The Many Faces of A Star Is Born
It is no secret that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper have stormed the cinema box offices with the remake of the oft-filmed story A Star Is Born. This is the fourth time that the story of a fading performer and his relationship with an up-and-coming talent has been depicted on the big screen. With all the hoopla around its latest incarnation, I thought it would be interesting to look back on the three prior versions of the film.
In 1937, David O. Selznick produced the first film version of A Star Is Born. Directed by William A. Wellman and released by United Artists, the film featured a screenplay by Wellman, Robert Carson, Alan Campbell, and of particular note, Dorothy Parker. The film starred Fredric March as Norman Maine, a Hollywood actor who had once been a top box office draw. When he encounters and mentors the rising talent Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, the two fall in love and marry. Unfortunately, Norman, whose career is in a downward spiral and whose alcoholism is becoming progressively worse, has a hard time adjusting to his wife’s meteoric success as the newly-christened Vicki Lester. When Vicki wins the Academy Award for Best Actress, Norman interrupts her acceptance speech with a drunken monologue, self-pitying his career decline. Vicki sticks by him to the bitter end, when, overcome by depression, Norman drowns himself in the Pacific Ocean. As the premiere of her next film, Vicki stands at the microphone and introduces herself, "Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine,” paying tribute to the man she loved and his spectacular career. The film is also significant for being Janet Gaynor’s only role filmed in Technicolor. At Hollywood’s Tenth Academy Awards, A Star Is Born was nominated for seven awards, winning for its writing.
In 1954, George Cukor directed a musical version of A Star Is Born and the remake was touted as a comeback for film star Judy Garland, produced by her husband Sid Luft. Garland hadn’t made a film since her unceremonious release from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1950 and A Star Is Born would relaunch her film career. Sticking closely to the plot of the 1937 film, a new screenplay was commissioned by celebrated playwright Moss Hart. To play opposite Garland’s Vicki Lester was James Mason in the role of Norman Maine. Though the film occasionally utilized preexisting music in the score, many original songs were written Harold Arlen (music) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics), including the heartbreaking “The Man That Got Away,” which would become a Garland standard, closely identified with her, and arguably one of her finest performances of a song in a film. The film’s initial screening ran 196 minutes, considered too long for by the distributor Warner Bros. who wanted to maximize the number of showings it could play in theatres per day, so it as pared down almost to the point of near incoherency. Over time, pieces of the film have been restored, and others are lost forever. A Star Is Born was nominated for six Academy Awards, including its leads in the Best Actor and Actress category. Many believe Garland was robbed of the accolade when the honor was bestowed on Grace Kelly for her starring role in The Country Girl. Frank Sinatra is quoted as saying “It was the biggest robbery since Brink’s.” For all of its critical acclaim, Golden Globe Awards, and devoted fan base, A Star Is Born failed to make money.
A new twist on the A Star Is Born story found the tale stepping out of its traditional Hollywood studio setting and instead exploring a similar plot set in the recording industry. This time, the star that is birthed is named Esther Hoffman, played by music icon Barbra Streisand. The star she loves and ultimately eclipses is John Norman Howard played by Kris Kristofferson. He is a rock star whose drinking is destroying his career. She is singer in a bar, but soon finds her career taking off. John and Esther marry and she remains supportive of him even as his decline exacerbates his drinking. The film, trading out the Academy Awards for the Grammy Awards this time around, finds Esther winning the award for Best Female Performance, only to have John interrupt her moment with a drunken tirade. The film also exchanges suicide for a more ambiguous end for John, dying in a car crash, a result of his reckless driving and only possibly on-purpose. Directed by Frank Pierson, this version of A Star Is Born was also released by Warner Bros. It was the third-highest grossing film of 1976 and it won an Academy Award for Best Original Song, the creamily sung, emotionally poignant “Evergreen” written by Streisand and Paul Williams. The song, performed by Streisand in the film, remains one of the most closely associated with the singer.