clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’ Owes to—Yes, Really—the Streisand Version

The 1976 ‘A Star Is Born’ is a self-indulgent mess, but it also presents a corrective to the lopsided Hollywood myth. Put another way: Without Esther, there is no Ally.

Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Lady Gaga Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bradley Cooper’s 2018 rendition of A Star Is Born manages the impossible: bringing this seemingly old-fashioned story about fame into the present while retaining its classical, timeless appeal. In this sense, it has been compared favorably with the 1954 version of the film starring Judy Garland—the second in name, though the third in spirit—and unfavorably to what The New York Times calls the “epically (empirically!) terrible” 1976 version starring, and infamously commandeered by, Barbra Streisand. The rapidly solidifying consensus around the film holds that Cooper succeeds in ways that Streisand, enabled and exacerbated by her hairdresser-turned-producer boyfriend Jon Peters, failed. Influenced by ego and a desire for control, Streisand delivered a turgid and cringeworthy, if commercially successful, cautionary tale about stardom, if not the kind she intended. Cooper has made a convincing and transporting love story, at long last giving the George Cukor–directed masterpiece the update it deserves.

But watching all the previous A Star Is Borns (or is it Stars Are Born?) in the lead-up to this weekend’s release, I found myself caught off guard by the soft spot I developed for the Streisand-Peters boondoggle, one that remains in place even after Cooper’s objective triumph. A defense of Streisand and her on-screen romance with Kris Kristofferson purely on artistic grounds would be nigh on impossible, nor shall I attempt one. But in the context of Stars both past and present, the starring vehicle had the audacity to at least attempt what Cooper pulls off, updating the narrative and shedding at least some of its more unsavory implications. A full rehabilitation may not be in order, but perhaps a reconsideration is. Barbra had to bluster so Bradley could fly.

The basic concept of A Star Is Born is undeniably a tad retrograde. A young woman is plucked from obscurity by an older man who becomes both mentor and lover; partly in response to her stratospheric rise, the man succumbs to the addiction and depression that predate their relationship; the woman is simultaneously chastened, legitimized, and elevated by his death. The earliest riff on the story, also directed by Cukor and produced by David O. Selznick, is frankly titled What Price Hollywood?, with certain different details—a love triangle, a child—but the outcomes and themes the same.

Just five years later, Selznick would preside over the first official Star, in which Janet Gaynor’s ingenue Vicki Lester, née Esther Blodgett, is warned by a wise-granny type that “for every dream of yours you make come true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak.” It’s a blunt-force moral message that only gets blunter when the starlet’s husband operatically kills himself by walking into the ocean. As Esther finds herself debilitated by mourning, her grandmother reappears to offer her some tough and ethically questionable love. “You did make a bargain,” she chides, “and now you’re whining over it.” Such you-made-your-bed moralizing is the product of both a premodern understanding of alcoholism and shockingly unvarnished misogyny. By willingly entering into the maw of Hollywood’s moral corruption, Esther is told she’s brought her unhappiness on herself as well as her loved ones. Never mind that she didn’t directly cause her husband’s suicide; she’s already signed away her right to fully grieve over it. Most uncomfortably, it’s implied she was a contributing factor. Immediately before the awards show centerpiece that recurs throughout every remake, Fredric March’s Norman Maine finds himself emasculated when he’s addressed as “Mr. Lester,” triggering a relapse and an embarrassing public meltdown.

The Garland version is more sympathetic to Vicki Lester, perhaps inevitably so given Garland’s pivotal role in bringing the project to fruition. One of the curious ironies of the property’s multi-decade saga is that, despite the baseline story’s iffy-at-best gender politics, every remake except Cooper’s has been driven behind the scenes by the female lead. (This explains why Cooper’s interpretation features by far the most developed portrayal of the Maine character and his history of dysfunction, which in turn renders the central relationship more convincing.) Garland had taken on the Lester role more than a decade previously for a 1942 radio broadcast, then partnered with producer husband Sidney Luft to revive the film as a comeback kickstarter more than a decade into her career. Garland was struggling with her own substance use, and her real-life star persona was awkwardly suspended between Lester’s and Maine’s. The result is almost a full hour longer than the Gaynor original, and almost every additional minute is taken up by Garland singing and dancing. The musical element is a new and permanent addition to the Star Is Born DNA. These numbers demonstrate Vicki’s star power in far more compelling fashion than its ancestor, which leans heavily on Gaynor’s charisma and telling us about, rather than showing, Lester’s career-making performances. They also give Garland ample space to imbue Vicki with both capability and pathos.

