stars are born

What Did Critics Think of the Other Versions of A Star Is Born?

A Star Is Born, 1976 Photo: Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Though the vast majority of the general public has yet to lay eyes on Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut A Star Is Born, one scan of Twitter indicates that thousands of people have already ruled the film an unimpeachable masterpiece. (They have also decided that Venom will be bad. Sorry, Venom, but there’s only room for one studio release this weekend.) And for once, the rabid fandom hasn’t fallen so far from the critical press, which smiled kindly on the new melodrama and Lady Gaga’s knockout performance in particular during early premieres at film festivals in Venice and Toronto. Early reviews prophesy the rare box-office bonanza with a reputation to match, and a windfall of awards can’t be too far off.

But just as the new film du Cooper will undoubtedly attract detractors before long, so too have the past iterations of A Star Is Born drawn polarized receptions, some more than others. The esteemed L. Gaga follows in the footsteps of four actresses spanning a course of decades, and they haven’t all met with universal adoration. Below, Vulture has assembled a review roundup for all the various stars that have been born, broadly appraising a story told and retold in an endless Shakespearean cycle matching its towering highs of angst. It may be time to let the old ways die, but first, we must know the old ways:

What Price Hollywood? (1932)
The first star to be born wasn’t even A Star Is Born. In the years before the repressive Hays Code put the kibosh on mature subject matter, George Cukor was free to direct a sordid tale of liquor and unbridled self-destruction, and set it in the world of film instead of music. Constance Bennett played the no-name coffee-pourer plucked from her rinky-dink diner by Lowell Sherman’s charismatic, whimsical, and ultimately unstable director as he sinks deeper into a spiral of dissolution. Though the film casts Tinseltown in a rather unflattering light, it was a success among the showbiz set and garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Original Story, all without being bolstered by a positive critical reception.

Variety, the taste-making rag of the era, wrote the picture off as “a fan magazine-ish interpretation of Hollywood plus a couple of twists” that had the good fortune to be told “interestingly” by Cukor. The ambivalence continued, the review stating that the “story has its exaggerations, but they can sneak under the line as theatrical license.” Much of the writing surrounding this film comes from more modern pens, and more charitable ones at that. At the Chicago Reader, esteemed critic Dave Kehr complimented “one of Cukor’s most interesting early films” for “effortlessly shifting from satire to pathos.” Turner Classic Movies’ Leonard Maltin touts it as “a surprisingly sharp-eyed look at Hollywood,” while pre-code authority Farran Nehme sang the film’s praises at the top of her lungs on her personal review site. After celebrating the 1937 and 1954 interpretations that Cukor’s work would inspire, she clarified that it’s “no mere dated antecedent, but its own superb self and deserving of the same affection lavished on the other two.”

A Star Is Born (1937)
Janet Gaynor and Fredric March brought this tragedy of squandered potential and volatile self-loathing into the era of glorious Technicolor with the first take under the famed name, this time pairing off as an ingenue and fading actor rather than director. This time around, Variety was more unilaterally positive. The rave began by branding the film “a smash which unquestionably will rate among the half dozen best of the season,” and went on to declare that “few pictures have touched the tear ducts so easily and unaffectedly as this one.” Of the cast, the publication ruled, “Janet Gaynor gives to her role … a characterization of sustained loveliness” and that “she is equally as good in the comedy passages,” while Fredric March “creates a finely drawn portrait of weakness without viciousness.”

They weren’t alone in their glowing praise. The Film Daily wrote that William Wellman’s film was “superbly done in all departments,” and TCM quotes the New York Times’ Frank Nugent as calling it “the most accurate mirror ever held before the glittering, tinseled, trivial, generous, cruel, and ecstatic world that is Hollywood.” Nugent also singled out the brilliant use of color (“Technicolor need not, should not be restricted to the gaudy costume drama”) and the industry’s willingness to look inward (“… convincing proof that Hollywood need not travel to Ruritania for its plots; there is drama aplenty in its own backyard”). Of course, not everybody was onboard; ever the wild card, Pauline Kael described the film as “peculiarly masochistic and self-congratulatory” in the pages of The New Yorker.

A Star Is Born (1954)
Though Cukor was offered the first A Star Is Born and reneged, claiming that it was too similar to What Price Hollywood?, he caved when Warner Bros. came to him once more. Kael smiled more kindly on the next go at the story, in which an effervescent Judy Garland breaks into the music business with the help of a broken-down James Mason. She called the film “grandiose” and “emotionally charged,” in addition to praising the “remarkable” Mason for giving a performance that “brings a bloom to the movie” as well as Garland’s “nakedly intense” work. Though it may not sound like it, Kael was praising the production when she wrote that “this updated version is a terrible, fascinating orgy of self-pity and cynicism and myth-making.”

