Last week, when Warner Brothers green-lit a new version of the movie A Star Is Born that will pair Bradley Cooper with Lady Gaga, it was as if a roulette wheel that had been spinning for 20 years had finally, improbably stopped. A Star Is Born has almost never not been in development; the story is as old as Hollywood’s sound era, and its real-life origins even predate talkies. It is a romantic tragedy that the movie industry can’t resist, because on some level it’s a perfect representation of the way Hollywood sees itself, as a world in which public popularity and personal frailty are a lethal cocktail and in which everything — fame, success, awards, love — is a zero-sum game. Gaga may be perfect casting; A Star Is Born is American Horror Story: Showbiz.
If you’ve never seen any version of the film (this will be the fourth or fifth, depending on how you count), here’s the bare-bones narrative: A young, talented woman who wants to be a performer attracts the attention of an established A-list star whose substance-abuse issues are starting to get the better of him in a public way. Quickly, a professional mentorship becomes a romantic alliance. The system yearns to alter her so it can capitalize off of her. She changes her name — Esther Blodgett becomes Vicki Lester. She moves up; he moves down. She wins a major award, which triggers him to act out so publicly that he becomes an industry pariah. She still takes care of him — she’s willing to do anything for him — but he sees what he’s become (and what he’s preventing her from becoming) and kills himself, either by swimming out too far or driving too fast. His death allows her to fall apart, then pull herself together and go on to even greater success while publicly affirming how much she loved the man who is now just a memory, not a millstone. In a climax of pre-feminist self-abnegation, she is no longer Esther or Vicki, but a keeper of the flame; this, she says, reintroducing herself to the public, “is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
The title tells only half the story — the point of this narrative has, through 85 years, been “A star is born, so a star must die” — and its belief in a world with no stability, only upward and downward trajectories, makes it perfect for an industry in which success and failure have long been measured weekly and visibly, and in which the personal and the public can become indistinguishable.
Over the last almost-a-century, some of the toughest-minded writers ever to brush up against Hollywood — Dorothy Parker, Ben Hecht, Ring Lardner Jr., Moss Hart, John Gregory Dunne, and Joan Didion among them — have taken cracks at this script, and one could write a history of the ebb and flow of stardom just based on its casting. The first attempt at the story, a sort of beta test titled What Price Hollywood?, was directed by George Cukor in 1932, and is probably best remembered as the first movie to make a plot point out of the winning of an Academy Award, a ritual that was then just four years into its existence (the film calls it an “Academy Medal”). What Price Hollywood? took place in a recognizable world of real stars — it begins with a young woman (Constance Bennett, now little remembered but then one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actresses) kissing a fan-magazine photograph of Clark Gable. The drama was said to have been based on two real stories, one involving the silent-film star Colleen Moore, who had propped up the career of her alcoholic husband by making him her producer, and the other involving a young director named Tom Forman who shot himself in 1926 after his career had deteriorated.
What Price Hollywood? hadn’t gotten all the kinks out of the story — in its telling, the rising star must choose between two men, her alcoholic director and her prim husband. But it came close enough so that five years later, when David O. Selznick produced the first official Star Is Born, Cukor turned down the directing job because he felt he’d done it already, and RKO considered suing Selznick for plagiarism. Selznick’s version, still the most coherent telling of the story, started with a cautionary note, unusual for the time, that “any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental,” perhaps because people were already guessing that its story was based on the public collapse of the marriage of Barbara Stanwyck and her troublemaking alcoholic husband, vaudeville performer Frank Fay, a year earlier.
The film starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March — she had won the first-ever Best Actress Oscar in 1929, and he had won Best Actor a couple of years later, so there’s delightful real-world resonance when he drunkenly Kanyes her acceptance speech to bark “I got one of those once for a best performance — they don’t mean a thing!” and then accidentally backhands her. It’s a knowing, smart movie that presents Hollywood as a place of endless casual cruelty filled with more dreams and ambition than it can possibly accommodate. And it’s also a shrewd and startling meta-text; the “This is Mrs. Norman Maine” last shot dissolves to a surprising after-image of the final page of the script, with that famously tear-jerking line and stage directions about the emotional effect it’s meant to produce neatly typed. It’s a melodrama that ends with a wink — it’s only showbiz, folks.
A Star Is Born has always been a huge casting challenge; it takes a very secure actor to agree to play Norman, and a woman in touch with her own ambition, drive, and terror of failure to want to play opposite him. In 1942, Judy Garland played Esther in a radio adaptation; she spent the next decade trying to get a remake off the ground. By the time she did, in 1954, she was basically living both sides of the narrative, struggling to mount a comeback four years after the suspension of her MGM contract, after a suicide attempt, and with ongoing drug issues, and also working to support her new husband, Sid Luft, who got a producer credit on the movie and planned to use Garland to get a toehold in filmmaking. Garland reportedly went after every big name in Hollywood to play Norman — among those said to have turned it down before James Mason signed on were Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, and, wary of her then-toxic reputation, Cary Grant. Cukor did agree to direct this one, and the resulting very long, hastily reedited, and later semi-restored movie is baggy and uneven but memorable nonetheless for Garland’s great, emotive, all-stops-out performance (both in the dramatic scenes and in her rendition of “The Man That Got Away.”)
