If this was a more well-researched piece, I would’ve gone to the trouble of seeing both the 1937 and 1976 versions of A Star Is Born, but I only have so much time. Also, from what I’ve gathered, the 1954 version is the most acclaimed version of this classic Hollywood folk tale. Well, perhaps except for the Bradley Cooper-directed version that’s currently in theaters, which seems to already be an Oscar frontrunner. I’m not sure that this latest version bests the version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, but I think it does manage to tap into why this is such a durable story, and why it has been applied to such different eras of Hollywood filmmaking.
To put it broadly, A Star Is Born is the story of a lifelong singer who has spent her early years singing and performing, but at this point, stardom is the furthest thing from her mind. Then swoops in a veteran entertainer who stumbles into a bar one night and sees the untapped potential in this young(ish) woman and is determined to make her a star. By some combination of the woman’s talent and the man’s connections and will, the woman actually becomes a star! This leads her to feel a new sense of accomplishment, which is also coupled with self-doubt and disillusionment over her newfound success. Meanwhile, the man becomes further entrenched in his alcoholism while his career dwindles and the demons that come with fame threaten to destroy him.
The biggest difference between the 2018 version and the 1954 version is probably that A Star Is Born 1954 is about Hollywood, while 2018 is about the music industry. Still, both versions manage to be about singers, since Judy Garland’s Esther ends up becoming a star of exclusively Hollywood musicals, back when such a thing was possible. Meanwhile, Lady Gaga’s Ally comes under the wing of a country singer-songwriter, yet ends up becoming a pop star not unlike the pop star playing her. Both benefit greatly from the fact that they star two women whose real-life talent is explosive, which of course is a crucial factor for this story about someone being so talented that the world can no longer deny her.
Which, I think is what really makes both of these films work. Obviously, there are other factors (which I’ll get to), but even though I wouldn’t say I’m fanatical about either of them, it seems obvious that Judy Garland and Lady Gaga are two of the more singular talents of their era, and making a film completely built around that talent is just a good fucking idea. Also, in both cases, you could say there are autobiographical aspects to these character’s stories that adds a dash of reality to a fable that feels as old as show business itself.
I’m a little conflicted about which performance I prefer in the male role, personified by Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking country musician in the recent version, while James Mason plays Norman Maine, a hard-drinking movie star. I definitely feel like you get a lot more of Jackson Maine, perhaps because his alcoholism plays a much more prominent role in the 2018 version. Though this also feels like a reflection of the times, as Norman Maine seems like the classic ‘50s Don Draper type – the dashing silent American male, who’s dying on the inside but would rather down another drink than tell anyone about it. Meanwhile, Jackson Maine’s problems are out in the open, yet nobody quite knows how to deal with it.
One thing I’d say factors into both of these movies is that it’s hard to watch either of them without thinking about other musicals from their era, and how both films often play against those trends. It’s hard not to think about Singin’ In The Rain or the other MGM musicals while watching A Star Is Born, since those were the gold standard for musicals at that time. But A Star Is Born 1954 is something different. The musical numbers are never as meticulously choreographed and the camera is always a bit more restrained than in the films of Gene Kelly or Vincente Minelli. In fact, the only sequence in which we see Judy Garland dance is when we watch a scene from one of the movies her character stars in, which adds a kind of realism and meta-quality to a genre not particularly known for being down to Earth.
The 1954 version also doesn’t quite look like your typical classic musical due to its panoramic widescreen technicolor cinematography. Widescreen was just in its infancy in 1954, and it’s odd to see a film that mostly takes place indoors, and consists of characters either talking to each other, watching each other perform, or at paparrazzi-laden events in which adoration of fans seems endless. There’s one sequence in the film that stands out for its use of still photographs to mark the passage of time, which I took as an homage to black and white tabloids. It was also just strange for me to see a George Cukor film in widescreen technicolor, since I so associate his style with the black and white sophisticated dramedies he did in the ’40s. But here he employs his signature self-restraint while throwing in some flourishes that always puts Judy Garland’s talent front and center.
Stylistically, A Star Is Born 2018 reminded me a bit of an “on the road” tour documentary about a rock band. It has a fly-on-the-wall feel that I’m not sure I ever fell in love with, but gets the job done I suppose. I often wonder if John Carney’s Once was the most pivotal musical of the past decade or so, since it seemed to imbue the musical genre with a kind of realism that felt like something new at the time. A Star Is Born 2018 seems to take this rougher around the edges approach, since all of the musical numbers take place on a stage and never in the character’s personal lives. Which of course stands in stark contrast to the classicist whimsy of La La Land, the last critically acclaimed musical to be a big hit in the way that A Star Is Born has been.
I’m not entirely sure that this freewheeling approach always works for the newer A Star Is Born, since tonally it often retains the fairytale melodrama that was a part of its predecessors. There are plenty of parts of the film, mostly having to do with the two leads’ relationship, as well as that between Jackson and his brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), that dig deep into the melodrama. Yet the actors do a very good job of giving these scenes and relationships a lived-in quality, and keeps the film from ever feeling as flat-out corny is had the potential to be.
One thing both of these versions share is the fact that it does in many ways feel like two different films packed into one. The first half of both versions is a thrilling story about a woman following her dreams and seizing her moment. The second half is about an alcoholic destroying himself as his relationship with his now superstar wife starts to crumble. This works a little better in the 1954 version, consider the film is so long that it actually has an intermission dividing these two tones in two. But I do admire the fact that the 2018 version doesn’t overlook the anguish that comes with addiction in favor of a more cookie-cutter Hollywood production. Because as both these films show, rags-to-riches showbiz stories are thrilling to behold, but they all come with a price.