A Star Is Born (times four)
Which Star burns the brightest?
After having seen the new, fourth movie version of A Star Is Born, the Asheville Movie Guys sat down one Sunday afternoon to watch all three previous versions, in order. The goal? Suss out commonalities and divergences, and look for the stand-out aspects of each.
In other words, to compare apples to oranges, chop them all up into pieces and maybe come out with a dessert to tempt your curiosity.
With that in mind, we bring you "Who Did It Best: A Star Is Born Edition." Since the movies all have some sort of awards theme, we'll take that as our cue and start with those pesky craft categories and build up to our own Best Picture award. Where there are tie votes, please feel free to weigh in with a deciding vote in the comments section.
Best Hair, Makeup and Costumes
Bruce: To me, this is one of those categories that everyone would predict correctly on Oscar night. Because who can compete with a full-bore Golden Age Hollywood musical? The production numbers in George Cukor's 1954 A Star Is Born with Judy Garland aren't all classics, but the outfits are top-notch, as are the many gowns worn by Garland and all her peers in party scenes and the like. And it established perhaps the most iconic Garland look other than The Wizard of Oz. It's a gimme.
Scroll down for Edwin’s pick…
Edwin: It’s really not even close. The competition barely tries in this department, beyond the occasional standout concert garb worn by Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga. Cukor’s film was made in an era when the way actors were adorned felt special, vibrant and fresh. It makes me wish that level of attention was more prevalent in today’s industry.
Edwin: Here’s where things unexpectedly start to tilt for me in favor of the 2018 version. While praise is due to the 1937 original and the presence of its DNA in the subsequent three takes, Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper and Will Fetters benefit from history and advances in narrative creativity to fine-tune elements that are less successful in the other three. The theme of artists having a responsibility to create meaningful works for the public — and the consequences of betraying that trust — is a soulful bonus that’s missing from its predecessors.
Bruce: I think the 2018 version does indeed put more thought into those issues than any of the previous versions, and I give it credit for that. But I can't get past the bloated final hour of Cooper's A Star Is Born, which could have lost 20-30 minutes, and I again come back to Cukor's. Moss Hart's screenplay solved some of the problems of the original by having Esther (Garland) already in Hollywood from the start, and Norman's wooing of Esther is the best in any version, with Cooper's a close second. Hart's is also overlong, but it's sharp throughout, right up to it's conclusion, which may be the only one that really still chokes me up.
Best Song Score
Bruce: This is a toughy. The original wasn't a musical, and all three remakes have some great songs (which is our next category). Having created an Amazon Music playlist of all three movie's album versions, which I've listened to many times in the past few weeks, I still have great affection for the music in the Streisand version, which I've come back to repeatedly for 40 years. But for breadth and depth of emotion, I'm going to go with the 2018 song list. While it's too early to say whether any of the tunes by Lady Gaga and her army of collaborators will become a timeless classic, every song fits its moment, many are richly felt, and I never skip past any of them.
Edwin: I’m told the Garland version is full of classics — and there are several standouts — and I know many people adore Streisand’s creations (though maybe not the forgettable country rock jams by Kris Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard), but neither collection does much for me. It may be another benefit of standing on the proverbial shoulders of those that came before, but the tunes of Cooper’s film feel refined, varied and built to last. Utilizing Gaga’s songwriting gifts and recruiting Willie Nelson’s son Lukas and the uber-talented Jason Isbell for the cause work sonic and lyrical wonders for these ears.
Edwin: Garland’s take on “The Man That Got Away” is a wow moment and my favorite scene in the 1954 edition, but after ladling on the above praise, I’m sticking with Cooper’s version. The first performance of Gaga’s “Shallow” gave me chills, but it’s the Isbell-penned, Cooper-sung “Maybe It’s Time” that’s stuck with me the most. It’s the film's strongest representation of Jack’s commitment to making truthful art and a fine summation of his character and journey. Now why the hell isn’t Warner Bros. submitting it for Oscar consideration?
