Barbra Streisand reportedly once said that A Star Is Born “seems to work every 20 years.” Her math more or less checks out. Practically every generation since the advent of cinema has had their own version of the fateful tale of the rise of a talented young female star at the expense of her has-been,self-destructive male lover’s career.
First released in 1937 (starring Janet Gaynor), the film has since been reinvented three more times, in 1954 (with Judy Garland), 1976 (with Streisand), and now, 2018, when the Hollywood classic will hit theaters for the fourth time in 81 years, headlined by Bradley Cooper (who also directed) and Lady Gaga. As Mark Harris wrote over at Vulture when news broke that Cooper’s adaptation had been greenlit by Warner Bros: “A Star Is Born has almost never not been in development.”
“It taps into this myth that has fascinated us for a long time, and that’s that fame can come to us easily, and that it can be fleeting, and that it can be taken away,” said Alicia Malone, FilmStruck & TCM Host, and author of Backwards and in Heels: The Past, Present And Future Of Women Working In Film. “It also has that romance aspect to it, and the idea of a famous man falling for an everyday woman that’s similar to the prince on the white horse that we’ve seen across many, many fairy tales.”
Hollywood loves a reboot more than ever these days, but this one feels different, than say, Ghostbusters. A Star Is Born is a foundational myth that’s as much a part of the fabric of Hollywood as it is a product, a narrative that has evolved in tandem with the industry it portrays, giving audiences both the comfort of a well-worn fairy tale, and a new outlook on the perils of fame. With each iteration, something is reflected back to us as an audience: How do we choose who gets to become famous? And what should it cost them?
When the David O. Selznick-produced version premiered in 1937, America was still in the throes of the Great Depression. For a 25 cent price of admission, audiences could forget their troubles for an hour or two, losing themselves in a story that was both aspirational and accessible. As Esther Blodgett, the small-town every girl who blossoms into movie star Vicki Lester, Janet Gaynor was a stand-in for every bobbed-hair girl dreaming of making it big in the arms of a matinee idol — in this case, Norman Maine, played by Fredric March. Gaynor was already an established star at the time, having won the Oscar for Best Actress in 1929, the first year the awards were held — she even used her own statue for Vicki Lester’s acceptance speech. Perhaps for that very reason, she has that immeasurable twinkle, the star-quality that James Mason’s Norman would later describe as the “certain pleasures you get, little-little jabs of pleasure when a swordfish take a hook, or-or when you see a great fighter get in right for the kill,” in the 1954 film.
The film was a huge critical and box office success, and more than eight decades later, it’s easy to see why. Gaynor and March have crackling chemistry, and despite the passing of the Hays Code in 1934, the film managed to retain more overt sexuality than its immediate successor. A 1937 Variety review called the film “a smash,” adding that “few pictures have touched the tear ducts so easily and unaffectedly as this one.”
The George Cukor version was re-imagined as a musical to highlight star Judy Garland’s exceptional gifts as a singer, opposite Mason as Maine. By that time, the studio system was in full-swing, a star-making machine that could mold a performer into the industry ideal with makeup and good PR. Having been a cog in the wheel of fame herself since her early teens, Garland, then age 32, was more than familiar with the process. In fact, the film was supposed to be Garland’s big screen comeback after parting ways with MGM (the studio that made her a star in The Wizard of Oz and a string of other popular films) in 1950. Ironically, the actress playing the fledgling star had more in common with the opposite role, as daughter Lorna Luft pointed out in her new book, A Star Is Born: Judy Garland and the Film that Got Away.
“Both star and director were well aware that Judy/Esther was also Judy/Norman, one dynamic feeding and bleeding into the other,” Luft wrote. “This duality informs the entire second half of the film. Mama identified with both main characters — a great, promising young talent brought blow by addiction, self-loathing and destruction.”
For that very reason, Garland’s performance is the most powerful of the four films, her initial wide-eyed optimism a gutting reminder of the devastating toll the industry would eventually take on her career and life. Her musical numbers are astoundingly good (“The Man That Got Away” !!!!), and the film is the perfect showcase for her many talents as a performer. Which is why it still hurts to think that, while nominated, she was ultimately snubbed out of her best Actress Oscar, losing to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
By 1976, the counterculture was fading and so were its icons, and so the story was once again revisited, this time with has-been rock star John Norman (Kris Kristofferson), and his muse Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand) at the center. The power-center of entertainment had shifted somewhat by then, with musicians taking over from movie stars as the most revered figures of the day. Unfortunately for the vibrant, powerful Streisand and leading man Kristofferson, they were cursed with a script about as appealing as a wet noodle, turning a film that could have made a fascinating statement about a nation in flux into a flat melodrama. Still, it was a box office hit, grossing $80 million dollars domestically despite the poor critical reception.
