Reviews: ‘A Star is Born’

This year’s forthcoming new version of A Star is Born, judging by the trailer, appeals to me for various reasons.

First, it’s based on a great story first created, written and dramatized in motion pictures by William Wellman (Wings). Second, its leading man and director, Bradley Cooper (New Year’s Eve, Silver Linings Playbook, Aloha), strikes me as a potentially great actor and movie star; he delivered one of the most remarkable screen performances in 2014’s best movie, Clint Eastwood’s outstanding American Sniper, and he demonstrates skill in choosing movies with strong themes about man as essentially self-made, which could prove to be crucial in the new adaptation’s success. Third, the new movie co-stars the pop music singer known as Lady Gaga as the leading lady. Like Gaga’s predecessors in the role of the main female character, Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, this woman is extremely talented, as she’s proven time and again with her songwriting and musical performances, which have also been controversial. Apparently, Gaga has written at least some of the new movie’s songs. Gaga and Cooper come packed with talent and look like a good screen couple.

The theme for A Star is Born is both universal and newly relevant. I had never seen any of the movie versions, though I’d caught parts of the Judy Garland film, which I think is chiefly how the pictures are known and remembered, and I did not have any desire to see them for a long time. This spring, I attended a film festival and I noticed that the original picture was directed by Wellman, whose movies are generally very good and whose silent Wings is breathtaking. So, I was newly motivated to see his original version, which I came to understand was, like Wings, co-created by William Wellman. I attended the festival screening at Sid Grauman’s Egyptian movie palace and saw the original A Star is Born for the first time. I was astonished at its quality. I was deeply moved by its depiction of a fading movie star’s intersection with a starlet whom he discovers, coaches and loves (read my review of the 1937 movie here).

Self-interest drives A Star is Born. Recent movies, such as 2012’s best film, The Artist, and 2016’s best film, La La Land, also put the pursuit of happiness in show business at the center of the story. They both recall the original’s splendor, romanticism and glamor, yet also integrate life’s anguish, realism and hardship. In this sense, because it depicts (or attempts to depict) redemption in the wake of an epic downfall, the central theme of A Star is Born radiates. Strictly speaking of the original, thanks to the performance of its leading man, Frederic March, as Norman Maine, it accomplishes this effect with a graceful balance of logic and clarity. The film’s final conflict resolution hinges this balance on an unforgettable act of free will. The result is cautionary, poignant and, ultimately, resilient. In other words, it’s what civilization needs now.

Wellman brought this passionate contrast of agony and ecstasy to his similarly heart-wrenching Wings. Subsequent Star is Born remakes, however, fail to recapture the 1937 movie’s transcendent vigor. They do so by failing to appreciate the original’s delicate and vulnerable portrayal of movie star Norman Maine. Both remakes recast the female star as the focal point (they also recast her as a musical, not a dramatic, star, which permits each remake to showcase the talents of its leading ladies). But what imbues the movies’ title with meaning is that the birthing comes as a byproduct of a union. The 1954 adaptation relies too heavily on its overburdened star, Judy Garland (read my review here). The 1976 version also overplays its leading lady, Barbra Streisand (read my review here). Both do so at the expense of the male character, whose complexity is critical to closing the successful climactic arc.

This is why I wish Bradley Cooper success with his new version, set to debut in movie theaters this fall. This delicate, romantic story of idealism, despair and rebirth comes in an ominous and I think potentially cataclysmic time of alienation, disintegration and loss of privacy, rights, rational discourse, unity and sanctity of life. What makes A Star is Born so penetrating a portrait is its multiple layers of psychologically complex and interesting artists who love life. See the helplessness of the one whom everyone assumes has all the power and privilege in the world. Watch what happens to the one upon whom everyone confers sympathy, adulation and praise. Let the bliss of romance cast its glow over the industry that promises to elevate the best to light up the world, yet observe that, if maligned and ignored, the best when it’s sinking and needs life support can be crushed — and think about the role of the collective and the supremacy of the one.

A Star is Born 2018,  if it recreates, preserves and protects why A Star is Born 1937 urges the audience to worship man at his best, especially when it means tending to him at his temporary worst, can fire up a torch in this spiraling, darkening world.

Referenced Links
Streisand’s ‘A Star is Born’ (1976) Falters

Streisand’s ‘A Star is Born’ (1976) Falters

The second remake of William Wellman’s historic A Star is Born (1937) suffers from the same or similar problems as the Fifties’ Judy Garland vehicle. Going with the same iconic title as the original and the 1954 film, the 1976 version also puts spectacle over substance in key respects. It amounts to a star vehicle for Barbra Streisand, a talented singer, actress and comedienne who went on to direct pictures. Executive Producer and leading lady Streisand all but directs this movie, too.

