Stop us if you’ve heard this one several times before: There’s this gentleman who’s in the business of show. He’s famous, established, king of his hill, top of his respective heap — could be the moving pictures, could be good ol’ arena rock & roll. Once upon a time, fame was enough to sustain him. Now, he just wants to disappear down a bottle or a pill-popping bender. But this Great Man, he still has an eye from fresh talent, so when he sees a young female performer — one with the goods, the real thing, that special once-in-a-lifetime magic — it momentarily cuts through the bitterness and the haze. Maybe she’s fresh off a Midwestern farm and new to Tinseltown, or maybe she’s just performing in a nightclub with an interracial trio called “The Oreos,” but this woman is something special. Regardless, the man wants to share what he’s discovered with the world. He helps her get her big break; they also fall in love. Still, those personal demons plague him. He’s plummeting downward. She’s on her way up. He wants to take one last look at her as they pass by in opposite directions.
This is the tried-and-true A Star Is Born template, one that’s now up to four versions and counting: Bradley Cooper’s much hyped, rightfully praised modern take opened to $42.6 million this weekend, and would have undoubtedly topped the box office had it not been going up against a Marvel movie. Yes, it proves that the Oscar-nominated actor and one-third of the Hangover guys is not just a director but a bona fide filmmaker, and that Lady Gaga can not only act but should be referred to as a first-rate actor. It’s as good as you have heard, probably better, especially that incredible, swoon-worthy first hour, which makes you feel so ecstatic it should be illegal in most states. (Never mind “Shallow,” Gaga’s big breakout number in the film, which has officially been declared a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance.) Oscar chatter is already at jet-engine levels, and it’s only October.
The question is: Why this story? How the hell did this happen? No one’s doubting Cooper’s dedication to the material, which eschews campy vamping and aims for heart-on-Eddie-Vedderesque-corduroy-jacket-sleeve sincerity; asking audiences to take melodrama seriously is a bold move in 2018, and pulling it off while also threading the whole endeavor with a sense of dinged-up, salt-of-the-earth realism is beyond impressive. Nor is anyone surprised, really, that Gaga has upped her game here, or that the camera loves her almost as much as her Little Monsters, or that the material would resonate with her. Rather, what’s vexing is that this particular fairy tale is 80-plus years old (almost 90 if you count the 1932 proto-ASIB, George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood?), been redone to death and it’s still able to give folks a hit movie. Why is A Star Is Born so indestructible?
It helps that, while the narrative itself is rock-solid — she’s getting discovered, he’s falling part, both must sacrifice, bring on the damp tear ducts — it’s also set up for maximum malleability. Someone is always going to be vying for the tarnished brass ring of fame, whether it’s contemporary pop stardom or Hollywood in 1937. [Cue flashback-starting shimmery image.] These were the Dream Factory heydays, when folks just like Janet Gaynor’s pixie-ish Esther Blodgett 1.0 were showing up in Los Angeles by the busloads, chasing the idea that they were just one Schwab’s Drugstore spotting away from silver-screen glory. (A title card refers to the city as “El Dorado … Metropolis of Make Believe.”) Like her, they probably did time as extras on sets and served appetizers at high-ends soirees; unlike her, they probably didn’t end up breaking plates in the kitchen with a sodden movie star and then run off for romantic cooing. But hey, a person could dream. Meanwhile, Frederic March, the original Norman Maine, had played the Famous Monsters of Filmland iteration of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which now feels like prep for the male Star Is Born part. One half of Norman is charming, generous, loving, nurturing. The other half … you don’t want to meet that guy. Either way, both halves have to die in order for the phoenix that is Esther — or rather, Vicki Lester — to rise. The double martyrdom is built-in, and we do love our movie martyrs.
That’s the recipe from day one, the rise and the fall, the self-destruction and the self-sacrifice. It’s true in the ’37 version, and very true in the highly meta 1954 version. Both a product of the studio system and a victim of it, Judy Garland had been booted from MGM and had become somewhat erratic by the early Fifties. Her future husband Sid Luft, had a plan, however, which started with booking her some live engagements — and the resulting shows at the London Palladium and New York’s Palace Theater instantly became the stuff of legend. The movie was developed as Phase Two of her comeback, a plum role tailored to her strengths that put her against an A-list leading man and in the company of a director like George Cukor. (In Patrick McGilligan’s biography A Double Life, he describes Cukor heavily courting Cary Grant for the part. After a reading, the filmmaker declared this was the role Grant was born to play. “Which is why I’ll never play it,” the actor responded.)
