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A Star is Born: How each version of the classic film is a portrait of its time

The latest remake, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is destined to become another illuminating chapter in our cinematic history, writes Clarisse Loughrey

Sunday 07 October 2018 09:04 BST
(Clay Enos/Warner Bros/AP)

There is a purpose in the remake. We may revile its lack of originality and bemoan Hollywood’s tendency to amble down the same creative paths over and over again. Yet, the remake sits like a temperature gauge implanted into cinematic history.

It may be the same story, but it always turns out different in the telling, and those differences can teach us a vast amount about the era they were created in. The most illuminatory of all, perhaps, is A Star is Born.

There are four versions of the story: one in 1937, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; one in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason; one in 1976, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and the latest, with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

Every previous version has found financial success, coupled with critical success (the one exception being the largely dismissed 1976 version), without becoming so definitive as to frighten off later imitators. Each iteration will liberally borrow from its predecessor; a version of the line “I just wanted to take another look at you” appears in each film, with the 2018 moment already rampaging across the internet in meme form.

The narrative, at its heart, explores Hollywood’s fatalistic obsession with fame. One that conceives of stardom as like deities on pedestals: when one is knocked down, another must take its place. In every version, a male artist on the decline (whether actor or musician) falls for a talented young woman – only he can see her true potential – and helps guide her career into the stratosphere.

But while she soars, his alcoholism threatens to consume him. There is a risk he’ll take her down with him. It’s a tragedy irresistible to Hollywood’s storytellers, one that encompasses both the idealism of the American Dream, that turns the ordinary into the immortal, and fame’s Faustian bargain. No great success comes without great tragedy.

It’s often argued that 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, directed by George Cukor, who went on to oversee the 1954 version, serves as a kind of proto-A Star is Born – though there are key differences to be found, including its central love triangle. However, there’s a particular significance in the film’s rumoured real-life inspirations: silent film star Colleen Moore, who attempted to salvage her alcoholic husband’s career by making him her producer, and the tragic life of director Tom Forman, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1926 after his career fell to pieces. For all its glamorous airs, there is an ache at the centre of A Star is Born that, over the decades, has radiated as much from the stories told off-camera as from the film’s own protagonists.

Most famously, Judy Garland found a terrible duality in her role in the 1954 version, directed by Cukor: At age 31, she saw herself both as the star ascendant, the talented ingenue Esther Blodgett, and the star in decline, Norman Maine. A Star is Born was intended as her comeback, four years after the suspension of her contract at MGM, following a suicide attempt.

Judy Garland in ‘A Star is Born’ (1954) (Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX ) (Photo by Warner Bros/Kobal/REX)

The film itself is striking in its creation at the height of the studio system; a period in which actors were essentially reduced to commercial product, their contracts disallowing them any autonomy in their own careers. Garland’s Esther is led, as if on a conveyor belt, through various studio departments: handed a name, handed a new look, handed a new identity.

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Garland put her heart and soul into A Star is Born, despite its constant, torturous reminders of her own struggles. However, her physical dependency on amphetamines and alcohol saw her repeatedly call in sick to work; Garland is often blamed for the film’s eventual, bloated $5m budget, though it may be she was presented as an easy scapegoat.

More troublesome for the production was the decision of the Warner Bros studio executives to scrap weeks of footage and demand everything be reshot in CinemaScope. Neither did Garland’s sacrifice pay off as she intended; despite the enormous critical and popular acclaim for the film, she lost the Academy Award to Grace Kelly. The glow of her achievements quickly faded. Her status as a film star would never recover.

Barbra Streisand, alongside her then-partner Jon Peters, pushed for the 1976 version to be made in an effort to revamp her image. After a series of screwball comedies, including Peter Bogdanovich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), it was time for a slice of the decade’s edgier thrills. The film’s locale changed from Hollywood to the rock scene. Peters, a former hairdresser who embarked on a Hollywood career thanks to Streisand’s star power, produced the film; it’s a telling flip that’s reflected in the 1976 version of A Star is Born‘s own gender dynamics

Barbra Streisand in ‘A Star is Born’ (1976) (Warner Bros/Kobal/REX)

Here, the story is centred around Streisand’s own feminist outlook, bolstered by larger social shifts brought on by the women’s liberation movement; most importantly, while the Esthers of 1937 and 1945 ended their narratives with a soulful declaration to the world that they would forever remain “Mrs Norman Maine”, whatever the circumstances, Streisand’s Esther holds on to her maiden name throughout the film.

The 1937 version, admittedly, spoke less to the aches of individual stars, but more to the ache of an era, created, as it was, during a period in which Hollywood acted as a beacon of light for America as it suffered through the Great Depression. Audiences not only flocked to the cinemas to find comfort and relief from their personal woes, but also to Los Angeles itself; young men and women turned up in droves to what had become a new kind of American West, hoping to find an escape from their own circumstances.

The 1937 A Star is Born makes this direct allusion; Esther is discouraged from seeking her fortunes in Hollywood by all but her grandmother, who describes her own experiences as a full-blown American pioneer, cultivating a land long-thought uninhabitable. As she tells Esther: ”There’ll always be a wilderness to conquer.” However, A Star is Born’s internal conflict still recognises all the scuppered hopes and dreams of 1930s Los Angeles, as many of the young women who arrived ended up, not on the silver screen, but in the city’s sex industry.

Janet Gaynor in ‘A Star is Born’ (1937) (United Artists/Kobal/REX)

It’s possibly too early to appreciate what 2018’s A Star is Born will have to teach us. This latest iteration has suffered, perhaps, the rockiest production history of all: Will Smith, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Russell Crowe, Beyoncé, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Cruise were all attached to star at various points, since the late 1990s.

Yet, just as Garland and Streisand before her, we may one day attribute Lady Gaga’s own drive as the reason those pieces finally clicked into place. As highly praised, and deservedly so, Bradley Cooper’s work as both director and star has been, there’s always been a sense that A Star is Born has spiritually belonged to its leading lady and, in turn, has become a reflection of her own journey.

There are, indeed, stark allusions in 2018’s A Star is Born to Gaga’s own creative progression from the thumping, posturing pop anthems of her “Just Dance” days to the search for authenticity that drives her current “Joanne” era of music.

The film, too, treats mental health with a sensitivity and depth unseen in any previous attempt, and it’s easy to find a connection in Gaga’s own advocacy to end stigmas around depression and PTSD. Whatever else we may uncover, with the passing of time, will end up quietly woven into our cinematic history. This film will become, like the others, a portrait of our time.

A Star is Born is out now

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