Warning: this post contains spoilers for the 1937 and 1954 versions of the film A Star is Born. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the films. And if you haven’t seen them, what are you waiting for? The 1937 version is public domain! Go get it!
I’m what one might call a Lady Gaga stan. I’m not SUPER crazy. But I do love her music and who she is as a person. So when I heard she was doing Bradley Cooper’s remake of the classic A Star is Born, my first thought was “wait, Bradley Cooper directs now?” My second thought was, “hey, this might be pretty good.” And it looks like, once again, I was right.
But before I went and watched it, I decided to watch the originals.
Now you might notice only two years in the title. That’s not a typo.
Listen. I did not watch the 1976 version with Barbara Streisand. But I don’t care. I just didn’t feel like watching it. I’m not a Barbara Streisand fan, I have limited time already, and after watching the same movie twice in a row, I didn’t feel like going through it again! I just wanted to watch 30 Rock! And I don’t have this blog for homework, I have it for fun, to watch the movies I want to see. The 1976 version of A Star is Born starring Barbara Streisand is not a movie I want to see.
But I digress.
Now I hadn’t explicitly seen the whole movies, but I knew what it was about. An alcoholic star of either movies or music meets a young girl who hasn’t truly been discovered yet, he hooks her up at his studio, and soon enough “a star is born” (they literally say it out loud in the first one!) and her celebrity eclipses his. Tale as old as time. Who can’t relate?
But I wasn’t prepared for the emotional gravity that this story has in practice. And my god, is there emotions. I’m basically a robot at this point and I STILL cried. The 1937 was internally sad, yes. But nothing, I mean NOTHING, can compare to the emotional devastation I felt with the last third of 1954. The men are fever pitch. This is one of the most emotionally exposed film roles for men in classic Hollywood. James Mason just lets it all out in his scene before his suicide. Frederic March’s last scene, too, shows the whole depth of knowledge and pain Norman must be feeling as he goes on to end his life. This movie doesn’t let the men just kill themselves; it shows them considering their options and wrongly thinking there’s no way to save Vicki and themselves. Most movies I’ve seen from this time show women talking about the vulnerable men in their lives. The men are going downhill and their wife/girlfriend is hysterical. But this is a movie that shows the men confronting their own fallibility. The women still bear the emotional weight of their husbands’ disease, yes. But the men see the effects of their behavior. They confront how it’s impacting those around them, from their wives to their managers. And it makes it a much more compelling movie, to see
I want to say a few words about the supporting men in both movies. This movie, and the Oliver Niles and Matty Libby characters, should be shown to every studio and used as an example of what a true supporting role looks like. They’re not essential to the plot necessarily, but the movie doesn’t function the same way without them. They very literally support the main cast. (Take notes, cast of The Favourite.) And nobody does this better than both Adolph Menjou and Charles Bickford. Charles Bickford as Oliver Niles shows an empathy largely lacking from everyone else in Vicki and Norman’s life. Adolph Menjou does the same thing in the 1937, walking the delicate line between playing permissive and playing empathetic. And oh my GOD the grandmother in the 1937! She’s perfect! This is a blueprint for every role Beulah Bondi ever played, and frankly it’s a shame that the character of the grandmother didn’t make it into every other version (although Andrew Dice Clay’s role as Ally’s father in the newest edition comes close to filling the role.)
Judy Garland can ACT and SING and good god, she is just fantastic. I’m adding her performance to my list of “actors who were robbed.” (I have one for directors too, but it’s just Spike Lee’s name listed five times. But I digress.) Her mental fragility in the dressing room, with Charles Bickford’s Oliver Niles, is absolutely crushing. Watching a woman fall apart at the thought of the man she loves so much coming undone is devastating. Judy Garland plays this with such naturalism and so convincingly, that you’d think she had been through it. Knowing that she struggled with addiction herself before she let it kill her in 1969 is all the more saddening. Don’t get me wrong, Janet Gaynor is good! But the 1937 script just doesn’t give her the chance to flex her acting muscles in the same way as the 1954. The script in the 1954 version makes it seem less inevitable that everything may break down for our favorite couple. You think they may still have their happily ever after. But it’s not to be.
Where the script and the acting are at their best in both versions is in the pivotal scene at the Academy Awards. Everyone is on their A game as Norman Maine is in front of his peers and the world, begging for a job. This is all made perfect by the sound of these scenes. Sometimes the best sound a scene can have is silence. And the silence in these scenes is deafening. It’s obvious how alone Norman is, how the industry he once dominated has passed him by. No one but his wife wants to defend him anymore, and even as she goes to do it, on the happiest night of her life, he accidentally slaps her. This scene is what made me realize that this film has the greatest supporting cast of all time. Everyone watching this go down and switch from shock to utter sadness and then to horror without giving more than a gasp is true excellence.
The 1954 version is a product ahead of its time to me. 1937’s is clearly a studio movie, though it’s still a fantastic one. But 1954’s cinematography and the frankness of its discussion around the downsides of Hollywood is at least 10 years ahead of its time. The opening scene in 1954 is so good, I checked to make sure I was watching the right version and not the 1976 by mistake. The shooting into the light and the use of the ambient noise of a red carpet as a soundtrack instead of a traditional score looks so out of place for a Golden Age movie. On top of that, the coloring of the movie looks so natural compared to most technicolor. Obviously, it still has that vibrant quality of all Technicolor movies. But it’s Technicolor turned down a notch and a half. It’s a color film that still feels grounded. This is a 60s movie with a big band soundtrack.
Both movies show their age of course. I truly didn’t expect to see blackface in the 1954 movie (but then again, Mickey Rooney played Asian in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in 1963, so what do you expect). I’m actually surprised I didn’t find more articles mentioning the Swanee River number, because it’s truly an appalling display of racism in an otherwise flawless movie. Call me an SJW who is obsessed with political correctness, but scenes like that truly take me out of a movie and remind me that a movie is not timeless. And not only do they talk about “Injun devils” in 1937, but their talk of the movies is so quaint. Movies are sinful! Moving to LA? To live amongst the vagabonds and cowboys? Unthinkable! In an age where social media has allowed stars to expose their own shortcomings themselves and publicity teams are less vital, this hand-wringing about the movies themselves is truly outdated.
But this will always be an issue with any old Hollywood movie. When the power players were all white men, the casual racism can slip into even the simplest love stories. When I say it’s a tale as old as time, I mean it. There’s a reason that this movie can be remade 3 times and even its 2018 version can be a smash hit. There’s a reason we’re all still swooning hearing “I just wanted to take another look at you.” Perhaps one day, in 2052, if the world hasn’t been devastated by a climate disaster or a poop shaped meteor, we’ll remake A Star is Born one last time. Perhaps a 21-year old then will be writing a post just like this, questioning the gender politics of the 2018 version (a totally valid criticism!). But in 2052, we’ll once again be hoping somebody wants to take another look at us and sobbing at the suicide of a man who, if he had just been loved a bit more may have been saved. In 2052, young folks will know the plot of A Star is Born just as I did. But damn it, we’ll be a sucker for it again.