Movie Review: A Star is Born

I don’t watch the Oscars. Since I’m a movie buff, that might surprise you, but I realized decades ago that the Oscars’ taste in entertainment varies from mine. Sometimes we agree, but mostly we disagree. That’s fine. It’s the way it should be. It’s all subjective. Instead of watching the Oscars, I make my own list of winners for movies that met or exceeded expectations and for performances that I believe were noteworthy. The year isn’t over, and there’s several movies scheduled for release during the next couple months that I’m hankering to see, but at this moment in time, I will make a definitive statement. A prediction, if you will.

A Star is Born, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is the Best Picture of 2018.

The little statuette might disagree. And maybe an upcoming movie will displace it from my choice of Best Picture. But as it stands now, A Star is Born is the best movie I’ve seen this year.

As the title hints, A Star is Born explores the theme of stardom–how it’s achieved, how it’s lost, how it changes the lives as those who obtain it, and how it’s no guarantor of happiness. As secondary themes, it explores depression, alcoholism, and dysfunctional relationships. Since 1937, when the original was released, there have been four versions of the movie, but they all explore these themes. Though character names have changed, as well as some plot details and backstory elements, they all tell the pivotal story of an aspiring female star and the established male star she takes as a mentor and lover. During the past weeks, in anticipation to this year’s remake, I’ve been watching the previous versions. I wanted to see how the story had evolved over the eighty-one years since it was first told.

1937 Original

Fredric March and Janet Gaynor

The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett and Fredric March as Norman Maine. Directed by William A. Wellman, it was written by Wellman, Robert Carson, Alan Campbell, and Dorothy Parker. In later life, Parker stated her own contribution was minimal, but self-depreciation was part of her public image, and anyone who had read any of her writings will recognize her characteristic wit throughout the film. When the movie made me laugh, which it did often, I assumed it was from a line Parker had written. But A Star is Born isn’t a comedy; it’s a drama. As such, I was disappointed in it’s treatment of the movie’s darker themes: alcoholism and depression. The movie developed the themes well enough to inform us they’re part of the story, but it felt sanitized, as if they wanted to avoid the real pain these issues gave the characters. I blame the Production Code, the standard of moral behavior presented in films, that came into effect in 1930. Eventually, directors and screenwriters would learn how to work around the Production Code restrictions in developing mature content, but 1937, if A Star is Born is to judge, was too soon for them to know how to handle this subject matter. Don’t let that deter you from seeing it. It’s an entertaining movie with excellent performances by both Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. March, especially, did an outstanding job in a nuance role.

1954 Remake

James Mason and Judy Garland

When Hollywood remade the movie in 1954, they cast Judy Garland and James Mason in the principle roles. They transformed it into a musical. Makes sense to me, because, let’s face it, you don’t cast Garland without giving those pipes of hers a chance to sound. It’s been a long time since I’ve heard her sing. I think of that period now as self-denial. It’s a type of celibacy, no, denying myself the satisfaction of her voice. The notes she reached and the duration she held them–sent shivers down my back. It’s no exaggeration to say that her singing is the top reason to see this remake, but it is not the sole reason. As Norman Maine, Mason gave a performance that topped March’s–no easy task–and though I don’t think of Garland as a dramatic actress, in several scenes the pathos she emoted made me weep. George Cukor, who had declined to direct the original, directed the 1954 remake. Moss Hart wrote the screenplay, but much of the dialogue, especially in the third reel, came word-for-word from the original screenplay. That’s not saying Hart failed to add anything to the story. He gave us more compelling backstories for both Esther and Norman that allowed us to feel their conflicts, both internal and external, in more depth. This version better developed the darker themes. The Production Code was still in effect, but Cukor and Hart knew better how to work around its restrictions.

1976 Remake

Kris Kristofferson and Barbara Streisand

Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson starred in the 1976 remake, but their characters’ names were changed to Esther Hoffman and John Norman Howard. This movie also changed the industry from film making to music production. Since the 1954 version established singing as a core element of the story, this was a logical and successful change. Though all these movies are entertaining, all worth seeing, I found the Streisand/Kristofferson version the least satisfying. I blame the screenplay by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and Frank Pierson (who also directed the movie). The writing felt chopping, the love story felt rushed, and the dialogue felt bland. I can’t remember one good line from the entire movie. I won’t say that Streisand and Kristofferson lacked chemistry, but I will say, of the four movies, their love affair felt the most contrived. (Well, it was the 70s; all love affairs felt contrived.) And I hated every scene with Kristofferson on stage, singing in character. The way they presented him never convinced me that this guy was a successful, famous singer. Since Kristofferson’s first claim to fame was as a singer/songwriter, that was surprising and disappointing–even ironic. Streisand saved A Star is Born (1974) from disaster. Her Esther Hoffman was believable and sympathetic. And when she sung–her songs are the best reason to watch this version. The movie ended on a simple but beautiful long-take close-up of her singing. It’s my favorite moment in the movie.

