It’s a tale as old as talking pictures, and it’s back. When A Star is Born hits UK cinema screens on Wednesday 3rd October, with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in the lead roles, it will be the fifth incarnation of this tragic Hollywood fairy tale, first told as George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? in 1932.
It’s the story of a fading male idol who helps launch the career of an aspiring ingenue, only to see his fortunes plummet as hers soar. Ad each successive version – in 1937, 1954, 1976 and 2018 – has undergone a stylistic makeover that reflects the passions, dreams an fears of its time, yet still contains the same bittersweet message: there’s just not enough fame and happiness to go round.
Overshadowed by the adaptations that followed, RKO’s What Price Hollywood? is the story of waitress Mary Evans (Constance Bennet), who’s discovered by big-time, drunken director Maximilian Carey (real-life director Lowell Sherman). He gets her a screen test, but as quickly as she achieves stardom (“I’m in the pictures!”), he falls into a self-destructive decline.
Bennet plays Mary as a resolute, street-smart woman, a Jazz Age dynamo who gets by on grit and fortitude. Made at the height of the Depression, the film shows the sweat and determination needed to make it, but also the cost.
Producer David O Selznick added a dreary romance between Mary and a polo player that killed much of the film stone dead. Selznick later admitted his mistake, and when he used a similar story for his 1937 reboot, A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor as aspiring actress Esther Blodgett and Fredric March as fading movie star Norman Maine, he focused the romance on the central duo.
With script contributions from such acerbic Hollywood chroniclers as Dorothy Parker and Budd Schulberg, the 1937 A Star Is Born is a very different beast, playing more like a black-hearted satire than Depression-era morality tale.
Here, Hollywood is a landscape of coexistent light and darkness, where delicate Esther can only be transformed into starlet Vicki Lester at the price of Maine’s fall. Gaynor is adorable, but plays Esther as a raw innocent to be moulded by the industry. The real triumph is Fredric March as Maine. The star of the 1931 adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde brings the same bubbling cocktail of charm and menace to this role, personifying an industry where charisma is often a mask for something darker.
Coker returned to direct the Warner Bros version of the story in 1953. Designed as a comeback vehicle for producer Sid Luft’s wife Judy Garland following a four-year absence, the film was a $5 million-plus budget widescreen technicolor feast, stuffed with big-bucks musical numbers, but behind the glitz and glamour was perhaps the darkest incarnation of them all. From the start, James Mason’s Maine is a cruel, violent drunk. When Garland’s Esther falls for him it’s a doomed love, closer to Shakespearean tragedy than Hollywood musical.
When the film returned in 1976 it was again a showcase for its female star. Produced by Barbra Streisand’s former wig stylist Jon Peters, with a script by husband-and-wife narrators of California excess Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne (“you can trash your life but you’re not gonna trash mine”), here was an attempted hip redesign for film and star, with a freshly permed Streisand as jobbing singer Esther Hoffman and country singer-turned actor Kris Kristofferson as washed-up rock’n’roller John Norman Howard. Yet while the film bravely attempts to depict the booze ‘n’ drug excesses of 70s arena rock, it drowns under the weight of Streisand’s musical performances and an excess of soft-focus sex scenes far too dreary to justify the 140 minutes running time.
Interestingly, the new version runs to about the same length but it flies by in comparison.
Bradley Coper, who directed, co-wrote, produced and co-stars, appears to have studied each previous incarnation in detail.
The setting remains the stadium-rock world of the 1976 model, with Cooper as ailing country-rocker Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as super-talented singer/waitress Ally, who’s discovered belting out La Vie en Rose in a roadside drag bar. However, the duo’s trusting friendship comes straight from What Price Hollywood?, with the acerbic wit of the 1937 version added to the doomed tragedy of the 1954 tale. Gaga similarly combines the finest qualities of her predecessors: the defiance of Bennet, the adorability fo Gaynor, the vulnerability of Garland and the scene-stealing capabilities of Streisand. The biggest change, however, is in the film’s emotional focus.
In previous versions, A Star Is Born’s third act has always felt cruelly just: the has-been old soak stepping aside for a more talented young woman. In making Jackson more vulnerable and loveable than previous portrayals, and by depicting his country-rock as more emotionally truthful than Ally’s manufactured pop, Cooper refashions that.
By the end of the film, Ally stands alone, but the tears you’re shedding are for Jackson. In 2018, that feels decidedly old fashioned.