists: “Here’s where to cut it up.” Could you imagine them doing that today? Could you imagine them sending out a Steven Spielberg movie with a pair of scissors?
JR: No! I can’t believe that Warner Brothers would go for that…
LL: Oh yeah, they did! They wanted to get more showings in. That’s what I explain in the book. It broke my mother’s heart. It broke my father’s heart. George Cukor said that it literally destroyed him. The only people who saw the original were the ones who saw it in the first two weeks. They got to see the real thing… and then no one else did. People have talked to me about seeing the original version because they happened to be at the Pantages Theater that night. When my mother lost the Oscar after the movie had been cut up, Groucho Marx sent her a wire, calling her loss “the biggest robbery since Brink’s.”
JR: That’s so sad. Now speaking about that missing footage, there have been rumors floating around– and these may just be rumors…
LL: (Laughs) Go ahead!…
JR: (Laughs) There are rumors floating around that somewhere out there, there may still be an uncut version of A Star Is Born. Do you believe that?
LL: Oh, I’ve been down that road with stone cold lunatics…(Laughs) I’ve heard this for years. If there are people who say they have it, or say that they know somebody who has it: If they haven’t kept it stored in a proper climatized preservation film storage unit, then it’s just gonna be silver acetate.
JR: I think that some people really still WANT TO believe that it’s still somewhere out there!
LL: Do you know George Feltenstein? He is the head of Warner Brothers Home Movies. He and I have had this conversation so many times! He gets phone calls all the time from crazy people who say that have it and they’re holding it hostage from Warner Brothers. George is always saying to me, “Oh, I got another call from a lunatic…” I say, “Yeah, I know…!” I don’t believe it exists. I really don’t… because as I said, even if it did exist, it would be dust by now.
JR: Good point.
LL: So, it is sort of the “Holy Grail” of movies!
JR: No doubt! On a personal note, I did see the restored version when it first came out on VHS, on two cassettes because technology at the time didn’t have the capacity for a three hour movie on one tape. This was before the advent of DVD. I’m dating myself! (Laughs) Inserting the movie stills did indeed help with the movie’s continuity, which was affected when they had made those cuts.
LL: Yes, and especially because the complete soundtrack was underneath it. Warner Brothers has been absolutely stellar in trying to reproduce the original version. They have just done an incredible job with what they have been able to find. I’m completely thrilled with the work that Warner Brothers has done in trying to find this footage and doing what they could do to put this film back together. That’s one of the reasons that I call my book “The Film That Got Away”.
JR: My favorite anecdote from the book, by the way, is how the shooting of the movie was switched to a night time schedule, to accommodate Judy’s nocturnal preferences. That’s just priceless!
LL: This was the whole reason why this project was so enticing and so thrilling for her. My father had told her, “You grew up in the theater, where you only work at night. You get to sleep in the day and work at night. So, for your whole childhood, it was the opposite: You had to work during the day and didn’t like it. This time, we’re going to make sure that you’re happy. You’ll work at night.” She loved that.
JR: In the book, you wrote about how the film that preceded A Star Is Born, What Price Hollywood? in 1932, was more, shall we say, “sexed up”– and that in your mom’s more “sanitized” version of a Star Is Born, Judy had more of an “androgynous” screen presence…
LL: I think that with What Price Hollywood?, because the laws of Hollywood’s Standards and Practices had not come yet, that it was a different story. It was. I think, a little bit more… “tantalizing”, if you want to say. The Janet Gaynor version in 1937 was pretty much the same as my mom’s. It was the same story with the same names. With my mom’s, the creators wanted to make sure that they made her go from being just this incredible singing voice to being a star. There’s that scene where James Mason takes off all her makeup, and we see how beautiful she really is– and that’s when she turns into Vicki Lester.
JR: Yes! And I agree with what you wrote in the book: You could never understand why your mother wasn’t known as much for her beauty as she was for her talent. As you say, she was gorgeous.
LL: Oh, yes. She’s gorgeous. Don’t forget that she was up against what they called “The Faces” at MGM: She was up against Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner, and Katharine Hepburn, and…
JR: … and her friend Elizabeth Taylor!
LL: Yes, Elizabeth Taylor! Yes. I remember once sitting with my mother and I was reading a magazine with her, and I turned the page and there was a beautiful picture of Lana Turner. My mom said, “She’s VERY pretty.” I said, “Yes!” And mom said, “But she can’t sing a note.” (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) True! So… the world’s affection for and interest in Judy Garland has never gone away. In fact, as we approach 2019, it’s stronger than ever. But how do you feel about the upcoming movie about her life that’s coming out next year? Do you have any feelings about it?
LL: I don’t know which movie you’re talking about.
JR: It is named Judy and it stars Renee Zellweger.
LL: Oh. You know, I don’t know anything about that project. I really don’t, so I can’t comment on something I don’t know. I’ve never seen the script. I don’t know what this movie is about. When it actually does comes out and I do see it, I will have an opinion. Until then, I can’t say anything because I don’t know anything about it.
