A Star is Born Again and Again and Again
On October 5, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star is Born opens nationwide. It is the story of Jackson Maine (Cooper), an experienced country music star who takes young hopeful Ally (Lady Gaga) under his wing. It is the third remake of the original 1937 film. The story reflects any young entertainer’s dream: To be discovered as transcendent and special by someone we respect. Each version of A Star is Born reflects the nature of fame, success, the nature of show business and the male ego in the time period in which each version was made.
The story is simple: An experienced male superstar, who is teetering on the edge of ruin because of alcoholism, discovers a young, completely unknown female talent to whom he is immediately attracted. He fosters her rise through the ranks and they fall in love as her fame grows and his own fame declines. The male star agrees to straighten himself out so they can get married, and after the marriage and a blissful honeymoon phase it looks like he might wind up clean and sober. However, as it becomes clear that her star is ascending when she is up for a major award and his star has faded, his bruised male ego catapults him into a nightmare descent into drugs and/or booze, and his inevitable death. It is a story that reflects both our desire for fame and fortune, and our institutional knowledge that it will all end terribly.
A Star is Born (1937)
Produced by David O. Selznick, best known today for producing Gone With the Wind in 1939, the original A Star is Born was produced at the height of the studio system. The film industry was ruled by five major studios – MGM, Paramount, RKO, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox – that manufactured stars in an assembly-line fashion. When we meet Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), she is a sweet naïve farm girl who spends her days dreaming of Hollywood stardom, insisting to her skeptical family “I want to BE somebody!” Her Granny is the sole relative who believes in her and gives her the money to give it a go in Hollywood. The film spends a lot of time demystifying the lure of Hollywood as Esther has absolutely no luck finding a job, not even as an extra, until an alcoholic movie star named Norman Maine (Fredric March) notices her waitressing at a Hollywood party and invites her to do a screen test. She gets the big part in the movie, of course, and co-writer and director William A. Wellman shows us how the studio system took great pains to manufacture its movie stars as we see Esther transformed into “Vicki Lester,” and her appearance carefully manicured to reflect proper glamour.
Interestingly in the original version of A Star is Born we never get a glimpse of Esther’s actual talent. That was because Norman Maine simply saw Esther as a potential “type” that could be transformed into a STAR. Inherent talent, the studios believed, had little to nothing to do with becoming a star in those days. Those studios simply felt they could mold them from shapeless clay and provide them with the requisite talent to make them stars. When the studios found the stars had outlasted their usefulness, they would toss them aside like trash. The rise of Esther in tandem with the fall of Norman was a realistic portrayal of how the studio system worked.
When Norman feigns a morning swim but simply walks into the ocean to drown, his suicide leads to one of the great final lines in movie history. Esther, in her first public appearance since his death, bravely approaches a microphone and says, tears streaming down her face, “Hello everybody! This is Mrs. Norman Maine!” Cue orchestra and fadeout.
A Star is Born (1954)
The second version, directed by George Cukor, turned the original tale into a three-hour musical epic showcasing the prodigious talents of Judy Garland, who had been absent from the screen for four years, which was an eternity in those days. She and husband Sid Luft conceived of the movie as the perfect comeback vehicle and in her version, we lose the farmhouse origins and Esther is already a talented singer and performer when Norman Maine (James Mason) discovers her at a charity show. He’s still an alcoholic, a huge star whose best days are behind him, but rather than seeing a type who can be molded, in this version he admires her talent and believes she has the makings of a star.
The old studio system was dying at this point, and there are multiple references to the industry having fallen on hard times. The discovery of Esther Blodgett seems like a desperate last gasp of an old system. And the nature of the movie star had changed in the 1950s. Stars were getting more power as the big five studios had lost important court cases that forced them to divest themselves of their theater chains. Plus, television had taken away movie viewers. Movie stars were no longer in thrall to studios. They were beginning to take power.
There is desperation in Garland’s performance of songs like “The Man That Got Away” and her legendary “Born in a Trunk” medley, and the result is her best role. She is a force of nature in the movie, and this version is in many ways superior to the original because the audience completely buys that Esther would become a huge star. She is, after all, Judy Garland.
A Star is Born (1976)
Just as Judy Garland and Sid Luft conceived of a remake of A Star is Born as a perfect starring vehicle to showcase her talents, so did Barbra Streisand and her then-partner Jon Peters over 20 years later. Arguably Garland’s vocal successor, Streisand in the 1970s wielded impressive power in male-dominated Hollywood and originally developed the remake set in the music industry conceiving of Elvis Presley opposite Streisand. Sadly, that dream casting was not meant to be.
It was Kris Kristofferson instead who took the renamed lead of John Norman Howard, a rock superstar who’s constantly fed cocaine and bottles of Jack Daniels by his handlers before taking the stage and can barely remember the words of the songs he sings. He spots Streisand at a dive bar after a concert and is immediately smitten. Even as his own career spirals downward, he helps her pick up her career and she becomes a huge star.
Interestingly, the story remains essentially the same even though Streisand’s version of Esther (now Hoffman) is a much stronger-willed character than in the first two versions in an attempt to reflect Streisand’s and her generation’s growing feminism. Sadly, the change in character means her falling for a clearly awful man means the story makes less sense.
Changing the setting to the music industry from the film industry, however, did make sense. In 1976, only a scant few years after the drug-related deaths of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, the pitfalls of fame in that world were far more immediate and real to audiences than it had been to audiences in the heyday of the movie industry. What might have seemed like melodrama in the first two remakes, with Norman Maine committing suicide, seemed much more real to audiences in the 1970s.
Regardless of the timeliness of the themes of loss and addiction in A Star is Born, the real emphasis is on Streisand’s singing. Her song “Evergreen” from the film was a smash hit and won the Academy Award for Best Song. The movie too was the second highest-grossing American film at the box office in 1976, behind only Rocky. It’s hard to see why today, but clearly the story resonated with audiences then. How Bradley Cooper’s new version with connect with audiences in today’s world of digitally created superstars has yet to be seen.
This article was originally written for publication on Crixeo, an arts and culture website that disappeared without warning on October 1. The first two versions of A Star is Born are available on FilmStruck.