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For every star to glory born
And lifted from obscurity,
Another sinks to dark and scorn,
An endless cycle now well-worn
But no less pitifully.

Some seek, some flee the weight of fame,
For which so many mourn.
They love the players, hate the game,
Who lose the lights around their name
That more stars may be born.

MPAA rating for 1937 version: Not Rated (should be PG)
MPAA rating for 1954 version: PG
MPAA rating for 1976 version: R (mainly for language)

My VC has been urging me to review the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, one of her favorites with Barbra Streisand, and I saw it as an opportunity to compare all three movies of the same name in a long overdue Version Variation review. It’s a Hollywood story that has become well-known through repetition, earning a remake every twenty years or so. The original was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; the second retooled the tale as an epic musical with Judy Garland and James Mason; and the third is my VC’s favorite, another musical with Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Ironically, I believe I was exposed to each of them in backwards order and enjoyed the story more the further back I went. And to anyone who thinks this story is too old to be relevant over forty years after the last version, there is yet another remake in the works for next year, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Time will tell how that compares with the others, but let’s take a look at the similarities and differences between the past versions.

What every incarnation of A Star Is Born has in common is the central story of an ambitious female newcomer who catches the eye and support of a celebrity with a reputation for being difficult, and as her star rises, his fades with heartbreaking results. While the necessity for the existence of a remake is always questioned, A Star Is Born is one case where every new version updated it for the times in completely understandable ways. The 1937 film had Hollywood as its setting, with Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett dreaming of rising from a country girl to a starlet of its Golden Age. Judy Garland’s version is also about Hollywood but at the height of its musical phase; Garland’s Blodgett is already an established singer, and it’s her voice that prompts Mason’s Norman Maine to help her to shoot for something bigger through the studio system. By 1976, Streisand’s version ignores Hollywood in favor of the rock-and-roll scene of the ‘70s; the voice of her renamed Esther Hoffman catches the ear of not a movie star but rock star John Norman Howard (Kristofferson). All three films see Esther and her self-destructive benefactor share wedded bliss that is sadly short-lived, and the final scenes, while handled in different ways, are essentially the same.

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Let’s start with the original 1937 film. It was the last one I saw, and knowing how unimpressed I usually am with dated movies of its era, I watched it more for the sake of comparison than for personal interest. Yet, surprisingly, I found it to be the best version of them all, which I suppose should be expected of the original work. The first A Star Is Born has no music like the other two, and thus the story is more boiled down to the basics of its plot, without the often unnecessary window-dressing of a musical number. In doing so, it also includes important details left out in the 1954 version, such as the origin of Esther’s screen name Vicki Lester.

Above all, the original’s greatest asset that the other two can’t match is its script, pointed and eloquent in just the right measure. While it received seven Oscar nominations, including the honor of being the first color film to be nominated for Best Picture, it’s no surprise that its one win was for Best Writing (plus an honorary award for its color photography). One important character that is totally absent from later versions is Esther’s Grandmother Lettie, played with witty spunk by May Robson. It’s her grandmother that gives Esther the initial encouragement to become a star, and her shrewd counsel at both the movie’s beginning and end may be my favorite bit of grandmotherly wisdom on film. All of the other performances are outstanding, with not one devolving into overacting, and Gaynor and March deserved their acting nominations, even if they didn’t win. (On a side note, I thought it interesting that Lionel Stander, who plays the studio’s unsympathetic publicity manager, sounded exactly like Harvey Fierstein’s raspy voice. I doubt there’s any relation, but it would be funny if Fierstein played the same role in the next remake.) Dated or not, the original A Star Is Born is the best, as its 100% Rotten Tomatoes score attests, and it has somewhat changed my views on prejudging a film based on its age.