JR: Right! Well, I’ve read both your books now, cover to cover.
LL: Thank you!
JR: In fact, I lent your first book, Me and My Shadows, out to someone who never gave it back to me– so I had to buy another copy for myself!
LL: I’m not going to say I’m sorry! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) I really liked the 2001 TV series based on the book, but I was a little disappointed that the film only dealt with a small part of your book. I really enjoyed the whole thing.
LL: I was incredibly lucky to work with the late Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. They were my partners, and I was extraordinarily lucky to work with two producers who taught me the “art” of producing– and where to fight my battles and where not to. It’s funny, because today I am going out to lunch with Robert Allan Ackerman, who directed the movie. We realized that when you have a time period that spans four hours, that sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t! And you also have a network with a lot of things that you have to adhere to. I was incredibly thrilled with that movie. I am still friends with Judy Davis and Tammy Blanchard, and I am incredibly proud of all the work that all of us did on that movie. I can’t complain. It got five Emmy Awards! I know what the movie meant to Craig Zadan, and I told Neil, “We made a great project together, and I am glad that we were able to do that.”
JR: I liked the book and the TV series, but I liked the book a lot more, because I loved hearing about your life in Hollywood and New York as a rising star: all the blood, sweat, and tears that goes along with being a performer. Plus, all those priceless showbiz anecdotes! I found all of that really amazing as well.
LL: Oh, well thank you!
JR: So… you had a recent health scare. How has life been treating you lately?
LL: (Laughs) I like when people say “health scare”. Yeah, I scared myself! I’m good. I’ve been battling breast cancer for six years. I had a brain tumor four months ago. But I am extraordinarily lucky that I have a team of doctors who take care of me. They keep saving my life. I’ve learned more about this disease and more about how to look after myself. I’ve learned more about how my attitude is towards it. I consider myself an incredibly lucky, lucky woman. There are a lot of women who don’t get that opportunity to have a health care system that works for them. It’s shocking to me. I would just love if everyone had the opportunity to have health care throughout the United States as good as mine.
JR: Wow! That’s great to hear! And… you have a new show, To “L” and Back, coming to 54 Below in New York City in October. Without giving too much away, what surprises do you have in store for your fans?
LL: We have four guest stars. The whole premise of the show is basically for me to say “Thank you” to the people who were on the whole ride with me. I call this pathway of cancer treatment a “ride”. It’s not really a journey. A journey is going to Neiman Marcus and buying shoes and handbags. But these are the people who didn’t just come for the appetizers and the meal. They stayed for coffee and dessert! They’ve been through all of this with me.
JR: I get it! Anything else you’d like to tell your fans– besides, obviously, “Buy the book!”?
LL: Yes! I have to say this, because I am just so honored: The city of West Hollywood is doing a Proclamation: September 21 is going to be “Lorna Luft Day” in West Hollywood. I am so thrilled and honored and just knocked out, because the Mayor will read his Proclamation and then introduce me at my very first book signing!
JR: Well, congratulations yet again!
LL: I know! I’m just so happy!
JR: Part of me wants to say, “It’s about time!”
LL: Oh, no… I don’t ever think of it that way! I’m also extraordinarily thrilled and happy and excited to go to the premiere of the new A Star is Born and to see this new version– and to know that these two unbelievably talented performers and artists, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, have picked up the torch and are carrying forward the greatest love story that’s ever been on film forward to a new generation.
JR: Oh, wow! That’s really terrific!
LL: I’m very grateful that they did this movie. I’ve watched some of their interviews, and they are doing the movie with love and respect. It is not the 1954 version, but it is the same story. They are bringing it forward to a new generation who, hopefully, will ask, “How did this all start?”– and now there’s a book about it.
JR: Like Judy Garland, Lady Gaga is also incredibly talented… but also like your mom, Gaga has an incredible relationship with her fans. She always gives her fans what they want. There’s just that… “connection”.
LL: I think that with Lady Gaga, there’s that sense of artistry, and that’s because she’s incredibly smart. She realizes that you can stand in your living room and perform, but if you don’t have the fans to move you along, then what’s the use? She’s a grateful girl. She is someone who doesn’t take her fame for granted– and she certainly doesn’t take her music for granted. I’ve been a fan of hers since Day One. There’s also a vulnerability about her. To put it like Sally Field: You like her. You REALLY like her!
JR: (Laughs) As a fan, I know what you mean!
LL: I just hope that when I meet her at the premiere, that she doesn’t get too embarrassed when I faint! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) I wish I could be there to catch you… but I’d probably faint too! Thank you again for speaking with me. I hope to see you at your show at 54 Below in October.
LL: Get ready to put your pink ribbon on, because it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month! So, come support us!
JR: I will!
A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away by Lorna Luft and Jeffrey Vance is now available in hardcover and Kindle formats from www.Amazon.com and other stores.
Lorna Luft’s new show To “L” and Back runs from October 23 through the 25th, at 54 Below, 254 W 54th St. Cellar, New York City. For tickets, call (646) 476-3551 or visit here.