And yet, additions aside, the Cukor Star Is Born remains an almost beat-for-beat echo of the first iteration, culminating in a less explicit but still thorny conclusion. Vicki’s final, bring-the-house-down line is to introduce herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine,” earning moral approval in exchange for erasing her own, hard-earned identity. To be alluring, Vicki needs talent; to be sympathetic, she must define herself by her devotion first and talent second.

After five consecutive hours of this line of thought, the Streisand remake can’t help but stand out. If anything, the movie’s core flaw is that Barbra refuses to put herself second to anyone, including costar Kris Kristofferson and nominal director Frank Pierson. (Streisand herself had final cut.) When applied to the moviemaking process, this quality results in a bloated, self-indulgent misfire. When applied to the role of Esther, now Esther Hoffman, it creates a refreshing corrective to the fable’s less palatable elements in the eyes of a 21st-century viewer, and an essential precursor to Lady Gaga’s spirited, indelible performance.

The first time Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard encounters Esther, she’s singing with a trio called the Oreos with two unnamed black women. (Bear with me. It only gets worse.) Howard drunkenly interrupts her performance, and uncowed by his celebrity, she calls him out: “You’re blowing my act.” This incarnation of Esther is feisty and actively defiant from the jump, though she doesn’t bat an eye when Howard, in a line ripped straight from Peters’s actual courtship of Streisand, compliments her ass. Streisand’s A Star Is Born is often derided for the lack of convincing chemistry between its stars, yet such oppositional friction adds a genuinely new dimension to the relationship at the movie’s core. And though its attempted sexuality is often thwarted through bizarre scenes like an interlude when Streisand applies makeup to Kristofferson in a bathtub, any sexuality is still a marked change from the Production Code–era mores of the first two films.

Streisand’s Esther also distinguishes herself by refusing to change her name. Her ability to put her foot down is partly a result of the setting; the script, co-authored with Pierson by no less a power couple than Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, moves the action from an all-powerful film studio system to the music industry, which has its fair share of Svengali types while also being far less vertically integrated and more decentralized. (The 1976 remake wasn’t the first Star Is Born to have highbrow literary bona fides; Dorothy Parker had a credit on the original.) It doubles as an assertion of agency. Esther Hoffman is also the first, and thus far only, Star Is Born leading lady to propose marriage herself, a thoroughly ’70s vision of the liberated woman.

Within the doomed romance itself, Streisand’s rendition of Esther is distinguished by a willingness to draw real boundaries. Some critics have interpreted one of the movie’s most famous lines—“You can trash your life, but you’re not gonna trash mine”—as an off-putting assertion of self-interest, the slogan baby boomers on the precipice of a Me Decade deserved. I found it a refreshing declaration of a line in the sand, and a crucial evolution of the property’s understanding of addiction. A Star Is Born had not yet advanced to the point when the rock star in question would seek inpatient treatment at a rehab facility, as Cooper’s does. But Esther’s ultimatum-setting does feel like progress from the saintly, unquestioning dedication of Gaynor and Garland’s protagonists. Previous Stars awkwardly balanced an awareness that the male lead is well beyond help with an admiration for the female lead’s martyr-like willingness to stay until the end. Streisand’s heroine has taken to heart the knowledge that it’s not her responsibility to care for someone who refuses to care for himself.

Combined, these attributes form a clear antecedent for Ally, Lady Gaga’s drag bar-performing, Edith Piaf–covering chanteuse. Ally’s songs boast better lyrics than “Your eyes are like fingers / They’re touchin’ my body,” and her attraction to Cooper’s musician is more tangible than two attractive people existing in proximity to one another. But she’s also the kind of person who throws a punch in a bar fight and orders her spiraling partner to get his shit together. In some ways, Ally is more realized than Esther, with a much more well-articulated relationship to her music and celebrity. In others, she’s subject to the same issues as every other Star Is Born heroine, seemingly vindicating her deceased husband’s retrograde views about authenticity by reverting to her previous performance style, and natural hair color, at his memorial; she even introduces herself as “Ally Maine,” Garland-style. Either way, it’s impossible to imagine her as a follow-up to Esther Blodgett without Esther Hoffman as a bridge in between.

Part of the legend of A Star Is Born is the way everything surrounding the movie threatens to overshadow the movie itself, the actual mechanics of fame helplessly entwining with a story about the mechanics of fame. The surprise of Cooper’s version is that all the years of development hell might have resulted in a work of art that transcends them. In the case of Streisand’s remake, however, antics like exercising final cut over a director who proceeded to write a scathing tell-all before the film was even released have stayed in the public consciousness longer than the movie itself. That’s largely fair, considering its mediocre quality. But it also partly elides the work Streisand, Pierson, Didion, and Dunne did to keep the myth alive—and relevant, too. Every generation gets an A Star Is Born for its time, and every A Star Is Born builds on the last.