Editor’s note: Spoilers are ahead!
This past weekend, the much anticipated, “A Star is Born” starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper was released, bringing in a whopping $41.3 million. I was one of the many who sat in the theater, completely locked into the story for the over two-hour run time. To say I enjoyed the movie would be an understatement.
A Star is Born tells the story of Jackson Maine, an alcoholic country-rock star, whose career is quickly unraveling, and Ally Campana, a waitress turned singer, whose career quickly takes off in stark contrast to Maine’s. His love and belief in Ally give her the push she needs to achieve her goals, but the further she climbs, the farther he falls. The story ends tragically for Maine, leaving Ally heartbroken, with only the memories and the career he helped provide. The movie is a heart-wrenching love story as well as a cautionary tale that cynically exposes the entertainment-industry zeitgeist.
As much as I loved the movie, I left the theater with questions. I wanted to understand what had made this story so compelling that it had been retold four times. So like any good journalist, I did my research and I settled into a weekend consumed by every version of A Star is Born.
Each version tells the same story, with minor tweaks; character names change—Ally’s character was originally known as Esther Blodgett and Vicki Lester, and Jackson was previously called Norman Maine and then John Norman Howard in the 1976 version. Each movie has its own, original soundtrack (with the exception of the 1937 version, which is not a musical). While each version was a unique product of its era, they all shared the same message and even some of the dialogue remained the same (The famous line, “I just wanted to take another look at you,” is just too good to change).
After my sojourn into the mystery of the four-times remade movie, I was struck by how the world has changed significantly on a superficial level, but the story of the downsides of fame, human weakness, and suffering remain the same.
I believe this latest rendition of A Star is Born took all the good of the previous films, weeded out any nonsense, and gave us the best Star of all.
Lady Gaga shines in her role as Ally, and she is made all the more believable as a vulnerable, rising star because she doesn’t look like how we’ve come to know Gaga. In an interview with Stephen Colbert, she talked about the transition from being herself to playing Ally. Gaga wasn't used to being "without makeup and . . . with my natural hair,” she said. “I changed my hair and took off my makeup months before filming the movie because I had to get into character and I had to get used to it. It was actually kind of liberating because nobody knew who I was.”
She went on to tell Colbert how the film challenged her, and she would not have been able to do the film if Cooper hadn’t believed in her, much like Jackson’s belief in Ally.
In a unique way, this 2018 rendition provided insight into the challenging standards women face in the entertainment industry, such as sex-appeal and other distractions from true talent. I also felt this version succeeded in putting a human face on the mental-health challenges Maine faced that are too real in our world today.
This version was, unquestionably, my least favorite. It featured Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and according to the podcast about Hollywood, You Must Remember This, the production was a total disaster. Barbra and her then-boyfriend, producer Jon Peters, felt that the film was, for better or for worse, a reflection of their own tumultuous relationship, and continuously insisted on injecting ill-fitting examples from their real lives into the film.
Unlike the other versions that deliver the sad and sour storyline with doses of sweetness and redemption, this remake was all sour and cynicism. I strained to root for Kris Kristofferson’s tragic, alcoholic rock star, but I was left with the feeling that while his male equivalents in the other movies had an inherent goodness that was suffocated by his alcoholism, Kristofferson’s character would have remained crass and mean with or without the alcohol.
As much of a disaster as this movie was, it was a product of its time, and Streisand and Peters’ oblivious injection of their own relationship ultimately tell a different perspective on the perils of fame and the tragedy of a love story ridden with dysfunction.
The 1954 version marks Judy Garland's comeback to film after a four-year hiatus. Full of unnecessary musical numbers and affected accents, this version was not my favorite, but it struck a chord nonetheless. The film was an example of life imitating art, or vice versa, as Judy Garland’s short life has almost become synonymous with tragedy. She started out as Hollywood’s “kid sister” and girl next door, but from a young age she became addicted to painkillers and, as her behavior on set and in her personal life became more erratic, Garland’s real-life story began to parallel Maine’s: she becomes a tortured has been who dies an untimely, tragic death.
While the parallel is eery, it makes the story all the more believable. It’s no wonder that so many critics view this as Garland’s best performance—it hit close to home.
The version considered the to be the original A Star is Born, is actually based on a pre-code Hollywood film called What Price Hollywood. I couldn’t get my hands on that 1932 film, but watching the 1937 film first called A Star is Born gave me all the proof I needed as to why this story had to be told over and over again. Like the majority of the early “talking pictures,” the dialogue is fast and quippy, with brilliant writing and exaggerated delivery reminiscent of the theater. The result was melodramatic, but I loved every second of it.
By today’s standards the 1937 A Star is Born was quaint—the grandmother of our leading lady recalls her time as a Westward-bound pioneer—but the movie shattered some of my illusions of the past, forcing me to take off my rose-colored glasses. It is telling that this 1937 film can be remade in 2018 with only a few cosmetic changes.
There is a poetic sadness to the fact that this still remains a relevant story despite the changes that have occurred between its first debut 81 years ago and the one released this past weekend. In spite of what the title might suggest, this isn’t an exceptional story or a flashy one. Rather, it’s a compelling example of the pain of love, fame, and vice.
Watching this story play out four times over was difficult. It wasn’t monotonous—the stamp left on each film by its respective and unique era took care of that—but it made me reflect on how little some things change. It’s easy to feel distant from the past, and while Hollywood depictions are dramatizations of realities, they are a bit like looking into a foggy mirror. History repeats itself; people have always had struggles, and fame often exaggerates them. Addiction causes immense suffering and damage to everyone involved. The relevance may be heartbreaking, but that may also be what makes it worth telling over and over again.