Bruce: I'm sure Warner Bros. wants to guarantee a Lady Gaga win without sibling competition, so Isbell gets the cold shoulder. "Maybe It's Time" is a great, even radical song for Jack to sing, and it's the only 2018 tune penned by a single artist, rather than a team. It's a good choice for the best of the bunch, as is "Shallow," but I bet "I'll Never Love Again" gets the Oscar. Incredibly, Harold Arlen’s and Ira Gershwin’s brilliant "The Man That Got Away" lost the Academy Award to the largely forgotten "Three Coins in a Fountain." The only Star Is Born song to win the Oscar is also, by a nose, my choice for Best Song of the series: “Evergreen.” It’s schmaltzy and overplayed, but it’s also a perfect pop song, lovingly crafted and delivered by Streisand, working with lyricist Paul Williams. “The Man That Got Away” may be a better song empirically, at least as Garland delivers it, but “Evergreen” encapsulates the romanticism of this oft-told tale in a way no other song has done.
Scroll down for Best Director, Actor, Actress and Picture…
Bruce: I went on far too long about the songs, so I'll try to be brief here. I have to make the predictable choice (for me, anyway) and go with Cukor for the 1954 version. He shows such a diverse skill set, handling intimate moments and big production numbers with equal aplomb and creating a film so great that Streisand wanted her own crack at it, hiring respected director Frank Pierson. Cooper does a fine job as well, but he often digresses into camera gimmicks that get in the way of his storytelling. Kudos to William Wellman for the nonmusical original, but it's hard to compete against the glamour of three glossy musicals.
Edwin: This is a hard one since I don’t think any of the four do a phenomenal job, with the possible exception of Wellman doing what he can with the available technology a mere decade after the advent of talkies. I agree that Cukor proves himself adept at a range of scenes, but that movie drags for me in numerous spots where his filmmaking could have provided a boost. Upon exiting the theater three weeks ago, I didn’t think I’d be saying this, but I’m going with Cooper and for many of the same modernity-piggybacking reasons I’ve mentioned in other categories. It’s the best looking of the four and, while not perfect, goes the longest before fizzling out.
Best Supporting Player
Edwin: All right! I finally get to honestly honor the 1937 version! And the winner is Lionel Stander as press agent Matt Libby, who goes from a frequently hilarious Hollywood fixer, prone to bending rules, to a filter-free man who verbally and physically lays a recovering Norman Maine (Fredric March) low, a blow from which the former star never recovers. Stander’s throwback Yankee growl and emotive face combine for a memorable character, one that’s less imaginatively handled in subsequent versions — whether through the same character (1954) or lumped in with another (2018) — and completely absent from the 1976 film.
Scroll down for Bruce’s choice…
Bruce: What a great choice! I'm tempted just to agree and move on, but I want to acknowledge the three fine supporting players in Cooper's version: Andrew Dice Clay, who's a lot of fun as Gaga's dad; Anthony Ramos, who I wish had more to do as Gaga's gay bff; and, of course, Sam Elliott, as Sam Elliott, Jack's brother and future Oscar nominee. None get enough screen time or development, though, and the Streisand version is even more merciless on lesser cast members. So I'm going to go all Beatrice Straight on you and pick Willem Belli in the tiny role as drag queen Emerald in the 2018 film. This is a shamelessly biased pick, since I knew Willem 20 years ago in Los Angeles, but hearing the stories of how he took a nothing role and made Emerald into a touching and funny bright spot — including improvising the Sharpie scene — made me uncommonly happy and nostalgic.