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As for the 1954 version with Judy Garland, Esther is presented not as an aspiring nobody but as the lead singer of a musical ensemble, whose performance at a gala is interrupted by Norman Maine’s drunken antics. (Danny McGuire, her friend from the original, becomes her bandmate in this version.) Won over by her voice, Norman invites her to stay in Hollywood for a screen test, and after some bumps in the road, she becomes a star of musical cinema. Many scenes, especially in the second half, are recreated from the first film, often word for word, such as the studio head’s visit to Maine in a sanitarium or Esther’s intervention when her husband is about to be sent to jail. What the remake adds is a surfeit of musical numbers, ranging from small personal songs to lavish song-and-dance routines. One sketch detailing Esther’s supposed rise to stardom plays out like Judy Garland’s version of Gene Kelly’s “Broadway Melody” number in Singin’ in the Rain.

All the additional music helps the remake stand apart from its predecessor, but with essentially the same story, it’s hard not to feel that the extended scenes of choreography are merely padding to warrant its somewhat tiresome three-hour runtime. Like Janet Gaynor before her, Judy Garland was nominated for Best Actress but lost to Grace Kelly that year, a snub that was widely criticized, but I can understand. As marvelous as she was as a singer, Garland never struck me as a great actress, and I found her most emotional scenes rather forced, the kind of dated acting that Gaynor actually avoided in the earlier version. Another odd discrepancy is that the original film is still intact, but portions of the 1954 film have been lost and recreated with still photographs. Even if Garland’s incarnation has some drawbacks, it’s still entertaining in the musical department, and, nailing the suave but broken sides of the character, James Mason plays probably the best Norman Maine role of all three films.

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And now the moment my VC has been waiting for, Barbra Streisand and the oh so handsome Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 retelling of A Star Is Born! Since this is the greatest departure from the original film, I’ll start with what my VC loves about it, particularly the music. She’s always loved Streisand’s voice, if not her personally, and like Judy Garland before her, Streisand was the premier singer/actress of the time. (Whether Lady Gaga is for our generation has yet to be seen.) The whole soundtrack is updated to excellent classic rock standards, and unlike the previous version, Streisand’s film won an Oscar for Best Song, the theme “Evergreen,” which rather pales in comparison with the more dynamic showstoppers, like “The Woman in the Moon.” Both she and Kristofferson are also quite good in their acting roles, though not in any award-worthy way, an opinion on which my VC vehemently disagrees with me.

I do wish I could like this version as much as she does, but it has even more problems than the ’54 film. For one, the great script of the original is nowhere to be found, despite clear echoes of the earlier films’ events, like Norman interrupting Esther’s award ceremony (here the Grammys rather than the Oscars). Perhaps the most frustrating aspect for me is Kristofferson’s character of John Norman Howard. Like the previous Norman Maines, he’s a drunken, self-destructive jerk at times, whose behavior is harder to understand here. He frequently makes terrible decisions, even when not drunk; for instance, this is the only version where he cheats on Esther, and while my VC insists there’s a deep motive behind it of self-resentment on his part, I’m afraid I just don’t see it. His final act of the film is also perplexing; in the other versions, it is because Norman fears Esther will throw everything away on him, while here, he has a chance at a comeback but refuses to take it for supposedly the same reason.

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All three versions of A Star Is Born have their strengths: the shrewd dialogue of the original, the sprawling musical numbers of Garland’s incarnation, the bittersweet and passionate ending of Streisand’s (the only one to actually end with a performance). While my VC’s favorite is not mine, it did give me a reason to check out the others, the first of which is now among my favorite films from the 1930s. This story of Hollywood success, love, and loss has proven its staying power, and although I’m always dubious about remakes, this is one tale that can support further retellings.

Best serious line (from the 1937 version): (Grandmother Lettie) “Tragedy is a test of courage. If you can meet it bravely, it will leave you bigger than it found you. If not, then you will have to live all your life as a coward, because no matter where you may run, you can never run away from yourself.”

Best funny line (from the 1937 version): (Esther’s aunt) “Of course, no one ever listens to me!”   (Grandmother Lettie) “They do if they’re within ten miles of ya.”


Rank for the 1937 version: List-Worthy
Rank for the 1954 version: List Runner-Up
Rank for the 1976 version: Honorable Mention


© 2017 S.G. Liput
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