BASED ON: The Four Incarnations of ‘A Star Is Born’

(L-R) Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga

The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …

A Star Is Born: 2018 version written and directed by Bradley Cooper, based on an original screenplay by Robert Carson. Directed by William A. Wellman in the original 1937 version; remade as a musical by George Cukor in 1954; revisited again by Frank Pierson in 1976.

(SPOILER ALERT: The fate of the main character in every version of this film will be revealed. Also, the current and second-most-recent versions of the film are both rated R.)

Having never seen any previous version of A Star Is Born, I can now say I’ve seen the first three thanks to my Filmstruck subscription, where the 1937, 1954 and 1976 films reside. Walking to the theater to catch the most recent Lady Gaga-Bradley Cooper iteration, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why Hollywood feels obligated to remake this story for seemingly every generation. Is there some universal principle (beyond the obvious financial one) for the series of adaptations?

Viewing all four in binge-like fashion makes for an unintentional history of film, of sorts, particularly in their consideration of morality.

The affair between Esther Hoffman (Janet Gaynor) and Norman Maine (Frederic March) from the 1930s version is really only eluded to conversationally. Seventeen years later, the Esther (Judy Garland) and Norman (James Mason) affair is contextualized within a musical. It’s hard to tell whether the choice of genre reflects then, the conservativism of the 1950s or portends the vanity-fair, wink-wink approach to sexual mores in the decade to come.

Nevertheless, the Barbara Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version lands in the wake of the sexual revolution. It harbors none of the reservations its predecessors did.

In the 2018 adaptation, the pendulum surprisingly begins to swing the other way. While the two main characters do end up cohabiting, Lady Gaga’s “Esther” (renamed Ally) makes clear on their first date that she’s not a one-night groupie. The relationship eventually progresses to marriage — and a Christian one at that — officiated by one of Jackson Maine’s (Bradley Cooper) ordained-Protestant-minister friends.

Depression, substance abuse and the classic “to be or not to be” question fuel the narrative of the film. Here, too, we see the most recent adaptation treat the subject matter with better complexity and nuance than any previous try.

The 1930s and 1950s versions show the male lead walking into the Pacific Ocean at film’s end. Is he going for a swim and later accidentally drowns?  Or does he take his own life? If so, no one told the writer that self-drowning must be the hardest way to choose to go.

The 1970s version doesn’t even take up the subject matter, dispatching Kristofferson’s character in a car accident.

Bradley Cooper, however, disappears into his character, playing not only a convincing drunk, (as only James Mason capably did before him) but a full-fledged alcoholic descending into hell. Cooper’s rewrite of the role establishes motivation for Jackson Maine’s heavy substance abuse, whereas the three previous films made the over-generalizing claim that success and fame come with their inevitable job hazards.

Jackson Maine reconciles some of those old hurts, showing even the most self-loathing of sinners can still serve as vessels of God’s grace. Maine also noticed Ally’s supreme talent and encouraged her to sing, to write, to perform, thus accompanying her as she overcame her own insecurities.

The treatment of Maine’s final, tragic decision comes with sobering meditation. In one sense, the “why” is a mystery. His death came at a point when he was seemingly capable of self-love and of asking for and receiving mercy.

At the same time, the film makes abundantly clear it was singularly Maine’s decision … a disease may attenuate some culpability, but never fully absolves what is ultimately the person’s own choice. And perhaps, that is what justifies the repeated telling of A Star Is Born.

The rise to fame of the four female leads enthralls, to be sure. But celebrity stars are more akin to what we see in the night sky: some stars may have died out long ago — the lack of light having yet to travel to our corner of the universe. So, our cinematic and cosmological fascination may not lie in when stars are born, but when, in fact, they mysteriously die.

Image: 2018 version, courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

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