Origins: A Star Is Born

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Wikipedia

They remade A Star Is Born. Again. The current version stars Lady Gaga (credited as her real name, Stefani Germanotta) portraying rising star Ally, while Bradley Cooper plays Jackson Maine, mega country star who helps Ally get her start, even as his own career is hitting the skids. If the story arcs the way its predecessors have, Ally will rocket to the top of the charts and Jackson won’t be able to handle it. Not to mention, the two of them fall in love and Ally has to watch helplessly as Jackson self-destructs. It’s not exactly a light, cheery story, but it’s always interesting watching the conflict unfold and the dyanamic of the rising and falling stars. What’s also fun is seeing Los Angeles and Hollywood as supporting characters, always slightly different every time but still full of promise.

Here’s the trailer:

I’m actually excited about this. The film is rated R, probably for drug usage and language, but seems to have retained a lot of the classic elements. Jackson Maine looks to be kind of a country singer, although “country” is almost a courtesy title these days, since there’s so much fusion across the genres.

The only thing that troubles me about this film is that literally every trailer for it features Jackson crooning “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” On one hand I get it, because the premise of the story is an old star dying while a new one comes to life, but on the other, it bugs me. Tossing out tradition and history is such a prevalent attitude among certain millienials, as if the past is some kind of pesky old person to be left in a senior’s home or out in the cold. It’s like Kylo Ren said in The Last Jedi, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”

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Forbes

It doesn’t bode well for our society as a whole. If the up-and-coming generation is this willing to discard anything and everything old just because it is old, they will also discard their own identities and any light that the past can shine on the present. In short, they will be stumbling around in the dark.

But I digress.

Sorta.

When it comes to A Star Is Born, the past always goes with the present in some way, and this can be seen in its previous four versions. Each might be a little bit different, but each knows what came before.

1937

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Wikipedia

Here’s the one that started it all. The film stars Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Clara Blandick, Andy Devine, and a product of Selznik International. Unlike later film versions, this iteration isn’t a musical. Janet Gaynor is adorable and funny and tragic as Esther Blodgett from North Dakota. She first sees Norman Maine at the Hollywood Bowl, where he gets into a drunken scuffle with a persistent photographer. She meets him again at a party, from which he drives her home, and it’s all downhill from there. Esther goes from struggling to screen test, then from bit player to rising star, all while Norman’s own light is fading. Fredric March’s performance is compelling, giving the impression of a man who’s trying to glare down failure.

The dialogue in the film is fantastic, and it should be, since Dorothy Parker co-wrote the screenplay. I found the music to be fairly familiar as well, and I’m being facetious when I say that–it was heavily featured in 1944’s Since You Went Away. A lot of the props were the same, too. I wonder if Selznik thought no one would notice seven years later.

1942

Judy first played the role of Esther in this 1942 Lux Radio Theatre program, broadcast on December 28th. She loved it, because it let her flex her acting muscles beyond just her usual ingenue roles, although she doesn’t sing in this version. Walter Pidgeon played the Norman Maine part, only he never really sounds drunk until about the last third of the program. His interpretation of Norman Maine is definitely more subdued than his fellow Normans, but still deft. It might be a more minimal story compared to other takes, but it’s still heart-wrenching in the end.

1954

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IMDb

Judy’s film version is the version for many people, and with excellent reason: It. Is. Brilliant. It ticks all the boxes of the 1937 version, using a lot of the same locations and dialogue, only it magnifies them a few hundred times. And of course, Judy Garland and James Mason put their own stamps on Esther and Norman. Judy’s performance is more intense than Janet’s, and where Fredric glowers, James crumbles. The 1954 film fills out the characters a lot, as we get a better idea of what’s going through their heads. What I also like about this version is that it stresses how hard Esther worked to get where she got. As much as I like the 1937 film, its Esther is a bit of a Mary Sue.

