More often that not, A Star is Born is described as an “archetypical story,” and it’s pretty easy to see where people are coming from. Each version—even What Price Hollywood? the precursor to the other four —has a similar story, with only a few alternations over the years.
Clearly, it’s a story that connects with people. There’s already Oscar talk for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s 2018 version, and George Cukor’s 1954 version is widely considered to be a classic (by other people, and by me, too). But before that one existed, the film was a very different beast to the one it has become in the modern age.
The reason films like A Star is Born achieve their reputation is that they chime with people because of things bigger than their story. It may be a political stance, an interesting concept, or an emotional truth, and that’s where this narrative struck gold. It’s rare to be able to follow a character’s emotional journey and think, ‘you know—it makes sense that they did that’ for every choice they make, and that’s what makes the story for me.
The first two renditions of the film, What Price Hollywood? and William A. Wellman’s 1937 version which took the name it’s now made under, had very little to do with the music industry, but were about ageing alcoholic men and their young protégées whose moment(s) in the sun was eclipsing his own downfall. Thematically, that and the Judy Garland version are an indictment of Hollywood, and the system that was responsible for her particular rise to fame. There is an inherent irony in his version; Garland died of a Barbiturate overdose aged just 47 and it’s hard not to see the film as prophetic.
The most interesting aspect of those early models was that Hollywood was essentially releasing a critique of its own culture, all packaged in a bow neatly tied by the most popular stars of their respective days. The thematic qualities of the films are, of course, all subtext. Just like Mary/Esther/Vicki's fame eclipsing the suffering male counterpart, the melodramatic romance element of the films eclipses the truth about what leads people to the actions the characters take in A Star is Born.
Still, it’s no wonder that the Hollywood element was eventually rejected. Frank Pierson’s 1976 interpretation retained the fame element, but shifted the action from Hollywood to the music industry. It’s hard to believe that was accidental. In the earlier films, the elements dealing with addiction often felt sanitised, as if the creators were scared to depict it too realistically.
Not so in Pierson’s, in which Kris Kristofferson plays a reckless and emotionally damaged musician who launches the career of Esther Hoffman, played by Barbra Streisand. Present are the beginnings of what the story would eventually become in the 2018 version. But Pierson still kept a cool distance from the reality of the situation depicted, pairing the tragedy with a power ballad sung by Streisand, the entire pivotal scene filmed as if he’d driven from one set and onto a new one, designed for a road trip movie.
It’s quite hard to appreciate the romanticisation of something which has clearly nothing to do with a sense of loyalty or sacrifice, but feelings of deep sadness and inadequacy. Much like the versions that came before it, there’s very little exploration of the characters' private life, and that was Pierson’s downfall. The film straddles the line between the entertainment industry critique of the previous versions and the subtler emotional output of the most recent one.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s rendering is clearly a big-budget effort, but it has many elements which aren’t present in the previous iterations. Some things are different out of necessity; the music is heavily influenced by what’s in the charts at the moment, but that’s not what makes his version so great. Cooper understands very well what’s at the heart of the narrative, and it shows.
The 2018 version has a depth of character which is present in none of the previous versions, and it shows in the script, on which Bradley Cooper has a co-writing credit.
In some respects, Cooper’s debut feature is the best of the lot. It may not have the jaw-dropping dance numbers of the Judy Garland version, but it has an emotional rigour that isn’t present in the others, and among all of the romance, excitement and whimsy there’s a real sense of tragedy. It’s a film that explores the outfall and catalysts for mental illness. Even if Cooper’s version of A Star is Born isn’t the most technically proficient, it’s the most important and true to life rendition that has ever been made.