It’s the story we just can’t seem to get enough of [SPOILERS AHEAD for those who’ve never seen any version of the A Star is Born!!!!!!!] – an alcoholic male star discovers a talented yet unsuccessful woman, they fall in love, he boosts her career, her stardom eclipses his own, his demons get the better of him, and just as his decline carries the risk of taking her down with him, he commits suicide. But the tragic love story has always been about more than just about the romance – A Star is Born has also been a deeper exploration of the Faustian bargain of fame and the balancing scale on which success sits on the opposing end of loss.
In short, it’s a story that’s been irresistible for Hollywood’s storytellers and thus never dies. It’s no surprise then that A Star Is Born has undergone yet another rebirth – now its fourth official version – under the hands of Bradley Cooper in his directorial debut. George Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood? is largely considered to be the original prototype of A Star Is Born (Cukor went on to direct the 1954 remake) but it’s different enough to warrant its exclusion from the franchise. Throughout its number of versions over the span of eight decades, the basic plot remains quite consistent to where the exact line “I just wanted to take another look at you” occurs in each film.
But with each remake, the current generation making the film molds the skeleton of the plot to its own culture and style, and reflects an adapting perspective of stardom and the entertainment industry. So, let’s dive in and take a look at the first three films and how they evolved through each iteration:
A Star is Born (1937)
Directed by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the “original” A Star is Born came at a time where Hollywood had room to be hopeful and self-reflective; it both acknowledged the industry’s veneer and endorsed it. Gaynor’s character, North Dakotan farm girl and aspiring actress Esther Blodgett, has a distinct origin story – an important characteristic of movie stars of that era.
Esther’s stage name is changed to Vicky Lester and she’s given a makeover to boost her star quality. The film largely focuses on a relatively young film industry during a time where it became a beacon of light for Americans amidst the Great Depression, promoting a message of “anyone can become a movie star” despite (and because of) the way in which it could completely manufacture such adored Hollywood personas.
A Star is Born (1954)
Directed by What Price Hollywood?’s George Cukor, this adaptation starred Hollywood legend Judy Garland as Esther Blodgett, alongside James Mason, who plays leading man Norman Maine. Among other key changes in detail from its predecessor in order to suit the time, the most obvious difference is that it’s a musical. Moreover, as opposed to Esther in 1937 whose aspirations lay specifically in becoming an actress, Garland’s character has more of a vague goal of becoming a successful singer.
Cukor’s remake also takes some tonal shifts, focusing more on character development and the relationship between the two protagonists. Unlike the 1937 film where Norman is quite aggressive and lacks introspection, the Norman of 1954 is a much more sympathetic character who is refined and self-aware. His sincerity makes Esther’s love for him more tragic, thus creating a more effective climax.
This adaptation also garnered more interest in the real life stories behind the scenes than other versions, namely due to Judy Garland’s tumultuous career at the time. Four years after her contract suspension with MGM following a suicide attempt, A Star is Born was intended to be her big comeback. Interestingly, Garland saw herself as both the talented, ingenuous star Esther and the older, fading star Norman, which propelled her powerful performance.
Despite the immense popularity and critical acclaim of the movie, her status as a film star never fully recovered after losing the Oscar to Grace Kelly – a controversial topic to this day.
A Star is Born (1976)
This remake was directed by Frank Pierson and stars Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as Esther Hoffman and Norman Howard. The changing of the protagonists’ surnames was a subtle, yet necessary adjustment to feel more relevant to the 70s, much like the strategic move to supplement alcoholism with cocaine addiction. But what became the most significant change in this film was changing the leads from Hollywood celebrities to rock stars, as this new type of fame during that era bred its own legend of success and failure with the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin.
Additionally, with the UN declaring 1975 as International Women’s Year during a decade that revolutionised the women’s movement, Streisand’s Esther reflected more of a freedom and confidence that her previous iterations may never have imagined. She’s the most self-assured of the protagonists and also proposes to Norman, whilst hyphenating her last name in the final tribute scene as opposed to announcing herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine.”
Despite some mixed reviews – most negative ones attributing Streisand’s actual fame to the overshadowing of Kristofferson’s performance and subsequently, his character – she is the only actress to have won the Oscar for her portrayal of Esther. Unless, of course, Lady Gaga follows her next winter with a win for her lead role in the newest A Star is Born remake. The buzz is already undeniable.