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4 Stars, 4 Distinct Eras: Which Version of ‘A Star Is Born’ Does It Best?

Category: Art & Culture,Arts

In the latest imagining of “A Star Is Born,” which debuts this weekend, the actor Sam Elliott waxes poetic on the structural limitations of music. Within every octave, he says, are 12 notes, the same story told again and again: “All that the artist can offer the world is how they see those 12 notes.” It’s a wistful and winking nod to the challenge Bradley Cooper faced for his directorial debut, in which he and Lady Gaga reprise two already beloved roles: What can Cooper’s version — a remake of a remake of a remake — bring to audiences that feels fresh and compelling?

Plenty, if the glowing reviews are any indication. But the same question might be asked of any of the remakes. Which of the four versions does it best? To find out, we’ve drawn up this scorecard, broken down by the categories we think matter most. (Seriously, there is a lot of awkward face-touching.)

[The Times’s Manohla Dargis called the newest version “a gorgeous heartbreaker.” Read her review.]

Janet Gaynor and Fredric March (1937)

From left, Janet Gaynor, Fredric March and Adolphe Menjou in “A Star Is Born” (1937).Selznick International Pictures

The original — which bears some similarities to a film released five years earlier, “What Price Hollywood?” — doesn’t have any singing. In it, a North Dakota farm girl named Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) dreams of being a Hollywood actress and moves to Los Angeles, eager to turn her hopes into reality. Soon she meets Norman Maine (Fredric March), a famous leading man, who falls in love with her and helps her land her first big role. Her fame rises and his falls, pushing him deeper into the bottle with tragic repercussions.

Chemistry: Sufficiently believable. Esther and Norman’s first encounter comes at a cocktail party. Esther tries out some accents serving appetizers and Norman later flirts with her in the kitchen, drunkenly breaking a few plates in the process. Gaynor eventually opens up to March’s carefree vibe, and moments of physical comedy create a credible sense of marital intimacy.

“One More Look?” It’s probably the film’s most famous line, and each version does it differently. In this one, March asks Gaynor politely, after his first date, without coming across as cloying. “Do you mind if I take just one more look?”

Star Quality: Gaynor was one of the most critically acclaimed actresses of her time, and her character certainly looks the part of a star once she brightens up her clothes and hair. The movie lets us see very little of Esther’s onscreen talent, but once Esther receives a stage name, she inhabits her new persona with hard-won confidence.

Self-Destruction: Pretty high. Maine makes his first drunk appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, fighting with paparazzi. He prefers his scotch and soda without the soda, and he later interrupts Esther’s winning speech at the Oscars by exclaiming that awards don’t matter. Then he accidentally slaps her.

Face Touching: Not much of a thing just yet. The makeup artists hired by the studio stretch Esther’s face, paint on obnoxious eyebrows and powder her cheeks before a screen test. It’s an awkward, dispiriting process, especially without Norman present.

Worth Watching? There’s just enough tension to provide a decent return on investment. (Stream it on Filmstruck; rent or buy it on Amazon.)

Judy Garland and James Mason (1954)

Judy Garland, center, in “A Star Is Born” (1954).Warner Bros.

The first official remake, filmed in Technicolor and CinemaScope, offers a nearly three-hour kaleidoscope of primary colors and musical flare. That’s thanks to Judy Garland, whose jazz singing — sometimes for 10 minutes at a time — and tap dancing find fame as her Esther falls for James Mason’s Norman.

Chemistry: Very apparent. Even at the movie’s opening, when Norman drunkenly threatens to upstage Esther’s introduction, Garland and Mason appear always to enjoy each other’s company. Their best, and funniest, collaborative work comes during an impromptu dance number in the living room.

“One More Look?” Mason skips the pleasantries and, by the pool of his estate, calls her name rather informally: “Hey, I just want to take another look at you.”

Star Quality: Unlike Gaynor, Garland is given ample opportunity to show off her singing and dancing skills. In her bright red, blue and tuxedo outfits, Garland’s Esther steals the scene at every turn — a legitimate rising star.

Self-Destruction: Substantially higher than in the original. Maine’s introduction as a drunk occurs backstage during a live cavalcade, where he climbs a horse and then throws his publicity manager into a mirror. He is later placed into a sanitarium.

