A Star is Born again and again

I wrote this piece for Drugstore Culture last September, when Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born was released. Now that that site has shuttered, and Judy Garland is back in the cinema in the form of Rupert Goold’s late-life biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, I have republished it here. There is not much to do with silent cinema here, but it’s all film history, so why not?


According to the website of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the birth of a star is a ten-stage process. To paraphrase from this already simplified version: first, clouds of gas accumulate in galaxies – and then trouble strikes. ‘Random turbulent processes lead to regions dense enough to collapse under their own weight,’ reads stage three, ‘in spite of a hostile environment.’ The star begins to form at the centre of all this collapsed matter, which the website calls a ‘blob’. The protostar achieves bona fide status as the result of fusion and, in the process, creates a lot of rubbish. By the end of the tenth stage, the new star is fully formed, along with a few collateral planets, and all that unwanted debris.

Stormy weather and a hostile environment leading to a collapse and a union, leaving us with one shining star and a heap of has-beens. As in the heavens, so in show business. Just ask Bradley Cooper. For his directorial debut, which received its UK premiere last night, the actor has just revived the Hollywood myth A Star is Born as a heady, emotional rock musical, and it is a worthy, self-aware successor to the other films bearing that name. It’s a simple story, which explains its enduring appeal. Two talented people fall in love and get married: one is a gleaming new star, and the other a falling meteor, soon to become so much showbiz detritus.

Cooper also appears as the veteran rocker on the slide who takes Lady Gaga’s ingénue on a bumpy ride to the top. It’s an old, old story, but Cooper and Gaga tell it exceedingly well. Theirs is the fourth feature to be made with the name A Star is Born since 1937, although the story began a little earlier than that. A Star is Born cropped up roughly every 20 years for a while. After 1937, there was 1954, and 1976 – which means the latest instalment is long overdue. Cooper and Gaga’s antecedents are Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, directed by William Wellman; Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor; and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, directed by Frank Pierson. In the nineties and noughties, there were whispers of new chapters: for a while we expected to see Clint Eastwood directing Beyoncé, with perhaps Will Smith or Leo DiCaprio as the male lead, in a script that was apparently inspired by Kurt Cobain. Perhaps we should be grateful that never happened.

This isn’t a matter of strict remakes anyway. The Star is Born template has been adapted for each era, each leading actor – and, of course, transferred from Hollywood to the music business. There are certain elements to the story that glue all the versions of A Star is Born together, though. (This is where you can skip to the next paragraph if you want to avoid spoilers, though when a film has been remade three times, spoilers are probably moot.) A young female hopeful meets an established male star, who’s a renowned alcoholic – she may be waitressing or singing in a club, but she’s clearly sharper than he is, and very talented. There’s an instant connection, and he uses a great line on her when they first part – something like, ‘I just wanted to take another look at you.’ The young woman gets her big break, and is made over and given a new name. The record label or film studio bosses hate her nose, but he likes it, and he prefers her without makeup too. They marry, and she’s a success, but he drinks and they argue. She is honoured at an awards ceremony, but he shames himself with a drunken display. He goes to a clinic to dry out, and she has to carry on without him, but she remains loyal to her husband. He doesn’t recover from his depression and eventually kills himself. But instead of distancing herself from the stigma, she proudly introduces herself to a crowd under her married name.

It’s a sad tale, which has its roots, depending on which way you look at it, in a 1932 pre-code drama directed by Cukor, or simply in Hollywood itself. The Cukor movie, What Price Hollywood? is a cracking film, starring Constance Bennett as Mary, a savvy waitress and aspiring actress who gets her break when she meets a sympathetic old soak of a director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) during her shift at the Brown Derby. The story diverges from the subsequent template, as Mary marries someone else, a rich playboy (Neil Hamilton) while Max falls into a deep, and dangerously self-medicated depression. The starlet hitches her wagon to a train going downhill, love and career combined, encountering the rise and fall of fortune’s wheel at the same time.