Bradley Cooper’s version pays tribute to those that preceded it, and I highly recommend revisiting — or discovering — the first three films before you see it. (They’ll all be available to stream on FilmStruck starting October 5, but you can also find them for rent on iTunes.) Not only are there subtle nods you’ll only pick up on if you’ve seen the originals, but it’s a good way to draw a throughline across nearly a century of entertainment history.
The trappings of stardom have shifted over time. The dramatic silks and furs of 1930s Hollywood gave way to the tailored shoulders of the 1950s, which then evolved into the studded half-open shirts and cowboy boots of the 1970s music scene, and the artfully ripped concert tees of the aughts. But what’s striking about the multitude of A Star Is Born remakes is that the core story is always the same: An impossibly famous man whose career has been ravaged by years of drinking and self-loathing discovers a fledgling female star who’s struggling to live her dream. She renews his faith in the craft, and he uses his influence to give her the push she needs. But as her fame eclipses his own, he crawls back into the darkness, the light receding until it’s fully extinguished by his own hand.
What’s more, in the 1954, 1976 and 2018 versions, the female leads are all established entertainers in their own right, with legions of fans and complicated backstories well-known to millions, which adds an intentional layer of subtext to the story we see playing out on screen.
A Star Is Born paints a picture of a cruel world that swallows talent whole and spits it back out, broken and alone, only for another star to rise and take over — there’s only room for one at the top. Looking back at the previous versions, it’s a vision of fame that has remained surprisingly consistent, especially where the gender dynamics are concerned.
“A Star Is Born was released in 1937 around the same time that you had this influx of women coming to Hollywood with stars in their eyes, and the idea that they could become famous and get discovered,” Malone said. “And I think we still do that now, especially on social media. You have this whole range of women who think that they will be the next one to get a million followers, and suddenly their lives will be better, [only to] realize that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
The idea that women must change themselves physically in order to have mass appeal (whereas male stars can, to a certain extent, rely on their charm, and authentic selves) is pushed to the extreme with the casting of Lady Gaga, a performer who has built her career on theatrics, constant reinvention and raw, emotional self-exposure. (Interestingly, Gaga’s pop peer Beyonce was long rumored to be up for the lead in this reboot, which would have made for a vastly different reinterpretation.)
“In the new version, the Lady Gaga character has to struggle against the music industry trying to change who she is,” Malone said. “So, going from being very authentic and stripped down singer songwriter with a great voice, to being this manufactured pop singer. And that’s really interesting, and something we see a lot, especially with women. It’s especially fascinating because Lady Gaga herself is someone who is an enigma. It’s kind of like rediscovering who she is, watching this film, and that’s really appealing. It feels very much like that story is mirroring her own journey. And then when you see her in the hair and makeup when they’re trying to change who she is, it makes you also wonder about her, [and] how much people tried to change her when she first started.”
It’s a thought experiment that’s consistent with the meta-quality of A Star Is Born itself, which asks us to reflect on Hollywood and its stars while celebrating both of them. Each version is defined by the female star who headlines it. (By some strange coincidence, Gaynor, Garland, Streisand and Gaga will all have played this memorable part at the age of 32.) It’s the supreme irony, given that the driving conflict that emerges between Esther and Norman centers around the idea that a man cannot stand by and watch his wife be more successful than he is, to the point that would have to be willing to sacrifice her career for him to go on living. In both the 1937 and 1954 films, the scene that clinches Norman’s downfall is when he accepts a package meant for Vicki Lester, and is asked to “sign here Mr. Lester.” His identity has been subsumed into hers. It doesn’t matter that that’s something that’s par for the course for women. He is the man.
A Star Is Born is rooted in the idea that men have the power to bestow favor on women who do not have the confidence or ability to take it for themselves. It’s a dynamic that’s sadly still ingrained in Hollywood today, and explains why we’ve never had a gender-flipped version of the story, despite projects like Overboard, Ocean’s 8, The Hustle, and What Men Want, all swapping out male leads for female ones. Film and television critic Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out as much on Twitter recently, writing: “A STAR IS BORN with the genders flipped but the age gap preserved would never get made.” (One of the ensuing responses suggests an Angela Bassett/Harry Styles version, which YES PLEASE!)
To his credit, Cooper’s version dives deeper into Maine’s own demons for conflict, rather than just pitting him against his wife. The upcoming film also addresses the gender dynamics at play in the rise to stardom, and what we ask of our famous women that we might not our men. Still, at this point, it’s worth asking if we need to keep perpetuating the cycle going forward. If the pattern holds, we’re due for another star to be born in 2038, 101 years after the original film first premiered. Do we really need to see another version of a woman fulfilling her potential with the help of a more powerful man? Perhaps Hollywood needs to do what it does best, and extinguish one myth for a newer, more current version.