A STAR IS BORN: A Case Study in Reinvention

The first movie to ever be remade was The Great Train Robbery. The film was a silent western released in 1903, and its remake would be released not even a full year later in August of 1904. The story of The Great Train Robbery might surprise modern filmgoers, especially those that complain about the glut of recent remakes made anytime within the last decade. When every auditorium seems to be showing either a sequel, comic book adaptation, or remake, it’s easy to decry the seeming death of originality in Hollywood, and that the problem is getting worse. In truth, the film industry has always done this from the very beginning, even with films we now consider classics. If I asked you how you felt about the Ben-Hur remake, you could reasonably ask me “wait which one?”

Instead of decrying lack of originality and the pursuit of recognizable brands, I find it more worthwhile to examine the value of the reinterpretation. Often the merits of a cinematic remake have less to do with the quality of the source material and more to do with the imagination and talent of the artists breathing new life into the story. In many cases a new retelling of a story, and the ways in which it differs from the others, can say much about both the artists making it and the times in which it is made. With four filmic versions, the most recent of which released in theaters this year, A Star Is Born serves as a perfect case study.

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A classic that has seemingly embedded itself in the popular consciousness over the century since its creation, the broadest strokes of the story entail the rise to stardom of a young woman with the help of a man whose own time in the limelight is fading quickly. Nearly elemental in its construction and raw individual components, one may watch the original 1937 film and consider it cliche and unoriginal due to the countless similar stories told since. Even in its time the film was considered too similar to another, 1932’s What Price Hollywood?, to justify making. In truth, rumors circulated that writer and director William A. Wellman, along with his cowriters, based his story heavily on the lives of various actors and producers at the time.

Starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric Marsh, the ‘37 version begins with young Esther Blodgett leaving her home in North Dakota to pursue her big Hollywood dream. After being added to the immense list of extras available for work and picking up a waitressing job, Esther has a chance run-in with Norman Maine, a troubled movie star known more for onset difficulties and drunkenness than the quality of his films. He’s immediately smitten with Esther, and after a night on the town he promises her a screen test from the studio to which he’s signed. Given the new name of Vicki Lester, her stardom rapidly rises, eventually eclipsing Norman’s own. The two marry, and though happy, Norman’s continued failures cast a shadow over their relationship, culminating in a tragic realization.

Much of Wellman’s film contains stylistic touchstones of many films of its time, mixing genres seemingly at will and often within the same scene. The romantic and tragic elements are evident, but I was shocked at the amount of fast-talking screwball comedy woven into the fabric of the film. In his introduction, Norman greets his director at a bar, asking why he looks upset. When he supposes he’s been drinking too much lately, Norman replies, “Oh, you oughta cut it down, it’s bad stuff…” before ordering a scotch and soda. Witticisms like this pepper the film, as well extended sequences of physical comedy, such as a scene in the overly small camper the two rent for their honeymoon.

For as much as the romance and tragedy looms large over the story’s conception, much of Wellman’s film primarily operates as a satire of the film industry. The film is laden with inside jokes about famous stars, including broad impressions of Greta Garbo and Mae West, among others, and inter-studio politics. Most of jokes at the expense of studios come into play with the character of Libby, the public relations guru who manipulates the media and the public lives of the stars for maximum profits. When Vicki and Norman announce to the studio head that they are getting married, he pauses for quite a long time. Norman jests that he is trying to decide if the engagement is good for the studio.

For as much lampooning as there is in the film, there’s seemingly just as much lionization of Hollywood. An early scene of Esther going to the casting agency sees a sign listing the thousands of extras available to call on any given day, emphasize the low odds of success. The gag is funny, but there’s just a hint of seriousness to it as well, as if indulging in and boasting of the elitism of the town. In fact, our introduction to the city several shots of vehicles emblazened with the phrase “City of Los Angeles” on the sides rolling into extreme close-up. The camera tilted up at a low angle, seemingly in worship. The old saying goes that Hollywood’s favorite thing to make movies about is itself, and the original A Star Is Born does little to disprove it.

The version released in 1954 is likely the one that people are most familiar with. With star Judy Garland in tow, director George Cukor circles back to the story after turning down the job to make the original movie in 1936. In nearly every way, the film is a massive expansion of the story, blowing the somewhat modest rise-and-fall story into an tragi-romantic epic. Clocking in at three hours and filming in glorious Technicolor (which the ‘37 film has in common) and the widescreen frame of CinemaScope, this version embodies much of what was commonly made in its decade. The ‘50s were filled with large-scale, bloated epics filled to the brim with lavish production values and massive sets. The most popular genre of film made on this scale was the musical. So with a star like Judy Garland, who made her name in vaudeville performances and big musical numbers, the musical was the natural direction to take when updating the story.

One of the more curious aspects of the ‘37 film is that the audience is never actually shown much evidence of Esther/Vicki’s talents. We only see a very brief clip from her first film, in which she says and does little. Cut immediately to the exterior of the theater, as the exiting audience members repeat praise for Vicki’s performance. Furthermore, Esther is not shown to have to work particularly hard for her big shot. Her career and romance move quickly, as if they just fell into her lap.

Not long into Garland’s film we get our first taste of her talents, as well as evidence that she has been working hard for what she has thus far. Garland’s Esther is introduced singing and dancing as part of a band at an awards banquet. Her performance is interrupted by a very drunk Norman Maine, played by James Mason here, stumbling out on stage. However, Esther manages to keep up with the song and her act while also dealing with the harassment she is receiving from Maine. From the beginning, her potential is abundantly clear, and the audience gets an even bigger taste of her talents later when Norman happens upon Esther performing and impromptu set at a jazz bar.

