Spoiler alert: if you have not seen this film nor any of the previous versions, this review will spoil the ending for you.
The story of A Star Is Born, by virtue of its frequent retellings, has been transformed into Hollywood legend; a cautionary tale of the price one must pay for the limited resource of fame. After the release of 2018’s A Star Is Born starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (also making his directorial debut) reviewers often mentioned the previous versions of the film. Some refer to three versions and others say four but they rarely explain themselves.
The confusion is that what is widely considered to be the first A Star Is Born is titled What Price Hollywood? (1932) starring Constance Bennett. There are some differences but the bones of the story are the same: a young woman dreams of fame in show business and meets an alcoholic man who helps her get there. As she becomes increasingly famous, the public becomes less interested in her partner. He continues on a downward spiral of destruction, eventually hits rock bottom, and the female star determines to make major sacrifices to help him get better. The male partner commits suicide rather than allow that to happen. Even a version of the iconic line “I just wanted to get one more look at you” starts here (“I just wanted to hear you speak again”).
The first film titled A Star Is Born was released in 1937, starred Janet Gaynor and had the same producer, David O. Selznick, as What Price Hollywood? Then, in 1954 the version with Judy Garland was released and finally Barbara Streisand starred in a version that came out in 1976.
With the exception of the 1976 remake, I think all of these films are fantastic but my skeptical nature meant that I was fully prepared to hate this newest version. I hated it the minute I heard it was being remade when Tom Cruise and Beyonce’s names were attached, and Clint Eastwood was set to direct and produce.
About ten minutes in, I realized that even if I tried to convince myself to hate this movie I was not going to. It is polished, well-written, heart-wrenching, and entertaining.
I dislike the 1976 A Star Is Born because it strayed too far from the soul of the story. It took too many liberties and they did not work. Bradley Cooper’s remake took some of what was good about the 1976 version—the modernization of the music and music scene, for example—and married it with the spirit of the previous versions.
What I think demonstrates this most beautifully is the very end. In the 1954 version, Esther’s first words to an audience after her husband’s suicide are: “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” She says this with tears standing in her eyes, voice barely holding together. I find it impossible to watch this scene without my throat tightening. It’s a perfect public tribute from a famous grieving widow to her famous, tragically deceased husband.
In the 1976 version, Streisand’s Esther says nothing to the audience. She is introduced: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Esther Hoffman Howard” (the male lead’s name changed from Norman Maine to John Norman Howard). Then she sings a song that starts off appropriately mournful before suddenly breaking into a funky, energetic beat and it’s obvious that rather than mourning or paying tribute to her very recently-deceased husband, she’s just enjoying her own performance. That almost the entire scene is a close-up shot and the song is over 7 minutes long just exacerbates this effect.
Cooper’s version takes the charm of the widow singing a tribute song and combines it with the emotion of the ‘54 version. Lady Gaga’s Ally says a bit more: “Hello, I’m Ally Maine. Thank you for being here tonight to honor my husband. He wrote a song for me. I’d like to sing it for him tonight. And with your help, maybe I can” The speech, spoken quietly, is not quite as powerful as the simple words spoken by Garland but still impactful and touching. She then begins singing “I’ll Never Love Again,” an appropriately mournful song performed in an appropriately mournful manner.
There is a lot that makes this movie good but the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is something special. This is a film that cannot work without chemistry between the two leads (see Streisand and Kristofferson) and the two of them are immediately, believably magnetized toward each other.
I do have a few criticisms. I think some of the emotion is a so heavy-handed that it veers into melodrama a bit. Also, the entire part with Dave Chapelle feels shoehorned in and stilted which is a shame because a great deal of talent and important storyline are wasted.
This is not the best version of A Star Is Born. Garland’s remake will always hold that place in my heart. But I was unsurprised when it was nominated for a best picture Oscar. The feeling I get is that the Oscars this year are going to be very unpredictable because the Academy seems to be making a concerted effort to show they are broadening their thinking. I might have said in the past that A Star is Born is basically a shoo-in for best picture, but it’s hard to tell now.
What to make: One particularly charming part is near the beginning after Ally punches a drunk in a bar who is being confrontational with Jack Maine. Jack takes her to a grocery store to buy frozen peas to put on her hand. Split pea soup is a good choice, especially for a party as it can be kept warm in a slow cooker and be made vegetarian or non-vegetarian with ham hocks.