Female success and male decline: what A Star Is Born tells us about fame, fear and feminism

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper lead the latest incarnation of the films that have, since 1937, told a simple yet resonant story of life in the impossible spotlight

A man stands on the stage. The sun is setting on his career but he is – for now – still in the spotlight. He suddenly reaches out into the shadows and plucks a woman from the crowd. She takes the spotlight from him, and he self-destructs into oblivion.

Hollywood is built on remakes and reinventions, but the most interesting and certainly the longest-running of these first emerged more than a decade before the first Superman movie. A Star Is Born, which gets its fourth outing next week after months of ecstatic hype, is now 81 years old and has starred, in its various incarnations, increasingly improbable pairings: Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the 1937 original; Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 remake; Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version; and now Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Often described as a Pygmalion story, A Star Is Born is more like Cinderella, with the leading man playing not just the fairy godmother who gives the woman a makeover, but the prince who marries her and finally the wicked stepmother who needs to be destroyed so the woman can live happily ever after.

One of the most striking things about the Star Is Born films is how faithful the post-1937 versions have been to what came before them. The storyline has remained steadfastly unchanged and certain scenes and even some lines reverberate between each one (the already heavily memed exchange between Cooper and Gaga from the new trailer, in which he tells her to turn around “so I can take another look at you”, is straight out of both the 1976 and 1954 versions). The gender politics of the films has remained almost defiantly untouched by feminism’s second, third and fourth waves, as they all suggest that the woman’s success emasculates, even feminises, the man. In the 1954 version he makes dinner so it is ready for when she comes home from work, to her embarrassment; in the 1976 and 2018 films she puts makeup on him as her career starts to eclipse his. In all of them, a happy ending of sorts is achieved when, at the end, she introduces herself to her fans by her married name. You don’t come to A Star Is Born for subtlety. The remakes all follow a template, too: the female lead is played by a singer-performer who has a lot to prove to the public, while the leading male role is dumped on some poor schmuck forced to accept that he will be very much the second fiddle here.

Fredric March, Joseph Schildkraut and Janet Gaynor in A Star Is Born (1937)
Fredric March, Joseph Schildkraut and Janet Gaynor in A Star Is Born (1937) Photograph: Ronald Grant

The Star Is Born quasi-franchise is wheeled out almost every 20 years, meaning we can chart shifting attitudes towards fame over the course of what is now almost a century. (For some reason, the series skipped the 1990s, unless you count The Bodyguard as the Star Is Born from that decade, which I very much do.) Each remake says more than it realises about its stars, and more than it means to about its stars’ feelings about their fans. Look how we suffer for you, our ungrateful public, each film says, and the public continues to love the movies for it.

Meanwhile, the behind-the-scenes stories from the movies are invariably more illuminating than the onscreen one. So whether the movies are wonderful (1954), terrible (1976) or shameless awards bait (2018), they are each extraordinarily revealing about the times in which they were made, and the people who made them.

The poster for the 1937 film.
The poster for the 1937 film. Photograph: Ronald Grant

The most interesting thing about the 1937 film is how much it was rooted in actual biography. Multiple famous men from that era have been cited as the inspiration for the alcoholic and ultimately suicidal leading man, including Barbara Stanwyck’s husband, Frank Fay, and Colleen Moore’s husband, John McCormick, as well as several silent movie stars whose careers tanked when talkies arrived. A Star Is Born, in its original form, is a sly indictment of the toll Hollywood takes on men, and for extra measure it lobs some pointed jokes at Hollywood’s women. While Gaynor’s character is presented as a blameless ingenue, the movie takes potshots at some of the biggest – and most independent – female stars around in that era, including Mae West and Katharine Hepburn (I’ve always suspected that some of these shots came from the acerbic pistol of Dorothy Parker, who co-wrote the script). This movie is the dark sister of Singin’ in the Rain, a far more rose-tinted version of what became of actors back then in Hollywood when time and technology overtook them and women became the more powerful celebrities. It is an anxious gasp about male irrelevancy and female ascendancy.

