If you love the movie “A Star Is Born,” your deepest affection is likely for her. You love how each movie discovers her, an unpolished gem waiting for a little limelight so she can blaze. The picture always lingers here, agog at the sparkle, immersing us in the talent.
This has been the pattern of the musical versions of the film, which “A Star Is Born” has been since the one starring Judy Garland in 1954, and the movies always dim after the star’s spectacular birth. Like Garland and Barbra Streisand in the 1976 version, Lady Gaga — headliner of the remake that has just hit screens — is more than up to her part of the bargain. If director Bradley Cooper wants to cram the camera into an extreme close-up as she lies on her back slow-crooning “La Vie en Rose” amid roaring denizens of a gay nightclub, well: fabulous.
But whenever that sort of thing isn’t happening, the movies — even Cooper’s, which is alive with performance energy and is surprisingly consistent — tend to get small.
This is the love-hate with “A Star Is Born”: Is it about her? Is it about him — the fading star melting away into booze and/or drugs? Is it about them — the star-crossed romance? Is it about us? The fans are often ruthlessly rendered, as in the 1937 melodrama starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March (already a remake of the 1932 “What Price Hollywood?”). In that version, the mob is so rabid that even at her husband’s funeral, they hound her until she screams. Streisand, besieged by paparazzi, eventually barks, “When is it ever enough?”
It’s the usual squishy cautionary tale about fame, of course, even though the projects have often had savvy writers on board — Dorothy Parker on the 1937 team; playwright Moss Hart in 1954; Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne penning arguably the most cynical celebrity-is-hell script in 1976; and now Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump,” “Munich”), with Cooper and Will Fetters. Cooper has said he’s not interested in the simplistic equation of one star rising as another falls, but that’s the inescapable pattern, no matter the variables each new generation brings. Stars, as Samuel Beckett said in another context: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”
Each movie glows and fades differently. Our new star’s identity shifts: the unknown Esther Blodgett wins the new Hollywood name of Vicki Lester, or stays Esther Hoffman in the Streisand version, or is the straight-talker named Ally in Gaga’s hands. Famously, she eventually announces herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine” — “A climax of pre-feminist self-abnegation,” Mark Harris wrote in his 2016 survey of the adaptations — or otherwise asserts loyalty to her tragic marriage. In all events, this is the ladder up and down:
Garland singing “The Man That Got Away” is one of Hollywood’s great musical moments. She’s a nobody when James Mason — playing matinee idol Norman Maine at the height of his raffish celebrity — spots her as he’s disrupting a party, then tracks her down at an after-hours club. The joint is closed, but Garland sings, and the camera catches it all in a single take. The swinging pulse is soft and sinuous, and then she revs full-voiced into the torch song to end all torch songs (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin):
No more his eager ca-a-a-ll
The writing’s on the wa-a-a-ll
The dreams you dreamed have a-a-a-ll
The camera tracks away from Garland — she’s that powerful; she needs space — and frames her with silhouettes from the magnificent horn section. Mason gazes from the shadows. Game recognizes game. She didn’t do it for a crowd. Nobody’s there. She did it because she can.
The grizzled rocker played by Kris Kristofferson in 1976 likewise stumbles across Streisand in a club, and she’s better than her noisy surroundings as she croons the Rupert Holmes-Paul Williams ballad “Everything.” But it’s when he follows her home and listens to her strum “Evergreen” on a guitar that she’s devastating. Streisand hums it: The song doesn’t have lyrics yet (and the tune is indeed Streisand’s). Even fumbling through, the melody rises surprisingly, and her tone and style are arrestingly original.
Cooper’s version has his rock musician character drinking into the night until he lands in the intimate drag club where Gaga’s character sings for real. Her “La Vie en Rose” performance has courage and soul: Gaga, snaking slowly through the club, drives it with her voice and her presence. But the deal is sealed a little later, when events lead them to a convenience store parking lot and she improvises a verse on the spot. It’s the recognition moment: Ally’s secret is out. The old star, dying for regeneration, will now launch the new star into the world.
