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How does new ‘A Star Is Born’ compare with past versions?

October 5, 2018

It must be an unwritten rule that each generation gets its own version of A Star Is Born, that timeless tale of a young up-and-comer inextricably bound to a self-destructive has-been of two people who love and, above all, desperately need each other. With Fridays opening of the latest in the oeuvre, we take a look at the four films, whose similarities ultimately outweigh their differences.

1937 Janet Gaynor Fredric March

Him: Norman Maine.

Her: Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester.

Screenplay: Co-written by legendary wit Dorothy Parker.

High point: Vickis debut film, after which the words of the title are whispered in her ear.

Low point: Norman ruins Vickis big night on a national stage.

Analysis: The original sets the template. A shy girl from North Dakota (apparently as far as you could get from Hollywood) dreams of movie stardom. After a chance encounter with her idol, a notorious sot whose work is interfering with his drinking (pure Parker), Esther is transformed into Vicki and finds herself on a meteoric rise to fame. Gaynor makes a better country mouse than a movie star; we never do see much evidence of what makes her so popular. March is more convincing as a tortured man who destroys everything he loves.

Rating: ⋆⋆⋆

1954 Judy Garland James Mason

Him: Norman Maine.

Her: Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester.

Screenplay: Adapted by celebrated playwright Moss Hart.

High point: The gorgeous, if overlong, movie-within-a-movie that puts Vickis name in lights.

Low point: Norman ruins Vickis big night on a national stage.

Analysis: When youve got a star with the extravagant talent of Judy Garland, you showcase her. Producer Sid Luft (Garlands husband) insisted on the elaborate production numbers that stretch the run time to almost three hours, but they certainly sell the central conceit. Garlands Esther/Vicki is outwardly more confident and less needy than Gaynors (she already has a singing career of sorts when she meets Norman), which subtly alters the power dynamic. As for Mason, he just cant get past that patrician exterior to properly wallow in depravity. No matter; this is Garlands film all the way.

Rating: ⋆⋆⋆andfrac12;

1976 Barbra Streisand Kris Kristofferson

Him: John Norman Howard.

Her: Esther Hoffman.

Screenplay: Adapted by husband/wife authors John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion.

High point: Esthers rendition of the wedding staple Evergreen, which somehow still manages to sound fresh.

Low point: John Norman ruins Esthers big night on a national stage.

Analysis: This version completes the shift from movies to music, with John Norman as a rock star who can fill a stadium and Esther (no name change here) as a nightclub singer with the big voice of, well, Barbra Streisand. The hirsute Kristofferson, strutting sans shirt, looks and sounds the part, but hes just too pretty to ever get truly down and dirty. Yet this is the first of the films to show how big a star he is, letting us feel more acutely his fall from grace. Producer Jon Peters fills the screen with his sweetheart; indeed, at the end John Norman is all but forgotten as Esther belts out one final number thats all about Esther, or, rather, Babs.

Rating: ⋆⋆

2018 Lady Gaga Bradley Cooper

Him: Jackson Maine.

Her: Ally. Just Ally.

Screenplay: Co-adapted by Cooper, who also directed.

High point: Jackson pulls Ally onto the stage to sing her own composition.

Low point: Jackson ruins Allys big night on a national stage.

Analysis: Did they finally get it right? All the pieces come together in this one, starting with the enormously appealing Lady Gaga, who channels Gaynors pluck, Garlands vulnerability and Streisands command of the stage. A (movie) star truly is born. Cooper, meanwhile, is the first of the men to really convince us hes hit rock bottom. Sweaty, greasy, needy, dissolute, he betrays no vanity and fittingly cedes the screen to his co-star. The one line of dialogue that is uttered in all four films seems to sum up the plot that never gets old: I just wanted to take another look at you. This one is worth the look.

Rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

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