Movie Review ~ A Star is Born (2018)

The Facts

Synopsis: A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay

Director: Bradley Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can say about this fourth version of A Star is Born it is that you should most definitely believe the hype that has followed the film for the last several months as it has held private screenings and then debuted at the fall festivals. After laboring in development for nearly a decade and going through directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and rumored stars such as Will Smith and Beyoncé, the stars have aligned (literally) and produced a mega-watt 2018 version of this timeless tale of stardom.

I think we can all thank our fair godmothers Eastwood didn’t find his way behind the camera. As much respect as I have for him as a director, his films over the last few years have gotten stodgy and square which is the exact opposite tone of what was needed to bring this story into a new era. Instead we have Eastwood adjacent Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper in the director’s chair and he’s definitely taking a confident page from his American Sniper colleague in moving from the actor period of his career into the actor-director phase.

The last time A Star is Born was seen onscreen was a whopping 42 years ago in Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s ill-advised update which moved the action from Hollywood to the rock-and-roll music scene of the late ‘70s. That version was sunk by a lead actress that wasn’t right for the character, a leading man that wilted in the presence of his co-star, a script that stunk, and a director that couldn’t salvage it. Plain and simple, it was a blight on the 1937 and 1954 versions and while it was the third highest grossing film of 1976 it’s considered by many to be the least enjoyable of the triptych.  It’s no small miracle, then, that Cooper and fellow screenwriters Eric Roth (Forrest Gump and Wolfen) and Will Fetters (The Lucky One) managed to keep the music setting of the 1976 version but brought back the magic and music of the 1954 version along with the tragedy of the 1937 original. Here’s the best cinematic take on the material, a handsome film that runs too long but has such a dynamic duo at its center that audiences will easily forgive sitting in their seats 15 minutes longer than necessary.

Though decades have passed, the story of A Star is Born remains the same: A young upstart is guided to fame by a man whose own career is nearing the end. Aging country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) is a hard-drinker that’s losing his hearing. Though not struggling to stay relevant as previous iterations of this character, he’s in a certain holding pattern in his career where he can see the writing on the wall. Desperate for another drink and not wanting to go back to his hotel, he has his driver drop him at the nearest bar…and it happens to be a drag club that Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing in. Her performance and presence captivate him and they spend a night discussing his life, her plans, and everything in between.

The first hour of A Star is Born is devoted to Jackson and Ally’s burgeoning relationship as he whisks her away from her job and family (dad is played by Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine) to constantly be by his side. Jackson’s creativity is reenergized by Ally’s talent and by the time he brings her onstage for a duet of the song they co-wrote on the fly the film is positively bursting at the seams to have audiences stand up and cheer. Much like Judy Garland’s performance of The Man that Got Away early on in the 1954 version, the rest of the film can’t quite match that jolt of lightening moment, even though Cooper and Gaga fill the remaining time with memorable music and scenes that highlight the rocky road to fame and the dramatic fall of losing it all.

All pervious takes on A Star is Born have placed the female lead as the heart and soul of the picture but, and this is no slight on Lady Gaga who more than holds her own in the acting department, Cooper walks away with the movie. His greasy hair, grizzled features, and gravely voice instantly give you the entire story of years of rough living and his weary eyes tell of a man with a soul that is winding down. Meeting Ally and falling in love saves him from falling over the edge but is her love and care enough to keep him on steady ground? Cooper digs deep here and by the time the film reaches it’s four-hanky finale with the most startling ending yet, your heart more than aches for him.

As mentioned above, any fears that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be up for the challenge vanish almost the moment she appears onscreen. Though she does her best work while signing (as someone who has attended four of her concerts I can tell you she gives 150% every time and that’s the same here) Cooper coaxes far more nuance out of her than most people will realize. The chemistry between the two is off the charts and you can expect both actors to be showered with awards and/or nominations at the end of the year.

Another person to mention is Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Grandma) as Cooper’s manager/big brother who has had to play father and sober cab nursemaid to his sibling while foregoing his own dreams and aspirations. Elliott has always been a strong presence in films but he’s given some pretty special scenes here that allow him to stretch further than he’s gone in quite some time. It helps that Cooper matches Elliott’s bottom basement growl; I had no trouble believing these were brothers with a fraught history.