Bruce: Now we get to the really difficult picks. As Best Actor, I have to dismiss Fredric March, who is just too hammy, a quality that may be a product of the movie's era but doesn't age well. I think Kristofferson is quite fine, but he's basically playing himself. Cooper, in contrast, fully transforms himself to become Jack Maine, a credible Southern rock star, and his first 20 minutes or so with Lady Gaga are near perfection. But then, how can I dismiss the great James Mason? He's the definitive Norman Maine and may be the best at tracing a gradual, rather than abrupt, slide into addiction and oblivion. So here I flip a coin and, surprise! It comes up for Cooper. He displays a depth of feeling that eludes him in less challenging roles, and even though I have trouble with the last hour, it's not for his lack of fine acting. (Blame the director!) Mason remains a bit arch even in his best moments, while Cooper gives in fully to the degradation.
Edwin: I probably agree that Cooper gives the top overall performance, again for being the beneficiary of fine-tuning less successful moments from the first three films. Thanks in big part to the script, the awards ceremony meltdown, here at the modern-day Grammys, plays significantly better for me, from the decision to have Jack be part of an early-show musical segment down to the more, uh, fluid way he drunkenly mars Ally’s big moment. In all four films, however, I don’t buy the climactic decision this character makes, but the acting by Mason in coming to that choice is so heartbreakingly wrought that, for that scene alone, he gets my vote.
Edwin: Gaga is pretty wonderful, playing a character that doesn’t feel far removed from her real-life journey, and Streisand is also very appealing for mostly the same reasons. Janet Gaynor is no slouch, either, but suffers by comparison through the interim advances in the craft. Still, none of them can top Garland, a diva so influential that her effects will continue to ripple through talented women performers for years to come. We’ve already lauded her musical numbers, but there’s also the impressive behind-the-scenes story of her dealing with real-life Star Is Born drama, yet nonetheless delivering a steady, controlled performance.
Bruce: I couldn’t have phrased it better. As my husband Christopher pointed out on our marathon screening day, Garland was actually living Norman Maine’s life during the making of the movie — struggling with substance abuse, late and unreliable on the set — at the same time she was playing the steadfast, dependable half of the couple. Streisand’s musical performances — especially the one-shot, 8-minute finale — are genius, but as an actress, her comedy always outshines her dramatic chops. Lady Gaga is a revelation and definitely earned the Oscar nomination she’ll get just for shedding her usual gloss of playacting for an unexpected depth of sincerity and feeling. But she’s no Garland — who, we should note, lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl. So if Gaga were to win, she’d be the first.
Bruce: This may be the most apples-to-oranges comparison of the bunch, as each movie is such a shining example of the pop culture — and, in three cases, the peak musical craft — of its day. So I have pick a winner by elimination, based on each of these fine films’ few demerits. For me that removes the 1937, for hammy acting that hasn’t aged well, and the 2018, for unnecessary third-act bloat and perhaps the worst iteration of the plot’s final twist. I have loved the Streisand against the cruel critical consensus for decades, but I can’t deny it has groaner moments. The 1954 has the advantage of being the first musical of the lot, a classic one at that, and having Judy Garland at her very best. It’s not flawless, but its missteps are few and soon forgotten. The teenage girls seated next to me, bawling at the end of the Gaga version, might disagree, but I’m sticking with the Garland/Cukor, in part because I know how those girls felt: Garland’s final moments were the only ending that really made me choke up. Case closed.
Scroll down for Edwin’s pick…
Edwin: Having neither history with nor loyalties to any of the first three versions, it was interesting to see how derivative the middle two are on basic storytelling levels, especially the last 20-plus minutes of Cukor’s film. Both feel narratively bloated and barely memorable on a musical level, so neither is going to be my pick. As the story’s Rosetta Stone, it’s tempting to honor the original simply for being the first, but as we’ve both noted, it’s severely limited by the filmmaking and acting styles of the time — plus there aren’t any songs. That leaves the 2018 edition, not just for the old school award show thinking that the best directed film is therefore also the best film overall, but because of the sustained transcendence of its first half, the quality of its performances and original music, and the emotional depths it plumbs. I don’t love any of the four versions, but for me this category comes down to which film I’d rather watch again, and Cooper & Co. make that answer an easy one.