What Price Hollywood? was co-written by Adela Rogers St Johns, the ‘sob sister’ journalist of the movie magazines who coaxed many a tragic story from many a rising star. The film itself is saturated in references to local legends and inspired by some of the industry’s darkest tales. Max Carey’s storyline was inspired by Marshall ‘Mickey’ Neilan, for instance, a silent film director whose career was wrecked by his alcoholism. That said, it’s a sunnier film than those that followed. Cukor, recalled that producer David O. Selznick ‘didn’t like cheap jibes about Hollywood or its people. He had a romantic idea that the whole world loved Hollywood… He didn’t want to make anything bitchy or sour.’ All that was to change, with the first A Star is Born.

William Wellman, who directed the 1937 film, said it was simply made up ‘from things that just happened’, and, when he and co-writer Robert Carson presented their first synopsis to Selznick, the title was It Happened in Hollywood.  At first, Selznick didn’t like it, but his wife Irene did, and she persuaded him to take it on. The decisive event was the death of his colleague Irving Thalberg. At the funeral, Thalberg’s widow Norma Shearer was mobbed by fans, making the event look more like a Hollywood premiere. This grisly image made Selznick more determined to make the movie, and to make it reflect the murkier, tragic side of the business too.

There are many, many possible inspirations for the 1937 couple: Barbara Stanwyck and her first husband, the racist comic Frank Fay; John Gilbert and his young wife Virginia Bruce; the notoriously alcoholic exploits of star John Barrymore, producer B.P. Schulberg, and actor John Bowers, who actually killed himself during the filming of the picture, just three days after the suicide scene was shot. One scene, the sequence when Janet Gaynor’s Esther Blodgett bails Fredric March’s Norman Maine out of night court, was taken from Wellman’s own experience.

George Cukor, who crops up in this story a lot, gave the team an idea for a last-minute addition to the script: the scenes in the sanatorium were inspired by a poignant visit he made to Barrymore when he was drying out. March was hired because he had played a Barrymore type in 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway, and a few of the other casting decisions raised Hollywood ghosts. Wellman’s ex-wife Helene Chadwick appears, as does Mary Pickford’s alcoholic first husband Owen Moore, as director Casey Burke. Mickey Neilan is even there too, in the sanatorium, where he delivers the fabulous line about Maine: ‘He was great while he had it, and he had it for quite a while.’

There was plenty of time to refine the script, as the film was to be shot in Technicolor and the special cameras had to be booked far in advance. While Selznick tinkered with the story, he also sent it to Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell to sharpen up. It’s easy to assume the movie’s bite came from Parker’s famous wit, but while she admired the film, she, like many others, considered it to be Selznick’s work primarily – though that may have been an irked response to Wellman’s interference more than anything else. He kept Parker and Campbell late at the studio rewriting dialogue, often just barging in with a completely new page and expecting them to incorporate it. Not only that, but he afterwards claimed that 96 per cent of the dialogue ‘was actually straight out of life and straight “reportage”, so to speak’. When the film won the Best Picture Oscar, legend has it that Wellman took the statue over to Selznick’s table, saying, ‘Take it, you had more to do with winning it than I did.’

There were two very welcome interventions from outside. John Hay Whitney, Selznick International’s chairman, suggested the new title, after the producer fretted that ‘Hollywood has become identified with cheap titles of cheap pictures’. MGM’s John Lee Mahin was brought in for rewrites after the previews, adding extra material, including the famous final line, which Gaynor, Garland, Streisand and Gaga have all spoken in some form: ‘Hello, everybody, this is Mrs Norman Maine.’

There’s one other thing that unites the films: the hopeful is always played by a big star, which makes her rise to the top seem preordained, more so than the love story. In this romance, we’re rooting for her career as much as the lovers’ union, and perhaps a little more so. It’s an opportunity for an established star to remind us all of their raw talent, their innocent days as a wannabe, and their natural, unspoiled selves. Which brings us to Judy Garland.

