Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Star(s) Are Born

It has been said that there are no new ideas. Which would explain Hollywood's love of re-makes. But, anyone who thinks the phenomenon is a recent occurrence needs only look at the the oft-filmed story of A Star is Born to know that what's old is always new again. In fact, the first filmed version from 1937 was already inspired from a 1932 film called What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor...who directed (you guessed it) the 1954 musical version of the story. It seems that the only thing Hollywood loves more than a good re-make is the tale of a girl destined for stardom and the fall of the man who helped get her there.

The story of Esther (her biblical name already gives the story a certain gravitas), the titular star being born, has had the good fortune to be portrayed on screen by three very different, but no less talented, actresses. Janet Gaynor, who plays her in the 1937 version, was a popular silent screen star who made the leap to talking pictures and was the first recipient of the Best Actress Oscar for her work in three films (the only actress to do so before the rule was changed). Barbra Streisand, herself a Best Actress winner (although she did tie Katharine Hepburn for the honor that year) for her work in 1968's Funny Girl, played Esther in the 1976 version in which her profession has been changed from an actress to a singer. And in the 1954 musical version, in what has become a signature role and, perhaps, the actress most associated for the role (and rightfully so), the legendary Judy Garland.

3 Esthers, 2 Vickis, a couple of gay icons and the first Best Actress winner

I've spent almost 7 hours with these woman over the past couple of days (apparently in the case of Garland and Streisand, it takes a looong time to birth that star. Gaynor's assent was relatively quick by comparison at about an hour and 45 minutes). I had personally never seen any of the films before this week's edition of Hit Me With Your Best Shot over at The Film Experience, and ended up watching the movies in the order of preference and, well, quality: Garland, Gaynor, and, a distant third, Streisand.

I actually quite enjoyed the Janet Gaynor version, but after Esther becomes Vicki Lester (the name the studio gives her), the film follows the same trajectory as the Judy version almost scene for scene and line for line (well, minus the musical numbers). And once you've already seen Judy do it (complete with singing and dancing to boot), no offense to Gaynor, but you're no Judy. But, the reason the Judy Garland one works the best is for the simple fact that Norman Maine (the established star that takes Esther under his wing. Here played by James Mason) wants to help her become a star is because he's witnessed her talent and truly believes in her. And after seeing Judy Garland perform "The Man Who Got Away", how could you not be blown away? Just click on that link and tell me you wouldn't want to make her a star as well.

But for both Gaynor and Streisand, the only reason Norman (or John Norman in the 76 version) even takes an interest in Esther is because he's attracted to her. So there's no reason why we as the audience would believe that she's destined for greatness.

Gaynor's Esther is working as a cater-waiter when she bumps into Maine (played by Frederic March) at a director's party. He ends up getting her a screen test because he thinks she's "lovely". She only gets her big break starring opposite him by accident. When she's rehearsing her one line for a film as a telephone operator in the studio cafeteria, he confesses that his film needs a leading lady. The requirements are she's gotta be "little, cute, and sweet". Why, that's right in front of him! A star is born! He still hasn't seen her act. And judging from her impressions and accents she's been trying throughout the film, talent isn't necessarily a requirement to be a star in this film.

Kris Kristofferson's John Norman Howard actually does meet Streisand's Esther while she's performing in a seedy bar. But, he's too busy dodging the advances of fans and starting brawls to actually pay attention to her act. And when they finally talk he never mentions her talent. He only comments on how cute she is. Which, I don't know if you can tell in that picture from above, but she's not at all in this film. Sporting what may be one of the worst hairstyles captured on film and parading about in a series of increasingly bad 70s outfits (suspenders, tuxedos, knickers, caftans–at one point she wears an outfit that looks like the one Luke Skywalker wears in Star Wars), we can tell he's only after one thing–and clearly a liar. It's also hard to buy that a a musician that sports Halloween masks on stage and screams/sings lines like "go to hell" would ever be impressed or interested in the easy-listening stylings of Barbra Streisand.

The three Esther's outlook on fame and getting there couldn't be more different. Gaynor is full of pluck and determination. After all, she's just a small town girl that moved to Hollywood with a dream (and the financial assistance of a kindly grandmother). When the woman in Central Casting tells her the odds of making it are 1 in 100,000, Esther, rather than being discouraged, optimistically states, "Maybe I'm that One." She isn't above taking bit parts–it'll lead to something. And when the studio decides to change her name from Esther Blodgett to Vickie Lester, she happily goes along. Just eager to receive the chance.

I'm still trying to figure out if Streisand's Esther even wants to be a star in the first place. Unlike Gaynor who dreams of fame and makes it her goal, Streisand seems perfectly content to continue singing cat food commercials and performing with The Oreos (her girl-group that consists of two Black back-up singers and herself. Ugh.) When John has her go on stage at a concert, she seems more annoyed than thrilled. Her assent to rock stardom happens so quickly she never seems to take the time to wonder if it's what she actually wants. And when she's asked by a reporter if she'd ever consider changing her name from Esther Hoffman she snaps back at him, "why would I do that...It'd be a bother." She's so self assured of herself, as if she's been a star her whole life and nothing has changed. She seems ungrateful.

