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Tuesday, October 16, 2018

A Star Is Born: An Evolution in Four Films

They say that there's a version of A Star Is Born for every generation - a statement which isn't technically true since the 1990s never produced a version, resulting in a 42 year break between the most recent two, but which seems true enough in spirit. While the knee-jerk reaction to movie remakes is generally something along the lines of, "Ugh, why?" (unless it's a reboot of Ghostbusters, in which case it will be met with hysterical wailing about childhoods retroactively ruined), there's something endlessly compelling about this love story of a star in decline and a star on the rise. When you strip these four films down to the absolute bare bones of their stories, there is no fundamental difference between them. It's the same story - and, indeed, the same story beats - each and every time, leaving no reason why it shouldn't become stale after multiple outings. And yet there still manages to be something unique and compelling about each version, something which makes it worthwhile to keep coming back to the story again and again. So let's take a look at the fundamental similarities, and the specific differences, between these four films.

For the uninitiated, this is the story of A Star Is Born: A male star (Norman Maine in the first two films, John Norman Howard in the third, Jackson Maine in the fourth) meets a woman trying to break into the industry (Esther Blodgett, later Vicki Lester in the first two films, Esther Hoffman in the third, Ally in the fourth) and uses his clout to help her get her break as they begin a relationship. When they marry she is on the cusp of stardom, while his alcoholism is finally catching up to him to the point that he's run out of second chances in his career and is being written off by his industry. She stands by him as he falls further and further until he realizes that he's going to drag her down with him and takes his own life so that she will be free of him. Each version features the showcase scene of the female protagonist winning an award and the male protagonist interrupting her speech to ramble drunkenly, and each version ends with her speaking into a microphone, identifying herself as the wife of the man she loved but also standing on her own and announcing, in not so many words, that the show is going to go on.

A Star is Born (1937)

Starring: Janet Gaynor, Frederic March
Director: William A. Wellman

The first version opens on the Blodgett family farm, where Esther (Gaynor) dreams of going to Hollywood and becoming a star. The only member of her family who supports her dream is her grandmother (May Robson), who helps her sneak off the farm in the middle of the night and catch a train to Los Angeles, giving her life savings to Esther to help her get her new life started (Esther is reluctant to take her money, but her grandmother insists, hilariously revealing that she was only saving it for her funeral anyway). Things don't get off to a great start in Hollywood, where Esther struggles to get work as so much as an extra, but while working for a catering company she meets movie star Norman Maine (March), whom she had previously encountered at a concert. Taken with her, Norman helps her get a screen test, after which she gets a contract and a new Hollywood identity: Vicki Lester. She and Norman make a movie together which makes her an overnight sensation and the two actors begin a relationship, but she'll only marry him if he agrees to stop drinking. After they elope (much to the chagrin of the studio) her career continues a sharp upward trajectory, while he realizes that his drinking derailed his career to such an extent that he's not going to be able to recover from it. Though he's supportive of Vicki's career, he's frustrated with the decline of his own and starts drinking again and interrupts Vicki's acceptance speech when she wins an Oscar. He goes to a sanatorium to get sober but falls off the wagon again later and ends up getting arrested for drunk driving. Vicki pleads his case in court and afterwards decides to give up her career in order to care for him. Realizing that he's ruining her chance at stardom, Norman walks into the ocean and drowns himself. Though a grief stricken Vicki is prepared to walk away from Hollywood, her grandmother arrives in time to give her a pep talk and convince her not to walk away from all she's worked for. As the film closes, Vicki is at the premiere of her new movie and steps up to the microphone to speak to fans listening to a radio broadcast, identifying herself as "Mrs. Norman Maine."

This version, with a screenplay credited to William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell (who get a credit on every subsequent version, though only Wellman and Carson would get to share the Oscar for Best Writing, Original Story), is the template on which the three subsequent films will build themselves, and though it's somewhat similar to 1932's What Price Hollywood?, it's different enough that it doesn't really qualify as a remake itself (though one could argue that it's similar enough to be a "rip off"). It's a nimble picture that, unlike the versions that follow, manages to get it done in under 2 hours and which, despite its moments of heavy drama, is well balanced with lighter moments. It's centered on two strong performances by Gaynor and March, though Gaynor's time to shine really only comes at the end when she's tasked with working her character through her feelings of grief and defeat, while March gets to dig deep throughout the film. He starts the film as a man who has already gone to seed but is still charming enough that he seems rakish rather than tragic, but as the film progresses he slowly unravels, what remains of his dignity being chipped away bit by bit until all that's left is someone so vulnerable and wounded that he can no longer withstand anything.

In addition to the central performances, it also has a strong supporting cast, including Adolphe Menjou as the producer who helps shape Vicki's career and who tries to remain a friend to Norman even after Norman becomes persona non grata in Hollywood circles, Andy Devine as Vicki's best friend, and Robson who acts as both comic relief and the figure who provides Esther with the solid emotional support that she needs and whose performance is all the more amazing for the fact that she only appears right at the beginning and then right at the end. A Star is Born (1937) is a film that leaves little to improve upon, which goes a long way towards explaining why it has remained the foundation on which all the other versions build themselves.

A Star is Born (1952)

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Judy Garland, James Mason

The 1952 version is not a carbon copy of the 1937 version - it cuts out Esther's backstory, for example, starting the story when she's already in Hollywood and has been plugging away, trying to get her break, for a while; and it's also much longer on account of the musical numbers that appear throughout - but it is nevertheless extremely faithful to the original. It's so faithful that it doesn't merely reproduce narrative beats, but it recreates entire scenes right down to the dialogue. This includes a charmingly bizarre scene where Norman (James Mason) tries to show Esther/Vicki (Judy Garland) that he's capable of doing things around the house by making her a sandwich, which she gamely attempts to eat even though it's too big for any normal person to actually consume. To the 1952 version's credit, the sandwich that Mason hands Garland actually does look ridiculous (and Garland gets some good comic mileage out of trying to conquer it); that's not really the case in the 1937 version, which honestly just looks like a regular sandwich.

This version of the film is, arguably, the most beloved, featuring a luminous performance from Garland and a performance from Mason that's really quite tremendous as the increasingly broken man who goes from being a star in his own right to being a liability to his wife's stardom. This version is emotionally rich and handsomely put together under the direction of George Cukor, who had been offered the opportunity to direct the 1937 version but declined because he felt it was too similar to What Price Hollywood?, which he had directed. There are two versions of this film, the theatrical release (which runs at 154 minutes) and the restored version (which runs at 176 minutes). The restored version includes two musical numbers that were cut from the theatrical release as well as scenes "reconstructed" using restored dialogue played over production stills. Personally I recommend the theatrical version because I find that the use of production stills to restore lost scenes just interrupts the flow of a film, but the restored version is still worth seeing if only for the musical numbers, which appear here in their entirety.

A Star is Born (1976)

Director: Frank Pierson
Starring: Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson

If the 1952 version is a faithful remake, the 1976 version is a remix. Transporting the story from the movie industry to the music industry, 1976 fashions its characters as rock star John Norman Maine (Kris Kristofferson), who is a popular performer even though literally every time he performs in this movie there comes a point when the crowd starts to "boo" him, and Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand), who is performing in small venues as part of a trio as the film opens. The structure of the story remains the same - he sees something in her that no one else does and helps nurture her career, opening the door to stardom for her so that she can burst through on the strength of her talent; they marry but his career falls apart under the weight of his addiction and the behavior that stems from it (in this case it results in his band deciding to carry on without him and his antics), while her career hits the stratosphere; she tries to nurse him through his addiction, even if it means sacrificing her own career - but the 1976 version is its own animal. While the 1937 and 1952 versions succeeded not merely on the strength of its two stars but also on the supporting players around them, the 1976 version relies much more heavily on its two stars. There are supporting players here - including a radio DJ whose antagonistic relationship with John Norman takes the place of the relationship between Norman and the studio publicist in the previous two versions - but they don't function as well as well as the supporting casts in the previous versions. The DJ, for example, just plays as a nuisance whereas the publicist had actual power and used it to give the fallen star a push towards the edge.

