Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

A Star Is Born

(1937, 1954, 1976, 2018)

As soon as I heard that this third remake of a movie was in the works, I just knew that I would have to go back down Memory Lane and see the others again. So we went on an ASIB binge.

1937. Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and director William Wellman came up with a hell of a story, about an alcoholic, formerly great movie star on his way down, and his relationship with a sweet young starlet on her way up. It was good enough to win the Best Story Oscar. It starred the great Frederic March (born Frederick Ernest McIntyre Bickel) and the sweet young Janet Gaynor (born Laura Augusta Gainor). March was terrific as the drunk, funny and amiable until someone crossed him, and then instantly transforming into a monster. Gaynor was okay, but her style of acting was pretty outmoded by 1937. This film differs from all the subsequent remakes in that it begins with her telling her parents, back in Hayseed, Ohio, that she is going to Hollywood to be a star! They tell her she is idiotic, but her crusty old grandma tells her to follow her dreams, and gives her some money. Then we see her struggling, getting nowhere, about to give up until she stumbles into Norman Maine, the Big Star, who takes her under his wing. Parts of this film have aged well … and some haven’t. But it’s worth seeing.

1954. Then there is Garland. That alone would be enough to make the 1954 version a classic, but there is so much more. This was her “comeback” film after she had been classed as impossible to work with, due to her various illnesses and addictions, and she was difficult on this shoot, too, but she came through in the end. She lost the Oscar to the relatively talentless Grace Kelly for The Country Girl, a film largely forgotten today. Groucho Marx called it “The greatest robbery since Brinks.” Amen, say I. Garland is the picture, though she had fabulous co-starring work from James Mason, who is stunningly good.

It was nominated for six Oscars, and won zero. George Cukor was far into shooting when the studio heads decided it should be in Cinemascope, so they had to start all over again! It originally ran 196 minutes and audiences and critics loved it at the premiere, not a soul complained. But the studio cut it down to 182 … and then butchered it to 154 minutes. Why? So exhibitors could show it three times a day instead of only two! Two major musical numbers were lost, and a lot of dramatic stuff. It seems the 196-minute version is lost forever, but in 1983 a man named Robert Haver began searching the Warner Brothers archives and found a lot of stuff. He managed to cobble together a 176-minute version that came as close as possible to the director’s original intention. Some of the scenes existed only on the sound track, so black and white stills were used as the dialogue ran. It is surprisingly effective, though of course we all wish the whole thing could be found.

In a comparison of the four versions of this story, it is not even a contest. This is a masterpiece, one of the best musicals and dramas ever made. The two that were to follow …

1976. Oh, the horror, the horror! I almost want to leave it at that, but I guess I’d better do an autopsy. There is only one thing that works in this catastrophe: Barbra Streisand’s singing … and even that works only half the time. She has one of the great voices of all time, but she just ain’t a rock and roll singer. Many of the songs here are just not Streisand songs.

So what’s wrong? Just about everything. I knew Kris Kristofferson, and I hate to bad-mouth him, he has done some outstanding acting, but he just simply stinks here. He never seems engaged in the part. He is some sort of country rock star (and the producers managed to stage a gigantic outdoor concert, back in the day when you couldn’t order up crowds of 100,000 screaming CGI fans, as in Bohemian Rhapsody), but none of his songs work for me. There is zero chemistry between KK and BS, just none at all.

In the two previous films, Norman Maine walks out into the sea to kill himself. Here, John Norman Howard wrecks his Ferrari Daytona Spyder at 160 mph. They would have been picking up body parts strewn over half a mile. Here, his corpse on the stretcher looks like he’s peacefully asleep. This is so La Streisand can weep over him, implore him to wake up, throw herself over his body so the EMTs can’t load him into the meat wagon. This scene was so embarrassing, so cringeworthy, that I actually had to look away. And it was just the culmination of hours of scenes almost that bad.

Like I said, I adore Streisand’s voice. But I’m also aware that she is one of the biggest divas ever born. It all has to be focused on her. You don’t believe me? Okay, who else would hire Mandy Patinkin, another great voice, to play opposite her in Yentl … and give him no songs to sing? She was directing herself in that one, and I suspect she had a heavy hand in the direction of this one. I mean, the final shot was a close-up of her face, singing two songs, that lasted just about seven minutes. And it stinks.

2018. First, I must admit that I am pre-disposed to not like Lady Gaga, and I will also cop to the fact that it’s for a pretty silly reason. To talk about her, I must say “gaga.” And I don’t like baby talk. Okay, I said it was silly. But so is the freakin’ name. I find myself wishing there was a Lord Googoo somewhere. If they got married, they could be Lord and Lady Googoo-Gaga. I can just see them being introduced at Buckingham Palace.

Another admission: I was not familiar with LG’s music. Me and most pop music parted company many years ago. I just lost interest in most of it. And if I had bumped into her on the street, I wouldn’t have had a clue who she was. So I came into this as a virgin, wondering if she was any good. My verdict: I think she is a competent singer. Maybe that’s a little harsh, maybe she’s better than just competent, but compared to Garland and Streisand … don’t make me laugh! She’s not good enough to turn the pages of Judy Garland’s sheet music, or to wind up Barbra Streisand’s metronome. I think she would make a perfectly good back-up singer for Aretha Franklin, or Linda Ronstadt (back when she could still sing). And I think that’s where she would be without her penchant for ordering dresses from the cold cuts section of the deli at Zabar’s. That, of course, is her true genius, her willingness to do outrageous things to get attention.

As for the rest, none of the music impressed me. The Oscar-winning song, “Shallow,” struck me as precisely that. Then there was Bradley Cooper. It was his first time directing a film, and I saw nothing at all to shout about. There have been a lot of reviewers who have praised his acting here, and again it’s a case of did we see the same movie? I found it self-indulgent and sometimes even painful to watch. His chief characteristic here was the long, long, long pause before responding to someone. I seldom like that, and it takes a much better actor than Cooper to sell me on it. I view him as over-rated, even though he has three Oscar nominations, starting with the highly over-rated Silver Linings Playbook.

One more bone to pick out of this corpse. In all three previous versions, “Norman Maine” chose to die in a way where “Vicky Lester” could convince herself that it was a tragic accident and leave her with fond memories. Which was entirely plausible, given his alcoholism. Here, the worthless piece of shit hangs himself. No possible doubt. So piss off, Jackson “Jack” Maine. I want my Frederic March and James Mason back, to wash away the bitter taste of these two sequels.