Before Lady Gaga went off the deep end, before Barbara Streisand fell in love with an aging rocker and before Judy Garland sang circles around every other musical performer in Hollywood’s colorful history, a young girl had a dream.
1937 "A Star is Born"
Directed by William Wellman, 1937’s “A Star is Born” is the story of star-crossed lovers with dreams bigger and more glamorous than the enormity of Los Angeles itself.
It was loosely inspired by the real-life marriage of silent film star Colleen Moore and alcoholic producer John McCormick. The narrative is timeless and timely, a love letter to classic Hollywood and age-old storytelling archetypes rife with heartache and heartbreak.
It's an ambitious film that wants to both capitalize upon and critique the myths of Hollywood and the grandeur of its idols.
The film's leading lady Esther Blodgett is a nobody stricken with dreams of becoming a somebody. That dream becomes a reality when she crosses paths with movie star Norman Maine, an actor and drunkard whose stardom far outshines his personage.
“Do you mind if I take just one more look?” Norman asks her in a line that would be respun into a quotable, memeable and unforgettable quip in the Bradley Cooper version of the film.
Although facets of the film have aged as poorly as its grainy, early color photography and its scratchy, white-noise-laden audio, the 1937 version of “A Star is Born” is still a remarkable film for its time.
1954 "A Star is Born"
After starring in a 1942 radio broadcast version, Judy Garland was so enamored with the story and its characters that she spent a number of years trying to persuade MGM to remake the film as a musical.
In the '50s, her dream was realized in the form of a sprawling, three-hour epic musical brimming with old Hollywood glamour and technicolored vigor.
The 1954 rendering of “A Star is Born,” fleshes out and expands upon the narrative in vital segments. Here, we’re shown Esther's rise to stardom and flourishing romance with Norman in vivid detail that’s as rich, textured and colorful as the film’s lavish Technicolor presentation.
It feels like an old Hollywood love story, in all the glamour, grandeur and majesty that implies, but also in its outdatedness. The tragic end of the film feels ultimately conflicting because it forces Esther to be subservient to Norman’s legacy, rather than allowing her to emerge as her own singular and truly independent talent.
That strips her of some of her agency, and in the end a star is born, albeit in the looming shadow of a man.
1976 "A Star is Born"
The 1976 remake of “A Star is Born” marked a shift to cheap, trashy romance.
Starring Barbara Streisand in the leading lady role, it follows a version of the story that loosely adheres to the important moments of the originals while attempting to forge its own cinematic identity by forsaking glitz and glamour for sweat and sleaze. And it fails horrendously.
The film feels admirable in a number of ways, but most of its adjustments feel like slights to the legacy cemented by its predecessors. And yet it marks the completion of a gradual change in focus from film to music.
That makes sense when considering that each film functions as an encapsulation of its own era. The music industry feels like a better place to situate a story with the cultural backdrop of the '70s, but each iteration of the film lives and dies by the grace of its leads.
The 2018 version fares better because Cooper and Gaga have all the chemistry in the world while Kristofferson and Streisand have none whatsoever. It’s puzzling, given the clout of both names, that the filmmakers couldn’t be troubled to give them interesting or memorable musical numbers.
Lady Gaga and first-time director Bradley Cooper's “A Star is Born” feels like the quintessential version of the story because it’s an encapsulation of the intersecting worlds of fame and popular art at the time of its release. Furthermore, it respects and understands how and why previous versions of the story have and haven’t worked.
The 2018 “A Star is Born” adjusts and repurposes narrative beats and character arcs to create something that wears its influences, and its heart, on its sleeve, and that feels altogether more heartfelt and emotionally powerful than its predecessors.
There will undoubtedly be a fifth, perhaps a sixth and maybe even a seventh, iteration of “A Star is Born,” and if previous tellings of the story have proved anything, it’s that this is a saga whose identity has thrived on constant change; maintaining the core values of its story but shedding its entire aesthetic with each reiteration to become something perpetually new.