In this version there's really only room for the two protagonists and their relationship to each other, but the Streisand/Kristofferson combination doesn't work as well as Gaynor/March or Garland/Mason. Streisand is never particularly believable as the woman waiting for her big break - she seems like a "star" from the moment she appears on screen - and her performance tends to dwarf that of Kristofferson, whose performance is much more subtle. In a break from the previous two version, Kristofferson's version of the fallen star first tries to push his wife away when he realizes that his addiction is going to take them both down, cheating on her in a way that she's guaranteed to find out about. Instead she forgives him and they retreat to their home far away from all the temptations of the rock world, where the only thing that can separate them is death. Here, too, this version breaks with the previous one. Where the previous films ended with Norman taking his own life but doing so in a way that's just ambiguous enough that the press can characterize it as an accident, this one ends in a wholly ambiguous way. John Norman drives recklessly and then the films cuts away and next we know he's dead in the wreckage of a crash. He may have crashed on purpose, but it may actually have been an accident; the film leaves the question lingering.

While the 1937 and 1952 versions are both strong in their own ways, the 1976 version never completely works, which is a shame since it actually does try to remake the story while still doing something a bit different. Kristofferson is excellent, but his musical numbers get awfully repetitive (I swear, if I heard him ask "Are you a figment of my imagination, or am I one of yours?" one more time I would have lost it) compared to Streisand's numbers. On the other hand, some of the costumes in this movie are ridiculous, which can be entertaining in and of itself. In some of the scenes where Esther and John Norman are at their home away from the city they pretty much just look like they're doing cultural appropriation cosplay. But, yeah, there's a reason why this version is the least revered one.

A Star is Born (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper

Like the 1976 version, the 2018 version departs a bit from the story, save for the specifics of the narrative's outline. Although Cooper's characterization of Jackson Maine owes something to Kristofferson's performance, and although the 2018 version recreates a scene from 1976 (specifically a scene in which the two lovers take a bath and she puts make up on him), 2018 isn't a remake of 1976 specifically. Like the 1976 version it sets its story in the music industry rather than the film industry, but like the 1937 and 1952 versions it also develops a solid world of supporting characters around the two protagonists. From Jack's brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), the man who tried to make it first but never came close to the heights his younger brother would reach, to Ramon (Anthony Ramos), the friend to Ally (Lady Gaga) who encourages her to throw caution to the wind, to Ally's father (Andrew Dice Clay), who had dreams of being a singer himself, and Jack's friend, George (Dave Chappelle), who appears briefly but long enough to make the audience understand the depth of their long friendship, the supporting cast is strong and is used in a way that helps strengthen the audience's understanding of the two main characters.

Unlike any of the previous films, this one also removes any ambiguity regarding the male protagonist's fate. While the first two make it clear to the audience that he's committed suicide, but have him do it in a way that one could conceivably believe that he's died as a result of an accident, and the 1976 version leaves things vague so that you don't know for certain whether he's committed suicide or died as a result of an accident, this version leaves nothing to question. When Jack commit suicide, it's quite clearly suicide; an interesting choice that, in turn, allows Ally to give into rage, where Gaynor and Garland's characters are instead left to be serene in their grief. The 2018 version doesn't do anything by halves, wearing emotions on its sleeve at all times whether it be passion, anger, or the deepest despair. A Star is Born fully embraces the naked emotionality of melodrama and comes across not merely as a film that aims to manipulate its audience into feeling something, but as a work that feels things itself. I have no doubt that that's a large part of the reason why it's been so popular. While only time can tell if this version has staying power, it seems safe to say that it's a perfect movie for right now.

Best Version: 1937

Best Esther/Vicki/Ally: Judy Garland

Best Norman/John Norman/Jack: Bradley Cooper

Best Award Show Interruption: 1976

Best Music: It's not really fair to say. I'll have to reserve judgment until such a time as "Shallow" is no longer stuck in my head (10 days and counting...)

Best Supporting Character: Esther's grandmother, 1937 version

Best Costumes: 1976 version - they're ridiculous!

Best Variation on "I Just Want to Take Another Look at You": James Mason's line reading

Best Final Scene: 2018

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