Is A Star Is Born Based On A True Story?

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros Pictures.
The movie A Star Is Born is like the Hollywood equivalent of a cicada swarm. Every few years, another episode is inevitable. The movie was first made in 1937, and has since been revived in 1954, 1976, and finally, this latest iteration, which opens on 5th October and stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
Despite minor variations in character and plot, all versions of A Star Is Born orbit around the same premise: A highly successful entertainer meets a young woman just starting out in the biz. They fall madly in love. Then, as her career begins to eclipse his, he spirals into addiction-fuelled despair. Eventually, he dies, and she endures. Essentially, one star is born as the other heads into supernova territory.
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A Star Is Born encapsulates a quintessential Hollywood legend: There can only be one star. “Hollywood people buy into this mythology that there’s only so much space in the universe of stars, and for one to ascend, one has to fall. It’s Hollywood’s favourite structured myth about itself,” Karina Longford told Vanity Fair of the iconic movie.
So, A Star Is Born is structured around a popular myth about fame. But is it based on an actual real-life occurrence in Hollywood? Perhaps. In 1937, when the first movie came out, rumours swirled that the story was culled from the actual relationship of actress Barbara Stanwyck and vaudeville star Frank Fay. Granted, the rumours are understandable — Stanwyck happened to be in a very similar position to that of Esther Blodgett, the main character in A Star Is Born.
Though A Star Is Born has since focused on musicians, the first movie takes place entirely in the acting realm. Esther Blodgett, played by silent film actress Janet Gaynor, is a North Dakota transplant whose acting career is nurtured by Norman Maine (Frederic March), a famous actor who Esther meets at a restaurant. Eventually, Esther's renown far exceeds Norman's. In a pivotal scene, Norman interrupts Esther's speech at the Oscars after she wins the Academy Award for Best Actress, perfectly encapsulating the couple's rapid shift of fortune.
As it so happened, Stanwyck received the first of her four Academy Award nominations in 1938 for her movie Stella Dallas, marking her own rise to fame — and her recent ex-husband's downfall. Not ten years prior, Stanwyck had been a chorus girl just entering show business. She met and married Frank Fay, a famous vaudeville star, in 1928. They moved to Hollywood in 1929 so Fay could star in a movie, but Stanwyck's career benefitted more from the move than Fay's. Over the course of their six-year marriage, Fay proved himself to be a cruel alcoholic. They divorced in 1935; afterwards, Fay became more known for his notoriously racist beliefs and Nazi sympathies than for his influence on comedy. Fay died in 1961 in ignominy.
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Obviously, viewers of that initial version of A Star Is Born didn't know the ending of Fay and Stanwyck's stories back then – but they knew enough to equate Stanwyck with the character Esther. Preemptively addressing rumours, A Star Is Born producer David O. Selznick added a statement at the start of the film: "Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental."
Ultimately, A Star is Born bears an even greater resemblance to the movie What Price Hollywood? (1930) than it does to any true story. The movies, released only seven years apart, are very, very similar – so similar that the executives at RKO, the production company behind What Price Hollywood? — considered suing Selznick for plagiarism. Like A Star Is Born, What Price Hollywood? also tells the story of an aspiring actress, Mary (Constance Barrett) who meets Max (Lowell Sherman), a high-powered man in the film industry, while working at a restaurant. Max sets Mary on a skyrocketing path to fame. Eventually, like A Star Is Born's Esther, Mary wins an Academy Award. Then, like Norman Maine, a spiralling Max takes his own life.
What Price Hollywood? has more palpable overlap with real life than A Star Is Born does. When writing the script for What Price Hollywood?, screenwriter Adela Rogers St. Johns was inspired by the relationship between silent-film star Colleen Moore and her alcoholic producer husband, John McCormick, as well as the suicide of director Tom Forman.
Clearly, A Star Is Born is threaded with some strands of true experiences, as was What Price Hollywood? Ultimately, that should come as no surprise. A Star Is Born is a movie made in Hollywood, about Hollywood — stories about the difficulties of fame abound. A Star Is Born may have been based on Hollywood legend, but it definitely became one.
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