The fourth incarnation of A Star Is Born was released last weekend. This re-telling of a story penned in 1936 stars Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who made his directorial debut. Cooper also has credits for producing and writing the screenplay. We’ll look at the road to Cooper’s grab for an Oscar too.
(For a side-by-side of all four films’ five replicated scenes, take a look at this piece from Vulture.)
The story’s first incarnation was released in 1937 with a script by director William Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell. (The film’s release, Parker seemed proud of her work, but later in life felt like she did not provide a meaningful contribution to the final product.) Gloria Gaynor (The Wife, from Sunrise!) stars as North Dakota farm girl Esther Blodgett who leaves the unforgiving prairie for Hollywood meets cute with a drunk, washed up star Norman Maine, played by Frederic March, and finds both love and fulfillment as an actress. Norman and Esther marry, but Norman’s a mess: he quietly resents Esther’s success, and he can’t stop drinking long enough to get hired. He’s a joke in Hollywood, he interrupts his wife’s acceptance speech at the Oscars and realizing that he’s holding her back, he walks into the ocean and dies. (Again, this is the actress to win the first Best Actress award!)
Esther retires from public life but is urged to return by her Grandmother. The film ends at a Hollywood premiere, with Esther addressing her fans via a radio address: “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
Like the end of Titanic, but conforming to the social mores of those times. (Whereas my eighth-grade theology teacher used Titanic to insist that we see Rose’s escape from her mother as a marriage-like dedication to Jack.)
At the time of its release, critics noticed that the film echoed the 1932 film What Price, Hollywood? Both films are said to have been inspired by the tragedies that befell Hollywood couples, with Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay influencing Star and Hollywood finding inspiration in the relationship between Collen Moore and John McCormick (who she eventually divorced); Star may have been inspired by the death of John Bowers. Both films echo the struggles and death of Tom Forman. Director George Cukor was approached by producer David O. Selznick to produce Star but declined, feeling that the film was too similar to its predecessor. Hollywood‘s studio considered suing the producers and studio behind Star.
The 1937 film was well-received by critics and audiences. It was nominated for multiple Oscars, winning Best Original Screenplay.
With apologies to fellow Scholar Fiona, who was forced to watch with me, it is the only iteration without singing.
The film was remade in 1954, starring Judy Garland as Esther and James Mason as Norman. It was Garland’s first film in four years; her performance aided in reviving her career, which was then flagging. The film was nominated for a bevy of awards, including Best Written Musical (the Writers Guild of America), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Costume, Best Art Direction, Best Musical Picture, Best Original Song, and Best Scoring (the Oscars) but won only for Best Actor and Best Actress from the Golden Globes. Garland’s loss at the Oscars (to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl) is notorious; Grouch Marx called the loss “the biggest robbery since Brink’s.” Garland’s win was assumed, and the Oscars sent a crew to her hospital win to film her acceptance speech. The film is widely considered one of the greatest musicals of all time. It’s also the best version of this story.
This iteration of the story was the first to feature song and dance; Norman interrupts Esther on stage during a song-and-dance-medley, and meets her later during her after-hours performance of “The Man That Got Away.”
They fall in love, her star rises, etc. The whole crux of these films is that a washed-up star “takes an interest” in the career of an “up-and-comer” and she falls in love with him because…frankly, I don’t know. These men really aren’t a catch, and none of the Esthers (or Allys) are in love with them because they were famous. (Credit to Hollywood for that one.) There’s usually a spark from feeling lucky to be seen by a man Hollywood won’t hire anymore but is that really enough for romance? (Asks a woman who loved The OC, which required even less for its star-crossed lovers.)
It’s all pretty much the same as the last movie: a career flourishes while one goes into a tailspin, the drug of choice is alcohol, Norman overhears that his wife will retire, and he takes a clandestine “swim,” she retires and is convinced to return to public life. This time it’s a friend and it’s for charity work, and…she introduces herself to the crowd as “Mrs. Norman Maine.”
Initial test screenings of A Star Is Born ran 196 minutes; it was cut to 182 minutes for its premiere, despite positive feedback. (Not unlike Bridesmaids!) For its release, though, the film was edited down to 154 minutes (now it feels like Annihilation!) Two musical numbers plus parts of the plot were cut away, which displeased director George Cukor. The film has been restored twice, first in 1983 and again in 2010. The most recent restoration is the original 196-cut and the one Scholars recommend viewing.
Now on its second remake, A Star Is Born moves from cabaret to rock and roll; our Norman Maine is John Howard Norman, and he’s played by Kris Kristofferson. He finds Esther Hoffman, played by Barbara Streisand in a bar, and they meet when she tells him (on stage!) to stop distracting the crowd from her performance. (Points then, to Babs for not saving his ass from embarrassment.)
Esther and John duet, leading to her big break and career successes; instead of an Oscars acceptance and interruption, it’s the Grammys. (And in this one, Esther finds John in bed with a DJ!) John is a bigger mess than the previous Drunk Normans, and ultimately crashes his car to free Esther from an unhappy marriage and move on to a successful music career.
When Esther takes the stage again, she sings one of John’s ballads. Our Babs wouldn’t introduce herself as “Mrs. John Norman.”
The film did not do well. (It’s a 35% on Rotten Tomatoes!) And yet, it was on cable television for all of my childhood, so I’ve seen it several times. During Awards Season it won an Oscar for Best Original Song (“Evergreen,” AFI’s No. 16 on its 100 Years…100 Songs), and Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Musical/Comedy), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Score, Best Original Song… so it’s the most reviled of the four and (currently) the most rewarded.
Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This covers the production of the film in depth and is a must-listen.
Of note: West Side Story‘s choreography David Winters choreographed A Star Is Born, and before Kristofferson was cast Neil Diamond, Marlon Brando, and Elvis Pressley were considered for the role.
Last weekend’s release stars Bradley Cooper as a struggling musician and Lady Gaga as an aspiring singer. Though reports suggested that Cooper’s Jackson Maine was inspired by Kurt Cobain (where is the flannel?), the film hews closely to the 1976 release: Jackson follows Gaga to a drag bar where she performs, they write and perform together, Ally receives an engagement ring made out of a guitar string, they elope that day, he interrupts her at the Grammys (in his defense, Best New Artist is a curse)…
After Jackson’s death (this time around, Ally’s manager tells Jackson he’s a bad influence) Ally performs one of his songs at his funeral and introduces herself as Ally Maine.
The film was in development for seven years. Clint Eastwood had planned to direct the remake with Beyoncé. When she dropped out, due to her pregnancy, Esperanza Spalding. Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christian Bale were considered for Cooper’s part, and we wonder if a Beyoncé-lead would have taken place on the festival circuit.