A Dive Into A Star Is Born
Written by Samantha Wolfe
It’s been a little over a year now since Bradley Cooper’s passion project A Star is Born was released, which means it’s been a year since the subject has been relevant. Everyone may have moved on already, but I haven’t. All I do with my life is think about all four versions of the film, comparing and contrasting, thinking about how the films represent the era they were made. Each film is impressive in its ability to bend the story to better fit the era they exist in, while still telling basically the same story.
Going chronologically, the first version of A Star is Born is the 1937 version, directed by William A Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester and Frederic March as Norman Maine. This is the most straightforward version, as it follows Esther as she moves to Hollywood with the support of her grandmother, struggles until meeting Norman Maine while working a catering job for a producer friend, and with Norman’s help becomes Hollywood’s biggest star. After a series of incidents as Norman struggles with his alcoholism, including the most famous where he takes over her acceptance speech of the Best Actress award and announces he deserves the award for the three worst performances, he eventually commits suicide by drowning himself in order to allow Esther to focus her career instead of quitting to focus on him. It was enormously popular in its time, raking in over $2 million in the box office and obviously, inspiring three different adaptations. It was nominated for seven categories, including Best Actress for Gaynor and Best Actor for March, though only winning for Best Original Story.
This version is important, one because it served as the inspiration for the other three movies that I’m going to discuss, but also because how shameless it serves as Hollywood propaganda. At this time, the star system was an open secret. A girl from the middle of nowhere moves to Hollywood, is discovered by a big producer, gets a new name and a bogus backstory, and finally becomes the biggest star in the world. This film acts as an advertisement, a sort of celebration of the process. It tells the real life girls in North Dakota where Esther is originally from, “This can be you!” Whether or not this is valid is beside the point, because it works.
Wellman’s Star is Born is not without its issues. Norman is portrayed here as much more aggressive than its successors, lashing out whenever his masculinity is threatened. Esther first meets Norman at an event where he drunkenly punches a photographer, and near the end fights a press agent in a bar, breaking as soon as the agent points out that he will have to live off his wife. This is also the only version that is not a musical.
Nearly twenty years later, the second version of A Star is Born was released, this time directed by George Cukor and starring Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett and James Mason as Norman Maine. Before we get into it, I should probably mention that this is my favorite version by far and I love it to pieces.
The most notable difference here is that it is a musical, and runs just over 3 hours long (including an intermission.) The second half is much better than the first (though both are great), likely because much of the latter half of the first act has production stills inserted instead of actual footage, as the footage was carelessly handled during its initial release and is now lost forever. I did not know this was part of the film the first time I watched it. I was very freaked out.
Judy Garland absolutely SHINES here as Esther, although her real life at the time more closely mirrored Norman Maine’s character. This was her first film in four years after several stints in rehab, and the film itself ran extremely over budget because of Judy’s own alcohol binges. She also suffered significant weight fluctuations and hypochondria while filming. Despite this, her performance was universally praised, considered by some (including me) to be one of the greatest performances ever captured on film. If you feel the need to cry, I always recommend watching this scene.
Compared to its predecessor, this film takes a much kinder, if pathetic, approach to Norman’s character. Whereas in the previous film, when Esther accepts her award and Norman ruins the speech, his speech is bitter, angry, and violent (even if accidentally so.) In this 1954 version, Norman appears simply pathetic as he begs his former colleagues to give him a job before he too, accidentally slaps Esther in the face. This version also treats Norman’s suicide more sympathetically (I challenge anyone to not sob while watching it.) Finally, more time is spent with Esther as she mourns the loss of her husband. As we watch her grieve, we grieve with her. This causes the final line of the film, “Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” to be absolutely genuinely devastating emotionally, though gratifying. This film started a trend the later films followed of allowing Norman to be something other than intensely masculine, showing his confliction, guilt, sadness, and love for Esther in a way that feels genuine.
The next of the remakes is from 1976 and stars Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman, and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard. Despite the name changes, the overall story stays mostly the same, though this time John Norman is a has-been country star, while Esther is an up-and-coming singer. This film also gets the honor of being the only of the four that I do not like. It was made during the peak of 70’s feminism, and Streisand maintained creative control over much of production (the costumes are entirely from Streisand’s own closet, as the credits famously acknowledge), so much of the “outdated” tropes of the previous two entries are gone.
Here, Esther is at her most confident of all four films. She embodies the feminism of the 70’s perfectly, wearing pantsuits and natural curls, taking control of her image and career in a way the other Esther’s don’t quite get to achieve. One iconic scene includes her and John Norman in the bath together as she puts makeup and glitter on his face, which was unheard of at the time.
This film is also the only of the four that has John Norman’s death be slightly murky in that it’s unclear if John Norman intentionally killed himself or not. He more or less drives his car off into the sunset, crashing and dying in the process. Gone is the now dated line “Mrs. Norman Maine,” so enter a 7 minute unbroken shot of Esther singing at what appears to be a memorial event for her husband. It comes across as Barbra being Barbra, stripping any emotion the scene normally has and replacing it with what feels like a Streisand concert special. I’m sorry if that’s harsh. It just doesn’t sit right with me.
Forty years later, we finally arrive at the current last entry in the franchise. Directed by and starring Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, along with Lady Gaga as Ally No Last Name. This film takes a great deal of time exploring both of their backstories and home lives, as well as including takes on what it means to be a celebrity in the modern age. Jackson is still an alcoholic, but he also has to deal with cashiers in supermarkets taking his picture (to which his, at this point, new pal Ally defends him.) He also eventually reveals the prevalence of addiction and mental illness in his family.
Since so much of the screen time is dedicated to building Jackson’s story, some of Ally’s is lost. The film, especially it its latter half, no longer feels like it’s about her. Many of her plotlines are left unfinished, mainly, why did she eventually accepted her changed “pop star” image, after so much resistance from both her and Jackson?
Despite these changes, somehow the film remains great. The songs are perfect, the cinematography is gorgeous. Lady Gaga’s makeup in the drag bar is such a perfect look, I have no doubt that it’ll go down as one of the most iconic costumes of the entire franchise. While we’re on the subject, I adore that Shangela and Willam, drag legends, are included in the film, as characters rather than caricatures. A lesser film would’ve made a joke out of the community, but this one prefers a kinder take.
If Hollywood continues to remake this film every 20-40 years, I won’t be upset. These films are an excellent examination into how our culture changes, how our view of a celebrity change, yet how our weaknesses stay the same. The studio system may be extinct, but watching loved ones succumb to addiction is as prevalent as ever. The biggest theme shared across the films is that love isn’t enough. Addiction is stronger than love whether we want to believe it or not. In the end, a person can only be responsible for theirself.
Sigh. That took a dark turn. I guess I’m just gonna go watch Judy’s monologue again.