The movie was Judy’s “Up Yours” statement to Hollywood. She had wanted to play Esther on film after making the Lux version, but MGM didn’t want her breaking out of her usual type. Once free from MGM, Judy and husband Sid Luft made their own Star, with help from Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin, George Cukor, and a host of others.

The film was a triumph, and industry insiders started buzzing about Judy winning an Oscar. Unfortunately, instead of a fantastic movie, exhibitors at Warner Bros. only saw dollar signs, and ordered Star shortened by thirty minutes. With the proverbial hacksaw. George Cukor later said that neither he nor Judy could ever look at it again.

Watching the film today, even in its 1983 restored form, is a rather bittersweet experience, because it’s hard not to wonder what might have been. What if Warner hadn’t ordered the film chopped up? Would Judy have won her Oscar? I honestly don’t think she would have, because MGM had so much clout in the Academy, and Judy winning an Oscar would have burned too many hides. However, the film is still a testament to the artistry of the cast and crew.

1976

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Roger Ebert

Ugh, I’m not a Streisand fan on the best or worst of days–I think she’s overrated. Her version of A Star Is Born came out in the year of my birth, so I remember seeing the soundtrack album everywhere. That one song, “Evergreen,” was (and still is) particularly annoying. I flinch every time I hear it, and unfortunately, the tune was a staple at weddings for a long time. I myself went to two different ceremonies where the song was played, and both of those couples ended up divorced. Ah, memories.

And ahhh, I didn’t like this film. I wanted it to be over before I was even ten minutes in, because it’s depressing, boring, and slow. On one hand, the nostalgia angle is slightly appealing (macrame, tassled couches), but there’s no relief from the heavy story apart from a few passable songs. Judy Garland’s natural humor and genius helped make the 1954 version brilliant. Gaynor and March’s charm made the original a classic.

None of that is present here, as Streisand doesn’t have nearly the acting range of her predecessors. Kristofferson doesn’t appear to be acting, which works in his favor, since his character can’t stay in a scene long before he starts chomping at his surroundings. As a whole, it begs two questions: “Why?” and “Can I have those two-and-a-half hours back?”

And now we return to the current century.

As we all know, Lady Gaga’s career was initially built on Liberace-on-crack craziness (Remember the Kermit the Frog cape? The meat dress?). Not really my thing, but I like what she’s done lately. She slayed that Sound of Music medley at the 2015 Oscars, and then she slayed again on her duet album with Tony Bennett. Here’s a sample, just because:

Yeah, Gaga has a lot of tricks up her sleeve, and it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in A Star Is Born. Chances are, as a novice thespian she’ll have to lean on Bradley Cooper, but that’s OK, since he is her director. Gaga may just end up surprising us again, and I’m looking forward to it. I only hope this version of Star doesn’t forget where it came from and why it came to be in the first place.

More Shame coming on the morrow. As usual, thanks for reading…

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4 thoughts on “Origins: A Star Is Born

  1. This is an incredible post. I loved your compare and contrast of the various versions of A Star is Born. Speaking of the the original, starring Janet Gaynor, she was born this month. And am hosting an October Birthdays Blogathon (pls do check it out). Were you aware that A Star is Born is the only colour film, Janet Gaynor, appeared in. I only ask, as it wasn’t mentioned here.
    I haven’t seen any version properly, but really ought to.
    I’ve seen a bit of Judy Garland’s version, where the scenes have been chopped off, and the missing footage had been added with photo stills (if I recall correctly, it had to do with a phone booth).
    I generally like Barbra Streisand, but I agree, the bit I saw of her version, felt boring.
    But I need to see all 4 versions properly.
    Am glad you added Lady Gaga’s rendition of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Love it!! Love it!! Love it!! Never seen it before. And I agree, Gaga did a brilliant job with the Sound of Music melody, at the Oscars!! I spoke about it back then.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, and you make some great points here! I didn’t know that “Star” was Gaynor’s only color film, but it makes sense. It was so expensive at the time, so it’s not surprising. And I will definitely check out your blogathon–it’s a nice idea. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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