Garland's Esther Blodgett, on the other hand, knows what it's like to struggle. When Norman tells her to leave her steady job as a singer, she's very hesitant. It's not that she doesn't want to be a star, but she's been at the dream for a long time and knows how long it took to get where she is. But her conversation with Norman, who sees something in her, sparks a longing that's always been there. It's time to take a chance and get to that next level. Unlike Gaynor who's hungry for it and Streisand who's ambivalent toward it, Garland is realistically optimistic about it. (After discovering that the studio has changed her name to Vickie Lester when she goes to pick up her first paycheck, Garland's line reading of the name–first as confusion, then annoyance, and finally, acceptance shows the conflict she feels and the layers of emotions she has regarding her destiny.) She has the talent and may be afraid to admit it, but all she needed was that extra push from someone who believes in her to send her on her way.

And that's where the real heart of A Star is Born lies. There's a love between those two characters and a journey they take together. It's not just the tale of someone achieving stardom, but the simultaneous decline of the man who got them there. That relationship is why the story works and has been told so many times. Can you truly be happy for the person you love when it comes at the cost of your own success? And then can you be content with stardom when the man you love is obviously suffering? All of my shots from the films illustrate the complex relationship that Esther shares with her mentor/husband.

When Gaynor's Esther first arrives in Hollywood, her first stop is Grauman's Chinese Movie Theatre. While looking at the handprints and footprints of the famous movie stars, like Shirley Temple, in the cement in front of the theatre, she comes across the footprints of her favorite actor: Norman Maine. His was the last film she saw before she made her journey and it inspired her to take a chance. Full of possibility that anything can happen, she places her own feet in his:

Little does she know how soon their lives will be entwined. And he'll never know about this secret moment they shared, but it was the start of their relationship. 

Even if Streisand's Esther didn't seem to want stardom, there is no denying that she was deeply in love with John Norman. It's actually almost sickening the way the two roll around with each other, gaze deeply into each other's eyes, take candlelit baths as lovahs, and take about how crazy about each other they are. But they also have a tumultuous relationship full of shouting and broken bottles–just an excuse to have passionate make-up sex. After he is killed in a car crash (it's not really clear in this version if he crashes on purpose or if he's just so drunk he lost control), Esther is devastated. As the house they shared is being cleaned out she finds a tape recording of him trying out new music. Left alone in the empty house they shared, she listens to his words:

Ever the fiery relationship until the end, she begins to talk back to the recording, calling him a liar. She pulls out the cassette tape and destroys it, cursing him for not being with her anymore. This shot perfectly illustrates the emptiness and loneliness she feels now that he's no longer in her life.

In the 1954 version, Esther first meets Norman at a benefit concert. She is performing with a band and he is, of course, drunk, and wondering on and off the stage. She attempts to help him and ends up saving his reputation, as the audience believes it's part of the act. Later, as she is leaving, he shows his gratitude by drawing a heart with their initials in it on the wall with her lipstick. It isn't until later, when he can't stop thinking about her, that he encounters her in the bar singing "The Man That Got Away" and he realizes how special she is.

As the film progresses, thanks to Norman's guidance and help, Esther/Vickie becomes the star she was always meant to be. But, Norman's career is fading out. Already a heavy drinker, Norman begins to spiral out of control with his alcohol problem. Esther/Vickie's career couldn't be brighter, but she decides, after his stint in rehab puts him back on the bottle again, that perhaps fame isn't as important as taking care of her husband. She decides to give up her career to care for Norman. Norman, hearing this from the other room, makes the ultimate sacrifice. So as not to hold her back, he walks into the ocean and drowns himself.

This sets her on a depression in which she refuses to get out of. When she is due back at the same benefit show that they first met at years before, she is reminded by her friend (her pianist that was there from the begining and saw their relationship grow) that Norman wouldn't have wanted her to mourn like this. He wanted her to be great. If she didn't go out and share her gift with the crowds she would not be honoring his legacy.

Determined to show that she won't be defeated, Esther/Vicki goes to the benefit. But right before she goes on stage:

She is reminded of all that they shared and is flooded with memories. In the Gaynor version, at her premiere after Norman's death, she sees his footprints again. But, the reason this moment works on a more emotional level in this film is because this is their first memory together. Norman was actually there with her. It was the first time that they shared a connection. And rather than being reduced to a puddle of tears, like Streisand, she must compose herself to face the public. This moment makes her final moment of the film, "Hello, I'm MRS. Norman Maine" have that much more poignancy because we too, along with her, experience the time we spent with Esther and her man that got away.


  1. Highly enjoyable analysis of the three films. My ranking of them is the same as yours. I love Streisand but I don't think anything could ever induce me to suffer through the dreck that is her Star again.

    I love your choice of best shot, it's a lovely touching scene and involves someone who doesn't get enough credit for his contribution to the film, Tommy Noonan. His part is small but he adds a lot to his scenes particularly the one just prior to your pick where he snaps her out of her funk. He didn't have a big acting career but between this and playing the goofy Mr. Esmond in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes he managed to appear and make a good showing in two classics.

    1. thank you! yeah, it was really interesting to see the differences and similarities between the three.

      I love that garland's esther/vicki has someone that knows her before she was famous and stuck by her through thick and thin. Gaynor's Esther has that with an assistant director that lives in her boarding house and got her the serving job where she meets norman. and i love that her grandma from the beginning of the film shows up after norman's death to help her get over the tragedy. it's perhaps telling that striesand's esther has no one...

  2. Eloquent and entertaining. Thank you.

    1. oh, thank you. that's so nice of you to say!