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.