Garland had left MGM in 1950, after 15 years in which the studio claimed to have transformed her from plain Frances Gumm into a legendary star. Her image had been tarnished by talk of ‘difficult behaviour’, and she had attempted suicide and been hospitalised for nervous breakdowns more than once. In other words, although she was only 28, she was more Norman Maine than Esther Blodgett. A Star is Born was to be her comeback. It’s a big, beautiful film, unleashing heavy emotional weather over a vast CinemaScope landscape. Playing Norman, Mason uses every ounce of his famous gravitas to steady Garland’s manic Esther. The early scene in which Garland sings ‘The Man that Got Away’ is one of the most poignant moments in classic Hollywood cinema. Hauntingly, she is already singing about having loved and lost. The lyrics, by Ira Gershwin, could just as well apply to a failed career as to doomed affair:

That great beginning

Has seen the final inning

Don’t know what happened

It’s all a crazy game

No more that all-time thrill

For you’ve been through the mill

It’s long, though; nearly three-and-a-half hours, partly due to the extra scenes and numbers that were added during production. And it took months to shoot (far longer than the eight weeks taken in 1937), because of those additions and because of Garland’s frequent absences from the set. Also, at some point they decided to stop shooting and begin again in widescreen.

The remake was the brainchild of Sidney Luft, Garland’s husband. He approached Cukor (who else?) at the end of 1952 with the proposal to remake A Star is Born. Garland had played the role in a Lux Radio Theater adaptation, just one of many ways the story had been kept alive since the 1930s. It played in cinemas frequently, and was a staple of early TV too. Cukor accepted, if only for the opportunity to shoot in Technicolor for the first time, and to work with Garland. His screenwriter Moss Hart, had to clear the first hurdle, of converting the 1937 film into a musical and one suitable for a very different leading lady. Esther had to be given more prominence in the drama, over Norman, and there had to be space for songs. Not only that, but Hart wanted to take the story further into the darkness: ‘I had to say new things about Hollywood – which is quite a feat in itself as the subject has been worn pretty thin,’ he said. ‘The attitude of the original was more naïve because it was made in the days when there was a more wide-eyed feeling about the movies.’

Hart consulted at length with Luft and Garland, and it’s very much her film. Not only do we see her playing a young girl who is made over by a studio into a Hollywood star, but also, in a musical sequence within the film, she replays that narrative again. The ‘Born in a Trunk’ number has Garland playing a character who retells her long, arduous, and often embarrassing route to the top of showbiz, and explodes the idea of overnight fame.

That’s not all that changes. One of the most touching aspects of the 1937 film is Esther’s relationship with her grandmother back home, who encourages her to follow her Hollywood dreams out west: ‘I’m going out there and be somebody!’ she declares. There’s none of that in 1954. This Esther is alone, and far less confident, more humble, having given up on stardom already when the film begins. It’s hard not to read this comeback as Garland’s attempt to wipe the slate clean and start her Hollywood career all over again.

If the 1954 version was all about Garland, the 1976 version is all about Streisand, and it strains to erase any distance between fiction and fact. Even the wardrobe credits run: ‘Miss Streisand’s clothes from… her closet.’ This film is the weakest of the set, sadly, although it does have some really interesting ideas, perhaps due to literary It Couple Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne swelling the  screenwriting credits. Chief among these is the way in which it expands on the implications behind Esther’s dream of heading west. In this movie, Esther Hoffman (Streisand) and John Norman Howard (Kristofferson) build themselves a ranch hideaway, staking a claim to an empty plot just like frontier folk. Kristofferson even dresses like a cowboy, of course. The quest for fame is presented as an integral part of the American dream.

This film’s greatest departure from its predecessors is the departure from the film industry to the music business, where authenticity, or the appearance of such, is held in even greater esteem. Sadly, it fails to convince on that score. As directors go, Pierson is no Cukor or Wellman. Streisand, so poised, with such a practised voice, is an unlikely ingénue, and an even less likely rocker. She also appears naked to the waist almost as often as her macho co-star. When in the film’s sickly theme song ‘Evergreen’ she croons about love, ‘soft as an easy chair’, she confirms herself as the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.

