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The many lives of A Star is Born

by Matt Simonette

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Director Bradley Cooper's 2018 version of A Star is Born, reviewed by Jerry Nunn this week, is the fourth—and some fans would say the fifth—version of the classic story that asks the question, what price Hollywood? Few industries are as self-reflexive as Hollywood is, so it's little surprise that so many films have returned to this particular well over the years.

William Wellman's 1937 version of A Star is Born set the story of upstart Esther Blodgett, a.k.a. Vicki Lester, and Norman Maine in the movie business, and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Produced by David O. Selznick ( Gone With the Wind ), the film shared many of the same narrative beats as 1932's What Price Hollywood?, which was directed by gay filmmaker George Cukor and starred Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman. The 1937 film is not an official remake, but the stories were close enough that the the distributors of What Price Hollywood? considered legal action.

Some 17 years later, Cukor returned to the story for a lavish 1954 Warner Bros. remake that starred Judy Garland and James Mason. Filmed in CinemaScope, this new film was produced by Garland's then-husband, Sid Luft, and utilized songs from Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, among others.

Production on the 1954 film was tumultuous however, and the film initially ended up running well over three hours. Warner Bros. cut the film down to about 154 minutes, over Garland and Cukor's protests. Nevertheless, the film was positively received and Garland and Mason were both nominated for Oscars. Years later, preservationist Ron Haver spearheaded a massive restoration effort to get the 1954 near its its original length; he found much of the footage and most of the soundtrack, using production stills as well, to bring the film back to a 183 minute running-time. That is the version widely available on home video now.

One other performer with a huge gay following, Barbra Streisand, tackled the story in 1976. Her co-star was Kris Kristofferson, who played John Norman Howard to Streisand's Esther Hoffman in a story that was was reset in the world of rock music. The film was a labor of love for Streisand as well as for her then-partner, Jon Peters, who produced. Peters, who had previously been a prominent Hollywood hair stylist, subsequently was one of the most powerful producers and studio executives of the '80s and '90s; among his hits was 1989's Batman.

The film received generally poor reviews, with many critics of the time ribbing Streisand for what they perceived as her ego peering from the screen. But paying audiences were kinder: The 1976 A Star is Born was a hit, and it provided Streisand with her song "Evergreen," which was one of the biggest hits of her career.

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