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.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Star is Born (2018)

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

Release Date:  October 5, 2018

Thoughts: A third remake of 1937’s A Star is Born has been in the works for a while.  It was long thought Clint Eastwood would direct Beyoncé and Will Smith in the story of a fading rock icon mentoring and falling for a star on the rise but the A-listers couldn’t align their schedules and Eastwood lost interest.  Cut to Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) directing his first feature and snagging Lady Gaga, one of pop music’s most prominent celebrities, to costar alongside him.  It’s a well known secret many people in Hollywood have already seen this  – the notoriously fame-averse Sean Penn says its one of the best films he’s seen and calls Gaga “a miracle.”  While Gaga earned a Golden Globe for her work on American Horror Story: Hotel her acting, well, didn’t quite sing in my book.  After catching this first look at her work here, could Gaga be on the Cher route to Oscar gold?