Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born has already stolen plenty of hearts during its successful festival run. From Venice, through Toronto to Zurich, critics have marveled over the film’s emotional impact, its perfectly tailored soundtrack, and, most importantly, Lady Gaga’s phenomenal portrayal of Ally, the film’s main protagonist, and eponymous “star.” In fact, it may be fair to assume that Gaga, for whom A Star is Born is her first lead in a feature film, has her Oscar nomination secured. In his first time in the director’s chair, Cooper has surpassed all expectations, retaining the emotions of the previous films, but taking the production beyond the confines of the “romantic weepie.” The fourth and latest version of the popular classic has a fresh, modern feel to it. But how exactly is the film different from its three successful predecessors?
With so much festival buzz, it’s strange to think that a version of A Star is Born, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Beyoncé and Leonardo DiCaprio, nearly happened — how bizarre and ill-fitting that combination would have been! Cooper himself admitted in an interview that people “he respects” warned him against directing the remake (of a remake, of a remake). And Eastwood wasn’t even the first director linked to it before Cooper embarked on production — it had been shifting hands for years.
For Cooper, it was a project that represented a high-risk step towards directing; it was a transition that many before him had made, though few successfully. Not only that, but for this particular project, one wondered what new ground was left to cover in a story that had already been told, quite well, several times before? And how much of oneself, as an actor and director, could one put into a remake?
It turns out that even for this well-trod story, there was still plenty of room for Cooper and Gaga to innovate, and plenty of material on which each of them could leave their personal stamps. For Cooper, he seems to speak of the drive to make this movie as an instinct or feeling: “I still could not deny what I felt deep down… It sort of ignited something in me,” he told the press before the Venice Film Festival premiere. It definitely shows. His impressive, emotional role not only required his acting talents but also his singing ability. Even Gaga was impressed by his vocal ability and composing skills, praising his talent in nearly every interview they’ve given since the international premiere at the Italian festival back in August. With A Star is Born, Cooper proved his musicianship by helping to create the original score alongside Gaga, and talent such as producer Mark Ronson, country artist Lukas Nelson, and singer-songwriter Jason Isbell. To enhance the in-concert feel that truly adds to the drama, Gaga and Cooper performed before real crowds at Coachella and Glastonbury. Cooper’s commitment surpasses that of his predecessors; he truly is the “spiritus movens” of the project, acting, directing, singing, composing, and writing the screenplay, along with Will Fetters and Eric Roth.
The 2018 version has what all the others did: A recognizable central story of an ambitious, yet somehow troubled newcomer, who gets into a relationship with a well-established, yet troubled male performer. He boosts her career, but as her stardom ascends, he suffers a harsh decline, and then comes the obligatory scene in which he drunkenly interrupts her award speech. All four movies feature the destructive, almost dehumanizing power of fame — something both talents can surely relate to, especially Gaga, who’s talked and sung about it for almost a decade now.
Cooper has followed in the footsteps of William Wellman, George Cukor, and Frank Pierson while forging a modern story that gives the recognizable themes a much-needed sense of pertinence. The first official iteration of the story came in 1937 (though many aficionados will point to 1932’s What Price Hollywood? — also directed by Cukor — as the very first iteration of the formula) and was a story about the nascent greatness of Hollywood, made during its Golden Age, with the main character, Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor), dreaming of becoming the next up-and-coming starlet — not the most socially acceptable life choice for a woman in the anti-emancipation era. It remains the only version devoid of musical embellishment — and, thanks to that, it has the time to feature some important details that the succeeding versions left out. For example, it is the only version to feature a character like Esther’s grandmother (who is responsible for making the girl believe she can reach for the stars), or to shed light on the origins of her screen name. The second movie, which came in 1954, still centered on the film business, but coming seventeen years after the original, the narrative devices shifted to reflect the era of the musical. Gaynor’s Blodgett was transformed into Judy Garland’s Vicki Lester, a talented, and accomplished, singer. Norman Maine (James Mason), charmed by her singing talent, decides to help make her dream come true. There are a great number of similarities between these first two movies — in fact, some scenes in the 1954 version play out as near carbon copies of the first film.
The 1976 version said goodbye to Los Angeles and hit the road, focusing on the music scene and making its two protagonists musicians: John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) who discovers and falls for Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand). When this third film debuted, it featured the most emancipated female lead so far, but the least sympathetic male character. Kristofferson’s Howard is the only male lead in all the versions that cheats on his partner. His alcohol problems, self-involvement, and self-destructiveness have no secret underpinning and no deep reason. For lack of a better word, he’s simply a jerk. Just dump him, Esther!
Cooper’s version combines the characters of the previous versions by linking the talented and modest Ally (Lady Gaga) with the self-destructive, depressed rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper); while this setup seems to align it closer to the ‘76 version for its music setting, it would be unfair to end the comparison there. Truth be told, it has more depth and dimension in the first half-hour than Pierson’s film has in its entirety. Where the ’76 film felt shallow, Cooper’s feels sophisticated — from the visual and narrative choices, through to the music and the characters’ psychologies. Despite a certain “mainstream-ness,” the film never ceases to entertain or move. It also, smartly, shifts the story’s established gender dynamic. In this version, Jackson doesn’t feel upstaged by his wife’s success, nor is he jealous. Instead, he feels that Ally, who’s been groomed to be the next big pop idol, is not being true to herself — after all, it had been the shared appreciation for truth in the art that made them fall for each other in the first place.
It is not the opinion of this critic alone that Pierson’s version (which, shockingly, was partly penned by Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne) is the poorest. At thirty-two percent, it holds the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score out of the four. It’s safe to say that it has aged the worst. Comparatively, 1937 original holds a one hundred percent rating on the site (it was also the first color film to be nominated for Outstanding Production, and deservedly won for Best Writing), while the 1954 remake comes in at ninety-seven percent. It looks like Cooper’s version will score equally well.
Every version has been successful in terms of Oscar’s glory. However, Streisand, despite her film garnering four nominations, failed to get a nomination of her own, while her predecessors, Gaynor and Garland, both earned one. The 1976 Pierson version is the least critically acclaimed, with four, mostly technical nominations, while Cukor’s 1954 attempt resulted in six nominations for music, costumes, art direction, and for leads Garland and Mason. The original was the most successful, garnering eight nominations, including key categories like Best Outstanding Production, Best Director (for William A. Wellman), and both acting categories.
The history of A Star is Born is long and fascinating. It spans from the 1930s to the present day and involves some of the greatest actors, singers, and directors of every major Hollywood era. At every stage of production, Cooper’s and Gaga’s modern take on the classic story was in question. But the early critical response has been overwhelmingly positive, setting up both leads for potential Oscar campaigns. 2018’s A Star is Born smartly sifts through the good and bad of its forebears to create a new version that is both a crowd-pleaser and a reflection of its protagonists’ high artistic values. But is it the best? Only time will tell.
Watch Now: A Star is Born (1937) here on Fandor.