A Star Is Born
The excitement of A Star Is Born is in the music. The songs are kicking, or, when needed, haunting. Of the seventeen original songs, Lady Gaga, who plays the up-and-coming singer/songwriter Ally, wrote or cowrote twelve. Bradley Cooper, who wrote and directed the film and plays the country music star Jackson Maine, collaborated on four. They also worked with other musicians, most notably Lukas Nelson—son of Willie Nelson—who appears as one of Jackson’s band members. No matter what goes on in the film dramatically, everything always comes together because the soundtrack is happening, it’s just happening, as I heard someone say in the Magic Johnson Harlem theater.
A Star Is Born has been around as a franchise since 1937, when innocent and strong-willed Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, first set off from small-town wherever-she-was-from to conquer Hollywood. She makes it, with the help of Norman Maine (Fredric March), the drunken star on the skids whom she loves and cannot save from ruin. She’s willing to give up her career in order to be the wife/warden, but he beats her to the sacrificial punch and commits suicide in order to set her free. It is Hollywood telling itself a price-of-success story. Dorothy Parker was on the team that wrote the screenplay.
Each remake has the atmosphere of the time when it was made and the luck of the person who wrote the screenplay. Moss Hart wrote the 1954 A Star Is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason, the first musical version. Garland sings “The Man That Got Away,” “Born in a Trunk,” and the cringe-making “Swanee.” John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and the director Frank Pierson wrote the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (as the Norman Maine character, here renamed John Norman Howard). It is nastier than the others, a reflection of Seventies grit making its way even into a romantic film. Streisand emerged from it with “Evergreen,” but otherwise the soundtrack is forgettable.
Hollywood gives Esther Blodgett the stage name Vicki Lester in the 1937 and 1954 films. At the end, recovered but still open to grief, she says to her public, “Hello. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” At the end of the 1976 version, Barbra Streisand’s angry and mournful survivor, Esther Hoffman, is introduced, correctly, as Esther Hoffman Howard. Ally, like Esther Hoffman before her, doesn’t take a stage name, but we also never hear her maiden name. “Fucking men!” Ally exclaims early on in the film, in the restroom at her job after she has dumped a guy by phone. In Lady Gaga’s version, it might not cross one’s mind until the end that the film includes no other women characters of any importance.
Other women are minor presences in the earlier versions. In the 1937 A Star…
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