Variety continued to beat the drum, effusing, “Judy Garland glitters with that stardust which in the plot wastrel James Mason recognizes,” ultimately deeming the film “never wanting for heart-wallop and gutsy entertainment values.” Pretty much everybody jumped on the Judy Garland train: Time crowed that she “gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history” and Newsweek assessed her as “as an actress … more than adequate. As a mime and comedienne, she’s even better. But as a singer, she can handle anything from torch songs and blues to ballads. In more ways than one, the picture is hers.” The New York Times legend Bosley Crowther delivered my personal favorite soundbite: “The Warners and Mr. Cukor have really and truly gone to town in giving this hackneyed Hollywood story an abundance of fullness and form.”

A Star Is Born (1976)
After giving a pass to the 1954 version, Kael kept New Yorker readers on their toes by trashing the film as “sentimental, without being convincing for an instant” in a lacerating piece titled “Contempt for the Audience.” Film critic emeritus Roger Ebert wasn’t so taken with the film either, half-praising Streisand’s talent while knocking her limits as an actress: “There’s just no way, after all the times we’ve seen Streisand and all the ways she’s imprinted herself on our minds and tastes, for us to accept her as a kid on the way up, as an unknown who hitches her destiny to a star. Even in her first rags-to-riches movie, even in Funny Girl, we knew and she knew that she was Barbra Streisand. I guess in A Star Is Born we’re supposed to forget that. Fine; we could try if she’d let us.”

Over at the New York Times, Vincent Canby wasn’t feeling much rosier. After joining Ebert in his doubts about Streisand’s plausibility in her role, he added, “There’s also something completely bogus in the pairing of Miss Streisand and Mr. Kristofferson, who, as lovers, are less exciting than King Kong and Jessica Lange. It would be easy to say that it’s not Mr. Kristofferson’s fault, but I’m not sure it isn’t. He walks through the film looking very bored.” And while many shaggy ‘70s studio-funded disasters have been reclaimed my modern media, this A Star Is Born has had no such luck. Vulture’s own Mark Harris succinctly captured the film’s reputation in 2018, calling it “by leagues the most financially successful and artistically forgettable version.” (It is true that Frank Pierson’s film landed a staggering box-office return, for the runt of the litter.) Time Out got their shots in as well: “… this version vaunts its modernity by vulgarizing everything in sight, making the characters mouthpieces for foul language and equally foul sentimentality.”

A Star Is Born (2018)
Now that Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have assumed the mantle of those select stars which are born, critics have been lining up to lay hosannas at their feet. The Guardian awarded the film a perfect five-star score, and critic Peter Bradshaw commended Cooper: “He de-machos the role, and creates a backstory of vulnerability. Yet the crunch question is: how are Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper going to reinvent that terrifying award-ceremony scene, when he embarrasses her publicly? Well, the climax of their ordeal is bigger than I ever thought possible. It’s the final station of the cross.” The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan burst out of the gate with the gauntlet-throwing first line, “Passionate, emotional and fearless, the gangbusters A Star Is Born is poised to become the movie of the moment — the one everyone has to see right now.”

NPR’s Linda Holmes was a fan as well, writing, “Cooper credibly builds a love story that’s fraught from the beginning, even as it leads to soaring moments for both Jackson and Ally. The musical moments that are meant to seem enormous actually do, and the relationship is suffused with a specific, cocooning intimacy that foregrounds the difference between how close they feel to each other and how uneasy both are with their public standing.” Variety’s Owen Gleiberman may have given the highest praise of all: “A Star Is Born is that thing we always yearn for but so rarely get to see: a transcendent Hollywood movie. It’s the fourth remake of a story that dates back to 1932, but this one has a look and vibe all its own — rapturous and swooning, but also delicate and intimate and luminous.”

One must look a little harder to find mixed reviews, but they’re out there. The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney conceded, “The first-time director’s grasp of pacing could be improved and the overlong movie can’t quite sustain the energy and charm of its sensational start. But this is a durable tale of romance, heady fame and crushing tragedy.” Our very own David Edelstein contrasted the first half (“couldn’t be more charming”) with the second (“much lesser”). Even so, the smart money says that this will do little to deter the oncoming box-office tsunami.

Revisiting the 1937, 1954, 1976 Versions of A Star Is Born