“Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story, told over and over,” Sam Elliot, the gravel-voiced actor, declares in the latest version of the film A Star is Born, his character offering a wise nugget about the creative process.
Hollywood has been telling the story of A Star is Born for decades. Depending on how you count, there are as many as five versions of the movie. The fashion styles and stars change, but certain elements persist.
It’s a story beginning with an old pro, a tarnished performer on a downward trajectory. Then, there’s the discovery of an ingenue. The diamond in the rough is polished. Eventually, the new star ascends as the other dims.
So as Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut hits theatres, let’s compare the various versions of the three most recent incarnations.
Couples and chemistry (or lack thereof)
Not all couples were created equal and that’s certainly true for the casting of A Star is Born.
The 1954 version stars Judy Garland and British actor James Mason. While every incarnation charts the ascension of a new talent, this version was actually intended as a comeback vehicle for a struggling Garland — no longer the young girl in pigtails from The Wizard of Oz.
Watch a trailer for the 1954 version of the film:
In the film, she plays Esther Blodgett, an aspiring actress. What helped was the older actor with whom Garland was paired. With his English accent and upper crust bearing, Mason perfectly captures the dashed dignity of Norman Maine, a movie star falling out of the spotlight.
For a total lack of chemistry, look no further than Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976’s A Star is Born. Kristofferson plays John Norman Howard, an alcoholic rock n’ roller on his way down when he spots Esther Hoffman, a cabaret songstress with a style all her own.
This transition shot tells you everything you need to know about the ‘76 version of A Star Is Born <a href=”https://t.co/zjF4G0esJw”>pic.twitter.com/zjF4G0esJw</a>
Dreamt up by Streisand’s partner, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, the movie puts Babs squarely in the spotlight. Kristofferson and Streisand may have shared a real-life history, but onscreen the couple fizzled.
What sets the 2018 version apart is just how real Lady Gaga’s Ally appears when Cooper’s country-rocker character Jackson Maine discovers her belting out La Vie En Rose. Perhaps it’s because they were both risking something, Gaga as an actor and Cooper as a musician, but together their chemistry is undeniable.
Let’s start with the most underwhelming, which would be the ’76 version — sorry Streisand fans. The problem is that this star is fully formed when she’s spotted. From her cabaret numbers, to the Oscar-winning song Evergreen (sample lyric “Love soft as an easy chair”), she’s already 100 per cent Babs. Meanwhile, Kristofferson’s character is already a joke with a rock n’ roll sound somewhere between Frank Zappa and the Muppet’s Electric Mayhem band.
Watch a trailer for the 1976 version:
In the latest version, Cooper wanted the music to be as convincing as the performances. His roots-rocker character is backed by Lukas Nelson and his band. Nelson, son of Willie, collaborated with both Cooper and Gaga co-writing many of the film’s songs. For Gaga’s big number Shallows, she worked with British producer Mark Ronson. To plot out Ally’s shifting sound as she evolves into the pop spectrum, Gaga recruited songwriters who’d written for Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, and Faith Hill.
Focused on capturing the honesty of the moment, Cooper insisted on filming nearly all the songs live, sometimes on stage in front of an audience of thousands. This resulted in musical performances that avoid the canned-quality noticeable when actors lip-synch to pre-recorded tracks.
Compared to either of those, Garland’s sound is classic 1950’s musical. Her version starts strong, with Garland performing a gangbusters take on The Man That Got Away. While the film charts a rocky road to fame, it does suffer from a few indulgences, such as a never-ending musical montage establishing Esther’s talent featuring everything from the rousing Born in a Trunk number to a cover of Swanee.
About that nose
With Lady Gaga and Barbara Streisand, two out of the three leading ladies have nasal profiles as distinctive as their sound. Rather than running away from it, all three films feature moments when the man fawns over their features.
In the latest version, Ally’s nose is her excuse for why she doesn’t sing her own songs. Soon audiences watch as Jackson runs his finger down the bridge of her nose while the Allman Brothers’ guitars screech in agreement.
Watch a preview for the 2018 version:
There is some nose-stroking in the ’76 version, but 1954’s A Star is Born takes it even further.
To get ready for a screen test, Esther is left in the hands of Hollywood studio doctors who tell her “the nose is the problem.” In the end, it’s left to her love Norman to free her proboscis of the doctor’s prosthetics and let her true beauty shine.
In the end, what distinguishes each film is how the elder star exits the picture.
In the ’54 version, Norman has been reduced to a laughing stock. As Esther ascends, the industry still sees the man she loves as a has-been. Mason captures perfectly the silent anguish as Norman learns how he’s been holding back the woman he adores.
In the ’76 version, Kristofferson’s character John Norman also wrestles with jealousy as his career stalls. Here Babs rages, imploring her shirtless lover to fight for her. But for this rock n’ roll adventure, John’s final moments are more open-ended: a red Ferrari speeding towards the horizon with Esther’s love song blaring on the 8-track.
Of the three, Cooper’s A Star is Born is the most artistically ambitious. The 2018 update devotes more screen time to the demons haunting Jackson. In the end, it’s a dastardly music manager who undercuts the rocker’s hard-won sense of confidence. Manipulative and melodramatic? Welcome to A Star is Born.
How do they rank?
3. A Star is Born – 1976: Clearly a star vehicle for Streisand, the only thing that could make this vanity project any cheesier is if it was painted on velvet.
2. A Star is Born – 1954: Mason and Garland are an odd couple to be sure, but it works. The most consistent of the three, the mid-century A Star is Born is a surprisingly unflattering look at the movie biz. With a running time of nearly three hours, however, it asks a lot.
1. A Star is Born – 2018: The biggest flaw of Cooper’s directorial debut is its unevenness. The first half of the film is filled with so many visceral moments that everything that follows feels formulaic by comparison. That said, I am already scheming for when I can spend time with Ally and Jackson again.
Watch a scene from the 1976 version, featuring the Oscar-winning song Evergreen: