The fourth and latest version of “A Star is Born” was released on October 5th, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. The movie was first made in 1937, remade with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954 (arguably the best version), again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and now in 2018. The movie can basically be summarized as such: a falling star meets a rising ingenue, she becomes more successful, he kills himself.
Why A Star is Born has been remade three times is beyond me. The 1954 version is a heartbreaking movie about the perils of addiction in Hollywood. There is a scene at the end of each version where the lead male Norman Maine embarrasses himself at an awards show, and it is so uncomfortable I felt myself blushing. The ending has always struck me as odd. The star, Vicky Lester, performs one last time in honor of her now-deceased husband Norman Maine. She greets the audience by saying “Hello. I’m Mrs. Norman Maine.” The crowd goes wild, and the movie ends. On the one hand, it is touching that she attributes her part of her identity to him. But on the other, it is strange that she uses his name, not her own, as if she were trying to erase the relevance of her own talent. It is also striking that the same crowd that once rejected him now cheers when she brings up his name.
The 1976 version of the movie was widely panned. Starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, it was derided as Streisand’s and her then boyfriend Jon Peters’ vanity project. There is absolutely no need to watch this movie–it is truly unenjoyable. People found it condescending and unconvincing that Streisand, already an Oscar-winning star, could play the ingenue gaining fame. What works with Garland’s and Gaga’s versions is the true insecurity of the stars. Neither woman is particularly beautiful, but they both have incredible voices. It is especially convincing to see Gaga so stripped down when we normally see her so glammed up, because she looks nothing like her pop star self.
In many ways, the 2018 version seems to function as the story but of Gaga herself–only told in reverse. When the public first encountered Lady Gaga (née Stefani Germanotta), she was dressing as provocatively as possible in order to garner attention, while at the same time obscuring her true self completely. She came on the scene with catchy but meaningless electro-pop songs such as “Just Dance” and “Poker Face.” But it seems that as she has achieved stardom, she has become more comfortable with herself. In a funny way, she is more stripped down and authentic now. She has lost the crazy makeup and outfits, and embraces her natural look. She sings about loss, such as in “Joanne” and sexual assault in “Til It Happens to You”. In the movie, the female star starts as the clear-faced nobody, singing about her own life, and peaks when she sings meaningless dance songs with dyed hair and sequined outfits. At the end, after losing her beloved husband, she goes back to her natural hair color and natural makeup. A metaphorical return to the beginning.
The viewer would be right to think that in some ways this functions as Gaga’s biopic. The character even has a preoccupation with people thinking that she sings well but is ugly, and Gaga herself has been open about her insecurities about that. Ironically, this was Bradley Cooper’s big vanity project: he spent his four years since winning the Oscar for “American Sniper” working on this film, and became the director, screenwriter, and lead male. Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote a hilarious celebrity profile about Bradley Cooper and how important this movie is to him. But this film is much more about the female lead. She seems to poke fun at her own life and previous Gaga facade. There’s even a scene of her winning a Grammy–a notable difference from the earlier versions’ scenes of her winning an Oscar. The movie mirrors life, Gaga has won many Grammys.
Bradley Cooper learned how to sing for this movie, and he gets away with a convincing performance as Jackson Maine (updated from the Norman Maine of adaptations past). In the movie, he croons softly as the grizzled music star, but he is blown away the second Gaga opens her mouth in the parking lot with him. His character exclaims “holy shit” and that’s about right. She is a true singer. It’s interesting that in each version, the woman has arguably been the bigger star. There’s Oscar buzz and rightly so. But all the accolades should go to her.