The first half of the movie is so good and well paced that the numerous leaps in time that fill the second half are a bit jarring. Focused on Ally’s rise to fame as a pop music star (hosting Saturday Night Live, being nominated for a Grammy, etc) the film hops around quite a bit and leaves some storytelling elements in the dust. That’s also when Lady Gaga is at her weakest as her musical performances feel a bit restrained and overproduced. Anytime the two leads are alone on screen, however, brings the movie back to solid ground and by the time we reach the end we’re on the edge of our seats even if we already know how it’s going to end.

It’s easy to see why this garnered such hugely positive buzz months before it was released. It’s been finished for some time and waiting for it’s October release date. In the meantime, Cooper isn’t a dummy and wisely showed it to several big names in Hollywood (including Streisand) who have been effusive in their praise of the film. When it rolled out to critics they too were taken by the prestige of the picture and by the time the general public gets their eyes on it this weekend I’m certain even more good notices will come their way. It’s going to go even further with strong word-of-mouth and, I’m guessing, repeat business. I’m already finding time in my schedule to see it again.

Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1976)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A has-been rock star falls in love with a young, up-and-coming songstress.

Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Barbra Streisand, Gary Busey, Marta Heflin, Sally Kirkland, Paul Mazursky

Director: Frank Pierson

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  If you are truly doing your homework before seeing the new A Star is Born in theaters, you’ll  eventually wind up at the doorstep of the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  That it will be the last movie you see before the new one is both a good and a bad thing.  It’s a good thing because the bar is lowered so far that whatever Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga do in the third remake is bound to be more impressive than what is onscreen here.  It’s a bad thing because, well, you have to sit through a 139-minute vanity project that is a big ole turkey of a film.

I have much respect for the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star is Born so was looking forward to finally seeing this 1976 update all the way through.  I’ve tried to watch it on several occasions but failed to latch on to the characters or the music in a way that made me want to continue.  Seeing that Streisand had reworked the film and added in material to a special edition that was available for a time on Netflix (it’s no longer there) I decided it would be best to get my A Star is Born marathon going in time to catch that one.  After all, if Streisand wants me to see her version I simply must oblige.

That’s how I came to watch A Star is Born on a Sunday evening after taking in the first two films that afternoon.  I have to say this was by far my least favorite version of the story and the only one out of the three that I wouldn’t entertain seeing again anytime soon.  Streisand added extra footage when she first plays the song Evergreen to Kristofferson and tweaked a few other shots along the way, but from what I saw and read it didn’t alter the general feeling of the film.

There are so many wrong moves and incomprehensible changes screenwriters John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and Frank Pierson (who also directed) made in translating the Hollywood tale to the rock and roll music scene…most are simply unforgivable.  Instead of taking place in Hollywood, the film moves the action to the music scene as a way to tailor the proceedings more to the talents of its two stars.  Though Streisand really wanted Elvis Presley to be her co-star, the aging singer and his manager Colonel Tom Parker wanted too much money/control so the part went to Kristofferson instead. Kristofferson was already an established musician and Streisand had a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl and a host of notable screen appearances.  The two had built in fan bases that had proven they would show up whenever and wherever these stars would appear.  On paper, this looked like a perfect way to update the film for the current time and place.

It’s clear from frame one there is going to be trouble.  For starters, the two leads are terribly mismatched and recast as incredibly unsympathetic vainglorious caricatures.  There’s next to no chemistry between Kristofferson and Streisand, even when they are singing together two feet apart it feels like there is a cavernous distance between them.  Sources say that Kristofferson was intimidated by Streisand and her commanding presence and started to shrink onscreen whenever she was present.  That’s pretty clear to see because Streisand takes the air out of every scene she’s in.  You’ve got to be a strong enough actor to stand your ground with her (like Omar Shariff, Ryan O’Neal, and Nick Nolte) or else you get lost in the shuffle and Kristofferson blends into the background most of the time.

As for Streisand herself, this is one of those strange films where she stumbles over her own star presence.  She was too big of a star by that point to truly give herself over to the demands of her role as a singer that was small time who eventually makes it to the big time.  From the first moment we see her she’s already possessing the confidence required to make a name for herself, whereas the previous women who played this role were missing some piece that Kristofferson’s character could supply her with or encourage out of her.  I know this was an era of sustained feminism so getting rid of the notion Streisand’s character needed a man to help her succeed seemed like an easy cut, yet it winds up crippling both characters because you never truly understand why they need each other in the first place.

The screenwriters really stumble with a plot twist early in the third act that wasn’t present in either previous version of the film.  I won’t spoil what it is but it further establishes that these two characters don’t have the same kind of love and respect for one another their predecessors did.  Coming so late in the game, it lessens the impact of the tragic finale…a finale that takes eons to get to.

