A Star Is Born
Reviewed by Stephen MacMillan Moser, Fri., Aug. 25, 2000
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A Star Is BornD: William Wellman (1937); with Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, May Robson, Andy Devine, Lionel Stander.
D: George Cukor (1954), with Judy Garland, James Mason, Charles Bickford, Jack Carson.
D: Frank Pierson (1976); with Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Busey, Oliver Clark.
Imagine being able to write about the twin gay icons, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, in the same story -- each magnificent and at the peak of her career, each starring in roles that would seal their fates forever. And then there's Janet Gaynor, that most peculiar and beguiling of movie stars. Watching A Star Is Born as it has evolved on film over the decades is a potent reminder of Hollywood's ability to devour a human being alive -- a lesson as applicable at the dawn of Hollywood's history as it is now. These three distinctly different treatments all tell the same story, based on 1932's What Price Hollywood? Self-referential and snide, the story for 1937's A Star Is Born was written by director Wellman and Robert Carson with the script by Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell, and Carson (with such writers as Ben Hecht and Ring Lardner Jr. contributing uncredited). Moss Hart was added for the '54 version, and Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, and director Pierson take credit for the '76 script.
Gaynor and March play the ill-fated lovers in the first version -- and in many ways, they remain the most successful. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Story and an honorary award for cinematographer W. Howard Greene's early use of Technicolor. The story sails through its paces unfettered by the weighty musical numbers that were added in later versions. It is engaging and sharp, with the added bonus of being believable. Movies about movie stars were not new in 1937, but they seldom had any bite to them. Not that this is any landmark in neo-realism or anything like that, but it is a nice film version of a sad Hollywood story. Gaynor plays Esther Blodgett (whose name gets changed pretty quickly to Vicki Lester), a sensible farm girl who dreams of being a star. Since we all know that hard work always pays off in the movies, Vicki pays her dues and skyrockets to success. She crosses paths with veteran Norman Maine, played by March; her ascending star is paralleled by his plummeting one. Both are attractive individuals, and even if Norman's on his way down, he's still charming. In fact, everything's charming about this movie. Even a little too charming, with its typical Hollywood tunnel vision. The historic scene of the sea and sky after Norman's swim into oblivion is a prettier version of a real-life story in which a failed star walked into the sea. There is little of the pathos that Garland brings to the later version of Vicki. But Gaynor, an unlikely star, is delightful, and March has a sexiness that transcends the decades.
A general consensus among fans is that Judy Garland got robbed when she didn't win the Oscar for playing Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester (though she did win the Golden Globe). One comment posted on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com) reads, "Judy Garland, as rags-to-riches Esther Blodgett, has a confessional crackup scene, dolled up in ludicrous face paint for an offscreen country-bumpkin number that is so incisive and so cruel on Cukor's part that it seems to have inspired all the films Andy Warhol made with Edie Sedgwick." Perceptive -- but part of Judy's immense charm has been her ability to shine through the public characterization of her private problems. There are two stories that unfold while watching Cukor's A Star Is Born -- only one was scripted. As Judy's Esther becomes Vicki, ascending into onscreen stardom, we see her desperately battle the demise of her husband's career. Off-screen, Judy's own demons were at war, and her drug and alcohol abuse is fairly evident here. One scene she is frail and thin; another, she's bloated and fat (a testament to how long the filming took as well as Judy's own inability to keep her grip). But listening to Judy warble "The Man That Got Away" is a seminal experience, akin to visiting a national monument. It is torch singing at its finest, and Judy burns incandescently. The fabulous "Born in a Trunk" number, hated by Cukor and Garland but demanded by the studio, survives as a monument to big-screen movie musicals. It is an ultra-stylized, surreal montage as stunning now as it was then. During the pivotal scene in which Lester wins the Academy Award, Norman staggers onstage to congratulate her, slurring through his speech, "I know most of you out there by your first names. I've made a lot of money for you gentlemen, haven't I? Well, I need a job." When he proceeds to inadvertently smack her in the face, she is humiliated. Mason is perfection as the suave heel on a downward spiral; his charm makes Maine's boorishness sympathetic. Turned down by Bogart, Brando, Clift, and Grant, the part of Norman Maine is not unlike the part of Norma Desmond -- it took courage and foresight to play these roles so convincingly, and the performances became career milestones. We are privileged to have the restored version, artfully re-edited to include lengths of recorded dialogue illustrated with stills from the missing footage. It allows the film to recapture some of its initial glory (the film was butchered after premiere engagements). The reinserted passages help the lengthy story unfold more naturally.
Cut to the Seventies: It was during this period that I remember the enormous silkscreen portrait of Barbra Streisand on display on the staircase of Friends and Lovers on Sixth Street. It was an era when Streisand reigned supreme as a gay icon, and Friends and Lovers was the most important destination on the gay bar circuit. Babs was glorious in the thick chocolate brown ink (such an important Seventies color), with her head thrown back, revealing her platinum throat. Her hair, with its Jon Peters perm, was massive, and she was as stunning as Nefertiti. (There was a copy of this poster on the wall of the old Austin Sun. I remember feverishly trying to get my sister to steal it for me. She wouldn't.) When Babs brought out her version of A Star Is Born, she was at the zenith of her popularity. For a number of years, she had been working hard to break away from her bourgeois Sixties movie-star image and let everyone know how cool she really was. The hippies didn't buy it, but us homos did. She hurled out one hit after another, some more dreadful than others, and a few masterworks as well.
But Streisand's A Star Is Born gave us the most quintessentially self-absorbed Babs to date (eclipsed only by Yentl a few years later). Her selection of bad boy du jour Kris Kristofferson as her leading man punctuated her driving ambition to treat herself like the grandest star of them all, as well as to act like one. Barbra must be in total control. Of the leading men playing Norman Maine (March, Mason, and Kristofferson), Kristofferson is the weakest, but that is not to say he's bad -- he just has a tougher job. It's a lot harder to play a convincing rock star onscreen than it is to play a convincing actor onscreen, so he reverts to type. Streisand's own performance, in retrospect, is repellent -- self-conscious and overly confident, she garners none of the sympathy that her predecessors did.
The moist climax of all three versions occurs at a tribute to the fallen star Norman Maine. When the emcee breathlessly announces, "Vicki Lester will appear tonight!" Vicki tearfully replies, "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine," stealing the movie watchers' hearts forever. Neither Garland nor Streisand could deliver that line with the doe-eyed sincerity of Gaynor. Garland dazzles in her turn at this same scene, and her character's victory over adversity is Garland's own as well. But it hardly seems like acting. When Streisand comes up to bat, she keeps her name, Esther Hoffman (never Vicki Lester -- could you really see La Streisand playing someone named Vicki Lester?), and Kristofferson's character is John Norman Howard. Streisand's only capitulation in the seminal scene is to have herself announced as "Esther Hoffman Howard." She misses the point entirely. But each film is a tour de force for its star, and each star gives about as much as they have to give to the role, with varying degrees of success.