Which brings us to the remakes, which should be titled A Star Is Reborn, as in each one the female lead was already a huge star but, for wildly different reasons, needed a new kind of acceptance from the public. Judy Garland’s 1954 version is indebted to the 1937 original – the leading characters even have the same names – but this is very much Garland’s movie, on every possible level. It was her first film in four years, and her desperation for it to be a success echoes her character’s desire for a big break. She plays Esther Blodgett, an aspiring singer, who is spotted by a Hollywood star and notorious drunk, Norman Maine (beautifully acted by James Mason), who launches her career and then, after marrying her, nearly destroys it. This epic three-hour movie is rightly considered a masterpiece, but the layers of irony within it make it almost unwatchably poignant: various studio executives tell Esther what is wrong with her face, just as they did to Garland as a child, cursing her with a lifetime of insecurities; Esther practises saying the name given to her by the studio, Vicki Lester, just as Garland – born Frances Ethel Gumm – must have once had to do. Most obviously of all, Esther frequently pleads with her husband to stop abusing his poor body, just as those around Garland pleaded with her.

Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 A Star Is Born.
Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 A Star Is Born. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

In probably the most famous scene, she tearfully asks: “What is it – what is it that makes someone want to destroy themselves?” while her already raddled face – which looks at least a decade older than her 32 years – is a testament to how Garland was destroying herself while making the film. Over the course of the shoot her behaviour became more erratic and her lateness drove the film’s already unthinkable budget of $5m ever upwards. Garland’s life was divided between the two characters in the movie: the young hopeful from the past, whom she was playing, and the used-up, broken-down addict from the present, at whom she had to stare while acting opposite. Her fans in the film go from cheering her every song at the beginning to ripping the veil off her face at a funeral to see her at her worst; it’s not hard to guess from this movie how Garland felt about the public. She was also all too aware of the parallels between herself and the characters, and this worsened her mental state.

The director George Cukor wrote to Hepburn during the shoot: “About three weeks ago, strange, sinister and sad things began happening to Judy. [She is like] someone unhinged.” It probably did not help that Garland’s then husband, Sidney Luft, bought all the furniture from the movie at the end of the shoot and put it in their house, meaning Garland ended up living inside her own movie, with all its sense of predestined doom. According to Lorna Luft, Garland and Luft’s daughter, A Star Is Born “cost my mother, emotionally, a great deal. It cost my parents – it affected their marriage. It was sort of art imitating life imitating art.”

The presence of Sidney Luft makes this film an especially strange double game. Luft was an odd Hollywood figure, a former boxer who married Garland, and he is listed as producer of the movie. Their relationship is a gender reversal of the one in the movie: she gave him his Hollywood break, and he then had to look after her. He didn’t look after her enough: they divorced and Garland died at only 47 of an accidental overdose.

If the 1954 version of A Star Is Born is about Hollywood’s tragic underbelly, then the 1976 version is about its ludicrously narcissistic top coat. Just as Garland’s then husband pitched the movie as her comeback and was made producer, so Streisand’s then boyfriend conceived this movie as her relaunch, and installed himself in the producer’s seat. But whereas Luft was a relatively normal person, Streisand’s boyfriend, Jon Peters, is an extraordinary character. He met Streisand when he was hired as her hairdresser on another movie and not only became her boyfriend but used his relationship with her to make this movie and then go on to become one of the most powerful and divisive men in Hollywood. If any star was ever born out of the Star Is Born franchise, that star is Peters; he’s even listed as the producer of the 2018 version, proving that not only are stars born, some of them never go away.

Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in the 1976 remake.
Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in the 1976 remake. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

Peters wanted the public to see Streisand as sexy and hip and this movie, he believed, was the solution. They decided to set it in the music industry, and after Neil Diamond and – mindbogglingly – Elvis Presley fell through as the male lead, Kris Kristofferson, Streisand’s ex, was cast in the thankless role of the pickled rocker.

This could have been a fantastic film, one that reflected the sexual revolution among the rock’n’roll generation, topped off with Streisand’s all-conquering voice. Unfortunately, if predictably, Peters’ and Streisand’s supersized egos got in the way and jettisoned that. They were so difficult that the movie’s director, Frank Pierson, wrote an article about them before the film even came out, in which he described Streisand’s constant complaints that there weren’t enough closeups of her, and Peters’ hopeless ineptitude as a producer.

Streisand was too narcissistic to include all the frailties that made Garland’s character so unforgettable and instead she became the least credible ingenue ever committed to screen. Far from being amazed when she is lifted from obscurity to superstardom, her character acts like it is completely her due.

She also dresses like someone from an older, stuffier era (“Nobody’s told her that people now wear jeans sometimes,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review.) The public barely features in the film; when Streisand looks out of car windows, what she sees is her own reflection. As inadvertent psychological studies go, it’s a doozy – a souvenir from a time when Hollywood could throw away money on movies that were made less for the audience and more for the stars.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (2018).
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born (2018). Photograph: Warner Bros

Bradley Cooper, who directs and stars in the latest film, had the good sense to not make the mistake of his predecessors and so didn’t involve his partner in the film. Instead, in Lady Gaga, he found someone willing to be as vulnerable as Garland but with Streisand’s screen-hogging presence, making her character’s transition to global superstar feel credible. To be taken seriously in a movie today, a woman must be made under, not over, and so whereas Streisand was sexed up, Gaga – as the pre-publicity hype refuses to let us forget – goes without her usual makeup and hair product, and looks genuinely terrific.

But this film takes far more from Streisand’s film than Garland’s. Most obviously, it is set in the music industry, thereby allowing the movie to critique fame without attacking the movie business. Like Streisand before him, Cooper seems to have found that when you make a movie starring yourself the temptation will always be to put your idealised self on the screen. And that is the biggest problem with this otherwise extremely fun movie: both characters, Jack and Ally, are improbably selfless, loving people. The one flaw between them is Jack’s addictions, but these, Ally reassures him, are not his fault but “a disease”. Even Jack’s half-hearted jealousy of Ally’s career is treated as an expression of his alcoholism, as opposed to a natural human emotion. The movie would be a lot more interesting if Cooper had gone for even half of James Mason’s complexity.

But at least Cooper gives his character more backstory than Kristofferson’s got. He gets at least as much as screen time as Gaga, and it’s hard not to smile at Cooper’s gall – at this point in time – for emphasising that one of the most famous stories about female success is really about faded masculinity, but there’s no doubting that someone becoming unfamous is a more interesting story than someone becoming famous. The movie would be more accurately titled A Star Dies.

It is also fascinating for what it says about modern fame. The public is either an anonymous crowd or predatory individuals demanding selfies, which is probably how celebrities now see them. By coincidence, or maybe not, Garland, Streisand and Gaga are all gay icons whose gay fans played an enormous part in their success, but only the 2018 movie acknowledges this, or even that gay people exist in the entertainment business at all.

What comes across in this movie is how strongly the public now think it is their right to be famous, and how much famous people sneer at this belief. A running joke is Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay) repeatedly insisting he is better than Frank Sinatra. Everyone has talent, but only some people have something to say, Jack solemnly tells Ally. And yet the whole message of A Star Is Born is that anyone can be famous, if they just happen to meet a celebrity in a bar. The fantasy of the film depends on maintaining that illusion, but the longevity of A Star Is Born relies on us believing celebrities are special – stars. In the age of reality TV and social media, that weird duality has never felt more relevant. A star is born and another must die – and then another will rise again.


Hadley Freeman

The GuardianTramp

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