Face Touching: Plastic surgeons affix a prosthetic on Esther’s nose as part of her makeover for the big screen, but Norman peels it off slowly afterward. It’s an intimate moment as they stare into a dressing room mirror. “Your face is just dandy,” he says.

Worth Watching? Yes, if you don’t mind extended musical numbers. (Stream it on Filmstruck; rent or buy it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu or YouTube.)

Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand (1976)

Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in “A Star Is Born” (1976).First Artists

This shaggy reimagining stars Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, but it focuses more on the fall of John Norman Howard than on the rise of Esther Hoffman. This version, written and directed by Frank Pierson (and co-written with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne), moves away from big-screen dreams and focuses solely on the music industry, in a dustier, lonelier vision of Los Angeles.

Chemistry: Very little. It’s hard to believe a singer with Streisand’s talent needs to hitch up with a spiraling celebrity to be noticed. Even harder to watch is their blossoming courtship, which begins with Streisand singing a song to him with no lyrics and then migrates to sex in a bathtub, surrounded by candles with Schlitz beer cans for holders. It was the ’70s.

“One More Look?” The first time John calls Esther’s name comes late in the movie, as he enters the sound studio. “I was just taking another look,” he says, adding a slight variation. It doesn’t feel very romantic.

Star Quality: Streisand has the pipes to make her character’s rapid rise feel real. The songs are particularly droning, but Streisand’s look makes up for the deficit: Her natural curls, pantsuits and head scarves offer an aesthetic that’s hard to match.

Self-Destruction: John’s intoxication level is consistent throughout his band’s revival tour. He shows up late to concerts and drives a motorcycle off the stage, hinting at a later, more calamitous event.

Face Touching: Before the two consummate their relationship, Kristofferson puts both hands all over her face and nose, foreplay that only a hunky lead singer can get away with. In the bathtub, it’s Streisand’s hands, as she bedazzles his eyebrow and rubs rouge into his bearded cheeks. “Ohhh, you’re so pretty,” she coos.

Worth Watching? Feel free to skip, unless you need to hear Babs — in which case, you can still skip, because the soundtrack is available to stream. (Rent or buy the film on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu or YouTube.)

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (2018)

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born” (2018).Clay Enos/Warner Bros., via Associated Press

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a gifted and grizzled star that falls hard for Ally (Lady Gaga), whose voice strengthens and captivates as the plot progresses. The movie pivots from the previous three by offering a grander parable on the music industry without feeling didactic.

Chemistry: Immediate. The film emphasizes conversation and the little moments that make two people fall in love. Cooper and Gaga achieve this early in a grocery store parking lot, forecasting their musical synergy.

“One More Look?” It’s already an internet meme, but when Cooper shouts from an SUV window, “I just wanted to take another look at you,” it still feels special in context.

Star Quality: Ally’s evolution from drag queen lounge singer to global pop attraction is, like Lady Gaga’s voice, riveting. Everything about her performance and look (even her bright orange hair!) feels authentic — which is challenging in a story that tips naturally into melodrama.

Self-Destruction: Jackson begins the movie downing pills and gin before a performance. He finishes his set by slugging from the bottle. His addiction, to both alcohol and drugs, is particularly unkind, amplified when he disrupts Ally’s speech at the Grammys by peeing his pants.

Face Touching: So much! Jackson peels off Ally’s fake eyebrows after a show, compliments her nose and traces his finger over it, something Ally mimics later. During their briefly glimpsed wedding reception, they smear cake on each other’s cheeks. Ally even follows Esther Hoffman’s lead, applying mascara to Jackson’s eyelashes in the tub.

Worth Watching? Absolutely. The strong cast also includes grounded, emotional performances by Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay and Dave Chappelle.

Final Scorecard

Chemistry: Cooper and Gaga.

“One More Look?” March.

Star Quality: Gaga.

Self-Destruction: Mason.

Face Touching: Cooper, without question.

Best Version? Cooper and Gaga’s. The two have modernized this story with a depth of feeling and musicality that is destined to saturate awards season. If a fourth remake never comes, this is a worthy and inspired coda.


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