Hollywood loves a remake. Even a remake of a remake. But a remake of a remake of a remake? And all of them using the same title?
A Star Is Born is one such vehicle. It’s classic fodder for Hollywood: An aging performer whose star is on the wane meets, befriends and eventually fall in love with a talented nobody. Her name is soon in lights, leaving the original performer to languish in the shadows finding solace in substance abuse. It depicts the entertainment industry as enticingly glamorous while at the same time exceedingly cruel.
“A Star Is Born is the overnight success story fantasy that Hollywood loves to sell. How a nobody can be discovered and overnight become a Hollywood sensation,” says author and film historian Max Alvarez. “It’s rags to riches, it’s the Cinderella concept. They took those themes and created this story which is the gift that keeps on giving over the generations.”
As a new generation of movie audiences await the fourth remake under the title, this time starring Bradley Cooper as a fading rock star and Lady Gaga as the talented unknown, let’s take a look back at the appeal of this seemingly timeless tale.
The original movie premiered in 1937
While the first cinematic version of A Star Is Born arrived in theaters in 1937, it was a thinly-veiled re-do of the earlier 1932 drama What Price Hollywood? starring Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett. A drama, it followed the career of an unknown actress (Bennett) who rises to the top in Tinsel town thanks to the support and love of an alcoholic leading man (Sherman) whose career is almost over. Sound familiar?
Five years later the story became A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March in the respective roles of unknown hopeful who goes on to win an Academy Award, and the jaded, alcoholic veteran. A success, it garnered an actual Academy Award for, of all things, Best Writing/Original Story for director William W. Wellman and Robert Carson. Neither of which wrote or worked on What Price Hollywood?
Almost two decades later Star was back in theaters, this time in the guise of a Hollywood musical starring Judy Garland and James Mason in the lead roles with George Cukor helming as director. A tearjerker, the 1954 movie became a Hollywood classic despite production and editing issues. Nominated for five Academy Awards, it received none, with Garland (a favorite to win as the role was seen as a comeback for the then fading star) losing to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.
Though their onscreen characters were the star on the ascent, offscreen the careers of the lead actresses often mirrored that of the male starring role. “Janet Gaynor, when she did A Star Is Born, was nearing the end of her career and the movie didn’t usher in a new Janet Gaynor era. She was at her height in the silent years in the 1920s,” says Alvarez. “Garland was at low ebb, she had been fired from MGM about four years before making A Star Is Born and that was going to be her big comeback movie. It ended up being her last Hollywood musical and she turned to the stage after that. James Mason’s career was on the ascent in real life.”
The 1976 version revitalized Hollywood
It would be another two decades before audiences would be presented with the film once again. This time as an updated story focusing on the music industry instead of Hollywood, with the female lead rising from obscurity to win a Grammy Award, not an Oscar as in previous films. It starred Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as the ingenue and veteran, with Streisand also acting as producer alongside her then-boyfriend Jon Peters.
In contrast to the previous films, the 1976 version of A Star Is Born did in fact deliver an Academy Award to its leading lady. Though Streisand won the Oscar not for acting but for Best Music/Original Song alongside lyricist Paul Williams for “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born).”
A commercial success – it was the third highest grossing movie of 1976 – it had almost as much drama offscreen as it did on. During a question and answer session at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Streisand said she had been forced to hire the director, Frank Pierson, and the two didn’t see eye to eye. “I hired him to write and he said he wouldn’t do it unless he directed,” Streisand said. “I had final cut rights. I told him he could have all the credit, but that he had to allow my vision to be there. He would agree, but then I’d show up and the cameras would be in [the wrong places].”
Drama aside, it proved to Hollywood the classic tale still had legs.
“Despite what we know about the toxic nature of the celebrity life, the media and culture still thrive and encourages the image that the United States is a place you can become rich overnight if you are discovered. And that gets handed down from generation to generation to generation,” says Alvarez. “When A Star Is Born came out it 1976 the cynical nature of Hollywood films was starting to turn from the Godfather years, with the industry embracing what some would describe as corny old concepts again. A Star Is Born seemed right for a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era that ushered in a new era of nostalgic content. And that hasn’t really gone away. The theme still resonates.”
The 2018 film has Oscar potential
Four decades on, that’s what Cooper and Lady Gaga are hoping for when their version hits theaters in October, with Lady Gaga as a folksy singer discovered and encouraged by Cooper’s fading, alcoholic rock star.
“The studio is obviously hoping a new generation will discover this for the first time,” says Alvarez of the latest version. “But given how short attention spans are, and how short the cultural memory is in this country, audiences will not be bringing any nostalgia baggage with them.”
Like its predecessors, the 2018 version had a rocky road to fruition, with Beyoncé Knowles originally slated to star and Clint Eastwood to direct going back as far as 2011. At one time Tom Cruise was being courted for the male lead off his musical success with Rock of Ages. Eventually Cooper stepped into both male lead and director (his debut) positions. Filming has taken place at real-life concerts and festivals including Glastonbury in the UK, where art and life collided when Cooper filmed scenes before introducing 1976 remake star Kristofferson, who was actually on the bill as a performer.
Perhaps the Oscar drought for lead actress may end with this latest version’s release date putting Lady Gaga in contention for nomination, and then a possible win at the 2019 ceremony. Regardless, if history is any indication, it’s probably a safe bet that future audiences can expect to see another remake of A Star Is Born sometime in the decades to come.