The first two takes on A Star is Born had a buoyancy to them, even as they were showing a dark underside to the price that comes with being a star.  The approach of this third try feels wallowing and weary, robbing the picture of any momentum or grace.  Though Streisand (The Guilt Trip) would win an Oscar for writing what truly is a lovely ballad (Evergreen) and the film became, shockingly, the third highest grossing movie of the year, it’s largely remembered as a vanity project of Streisand (shepherded by her former hairdresser turned boyfriend Jon Peters).  For an even more scathing take on the production of the film, read director Frank Pierson’s editorial My Battles With Barbra And Jon about the horror he experienced working on it.

If you are strapped for time before seeing the new version of A Star is Born, this 1976 version is easily the most skippable of the bunch.  Unlike its older siblings, this one is the most dated and the least enjoyable of the three.

Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1954)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A film star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career on a downward spiral.

Stars: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow

Director: George Cukor

Rated: NR

Running Length: 154 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  You’ve seen the cover image of of 1954’s A Star is Born a million times over the years.  It’s an iconic image: Judy Garland’s wide eyes looking toward the heavens with her hands forming a picture frame around her face.  Aside from The Wizard of Oz, it’s surely Garland’s most recognizable calling card though it still surprises me how many people haven’t seen the movie its taken from. A musicalized remake of 1937’s A Star is Born, screenwriter Moss Hart and legendary director George Cukor reworked the rather simple story of the original to better suit their female star.  Garland hadn’t been onscreen for four years and after working through so many “kid” roles over the previous decade this was seen as her most adult role to date.  Produced for a then astounding $5 million and becoming a huge hit with a lasting history, this version of A Star is Born is what people usually think of when they hear the title.

Jettisoning Esther’s backstory in North Dakota and jumping right into the present, Cukor introduces us to former matinee idol Norman Maine (James Mason) as he arrives at a high-profile event three sheets to the wind.  Though the studio press agent tries to keep him offstage, Maine manages to stumble into the mix of the big band and singers currently performing.  One of these singers is Esther (Garland) and she gamely tries to work Norman into the act. As he sobers up and realizes how she saved his butt, Maine follows Esther to a nightclub where he is knocked out by her after-hours performance.

We have to pause here and recognize how likely the most famous sequence of the film and of oft-shown in Garland’s career happens less than 30 minutes into the 2 ½ hour movie.  When Esther ferociously belts out The Man that Got Away it’s one of those rare magic moments in film that instantly made it a classic clip.  Garland’s vocals are on fire and her performance is the stuff that Oscars are given out for (more on her Oscar loss later) and it’s not hard to see why Maine is so taken with the singer and her voice in that pulse-quickening rush of a moment.

Even if the film never quite gets back to that level of engagement with the audience, the remaining developments in A Star is Born manage to make improvements to the original story while never doing a disservice to the people involved in the 1937 version.  This is very much its own film and while the character names are largely the same, some dialogue is repeated verbatim, and certain passages feel like shot-for-shot recreations, it still operates as an entity entirely unto itself.  There are several large musical numbers for Garland and in true road show fashion the movie begins with an overture and has an intermission halfway through.

Cukor has the same lust for showing the underbelly of Hollywood’s studio system that his predecessor William A. Wellman did and he manages to go even further.  We see how Esther (again renamed Vicki) is brought into the fold by Maine and how initially her new bosses at the studio want to change her appearance.  Maine intervenes and grooms Vicki into the star he knows her to be while falling believably in love with her along the way.  The same rise to fame for Vicki and fall from grace for Maine is present as is the devasting moment when Maine embarrasses her publicly.  The tragic ending wisely remains unchanged but I feel like it’s missing one final song for Garland to close the picture out.

Nominated for six Oscars, the film rather unbelievably won none (it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture!).  Garland was beaten by Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, a loss that still pops up on many lists of Oscar wrongs that were never made right.  I admit I’ve never seen Kelly’s film but I just can’t imagine the performance would be even close to what Garland did here.  Her work has guts and glory, pain and pride, beauty and tragedy.  I don’t think she was ever better before or after and it’s a testament to the power of her performance that it holds up so very well.  Mason isn’t anything to scoff at either.  Whenever I start to watch the film I always feel like he’s too old for her and the age difference seems too wide (he was 13 years older than her in real life) but by the time they are falling in love and he asks her to marry him the gap fills and it all makes sense.  This is, after all, a story about someone with experience mentoring a newcomer and then watching her flourish – it all fits.  I do wish that Garland had a female friend because the movie is so heavy with brash male characters, missing is that maternal care from Janet Gaynor’s grandmother in the original.  As it is, it comes off like Garland only has males to take care of her and confide in.  The chemistry between Garland and Mason is strong, though, so these observations only pop up upon reflection when the movie has long since ended.

