A young up-and-coming woman meets a self-destructive man at the top of his game. They meet, fall in love. She rises to fame as he falls into despair, suicide. She carries on. The story strikes at the core of American fame. There is something about it that begs to be told again and again, each generation eager to remake it in the aesthetics of their time. The history of these remakes is riddled with coincidences, repetitions, and strange mirrors.
The original version, released in 1937, is said to be based on any number of iconic Hollywood couples [Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay are popular options] but it’s more likely that the creators saw an earlier film, a little-remembered flick called What Price Hollywood? , and ripped it off completely. A Star Is Born follows that film’s plot almost to the letter. The similarities were so striking that the producers offered the film to the director of What Price Hollywood?, George Cukor, who declined but then ironically went on to direct the 1954 version.
The film stars Janet Gaynor, a popular silent film star in the 1920s—so popular she won an Academy Award in 1927 for not one but three roles. In the mid-1930s, her career had flatlined, and this was meant to be her big comeback. Even though she’d been in the business since 1921, her portrayal of a young ingenue charmed audiences, and the film was a success, earning her another Oscar nomination [she lost to Luise Rainer in The Good Earth]. However, two years later she retired from acting, and the come-back didn’t end up going anywhere.
Like Gaynor, Judy Garland was counting on the remake in 1954 to get her career back on track. In 1950, after several nervous breakdowns and an alleged suicide attempt, Garland left MGM, her studio of 15 years, and hadn’t worked since. By retooling the film into a musical, but keeping the original’s dramatic emotionality, the producers hoped this would expand the public’s perception of her. Garland, like Gaynor, was a veteran of the business, but through her powerful vocals and emotionally authentic performance, she pulled off the ingenue on the rise with aplomb.
By all accounts, her performance was universally lauded. She was nominated for the Academy Award, but in a surprise upset, she lost to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl. Garland would not appear in another film until 1961’s Judgement at Nuremberg [where she was again nominated for an Oscar]. She made a smattering of other films after that, but her film career never recovered. She died in 1969.
In 1976, Barbra Streisand was in no need of a comeback. Her 10th film, Streisand was at the top of her career as both a recording artist and a film star. Perhaps because she lacked the desperation of Garland and Gaynor before her, that it was difficult to, in the words of Roger Ebert, “accept her as a kid on the way up, as an unknown who hitches her destiny to a star.” Yet, even though the film was trashed by critics [a 31% rating on Rotten Tomatoes], audiences loved it, making it the third highest grossing film of 1976.
Although the making of the 1954 film was filled with drama, mostly revolving around Judy Garland’s drug use and nervousness that caused her to miss days of shooting, the press at the time was very controlled. Not so in 1976, where the scuffles between Streisand and director, Frank Pierson, the lauded screenwriter of Dog Day Afternoon, became big news, with an exposé in the Village Voice, as well as an article written by Pierson himself whose title says it all, “My Battles with Barbra and Jon.” The “Jon” in the title was Streisand’s then-boyfriend Jon Peters, who produced the film with her, echoing again the 1954 film, produced by Garland and her then-husband, Sid Luft.
The 1937 film was a straight romance about an actress, and with Garland in 1954, the story adds singing, and becomes about a singer/actress. Streisand cuts the actor part and makes her just a singer, casting Kris Kristofferson as her doomed rock star beau [though she originally wanted Elvis Presley]. Where Gaynor and Garland both win Oscars in the film [though not in real life], Streisand’s character wins a Grammy [and also in real life, alongside an Oscar for her song, “Evergreen”].
It’s soon 2017 and we are long overdue for a remake, having skipped the 20-year cycle back in the 90s. Now we shall have one, this time starring Lady Gaga as the titular heroine [though rumors of Beyoncé swirled for a few years]. Given the casting, it’s possible they will follow the lead of the 1976 cut and keep her a singer. Though with Gaga’s sagging career of late, perhaps they’ll take their cues from Garland, and go for the comeback “I can do it all!” singer/actress. Ultimately, there’s something so unsubtle about the story, that no matter how they update it, it will always seem dated in a few years. But that’s okay: there’s always someone around to make it again.