The elegant Mason flashes a shark’s grin in the early scenes of the 1954 picture: He’s sleek and dangerous, a pinnacle of old Hollywood glamour just starting to go to seed. He’s bored and boozing, but Mason’s performance is sincere enough that you understand why Garland’s character falls for him. This is the marriage that hurts, especially as Garland goes on in a long, late scene about the anxiety of coping with an addicted spouse. You see why she was a contender for best actress — an Oscar picked up that year by Grace Kelly for her role in “The Country Girl” as another wife of an alcoholic actor, played by Bing Crosby.
Director George Cukor re-creates a stunning shot from the 1937 William Wellman film. Norman Maine, recovering in bed, overhears the sympathetic studio head explaining to Vicki how her husband’s career is over. In silent horror film style, all we see are Mason’s terrified eyes. The way Mason plays it, the sacrifice that’s coming is believable.
Kristofferson, on the other hand, comes across like an indestructible shaman, popping pills, snorting cocaine, even grabbing a motorcycle and spinning it around the stage before crashing into the ravenous crowd (which, in synopsis, must have seemed richly metaphorical to the screenwriters). His habits are lethal, but his spirit is indomitable — he’s angry and alive, an angel flying too close to the ground. Suicide never really seems to be in the cards.
This narrative pivot to him is usually where the performative thrill yields to all those grim “Behind the Music” tropes, but Cooper’s film keeps its integrity here. His portrayal of addiction is unglamorous, hunched, disarming. Where Kristofferson sees the big, corrupt showbiz picture and gets furious, Cooper is just trying to stay intact in his own skin. His grin is a kind of glue holding his thin act together. If Mason’s performance conveys the most believable self-sacrifice, Cooper’s is the most realistic depiction of depression.
The problem with showbiz is that it often demolishes talent. Garland may be great when left alone with a top-line orchestra and a soaring tune like “The Man That Got Away,” but the film career charted for Vicki Lester in the rest of the movie gets dreadful. Eventually, the studio has her performing hammy, awkward numbers set in some only-in-Hollywood bucolic South. Streisand can make almost anything she sings sound right, but if she somehow tames an unruly rock crowd with “The Woman in the Moon,” there also are puddles of goopy disco in this mid-’70s mash-up.
“Our music doesn’t belong on the same stage,” Kristofferson growls, and it’s not a complaint. It’s just a fact.
In Cooper’s version, it’s a complaint. When Gaga’s character gets swept up in the pop machinery, he sees it as a betrayal of her artistic purity, and the bottom of the barrel is her synthetic appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” an overproduced sensation flanked by gyrating dancers. Critiquing the heroine as she floats upward into fame is a new twist, but that’s not what the movie is about. In every era, “A Star Is Born” accepts pasteurized pop success as the reward for making it. Her art is always sunnier than his, and you wonder where the real revolution in an updated fable might lie. Could you do a gender-reversed “Star Is Born,” where she’s the jaded veteran and he’s the pure undiscovered talent? Where she is dark and he is light?
The 1937 melodrama — not a musical — features opening advice from Gaynor’s grandmother, rallying Esther with a Manifest Destiny speech about how she helped settle the prairie in the 19th century, losing her husband along the way. “We were going to create a new country. . . . We kept right on going and didn’t complain because we were doing what we wanted to do. Maybe,” the grandmother says, pressing her life savings into Esther’s hand, “Hollywood is your wilderness now.”
The sentimentalized American history invites debate, yet the grandmother’s woman-to-woman message of self-actualization is a revealing starting point that typically gets blurred in this myth. “A Star Is Born” always unsettles us with its blotchy take on female ambition that somehow ends up lionizing him — the evergreen fable’s romantic “schmaltz” that’s hard-wired and not always easy to swallow. But Esther/Vicki/Ally is a descendant of a woman who knew what she wanted for herself, accepted suffering as part of the bargain and earned what she got. It’s hard not to have a solid baseline affection for her.