Naturally, she’s Esther, the ingenue who gets spotted at an after-hours club turning the torch song “The Man Who Got Away” into a four-alarm house fire. The singer is soon whisked away to the Dream Factory’s assembly line to be poked, prodded, made up, tweaked and be tsk-tsk–ed by various studio technicians for the lack of potential screen goddess raw material. When Norman 2.0, played with plummy slurring by James Mason, finally sees Esther, he laughs at her and begin tugging on something pressing down her nose. (And thus begins A Star Is Born‘s proboscis fixation.) There’s a lot of real-life Frances Gumm in those scenes, the clay that’s being roughly molded until she becomes Judy, Judy, Judy. And Norman? The one with the success who becomes unreliable, substance-abusing, holds up productions and is such a beautiful ruin of an artist? That’s also the present-day Judy, the one who began skipping days of work and caused filming to grind to a halt during the second half of the shoot. There’s the prickly sensation that you’re watching a very personal psychodrama take place in some scenes, the pleading and bargaining between these characters taking on a crazed Freudian bent.
It’s part of why A Star Is Born ’54 is, among other things, such an interesting case study of Hollywood’s self-loathing mythology, as it revels in both the process of giving birth to stars and how it lends a helping hand in tearing them down. (Don’t even get the movie started on the publicity-machine parasites and the masses who buy tickets; there’s a funeral scene that might have been plucked from The Day of the Locust.) But what Garland proves is that the female half of this story is a great role, full stop — something the ’37 version only hints at. It’s not just that the “Born in a Trunk” musical number is like a lost, if lengthy Freed Unit sequence, or that the songs are perfect for her — some of which would be cut when the studio butchered the original three-hour version, a move that some think cost Judy the Oscar. It’s that she shows you the contours of this woman’s ambition, pain, pathos, soulfulness, need to love and to be loved without veering from the character’s tragic trajectory; if anything, the actress gives the tragedy several fathoms’ worth of depth. (“I am … Mrs. Norman Maine.”) It’s a prime piece of Garlandia no matter what, but the fact that she showed where you could roam with what might otherwise be clichéd Cahuenga Blvd. cornpone elevated it. A bar was set.
Garland’s performance informs both Streisand’s Star Is Born ’76 and the current version, partially because it lets the heroines use music to express themselves, and partially because it gives the future Esthers-by-any-other-name a melodramatic roadmap. The third version — and the first to sub the hell of the music industry for the movies — was also, like Judy’s joint, set up as a showcase for its star. Streisand, however, was the one calling the shots, which did not sit well with everyone. Watch the movie now, and it’s hard not to see a lot of post-flower power/counterculture kitsch. How Seventies, you ask? Kris Kristofferson plays in a band called the John Norman Howard Speedway and his chest hair should have technically received second billing. (The beard, the booze, the stage brooding — you bet Cooper took notes.) An 8-track player is involved in the climactic death-wish sequence. John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion cowrote the script. Gary Busey provides the lone voice of reason. “Evergreen.”
Most importantly, however, Star ’78 demonstrates that no matter what corner of show business you might set this in, the arc remains the same. The notion of a built-in expiration date and the need for fresh blood is an inherent part of how the machine works, and by the mid-Seventies, the music industry had its share of self-immolating geniuses, overnight sensations and compromised visions. It’s yet another reason the story keeps working, at least on the surface: only the names and backbeats change. A Star Is Born ’18 culls bits and pieces from all of its ancestors, though it clearly owes the most to the Kristofferson/Streisand Blues Explosion take. But the darkness, the sense of real existential handwringing, the volatility behind the male character and the shaky ground beneath the personal and professional bonds — that’s the ’54 version, and the real spirit animal behind the Cooper/Gaga version. The fact that he takes those elements and adds his own sense of doomed romanticism, along with a 2018 take on addiction and depression, is what makes it feel relevant, gives it an edge. A code is cracked.
So: Why this story? Because sometimes all you need is a girl and a guy and a song to make a movie. Because Tinseltown and the hit parade and cock rock go out of style, but the notion that you’d give your heart to someone else never does. Because sometimes, people aren’t so jaded that they can look past things they are supposed to sneer at, like emotional engagement and getting a chance to make a dream come true. Because occasionally, the stars align, and you don’t get a vanity project or a throwback that creaks under its own historical burden. To be sure, we’ll need a few more versions of A Star Is Born to be sure it really is indestructible. (Watch for the next one in theaters, Summer 2035.) For now, we just want to take one last look at a gift that keeps on giving.