An unquestionable classic (as a film and a snapshot of Garland at her very best), 1954’s A Star is Born is the easiest of the three existing versions to recommend if you can only watch one before taking in the 2018 version about to be released.  I’d also encourage you to pair this one with the 1937 original because that’s a dandy of a film, too!  You can just as easily skip the unwise 1976 reworking.

Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1937)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young woman comes to Hollywood with dreams of stardom, but achieves them only with the help of an alcoholic leading man whose best days are behind him.

Stars: Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander, May Robson, Andy Devine

Director: William A. Wellman

Rated: NR

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  With the release of the third remake of A Star is Born almost upon us, I wanted to go back and do my homework.  That meant revisiting all three prior versions of the movie (done in one day, thank you very much!), which brought me all the way back to this Hollywood fantasy that started it all.  Released in 1937, it’s easy to see why the original A Star is Born has proved so lasting and provided so many opportunities to update the story over the next eight decades.  This is a timeless tale of achieving fame, finding love, and the often tortured road that leads to both.

I had seen the 1954 Judy Garland version and bits and pieces of the 1976 Barbra Streisand take but this was the first time I had watched the original and what a way to start my marathon!  Directed by William A. Wellman from a script by a team that included Dorothy Parker, it’s both a biting take on Hollywood elitism and a deeply felt romance that emanates right off the screen.

Janet Gaynor stars as Esther Blodgett, a small-town North Dakota girl that dreams of going to Hollywood and making it big.  Discouraged to do so by almost everyone, the one person that gives her the support (and money) she needs to take the chance is her wry grandmother (a stellar May Robson) and she uses that belief to pack up her things and hop on the next bus to Los Angeles.  Like so many that held the same dream, Esther finds that just getting cast as an extra in a film is an ordeal in and of itself so she spends her time waiting for the call from central casting and doing the odd job on the side.

It’s at a waitressing job where she catches the eye of mega star Norman Maine (Frederic March) who soon becomes her champion with his friends at the studio while they begin to fall in love.  Though he’s a known womanizer and notorious alcoholic, Esther (soon to be renamed Vicki Lester when she debuts onscreen) seems to tame Norman into being a one-woman man and eases him out of pickling himself in drink. As Vicki’s star rises, Norman finds it more difficult to get work and eventually his opportunities dry up all together.  Though it makes no difference to her because she loves him and wants him above all things, he feels as if there is inequity in their relationship he just can’t reconcile.

Though it may feel ever so slightly quaint now, I found a lot of unforgettable moments in this earliest version of A Star is Born.  From the opening scenes between Esther and her grandmother to the first meeting between the two lovers, audiences are treated to rich acting from stars at the top of their craft.  There’s an incident at an Oscar ceremony that caused me to gasp in horror and who could forget that final line?  It’s a tearjerker to be sure but one that shows equal strength and affection for both the male and female leads, something rare in those days.

Gaynor and March had already won Oscars before making A Star is Born so they likely knew the price of fame and the perils of stardom.  Both bring that awareness to their roles which make their characters all the more vibrant and, ultimately, tragic.  The two would be nominated again for their work here but only the original story for the film would take home an Oscar (Robson deserved a nomination too, by the way).  It’s unfortunate that the next two iterations of the movie would loom so large in the public memory because this is the one I feel tells the story with the least amount of fat and padding – where it not for Judy Garland’s magnetic performance in the 1954 telling, the 1937 A Star is Born would easily be my favorite version.  Even so, it’s a dynamite bit of Hollywood history that should be a part of your own film studies.

31 Days to Scare ~ Overlord (Trailer)

Synopsis: On the eve of D-Day, a group of American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation.

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Thoughts: There’s a nice air of mystery surrounding Overlord and it’s 100% intentional.  Produced by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek), many people are thinking this is another surprise entry into the Cloverfield franchise but Abrams and Paramount Pictures are in full denial mode.  Still, they’ve played this game on us before when releasing 10 Cloverfield Lane and dropping The Cloverfield Paradox onto Neftlix without much fanfare.  Whatever it ends up being about, this looks like a bonkers period horror film involving Nazis and zombies and I’m all for it.  With a script from Oscar nominee Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) there’s some prestige already…will this be a slash above the usual zombie warfare?