By Alan Hurst
The advance buzz for the Bradley Cooper helmed remake of A Star Is Born (2018) is positive to the point of hysteria. It did well at the Venice Film Festival and is one of the big-ticket attractions for TIFF. It stars Cooper and Lady Gaga and word is that both give superb performances, Cooper’s debut as a director is said to be very strong, and the soundtrack is expected to be a top seller. Good for them – and I hope it all lives up to the hype.
It’s been 42 years since the story of two stars – one on the rise and one on the way down – has been dusted off for the moviegoers. And it’s also the fifth time that the story will have been told. Let’s look back at the previous versions:
What Price Hollywood? (1932)
The often forgotten first version was called What Price Hollywood? and it starred Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman in a pre-code drama that first told the story of the successful but alcoholic actor helping the aspiring actress. George Cukor directed this version and it was nominated for an Oscar for its screenplay, but it didn’t have the impact of other versions. But the core elements of the plot are all there – he’s a star, but an alcoholic and his career is on the down side. She’s new, ambitious and accepts his help, ultimately becoming a big star and winning an Oscar. The one big difference here is the need for a happy ending, with Bennett ultimately ending up with another man after the suicide of Sherman’s character. Bennett considered this her best performance and she’s good in a part that was originally slated for Clara Bow. But ultimately this movie – as good as it is – had little impact.
A Star Is Born (1937)
Four years later Cukor was asked to direct this big budget version with a new screenplay, but he passed, ultimately feeling it was too close to the 1932 version. William Wellman took the reigns and delivered a major hit for producer David O. Selznick (who also produced the earlier film). This version stars Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, both major stars and already Oscar winners. This new version generated strong box-office returns and was well-reviewed by critics of the day, ultimately garnering seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director (Wellman), Actor (March), and Actress (Gaynor). Interestingly, it won the Oscar for Best Original Story – even though major elements of the plot are identical to the 1932 film. This version has farm girl Esther Blodget (Gaynor) moving to Hollywood and very soon discovering the odds are stacked against her. After a couple of chance encounters with alcoholic movie star Norman Maine (March), Esther finds her self auditioning for and getting female lead in Maine’s new movie. She’s a big hit, they marry, but people start to lose interest in Maine. Wellman does an excellent job with the story – it’s an engrossing, well-acted drama with a very emotional ending. The irony here is that Gaynor’s career never really did much after this film and she retired from the screen in 1939. March, on the other hand, continued to have a major film and stage career, winning a second Oscar in 1946 for The Best Years of Our Lives.
A Star Is Born (1954)
This is the big one – and the one where the legend around this story really takes hold. George Cukor was enticed back to direct this one and he does a superb job. It’s one of the best musical dramas of the fifties – an incisive look at Hollywood, the star system, marriage and addiction. Moss Hart provided an excellent update of the 1937 version, expertly capturing the feel of 1954 Hollywood. But there’s only one reason this film got made at all – as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland. Garland hadn’t made a film since being fired from MGM after Summer Stock (1950). She had achieved great success on the concert stage in the early fifties, but she and then husband Sid Luft wanted to get her back in front of the cameras. Working with Warner Brothers, this was the vehicle they thought would work to reintroduce Garland in the best way possible. Although a little too old in the films early stages (she was just 32, but looked older), this is ultimately the Garland performance that shows every facet of her talent. It’s a raw, emotionally charged performance that’s probably the best she ever gave on film. Fortunately, she’s matched every step of the way by James Mason as the alcoholic star/husband. I think this is also Mason’s best performance. Both were nominated for Oscars, but this was also the year of On the Waterfront and Grace Kelly’s ascension to stardom, so they both lost. In Garland’s case, it’s one of the biggest injustices in Oscar history. Reviews for the film were raves, but this was also a very a long film so soon after it was released Jack Warner had it cut – eliminating about 30 minutes that really hurt the film and slowed box office receipts. That was the version that was seen for years. In the early eighties some of that footage was restored and if film footage was not available, photographs were used over the original soundtrack. Not a perfect restoration, but it showed how much better the original cut was.
A Star Is Born (1976)
The fourth version updated the backdrop of films for the music business – a smart move for a movie that starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, both among the top musicians and performers of the decade (but with wildly different styles). It also ensured that the soundtrack – which is excellent – would be among the most played and successful of the year. But the movie is terrible. It’s one that every time I watch I want to like it, but I don’t. Despite an updated screenplay by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, very little seems accurate – it all feels very clichéd. The film also stuck to the basic plot elements of the first three films, which may also explain why things feel very stale – despite the fertile opportunities provided by the seventies rock scene. The film was produced by Streisand and her then boyfriend Jon Peters and, at the time, the tales from the set told of a pair of egos that were out of control. Director Frank Pierson was essentially shunted aside as Streisand and Peters took over. A few saving graces for me include the slow, weary performance by Kristofferson that feels just right for the character, some lovely ballads (including Streisand’s “Evergreen”) and excellent cinematography by Robert Surtees. The biggest downfalls are the script, sloppy direction and a performance by Streisand that never rings true (rare for her). The only time she resonates is during the musical numbers – but let’s not even begin to wonder how a pop singer like Streisand would have come across in front of a crowd showing up to see the type of rock that Kristofferson and company were performing. Probably not with the adulation seen here. Despite all of that, this version was a major box-office hit – the biggest of Streisand’s career.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.