The film that cost my parents their marriage
Lorna Luft on what went wrong after her father made 1954’s ‘A Star Is Born’ with her mother, Judy Garland
‘There’s something about my voice that makes them see all the sadness and humour they’ve experienced,” Judy Garland once said of her fans. “It makes them know that they aren’t too different; they aren’t apart. I think that’s it.”
That’s a simple enough account of what makes people cling to her memory now, but Garland didn’t really become that person – or not publicly – until 1954, with the making of A Star Is Born. Until then, she had been a child star – both literally, educated as she was at MGM’s “little red schoolhouse”, and by extension, in the ongoing and infantilising embrace of the Hollywood studio system.
There were those who knew her as Mickey Rooney’s innocuous sidekick in the Andy Hardy movies; many more who identified her with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Even as Esther in 1944’s Meet Me in St Louis (whose director, Vincente Minnelli, Garland would marry in 1945) she was a naïf. Four years later, her Hannah, in Easter Parade, was genteel. Only her performance in “Get Happy”, the tuxedo-andstockings number in Summer Stock, began to crack the surface of her sweetness. That film was made in 1950, the year Garland was “released” from her MGM contract, having become notoriously unreliable and (offscreen) definitively adult.
It was also the year Garland met Sid Luft, a gambler, weightlifter and former fighter pilot. Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, was four, and both she and Luft were in marriages that were coming apart. As Lorna Luft, the daughter the couple would have two years later, tells me now, Sid Luft “fell in love with Judy the person as well as Judy the commodity… my father gambled on my mother”.
It wasn’t quite the encroachment that suggests. Garland was waiting for someone to take a chance on her. “He saw something he could do something with, and that she asked him to do something with,” Lorna Luft says, speaking on the phone from Palm Springs. Sid understood that Garland was not just a movie star. She had stage presence too. He set in motion her live concert career, and then realised the two would dovetail perfectly if only they could remake Willliam Wellman’s 1937 film A Star Is Born, that heartbreaking Pygmalion story in which the mentor is down and out, and the young star a phoenix.
The film itself developed a complex life – one in a long family of remakes, it was finished in 1954, hailed as a masterpiece, then cut back brutally on studio instructions to projectionists, so that more film screenings could be fitted into a day. “It was like they went down the red carpet,” says Lorna Luft, “then the red carpet was pulled out from underneath them.” The original three-hour version is, even now, impossible to restore, since so much of that footage has been lost. Lorna Luft has now written a book about it, and its relatives past and future. Subtitled “Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away”, it evokes the movie’s production history, and includes behind-the-scenes photographs from Luft’s own collection: Garland conferring with director George Cukor; Garland and Luft as a baby on set; Garland taking a nap on a soundstage.
But it also raises a question about another story. Luft was born and brought up in the crucible of that film. Quite literally: when the shoot wrapped, Sid Luft took all the furniture, at salvage cost, for the family home. Her father produced it, as a comeback vehicle for her mother. Her mother starred in it, and used it to show the world she had grown up. Yet it was maimed, inside and out. As production came to a close, Cukor wrote to his friend Katharine Hepburn: “About three weeks ago, strange, sinister and sad things began happening to Judy.” Her behaviour, he said, was that of “someone unhinged, but there is an arrogance and a ruthless selfishness that eventually alienates one’s sympathy.”
One of the film’s most famous songs, The Man that Got Away, was a sound Garland took with her into the rest of her life. Watch it on screen, sung by a pulled-together girl in an out-of-hours bar, then listen to Garland sing it again six years later, halfway through her famous concert at Carnegie Hall. You’ll hear the edge in the lines “the road gets rougher/ It’s lonelier and tougher”, and the amplified lament in the refrain: “Ever since this world began/ there is nothing sadder than/ a one-man woman/ looking for the man that got away”.
Moss Hart, who wrote the script for Garland, knew that she identified with both characters – not just Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester, the rising star she portrayed, but also the addicted deadbeat played by James Mason. When Garland died of a barbiturate overdose in 1969, Mason delivered the eulogy at her funeral. “She was a lady who gave so much and so richly,” he said, “that there was no currency in which to repay her. And she needed to be repaid, she needed devotion and love beyond the
‘My father fell in love with Judy the person as well as Judy the commodity’
NOTHING SADDERJudy Garland as Esther sings The Man that Got Away, watched by Norman Maine (James Mason) in A Star Is Born, 1954
FAMILY AFFAIRGarland on set with husband, Sid Luft; right, with daughter Lorna Luft, 1953