“A Star Is Born” through the Times

Bradley Cooper on the set of “A Star Is Born” (2018) | photo by Peter Lindbergh

After seeing the latest A Star Is Born, directed by Bradley Cooper, I wanted to watch all three previous versions of the movie. I did and, not surprisingly, the modern version still stands firm, and my skepticism about remakes almost went out the window. This is that very rare remake that works. But I am not particularly interested in ranking the four films. I would rather talk about each one in part, because I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss so easily the less good versions, especially that all earlier films informed in one way or another this latest telling of the fable.

The main story of A Star is Born is the same in each iteration: A famous, alcoholic man’s career goes into decline right as the career of the woman he loves blossoms. The only thing that changes is the industry: the first two films are about actors, and the most recent versions are about musicians. But, and this is a considerable but, regardless of how good or not so good each of these films is, none of them lays bare the drama of a performer amid or at great personal loss. None of these films, nor any other for that matter, comes as close to this theme as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) or John Cassavetes’ Opening Night (1977).

”A Star Is Born” (1937) | Selznick International Pictures

A Star Is Born (1937), starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March

William Wellman co-wrote (with Robert Carson, and Dorothy Parker was subsequently brought in for the screenplay) and directed the original film, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the leading roles. Janet Gaynor is Esther Blodgett, the daughter of a North Dakota farm family. She is an aspiring actress attracted to the nascent movie industry. Her family is against her ambitions; only her grandmother, Lettie (May Robson), is sympathetic and helps Esther leave for Hollywood and try to make something of her dream. Fredric March is Norman Maine, a fading movie star, who helps Esther launch her career.

The film taps into the behind-the-scenes of Hollywood and into the corrupt and soulness business that the movie world was already becoming. But the film remains restrained. It doesn’t get very close to either the male lead, Norman Maine (Fredric March), who badly lacks a strong sense of character, nor to Esther’s own art, and what drives her forward. It’s more focused on the glamour than on the inner personal struggles.

”A Star Is Born” (1954) | Warner Brothers

A Star Is Born (1954), starring Judy Garland and James Mason

George Cukor’s A Star Is Born is classic Hollywood making. A lavish production, with considerable focus on the entertainment part, but one in which the personal drama is at all times dominating the story. Moss Hart was the screenwriter. Esther is played by Judy Garland and her character is no longer a wanna-be artist, just starting out, she is a singer in a popular band and a skilled performer and her career has been modestly successful so far. But she dreams bigger. And Norman Maine (James Mason), a hard-drinking, brilliant, but has-been actor, is the one who sees she has the potential to become even a greater star than what she is dreaming about. She could be a movie star. And he does everything he can to make that happen, step by step building her to stardom.

Cukor was a great director, one who could do drama, but who excelled at comedy, too, and, as François Truffaut said, “it’s easier to make people cry than to make people laugh”. And in A Star Is Born, his skills are perfectly attuned to his actors’. James Mason, one of the most talented and underrated actors in my opinion, is as tender as he is tormented, and his presence on screen keeps you watching. As for Garland, she undoubtedly gives one of her best performances, a triumphal return to the screen after an absence of four years. She bursts onto the screen in both explosive performances – although some of her numbers are no more than Hollywood musical clichés and the film does feel at times that it was intended to be a showcase for its leading lady – and agonizing moments.

A very disappointment fact is that the movie was severely cut soon after its initial release (the film didn’t meet the studio’s expectations and they made a shorter version, by 30 minutes, and melted the negative from the cuts) and every format available now includes reconstructions of sequences that were cut, with dialogue playing over still images in several scenes.

”A Star Is Born” (1976) | Warner Brothers

A Star Is Born (1976), starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson

The 1976 A Star Is Born stars Barbra Streisand as struggling singer Esther Hoffman, and Kris Kristofferson as the alcoholic rock star John Norman Howard. Joan Didion was brought in to co-write the script (John Gregory Dunne and Frank Pierson were the other writers). The film takes on a different perspective, placed in a different world, the music business, but unfortunately director Frank Pierson misses the opportunity of truly taking the film into a new direction. Barbra Streisand is a talented actress and a fantastic singer, but what the film does so wrong is that it ends up resembling too much a Streisand concert, molding on its leading actress rather than on her character. Not only does she outshine by far Kristofferson, but the singing outshines the inner side of her character, too. Everything seems just for the sake of the show. Furthermore, while the most famous line in the previous versions is that when the female lead declares herself “Mrs. Norman Maine”, thus claiming her husband, in Streisand’s film her character keeps her maiden name when she is introduced as “Mrs. Esther Hoffman Howard”. Kristofferson’s character gets even more played down. I was glad that Bradley Cooper kept the idea of the first films, especially in the view of the current feminist movement, not steering away from what’s relevant for the plot.

Reportedly, Streisand originally wanted John Cassavetes to direct the film, after she had seen a screening of A Woman under the Influence. Cassavetes turned her down, but the original A Star Is Born (1937) was one of his favourite films and as far back as 1968 he had had the idea of doing a backstage drama, which would turn out to be Opening Night (1977). I can not help thinking what a huge impact it would have had on the outcome if Cassavetes had directed Streisand’s A Star Is Born. Cassavetes, who made so many sacrifices in order not to compromise his work and his artistic vision, a filmmaker who lived for his art.

”A Star Is Born” (2018) | Warner Brothers

A Star Is Born (2018), starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper

One of the things that make this such a good film is the fact that it is honest and grounded. Bradley Cooper makes the story new and fresh and current. The characters are contoured very well, especially Cooper’s, Jackson Maine, a hard drinking country musician. Far from being a vanity reel (Bradley Cooper co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters), it is a very well written and well performed part, and although Lady Gaga (Ally) is very good in her first major role, for the first time (and this is what is so badly missing from the previous stories), this felt very much like an artists’, an actors’ duet. They are in this together, they are both in love not only with each other but with each other’s talent and that’s the beautiful part, that’s why the film stands apart.

But the female lead part seems a bit underdeveloped. That’s one of the few weak points of the film. The character of Ally is beautifully built up until the point when she finds success by starting to sing superficial, shallow pop songs. The film gives in too easily, her character gives up too easily the values she stands by at the beginning of the film, and which she had refused to break in the past when she had been told that she had to look a certain way and sing a certain way in order to succeed. It is not very plausible that she gives in to compromise. Or maybe it is, if you realise that it is this turn to pop singing that starts the rift between Ally and Jackson.

Apart from that, all the other music sequences and songs are brilliant. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper transmit such energy and passion when they are on stage, it’s extraordinary and overwhelming the way the film captured the fantastic atmosphere of the best kind of live music. Not for once, though, does the spectacle overshadow the characters, and that’s another reason why this film is so good. And it’s because of these two characters, their chemistry and the fact that this story could really happen nowadays that I felt connected to this film more than with the others. After all, watching a movie is a personal experience.

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