Opinion | ‘A Star Is Born’ Is Born Again. Let Us Pray.

Opinion | ‘A Star Is Born’ Is Born Again. Let Us Pray.


Is it possible to have “A Star Is Born” redemption 42 years later?

Four decades after I was forbidden as a young teenager from watching Barbra Streisand reclaim the role that Judy Garland (and Janet Gaynor before her) had so perfectly embodied, I’m again experiencing cautious giddiness as a new version opens worldwide this week.

The buzz swirling around the third remake of the 1937 movie looks promising, to say the least: Critics and audiences at the Venice and Toronto film festivals have praised Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as the lovers in this tale of the perils of simultaneously rising and falling careers, along with equal praise for Mr. Cooper’s directorial debut and his songwriting. Early reviews are pretty ecstatic.

This is exciting stuff, and potentially a huge relief for the previously disappointed among us who had feared for decades that it would be remade for the wrong star. (Actually it was, in a way, with “Glitter,” the Mariah Carey laugh-out-loud campfest from 2001 that ostensibly tells the same story with a slight twist at the end. But let’s not go there.)

For those of us who were too young to see it onscreen the last go-round, it’s not a time of reflection so much as potential redemption. Barely a teenager in 1976, I was well aware of the second remake, which was clearly conceived as a movie-with-music vehicle for Barbra Streisand in the same way the first remake was for Ms. Garland. For all self-respecting gay boys at the time, life had taken on new meaning when it was announced Ms. Streisand would star in a remake of the 1954 remake, which to so many of us is Ms. Garland’s zenith as an actress and singer. (She was notoriously robbed of an Oscar, most likely because of her infamously erratic behavior on the set of the film.) It was going to be a gay boy’s doubleheader: Barbra and Judy would inhabit the same role 22 years apart. God was in his heaven.

I had seen the trailer on TV. I had memorized the love theme, “Evergreen,” and belted it out in my bedroom while I played the 45 endlessly, tormenting my family (and possibly the entire neighborhood). I think my parents were aware of my ulterior motives: I was told years later of how I responded to Kris Kristofferson with his shirt unbuttoned (gasp!) in the trailer, not to mention his long hair and tight jeans (gasp! gasp!). This was no doubt the beginning of my troubles to come that fateful autumn.

Would I be able to persuade my parents to let me go to see it despite its R rating? Well, I rationalized, they had let me watch the 1972 Summer Olympics, starring Mark Spitz in his stars-and-stripes Speedo. Certainly that should have been “R for restricted” for a hormonal gay boy.

But the R rating slapped on “A Star Is Born” proved fatal. No Babs belting out the rock songs. No Kris-gawking. I was livid, and the scene on our living room floor was testament. I flailed about on the carpet, shrieking to my mother that I had memorized every nuance of “Evergreen,” much like I had for “The Morning After,” the love theme from “The Poseidon Adventure,” four years earlier. People had drowned and fallen to their deaths in that movie — including children — but I was allowed to see that movie, I screamed.

My mother tried to appease me with the reminder that we had gone as a family to see “Gone With the Wind” in its last run in movie theaters that summer before its television premiere. To which I pointed out: “All Vivien Leigh did was whine for four solid hours in that movie! I bet Barbra doesn’t whine once in ‘A Star Is Born!’”

But I lost the battle. I moved on. Thanks to the miracle that was VHS in the early ’80s, I got my wish nearly 10 years later — and it was a stunning letdown. Unlike the 1937 version, and particularly the 1954 version, which is close to cinematic perfection if only for “The Man That Got Away,” Ms. Streisand’s version was mostly panned by critics and borders on ’70s camp at this point, except for the Oscar-winning and timeless “Evergreen.” The vibe between the two leads is more a lump of protoplasm than organic onscreen chemistry. O.K., so it wasn’t as bad as “Funny Lady,” but that’s about all I’ll give it.

Fast-forward to 2018 to the Cooper and Gaga Show. It’s the kind of excitement I’d almost given up on for what would inevitably be a third remake, assuming it would be strolled out at some point with all the wrong stars or that the studio would insist on an ending untrue to the first three. The ending (no spoiler alerts, for a few out there who don’t know the ending at this point) needs to depict how love and fame are equally fleeting and unfair.

And part — if not most — of what makes “A Star Is Born” work is the simple magic between its two leads. The previews of this version make the film feel incredibly lived-in. Lady Gaga, stripped of her glad rags and makeup, looks like a down-on-her-luck performer, a refugee from the working class. Mr. Cooper, scraggly bearded and seemingly tired of fame, feels like a burned-out musician who finds solace in her simplicity.

The 1954 version is a celebration not just of Ms. Garland’s talents but also the steely charm of James Mason. As Vicki Lester’s career spins to the heights of Hollywood, you feel as if there is no room for anyone else, let alone a lover. But it’s also a raw depiction of the desperation of living with alcoholism and denial amid the hypocrisy and hysteria of show business. The 1937 version is delicate and stripped of ’30s Hollywood glamour, and Ms. Gaynor is a light in Depression-era darkness, and not dolled up like Jean Harlow or Joan Crawford. And does anyone else besides me still have a crush on a young Fredric March? His pain as his fame dissipates is a study in restraint in an era of filmmaking not exactly known for subtlety.

Forty-two years after my parents crushed my dream of seeing the ’70s “A Star Is Born” that turned out to be mostly a dud, I’m waiting for Mr. Cooper and Lady Gaga to make it all right again. It won’t be Judy in her finest hour, but I’ll take what I can get.

David Belcher is an editor in the Hong Kong office of the Opinion section.



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