Thursday, June 26, 2014

Guest Blogger: Paul Cogley - A Star is Born (1976)

More Musings on A Star is Born (1976)

By Paul Cogley

Streisand’s A Star Is Born (1976) was an entertainment about celebrity dreams, angst, and hell, and was over-the-top and cliché-ridden. Nevertheless, for me, in its hippie-kitchie rock-god kind of way, it had its moments that keep it from being a big bore when watching it today.

The movie was so self indulgent that 20 years later—late 1990s-early 2000s—nobody would step forward for another try at another remake. Too bad, because an update with Whitney Houston or Gwyneth Paltrow—they were in their 30s then—might’ve worked well.  

In 1976, Streisand was 34 and just the right age to play an Esther Blodget character —renamed  in this third movie version as Esther Hoffman.  The previous Esthers were Janet Gaynor, who was 31 in the 1937 version, and Judy Garland , who was 32 in the 1954 remake. 

Version #3 has a back-story more interesting than the movie itself.  In the planning stages of the movie, Streisand asked Elvis Presley, who was 41, to play the Norman Maine role—now known as John Norman Howard.

Elvis’ movie career went into a tailspin in the late ‘60’s. But he was willing to try Hollywood again after doing plenty of TV specials, concert tours, Las Vegas engagements, and a steady run of hit record releases.  Elvis told Streisand he was interested. But the idea of Elvis playing an over the hill faded star? You can almost hear his manager Colonel Parker’s response to the idea: “You are kidding, right?” The idea was nixed. Elvis died in 1977, a year after the movie’s release.

So the role went to the rugged singer-songwriter and box office star Kris Kristofferson, age 40. Unfortunately, I believe Streisand modeled the Norman character Kristofferson played after Jim Morrison, lead singer of the Doors, who died about four years earlier. Playing that kind of rock god didn’t fit well with the country vibe of Kristofferson. Too bad. I think he might’ve been a natural for this role if the character was based loosely on a Hank Williams crossed with Johnny Cash burned-out star. But A Star Is Born was designed to be a Streisand vehicle all the way, so probably not much thought was put into the Norman role.

By the way, Frederick March was 40 as Norman Maine and James Mason was 45.

I’ve brought up the ages of all the actors playing Esther and Norman roles because their ages are one of the most important elements to the story’s dynamic. A Star is Born is all about making it to the heights and taking the big downfall with celebritydom. 

In any version of A Star is Born past or, hopefully, future, the rising female star cannot be an ingénue—she’s done her journeyman work and is now past her 20s—and we absolutely must see the male lead prematurely burn out from the pressures of stardom and his own ego. We could not simply watch his downfall because he’s aging ungracefully. It’s not a story about the young and old, it’s about love and rivalry within the 30s and 40s set. A Star Is Born can be redone for every generation because it is about the select few whose struggles get them to the top and then peers into how badly it can go from there, and therein lies its appeal.

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