A Star is Born (1976) is a remake of the 1954 musical version more than it’s a remake of the original (judging by the trailer, Bradley Cooper’s 2018 version starring Lady Gaga looks to remake the 1976 adaptation). It starts at a hard rock concert with a Frisbee-type disc flying through the air, fireworks and, long before Steven Spielberg featured a similar symbolic ruse in Schindler’s List, a young girl with a red balloon wandering the aisles. Being that this is the 1970s, there’s a light show, too.

All the razzle dazzle is intended to build anticipation for the arrival of a rock star (singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, launching a high profile if brief film career). First taking a swig of liquor — before a beach ball goes through the roaring crowd — Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard performs in concert to a blaring, awful song.

So begins this vulgarized version, which replaces Hollywood glamour with the roar of the arena rock, cloaking Kristofferson with the reckless, drug-induced stupor of a rock star who’s lost his way. The problem is that, like the 1954 version, the audience never gets to see what audiences loved about his fading male star in the first place.

Add monster masks, throngs of female groupies resembling Manson Family-type hippie chicks with long, lifeless hair and vacant eyes as Kristofferson stumbles around a Hollywood club with a bucket of fried chicken and you get the spaced out vibe. But the Seventies hedonism goes on and on with the cocaine-sniffing rock star crashing a motorcycle off the stadium stage into the mindless Woodstock-type mob. Streisand, essentially as Streisand, looks on in wonder and horror.

Later, as the hedonistic rock star fires a gun at the reckless, helicopter media hovering over his home, amid sycophant and fan madness, he somehow senses his impending doom and seeks out Streisand’s hip lounge singer for more of the good thing he’s sampled. She’s not playing hard to get but Streisand’s liberated 1970s woman is drawn to the rock star, whose idea of a mea culpa is a case of Jack Daniels, just the same.

“Are you an alcoholic?” She wants to know. “Probably,” he tells her. Yet the show must go on. After all, her Esther Hoffman is impressed when he spray-paints her name on his household wall. Talk about the Seventies as an exercise in excess.

The writing, by Joan Didion among others in this Jon Peters production, is as bad as it sounds. During John Norman Howard’s courtship of Ms. Streisand’s Esther Hoffman, he tells her: “I don’t even know your Social Security number.” How’s that for a come-on? This unfolds in various stages of his undoing, and, of course, ascending steps toward stardom for her sexy, liberated female vocalist with the permanent wave.

Strangely, because the core of this story is alluring for several reasons, including complications of love, loss and the plight of the lonely artist trying to make it big (and who doesn’t; see 2016’s La La Land and 2012’s The Artist for riffs on this theme), A Star is Born ’76 manages to capture audience interest.

It’s a credit to Streisand and Kristofferson that their chemistry comes through. Candles on beer cans and other strokes of Seventies’ kitsch (look for the waterbed) lead to the romantic bliss embedded by the hypnotic hum of Barbra Streisand’s sterling composition, with perfect lyrics by Paul Williams, for the picture’s love theme, “Evergreen”. This song is as sublime for the movie as Marvin Hamlisch’s “The Way We Were” is for Ms. Streisand’s 1973 movie of the same name.

The schmaltz returns in the interplay at the new home on his sprawling ranch, while emerging pop star Esther plays dress up in a Superman t-shirt and they literally roll around in the mud. Cutesy photo opportunities come at the expense of character development, especially costing the depiction of the Kristofferson character’s inner turmoil and the Streisand character’s upward trajectory.

By the time she wins an award as he acts out, there’s no real sense of Esther’s songs connecting with the public. Esther’s self-realization, courtesy of his gentle coaching, and the prospect of them touring as a couple seals his doom.

A Star is Born is also not Barbra Streisand’s best performance. In some scenes, she’s stiff and cold. In others, she’s fresh, warm and as funny as ever. Kristofferson seems out of himself during most of the movie. He’s an artist and a real songwriter but his introverted torment is too often relegated to the sidelines for showy antics. The haunting melody and poetry of “Evergreen” make a climactic convertible scene, in which the grizzled star pops in an 8-track to play the new star’s song, which he wrote for her to perform, more impactful.

As Esther steps on stage to sing the last song he wrote about her to an audience for the first time, it ought to be heartbreaking. That it is more heart-aching than breaking shows what happens when filmmakers choose to craft a star vehicle instead of a tender, stern forewarning. For example, when Barbra Streisand sings what ought to have been a very meaningful line — “And I won’t look down” — the performance is about her, not about her honoring him and the us that they once had been.

With songs by Williams, Leon Russell, Rupert Holmes, Kenny Loggins and others, and with Ms. Streisand’s very thoughtful commentary track and additions to the DVD features, including her disclosure that the ranch house was inspired by her home with Jon Peters and that she had wanted Kris Kristofferson to write the “Evergreen” lyric — he wrote one but didn’t think it was good enough — A Star is Born is worth a look, but it could’ve been great.