The next Star Is Born starred Barbra Streisand; it arrived in 1976 and was by leagues the most financially successful and artistically forgettable version. As with Garland and Luft, there was a striving romantic partner behind the scenes who could himself have been a character in the movie — Streisand’s then-boyfriend Jon Peters. (Her DVD commentary-track remark, “Jon [very soft chuckle] wanted to be a producer,” contains a whole other movie’s worth of things left unsaid.) Streisand made two reasonable calls — to infuse Esther with some of her own feminism, and to change the setting from movies to pop music. (The big humiliation moment comes not at the Oscars but at an oddly tiny, supper-club-ish version of the Grammys.) But the movie is largely a solo act. To play the down-and-out superstar who helps her move up, Streisand wanted the spookily-on-the-nose Elvis Presley, who hadn’t made a picture in seven years and had less than a year to live at the time of this movie’s release. Instead, she got Kris Kristofferson, who is appealing, human, and treated by the script as wallpaper.
A Star Is Born almost inevitably becomes about its leading lady. But if the Garland film turned the story into a testament to Esther’s tremulous vulnerability, Streisand’s is a solipsistic monument to the indestructibility that’s part of her own persona. (“Why would I change my name?” this tougher, divorced, mouthy Esther says at the halfway point of the film — a line that’s truer to this “My way or the highway” actress than to the character.) The movie embodies a Me Decade lack of sentimentality in which a star on his way down is defined not as a tragedy but as a hindrance. Her pivotal line: “You can trash your life, but you’re not gonna trash mine.”
Streisand said of A Star Is Born that it “seems to work every 20 years,” and she was right; like clockwork, two decades after her own version, Warner Brothers suddenly had an appetite for it again. The 19 years of fits and starts that followed were documented only in trade-publication rumors; the truth behind them would probably make a great samizdat document of fluctuating star insecurity. In 1998, A Star Is Born was to pair Will Smith, then at his post–Independence Day/Men in Black apex, and Whitney Houston, on the way up in the proposed movie but just beginning to slip into trouble in real life. By 1999, Smith was still in but Houston was out, replaced by Jennifer Lopez, hot off of Out of Sight. When Smith hit his own rough patch with Wild Wild West, perhaps being a skidding star felt too close for comfort; suddenly Jamie Foxx was rumored as the lead. But by 2002, Smith’s career had recovered and he was suddenly back in the picture, with directors as different as Oliver Stone and Joel Schumacher said to be interested. The project languished for years until suddenly, in 2010, stories appeared that Russell Crowe was thinking about playing Norman, and that Warner Brothers was seeking Beyoncé to play Esther. That gave way to a version that was to be directed by Clint Eastwood and star Leonardo DiCaprio — a plan reportedly derailed by DiCaprio’s schedule and Beyoncé’s pregnancy. The year 2012 brought new reports suggesting that Tom Cruise would play the falling star opposite Beyoncé. The Cruise idea went nowhere. Bradley Cooper first got the offer to star that year, reportedly tried to woo Beyoncé one last time, and then sought and won the hand of Lady Gaga, who, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, surely knows a thing or two about the rough road that gets you from Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester.
It’s hard not to mourn all the Star Is Borns that could have been (Tom Cruise playing a Tom Cruise who’s desperately trying to stay Tom Cruise while Beyoncé rockets past him is a movie I would have eagerly lined up to see). But Cooper and Gaga taking on a modern adaptation of this story is, on paper, a great idea. A Star Is Born only becomes more relevant in a social-media era in which celebrities commodify their lives one minute, tweet, and Instagram at a time and in which the public combination of prurience and judgment that is aimed at them is exponentially more intense than it was when the story originated. This will also be the first version in which both leads are, in a sense, the film’s auteurs; Cooper will direct the movie and Gaga will write songs for it. That feels potentially more appealing and less imbalanced than the masochistic Garland or self-absorbed Streisand versions. If Cooper digs deep — warning flag: that can be hard to do for a star directing himself — this could be his defining role; outward charm combined with inward self-disgust feel like qualities that are absolutely in his arsenal. As for Gaga, an artist who fights to be recognized and famed for her talent even as she plays with the whole notion that she has an identity to begin with could be a superb fit for a 21st-century Esther.
To be sure, there are ways in which the premise of A Star Is Born is dated, both in terms of fame and what the audience imagines it does to relationships; in the Beyoncé version, she wouldn’t sacrifice everything if life with her husband started handing her lemons; she’d make Lemonade, and we’d applaud. A modern, rehab-era version of this story can’t just pin everything on one partner’s booze or pill problem; it also has to be about an addiction to success and fame, and to feature two people who don’t mean to hurt each other but are willing to play hard to get to get what they want. But if the film is to work, one thing can’t change: Only one of them can be left standing at the end. That is the cold heart of A Star Is Born, the bitterest of all Hollywood romances, nightmares, and cautionary fables, and one that apparently will never go out of style.