There are as of this writing five count em five different versions of the story, of an ambitious young artist in love with a declining old star: George Cukor's What Price Hollywood? (1932) where film director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) takes an interest in aspiring actress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), based on a story by Adela Rogers St. John and Louis Stevens; William Wellman's A Star is Born (1937) where film star Norman Maine (Fredric March) spots aspiring actress Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor); Cukor's 1954 A Star is Born--for many the definitive version--where James Mason as Maine hooks up with Judy Garland as Blodgett; Frank Pierson's 1976 A Star is Born where Kris Kristofferson's John Norman Howard jumpstarts the career of Barbra Streisand's Esther Hoffman; and of course Bradley Cooper's spanking new version, with Cooper's Jackson Maine discovering Lady Gaga's Ally in a drag bar.
So which one's best? Well lemme tell you:
Cooper's version is not nothing; if anything it's a cannier version than Pierson's, attuned to our more ethically diverse politically correct (yet--without once admitting it--romantically nostalgic) times. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (a.k.a. Lady Gaga) turns out to be a good if rather safe choice. She can sing--she belts out "La Vie en Rose" in an initially campy then casually sensuous manner--and in her unaffected way can act: when her Machiavellian manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) suggests she change her hair color this ultimate pop chameleon (who once wore a costume that look like a cross between a Star of Bethlehem and a sea urchin) stares at him in horror, as if he'd suggested changing underwear onstage.
Bradley Cooper directing himself makes a few equally canny moves: if you're going to play softspoken charmer who drawls in a softer more gravelly charming voice than Sam Elliott? And to defuse any accusations of pilfering--plus weave a not unfunny running gag into the narrative thread--casts Elliott himself as Bobby, Jackson's older brother, who acts as manager and surrogate father to the volatile-ish celebrity.
So far so cute. But Cooper's camera spends too much time gazing at our high-voltage couple in loving close-up and doesn't surround them with much background. Background's important I submit; when you present a love story without chaser you run the risk of becoming tedious--you need to mix the melodrama with something else, preferably something more rigorously conceived. What Price depicted countless girls coming to the dream city with stars in their eyes, ending up as waitresses or prostitutes. Wellman's and Cukor's Star softened that portrait but still managed to deliver their share of satirical jabs, not just at the Hollywood establishment but at the too-comfy press helping promote (and on occasion sanitize and salvage) their stars and product. Ally's trajectory in 2018 has the arc and speed of a solid-fueled rocket; she doesn't pay much of a price careerwise along the way--well, she does change her hair color.*
*(Actually there's a suggestion midway that Ally unknowingly surrenders control of her career to Rez, or at least fails to indicate otherwise--the movie lacks a scene where Ally confronts her manager, ultimately undermining her strength of character)
Cooper's Jackson Maine has his good points. His pained yet poignant scenes with Bobby (my favorite performance in the picture) are the most finely understated not to mention honestly funny passages, and his eventual breakdown is authentically and sensitively portrayed. But his Maine lacks stature; the performance doesn't have the intellectual heft of Fredric March's, the godlike arrogance of James Mason's. Mason especially introduced an intriguing frisson between effortless charm and boundless ego, where you understand why people around him adore and abhor him often at the same time. Cooper's Maine is too undangerous; his spoonful of sugar and extra helpings of nice makes the already treacly material cloying.
My favorite? Cukor's What Price is the least sentimental; Wellman's Star had the most adorable Blodgett. Can't say much good about Pierson's version save it reformatted the story in a rock-n-roll setting, which was smart in several ways: we don't have to deal with the long gestation period of film production, we see audiences directly adoring their idol--the instant feedback injecting a jolt of energy into an often overlong picture (every version from '54 onwards is overextended by a half hour). The 2018 keeps the pop music and to its credit features Gaga and Elliott--not much else.
Cukor's '54 Star towers over them all. It isn't just that it has the noblest Maine (his fall feels almost Shakespearean) but Judy Garland's Blodgett is a performance for the ages. Garland feels miscast--at 31 and visibly aged by alcohol and prescription meds she is barely credible as an aspiring singer in her 20s--but I submit Garland in her best roles has always seemed miscast. She was fifteen when she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (the studio to mute criticism insisted she was fourteen) and the gawkiness made you feel for her.
That's the power of onscreen Garland--she never seems confident, never for a second seems guarded; her every emotion is thrillingly open to you (it's the quality that makes her so much fun in comedies, devastating in dramas). And when the music swells and her voice fills the screen--when for example Maine listens to her sing "The Man that Got Away" to a simple piano and some horns in an after-hours club you can't help but look around, wondering where the hell all that grace and power comes from. Who wouldn't fall for a woman like that?
Cukor's Star is great but isn't my favorite. Mario O'Hara's Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980) arguably constitutes a sixth version (far as I know there's two more, both Indian musicals) is arguably the oddest of the lot: singer-actress Aunor wanted to act with stunt-man-turned-actor Lito Lapid and the result has both (rather cheesy) musical numbers and (excellently staged and shot) fight scenes--think A Star is Born crossed with Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire. If some of the best love stories background that love with a vividly realized setting what setting can be more vivid and more bracingly noirish than the mean streets of Manila?
Aunor's Laura is the most muted of the Blodgetts--guarded, levelheaded, almost constantly inward-looking. Her finest moment comes midway, when Lapid's Oscar finally makes a pass at her; she resists, thinks about it--you can see her regard (without uttering a word) her withered cautious dry husk of a life, regard her relationship with this troubled troubling man-child she has supported and defended for years. Finally you see her say to herself: "Fuck it." The wine has to be decanted eventually--why not now?
Aunor gives the film its dramatic arc then generously cedes center stage to Lapid: his Oscar is arguably the most self-destructive of the Maines, a man so steeped in violence he can only express himself by striking back, so unsure of himself he can only feel safe in a penitentiary. In one beer session egged on by his drinking buddies he dances till he laughs laughs till he cries cries till he collapses; the scene shouldn't work only Lapid throws body and soul into the dance with such intensity you aren't allowed room for doubt. Oscar is obviously struggling with demons but whose? Lapid has never shown this much intensity in his acting before or since; screenwriter Mely Tagasa is a master at women's melodramas (she also wrote O'Hara's Uhaw sa Pag-ibig (Thirst for Love) and (reportedly) the original radio script which served as basis for Lino Brocka's Insiang) but this alcohol-fueled sense of rage and despair seems out of her range (I'm guessing; I don't know for sure). The director's perhaps?
Oscar's end (skip this paragraph if you haven't seen the movies!) is I submit the most ignominious: no spectacular sunset just the prison communal shower, with a piano tinkling sadly in the background. Cukor's ends on one of the most famous last lines in all of Hollywood, delivered with simple electrifying force by Garland; Cooper tacks on a final number that takes the moment past its point. If we must have a final number I'd rather listen to Aunor perform her picture's eponymous song--where Gaga pays tribute to everlasting love ("I was stupid to think that any love can compare to the love that you gave to me") Aunor's has (aside from the far more melodious tune) a more honest more fatalistically mono no aware sense of love's fragility ("flawless, yet crumbles at a breath of wind"). Between immortalized idealized self-sacrifice and crumbling sand castles, I suppose I believe in the castle.
First published in Businessworld 10.12.18