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Judy Garland and the Oscar fuck-up of 1954

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In Hear ThisA.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well—some inspired by a weekly theme and some not, but always songs worth hearing. This week, in anticipation of Jersey Boys, we’re picking our favorite songs from musicals.

When I learned of this week’s Hear This theme, I had to resist the urge to write about the movie-musical song I’ve probably loved the longest (Michael Jackson’s “You Can’t Win” from the 1978’s The Wiz), and dig a little deeper. That’s when it hit me that there’s a particular song (and its appearance in a film) that I love far more than the film itself: Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away” in 1954’s A Star Is Born. Grammatical nitpicking at that title aside, I unabashedly adore this tune and consider it the quintessential torch song. It’s one of the first musical numbers of the film, when Norman Maine (James Mason) has tracked down an intriguing young singer he met earlier in the evening to a bar where she’s hanging out with her musician friends. (Oh, the ’50s! Back when that kind of a thing was charmingly persistent, not creepy and stalkerish.)


Although the song occurs pretty early in the film, it’s the one most identified with the movie and probably ranks second as the one most identified with the singer. There are a couple of reasons why this song, and specifically this filmic rendition, has endured. It’s beautiful—full of Judy Garland sing-emoting and George Cukor shot-calling and the full Technicolor/CinemaScope eye-popping color palette. The performance is basically a three-act, one-woman show done in the space of about four minutes. It has the introductory exposition: Garland agreeing to sing, humming along with the trombone to grasp the melody; the first turning point: “No more his eager call;” the game-changing midpoint: “Don’t know what happened / It’s all a crazy game;” the third-act climax: “There’s just no let-up / The live-long night and day”; the resolution: “There is nothing sadder than / The one-man woman looking for the man that got away.”

I know every shot of this sequence by heart—the way Garland seems to wander in and out of the light; the wafting of the cigarette smoke; the intense piano player chewing his gum (no one has ever chewed gum as hard as this man is chewing gum); when she points at the clarinet player in time for his little solo; the way she smirks as she sings “suddenly you’re older;” when she brushes her bangs out of her face; each one of her wild arm gesticulations; the nod and giggle at the end—yet every time I happen upon it, I have to stop whatever it was I was doing, sit down, and take it in. The scene has become so iconic that it’s crossed over into cliché and become a storytelling device in other stories. But that doesn’t make the original any less affecting. Anyone who doesn’t get chills at that crescendo on “Where’s he gone to?” (the second turning point) is just a robot. It’s that simple.


This song runs the gamut as it sets the scene—how Garland goes from supposedly sight-reading a tune she doesn’t know to completely owning that thing and every single musician accompanying her. The way she hurls herself into that performance might even seem a little like awards bait by today’s increasingly cynical standards, but that had always been Garland’s singing style. Judy Garland just didn’t do “understated.” She belts it out each time. “The Man That Got Away” was quickly incorporated into Garland’s live shows and is one of the high points of her Judy At Carnegie Hall album. She also performed it on her short-lived eponymous television show.  Alas, it didn’t win any awards at the time, not even the Oscar for Best Original Song, which went to “Three Coins In The Fountain.” (Yes, really.) While the Original Song Oscar isn’t really considered one of the big deal awards, it’s one my favorite categories to follow, because I’m fascinated by the role music plays in the visual narratives of TV and film. So this one qualifies as one of the major Oscar fuck-ups in my book.