Libby: Not knowing him? I spent my life knowing him! I knew what he was going to do before he did it! I knew him backwards!
Oliver: You didn't know him at all. He was quite a guy.
Hollywood. A charity gala is being held at the Shrine Auditorium. Actor and big movie star Norman Maine (Mason) is one of the star attractions at the gala, but he shows up late and very drunk and acts disruptive backstage—Norman has a severe case of alcoholism. He nearly makes a fool of himself when he staggers drunk onto the stage as a band is performing, but the lead singer in the band, one Esther Blodgett (Garland) reacts quickly and plays it off, dancing with Norman until the song is over.
Norman is very grateful to Esther for saving him from public disgrace. He tracks her down to a bar where she's singing with her bandmates, and is so impressed with her talent that he talks her into quitting her band and trying to make it in the movies. Through a misunderstanding they lose touch, but eventually Norman finds her again and gets her an audition. Esther is hired for a big part in a musical, and just like that, she's on her way to fame and fortune, after taking the stage name "Vicki Lester".
Esther/Vicki and Norman fall in love and get married. But while her star is on the rise, his star is falling, and soon he is an unemployed alcoholic has-been. He manages to quit drinking for a while but winds up going on an epic bender, which eventually leads to tragedy.
- Actor Allusion:
- Norman Maine is whisked away on location to film an unnamed "sea epic." That same year, James Mason appeared in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
- Norman declares that nobody from the sanitarium is going to come in claiming to be Napoleon or Julius Caesar. Mason had previously played Brutus in the 1953 film version of Julius Caesar.
- The Alcoholic: Norman's addiction of choice, which takes a toll on his career and personal relationships.
- Award Show: Vicki wins an Oscar. Norman makes a drunken spectacle of himself, during which he accidentally backhands Vicki.
- Book Ends: Begins and ends at the Shrine Auditorium, the first scene being Esther and Norman's Meet Cute, the last scene being the one where she delivers the famous line "Hello everybody, this is Mrs. Norman Maine."
- Likewise one of the first things Norman tells Esther after meeting her is "I just wanted to look at you again." It's also the last words he says to her, before drowning himself in the ocean.
- Busman's Holiday: What do Esther and her band do, after playing and singing at the Shrine Auditorium, and going from there to a gig at the Cocoanut Grove where they play and sing some more? They all go to a local bar, where they unwind after a hard day's work by...playing and singing some more. This is what Esther's doing when Norman tracks her down.
- Norman says "I just want one more look" after saying goodbye to Esther after their first date. He says it again near the end right before he commits Suicide by Sea.
- When they first meet Esther is taken aback when a drunk Norman scrawls a heart with their initials on it backstage at the Shrine Auditorium. She nearly breaks down when she sees the heart on the wall again, just before she goes onstage at the end.
- Cigarette of Anxiety: For somebody else. When Esther comes to tell Danny she's quitting the band, she offers him a cigarette, but refuses to actually give it to him. Then she lights a match and holds it in front of his face before blowing it out.
- Driven to Suicide: Norman strolls into the ocean, feeling that he must kill himself lest he ruin Vicki's life and career.
- Establishing Character Moment: Norman shows up at the gala not just drunk, but drunk and loud and making a spectacle of himself.
- Forgotten Trope: The 1954 film had a specimen of the ballet sequence on film in the "Born in a trunk" sequence.
- Fourth-Date Marriage: Vicki and Norman get married after knowing each other for only a short while.
- Friendship Denial: Libby provokes Norman into a fight.Friends, my eye! Listen. I got you out of your jams because it was my job, not because I was your friend. I don't like you. I never did like you. And nothing made me happier than to see all those cute little pranks of yours catch up with you and land you on your celebrated face.
- Gilligan Cut: Libby's comments on the phone about all the ridiculous spectacle he's planning for the Maine-Lester wedding are immediately followed by a cut to Vicki and Norman getting married by a justice of the peace in a county jail.
- Groupie Brigade: Played for Drama when Vicki Lester can't attend her husband's funeral without being torn at by a groupie mob in attendance.
- Helping Another Save Face: Norman and Esther meet when Norman drunkenly stumbles onto a stage where Esther's band is performing, and Esther dances with him as if it's all part of the show.
- I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: Norman's implied main motivation for his suicide, after he overhears Esther/Vicki say that she is willing to give up her career to help him.
- The Ken Burns Effect: Used heavily in all the deleted scenes represented with still frames and soundtrack.
- Leg Focus: The very first shot of Esther shows her tightening up her stockings prior to going onstage.
- Lens Flare: The lens flares from the various spotlights as Norman is staggering onstage at the gala make the whole scene that much more ominous.
- Meet Cute: Although maybe it isn't "cute"...but Esther and Norman first meet when he stumbles blind drunk onto a stage where she's singing in a number, only for her to cover by dancing with him like it was planned.
- The Musical: Although the 1937 film just had Esther making it big as an actress, this one has Esther singing in several musical numbers, because this one has Judy Garland. The third and fourth versions of A Star Is Born went whole hog and set the story in the music world.
- Noodle Incident: The waiter at the Cocoanut Grove apparently knows Norman well enough to set him up with women. When Norman spots an attractive woman in a green dress, the waiter shakes his head no, and says "Pasadena. Leave it alone." And that's it.
- Off the Wagon: Norman leaves the sanitarium clean and sober. After a public brawl with Libby at a racetrack, he changes his drink from ginger ale to a double scotch. Going on a monumental drunken binge, Norman is scandalously arrested four days later, and brought to a night court.
- Parody Commercial: While waiting for her big break, Esther does a TV singing commercial for Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo featuring a puppet.
- Real Award, Fictional Character: Vicki Lester wins the Academy Award for Best Actress. Sadly, life did not imitate art.
- Right Behind Me: Esther, boggling after a drunk Norman nearly ruined her song, says "It's a wonder to me that Mr. Norman Maine is still in pictures!" Norman, who is standing right behind her, says "It is indeed!"
- Rule of Three: There are three Hollywood ceremonies. The film opens with a gala benefit "Night of Stars," being held at Hollywood's Shrine Theatre. The second is the Academy Awards, where Vicki wins the Oscar for Best Actress. The film ends with Vicki performing at a benefit at the Shrine Theatre.
- Shout-Out to Shakespeare:
- Stage Names: Esther Blodgett is given the stage name "Vicki Lester" because the executives don't think her real name sounds good for an actress. She doesn't like it at first but quickly takes to it.
- Stock Scream: One of the first uses of the Wilhelm Scream. It's heard twice, once in the "Somewhere There's a Someone" number, and once when characters are watching Stock Footage of 1953 film The Charge at Feather River, where the scream is used. (The Wilhelm Scream originated with a 1951 film called Distant Drums.)
- Suicide by Sea: Norman Maine kills himself by walking into the ocean after his career tanks and his depression worsens.
- Suicide for Others' Happiness: Norman kills himself so that Vicki won't have to sacrifice her career to care for him.
- Tearful Smile: The film ends with a long shot of Esther smiling through her tears.
- Torch Song: Esther shows off her musical chops on "The Man That Got Away", which is so over the top it's almost a parody of the genre.
- Waiting for a Break: Esther works as a carhop waitress in L.A. before Norman sees her singing in a television commercial.
- White-Dwarf Starlet: Gender-flipped with Norman.