Kristofferson was a little too close to his character, chugging down tequila and beer and dismissing reports that he clashed with the director by saying, ‘I was too drunk to give a shit.’ In fact, Streisand really wanted Elvis as her leading man, a piece of casting that would surely have made the film even more unwieldy, though would have been horribly prophetic.

The film was a hit, despite being badly reviewed, and if it boosted Streisand’s stardom, it also hurt her reputation. Pierson published a vicious exposé of the on-set dramas with Streisand, her partner Jon Peters and Kristofferson, just before the film’s release date. Streisand was not just the star but the producer, alongside Peters, and, according to Pierson, wanted final say on everything, lots of close-ups, and even directed a few scenes herself. The action off-camera was likely more animated than the final cut.

Cooper’s film takes the best of the 1976 version – the free-wheeling world of music and the western mythology – and just a little of its mawkish quality too. But it’s a far better film. Gaga, as Ally Hoffman, makes for a much gutsier heroine, and Cooper, as Jackson Maine, offers an unexpectedly raw portrayal of an addict. It’s strange that these films are talked about as being about art and fame, when they are just as much about alcoholism – and each one more unflinching than the last.  The awards ceremony scene in particular is almost unwatchably painful, and the film devotes as much time to his decline, and uncovering his unhappy childhood, as to Ally’s rise, restoring the balance of the 1937 movie. He’s an Arizona native, and there’s an empty plot for a ranch in this film too – but with a key difference.

The film is very smart about the way it absorbs its Hollywood ancestry too. Cooper meets Ally not in rock club, but a drag bar. ‘It’s an honour to be one of the gay girls,’ Ally says, surely nodding to Gaga’s own fanbase, but it’s also an acknowledgment that drag culture is where so much of classic Hollywood lore is kept alive. Ally performs ‘La Vie en Rose’ in Edith Piaf drag, with black tape creating cartoon eyebrows. It’s hard not to think of Garland in 1954 singing ‘I pictured me the epitome of a very chic chanteuse’, in ‘Born in a Trunk’, but the film is also trying to say that putting on a costume doesn’t equal dishonesty, that talent outshines image. Despite her exaggerated look, Ally sings the song devastatingly well and with a tangible melancholy. Cooper, and the audience in the bar are transfixed. In fact, the songs throughout the film, especially the rock ballads such as ‘Shallow’, are very strong. Instead of a simpering attempt to recast a megastar as a humble wannabe, Gaga is actually revealing there are some more strings to her bow.

Across the A Star is Born films, showbiz itself becomes its own cinematic universe, a ‘hostile environment’ populated with exaggerated characters, and where the stakes are steep. At the heart of the story is the idea that stars are finite, and for every one that is born, another must die. More disturbing is the idea that a young woman’s blithe success comes at the cost of a good man’s life, which is a line that’s often spouted by people have something to fear from the #MeToo revelations. In this light, it’s easy to take a cynical view of A Star is Born – is it just propaganda for a predatory system?

The power dynamic at the heart of this film replicates the insidious idea that the only way for a woman to get ahead in the entertainment world is with the benevolent and intimate support of an older man. That has been the cover story for many a harassment case, but it is something that the new film handles very confidently. Ally refuses to be starstruck, throws her own punches, and when she gets her first big break, it’s not simply because Jackson invites her on stage, but because someone captures the performance on YouTube. Via the power of the YouTube hit counter, she becomes what you might call a democratically-elected star, one who doesn’t owe her career to any one man and his influence.

After eighty years A Star is Born is still timely, but in increasingly awkward ways. It forces us to question some of the assumptions that we make about how our entertainment is produced – which can only be a good thing, although there is much more to done on that score. Perhaps it’s a story that will always be worth just one more look.

  • I reviewed Judy, and Joker, and discussed the 1954 A Star is Born on the Little White Lies podcast Truth & Movies this week. You can listen here, or find it on all the good podcasting platforms.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page


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