By Megan Bianco
“A Star is Born“ is one of those classic stories in Hollywood history, like “Scarface” or “Love Affair,” that every couple of decades gets a new screen interpretation. It’s a simple plot: a young woman with big dreams miraculously catches the attention of a movie star from Hollywood, whose own career is fading fast because of a drinking problem. Four months ago it was announced that a long awaited update is supposedly going to star Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, after years of Beyoncé being rumored to be the next lead.
The history of the story goes all the way back to 1932, with RKO’s showbiz drama “What Price Hollywood,” directed by George Cukor. Constance Bennett is waitress Mary Evans, who gets a big break in the movies from alcoholic director Max Carey, played by Lowell Sherman. It’s based on a short story by Adela Rogers St. Johns inspired by actress Colleen Moore and her producer husband John McCormack, who had a problem with booze. The film was a critical success, but a flop with audiences.
Five years later, studio head David O. Selznick produced his own tinsel town piece called “A Star is Born” that bore so much similarity to “Hollywood,” RKO almost sued Selznick for plagiarism. Despite the minor controversy, “A Star is Born” became a big hit with movie viewers and critics for filmmaker William A. Wellman and actors Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as talented Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester and alcoholic Norman Maine.
The most iconic adaptation is Warner Bros.’ 1954 musical of the same name as a vehicle for Judy Garland and James Mason. The three-hour remake became Garland’s big comeback four years after she left MGM, and is now considered the definitive performance of her adult career. Ironically, Cukor penned this feature two decades after he originally turned down Selznick’s offer to direct the first version because of similarities to “What Price Hollywood.” The famous musical numbers from “A Star is Born” would include “Gotta Have Me Go with You,” “It’s a New World,” “Born in a Trunk” and Garland’s second signature ballad, “The Man That Got Away,” written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin.
Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson tried their hands at a third version in 1976, but for the rock music crowd. This time Esther is a singer-songwriter and Norman is a has-been rock star. The update was a dud with critics, but popular with audiences. Particularly popular was the movie’s theme song “Evergreen“ sung by Streisand and Kristofferson.
And scheduled for September 2018 — four decades later — there’s going to be a fourth remake with Cooper and Gaga after almost a decade in development hell. It’ll be interesting to see how they portray the rise and fall of stars in modern times.
For me, the story was best told with the Cukor-Garland effort. It really is the essential version, and not just because of Garland’s legendary status. The film plays like a traditional, glamorous musical which has a timeless quality to it, almost like a fantasy or fairy tale, while the others are relevant to the eras they were made in. “What Price Hollywood” and the 1937 “Star” are mainly remembered by old Hollywood lovers, and only Streisand and Kristofferson fans ever really cared for the 1976 attempt. But we’ll have to wait and see how Cooper and Gaga interpret their stint for contemporary crowds.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.