While the Garland film does little to modify the basic framework of the story, it more than justifies its padded runtime with its musical numbers. Cukor treats us to extended sequences of the song and dance numbers Garland’s character performs for her movies. A particularly bravura sequence has Norman and Vicki attending the first screening of her first film, As the film plays on the screen, we find ourselves suddenly in the film that they are watching. The scene comes alive, with Garland commanding the frame with every dance step. Every shot is astonishingly gorgeous, taking full advantage of the wider frame and more vibrant color palette. The film just feels huge, even in the smaller, intimate moments between Vicki and Norman. The larger spaces allow the emotions and the performances room to breathe and fully develop as Norman and Vicki come to know each other, and eventually struggle together. As a result, the romance feels more authentic, and the downward spiral of the third act hits all the harder.

Perhaps the biggest achievement of Cukor’s film lies in the thematic text. In the same way that Wellman’s version was about Hollywood and the business of making movies, Cukor’s is about the movies themselves and the magic they hold. There’s something inherently awe-inspiring and joyful about every musical sequence, even late in the film once the downward trajectory has already fallen into place. Furthermore, with the exception of one scene at the couple’s home, each of these sequences exist as part of a movie made within the film. They are shot from the perspective of the camera that is filming them, casting us as active participants in the world of A Star Is Born, transporting us into its milieu. As we watch, it is as though we are being told, “See, this…this is why we make movies.”

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Twenty years later, we would get a third adaptation of A Star Is Born. Starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, the film represents the first major departure from the source material in shifting the focus from Hollywood to the music industry. As pop culture was experiencing a massive shift at the time of the film’s making in terms of changing tastes and genres of music, this likely made sense, particularly with Streisand as its big name star.

I said earlier that remakes often say a lot about the times in which they are made. The ‘76 A Star Is Born is the embodiment of that sentiment in all of the worst ways. Every creative decision feels as though it was made according to the standard of what would date the film fastest. Unlike the joyful music of the previous version, the music here is uniformly awful, from Kristofferson’s drunken folk rock to Streisand’s early-film soul tunes. The fashion sense is incredibly of the times, meaning it was out of style within five years. Streisand boasts an embarrassing frizzy afro for the entire film, which I would guess someone had forced on her had her hairdresser and boyfriend-at-the-time Jon Peters hadn’t produced the thing.

My exposure to Streisand and her music up to my viewing of this film had been minimal, if not nonexistent. Therefore, I cannot accurately attest to whether or not her songs and performance in this film is typical of her persona or her other work at the time. We will call it a personal preference then that I could not bear a single one of her songs for this film. Nor could I bear a moment of her larger-than-life performance. She does not seem to play a character so much as playing a version of herself. The only narrative arc she commits to is starting out big, then going bigger as the film progresses.

Kristofferson fares better, delivering a very naturalistic and charismatic performance outside of the concert scenes (again, his music is also terrible), and the script actually allows him to be more of a jerk in his public life than we have seen in the other films. We understand how far he’s fallen, and how much further he still has to fall. Unfortunately, none of his charisma or character depth is directed to fit with his costar. The two barely feel like they exist in the same scene together, their romance entirely unbelievable. They have a laugh-inducing love scene in a candlelit bathtub, shot in the cheesy soft focus and bad saxophone for which ‘70s soft-core was known. He starts out as a belligerent jerk. She seems unwilling to tolerate it. For some reason, the two decide that they like each other, a notion of which the audience is never convinced.

We’re also not convinced of any of the talents involved. The film at least adheres to the standard set by the Garland film in showing us the work of its characters, as well as introducing Esther as somewhat self-started and hard-working. But it’s the details of these things that matter. Streisand’s character is introduced as the main part of a soul act called The Oreos; she emerges onto stage standing between her two black bandmates. The film is peppered with poor, WTF details in the same tenor.

You can also tell that the looser restrictions on content afforded by filmmmaking in the ‘70s gave the creative team a sense of freedom to go as vulgar as they wanted with the material. Even before the credits have ended, we are treated to a swear-laden audio track of the band, Kristofferson, and his manager preparing for their set. While Norman is still an alcoholic in this version, he is also upgraded to a cokehead, a detail that, while likely accurate for the setting, feels like an extreme attempt to purposefully distance itself from the other films.

The biggest element in play here that seems to wreck the whole thing is Streisand herself. She was at the height of her popularity around the time the film was made, and with her romantic partner also producing, she assumed much creative control over the film. Stories of the tumultuous production emerged in the years after, in which Streisand was described as having extensive disagreements with director Frank Pierson. With the backing of Peters, it’s likely Streisand often got her way, and it reflects in the final product. The older films had a sense of ego to them all their own just by association with the film industry, but the ‘76 film distinctly carries the ego of one individual. And nothing screams ego more than closing your starring vehicle with a ten-minute, nearly unbroken close-up of your star singing her horrendous, indulgent music.

Another forty years would pass before another adaptation would be attempted. The newest film, directed by and starring Bradley Cooper, co-starring with Lady Gaga, seems to be taking many of its cues from the ‘76 film on a story level. Where that film fails, this one seems to have succeeded, with mostly high praise from critics and impressive box office thus far. What is evident from the marketing is that, much in the tradition of its predecessors, the film is using the formal tools of its time to update the well-trod story in unique and emotionally resonant ways. If the film also remembers to inject some of the story’s elemental magic, it will be all the better for it.

The 1937, 1954, and 1976 adaptations of A Star Is Born are all currently streaming on Filmstruck, and are available to rent and purchase from most outlets.

2018’s A Star Is Born is currently playing in theaters everywhere.