By this time, the MPAA rating system had replaced the Production Code. Though I have my complaints against the MPAA rating system, it’s a big improvement over the Production Code. For A Star is Born (1976), it gave the filmmakers flexibility in exploring the adult themes of alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, and the relationship between the characters. R stands for restricted, but in my mind it means realism. In comparison to 1976 remake, the 1937 original and the 1954 remake comes across as fairytales, as Cinderella with dark elements. The 1976 movie is a dark, realistic tale–not a fairytale but something that happens in the real world. That shift from fairyland to reality is the biggest contribution this movie gave the story.

2018 Remake

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga

Perhaps I’m not the only one who noticed a small dip in quality in the 1976 movie. Though the pattern for A Star is Born was to remake it around every twenty years, they waited forty-two years to remake it again. It was worth the wait. Bradley Cooper–who directed the movie, wrote the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, and acted as the leading man–delivered. He found the potential that had always existed in the story, but either because of Production Code restrictions or poor writing, was never achieved–until now! He found it and filmed it and presented it on screen–the joy and the sorrow, the aspiration and the disappointment, the love and the hate, the reach for greatness and the fall from grace.

Cooper found it in Jackson Maine, the character he played, and he found it and coaxed it from Lady Gaga as Ally. Secondary characters included Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, Dave Chappelle as her friend, and Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother. (Oh, Sam, don’t ever leave us!) All the performances were believable, but it was Cooper and Lady Gaga who made the movie. I criticized Streisand and Kristofferson’s chemistry, but there’s no such criticism here. Cooper and Gaga sizzled! I feared spontaneous combustion. Both were believable as the characters they played, and, perhaps more importantly, both delivered as the singers on stage. That’s no surprise for Lady Gaga, whose voice was the principle reason I wanted to see the movie, but it surprised me that Cooper could hold his own on stage with her. I heard he spent three years learning to sing to play this role, and for that reason, I award him best actor. But I must confess: it kills me to name either Bradley Cooper or Lady Gaga as the better actor. He escaped his comfort zone by learning to sing; she escaped hers by learning to act.

Though the music is the first reason for seeing the movie, and the acting is the second, all elements in this movie are excellent. Cooper proved himself as talented as a director as he is on screen. The cinematography by Matthew Labitque was beautiful and haunting. As I said above, the writers found the story that had been aching to be told for over eighty years, and the R-rating–R for realism–gave them the liberty to tell it as it needed to be told.

A Star is Born (2018) is a joy to watch, but it is also a sorrow to watch. Over the decades, the darker themes–alcoholism, depression, dysfunctional behaviors and relationships–had matured. They were toddlers in 1937, children in 1954, and teenagers in 1976, but now, in 2018, they’re adults. They’re prepared to face the bleak realities and dilemmas they force upon the characters. A Star is Born doesn’t sanitize the hardship inherent in its story. It feels like a story relevant to our time–to all time–because who among us doesn’t suffer from some type of self-destruction behavior? At the very least, we know and love someone who does. Perhaps more than most movies, A Star is Born gives us catharsis. It reminds us that we are not alone in our struggle to save our love ones from the demons that haunt them.

I want to offer my readers an apology. I meant to finish and publish this review two weeks ago, but since my heart attack last year, I’ve been suffering my own challenge with depression. I go through bouts of inactivity followed by burst of production. It’s my goal to get back on a regular posting schedule, posting two or three blog articles a week, and I intend to work towards that end.

Despite my delay in posting the review, I think there’s reason to post it, because the movie is still playing in the theaters. In truth, I think it’s destined to have a long run, because not only is a great movie to see the first time, it’s the type of movie you’ll want to revisit. I know I do. It’s been three weeks since I saw it, and I find myself hankering to see it again. No surprise. It is the Best Picture of the year.

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