As a kid, I could not get past the idea that Barbra Streisand was mom’s kind of movie and music star. Her music, to me, sounded dull and dreary, like elevator music but with words. That perception held far longer than I like to admit, mostly because I made no effort to look into Barbra Streisand’s career. I was stubborn and dismissive of the idea that I could ever enjoy anything that Barbra Streisand ever made simply as a way of rejecting things my parents enjoyed.
It’s a typical part of the process of growing up, you love and rely on your parents but at a certain point your personality begins to form and rejecting things your parents loved is a simple minded form of rebellion against their values. That’s a long way of saying I just didn’t like Barbra Streisand and I came up with many justifications as to why I should not have to investigate her career and form an actual, defensible position regarding the quality of her work.
That lasted until I saw Yentl a few years ago. Yentl was a revelation. As much as I may not care for Barbra’s broad showtunes and moony balladic music, I cannot deny that her performance in Yentl was compelling, it was deeply moving. It didn’t cause me to seek out something like Hello Dolly, baby steps here people, but it did make the idea of exploring Barbra Streisand’s work a great deal more palatable.
This brings us to 1976’s A Star is Born, my third exposure this week to the remarkable story of a woman named Esther and a man named Norman, or John Norman here, two people going in different directions on the road to and from fame. The 1937 take on this story starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March and written and directed by William Wellman remains the gold standard for how this story is told and acted but, unlike the 1954 version, I have a lot of nice things to say about this reimagining of this classic Hollywood story.
Kris Kristofferson stars in A Star is Born as John Norman Howard, an aging rock star whose bad habits are getting the best of him. He’s drinking too much and using drugs and forgetting the lyrics to his songs. He’s angering fans, bandmates, producers, and radio hosts with his cantankerousness. He appears content to go down in flames until he hears the voice of Esther Hoffman (Streisand) at a nightclub in L.A.
Esther’s voice awakens something in John, and after a series of misadventures trying to connect with her in the midst of the appalling chaos of his life, the two manage to connect in a deep and meaningful fashion. Eventually, while he’s failing to entertain crowds at his own concert, he turns the show over to Esther who blows everyone away. Her style of disco showtunes doesn’t exactly mesh with his brand of stoner rock but the audience doesn’t appear to care.
As Esther’s star rises, John’s falls further and further but they manage to stick together until the inevitable end. A Star is Born is a romantic tragedy and thus you know what’s coming, it’s not a spoiler at this point, it’s an inevitability. What happens afterward however, is where a legend is made and even I can’t deny Barbra Streisand’s legend status after seeing her blow the doors off of the ending of A Star is Born.
I really enjoyed this take on A Star is Born. Shifting the background from the film industry to the music industry was a smart choice but even smarter was the decision not to crowd out the story with musical numbers. The music is there, some of the best music of Streisand’s career undoubtedly, but it’s melded into the story of A Star is Born which director and co-writer Frank Pierson takes great pains to balance.
It is Hollywood legend that Streisand and producer-boyfriend Jon Peters and Kris Kristofferson clashed heavily with Frank Pierson but the final product of A Star is Born doesn’t appear to show the strain. The final cut of the movie is a tight 2 hours and 12 minutes, it doesn’t contain any of Streisand’s famed ego shots, the movie never comes second to Streisand showing off her vocal virtuosity. It’s a really solid movie with a central performance from Streisand that transcends in a far more effective way than what Judy Garland did in the ‘54 version.
The 1954, George Cukor version of A Star is Born could very easily be written off as a Judy Garland ego trip or someone’s monument to her greatness, whether she wanted it or not. Frank Pierson is not building monuments to Barbra Streisand’s greatness in the 1976 version of A Star is Born. Yes, he knows to get out of the way at the end and let his leading lady loose to do her thing, and boy does she, but this is no ego trip, that moment especially is fully ingrained to the heart of the movie.
If I do have some issues with this version of A Star is Born, they are with Kris Kristofferson. I had no idea how much I was going to hate his voice. He’s not great in this at the one thing I assumed he was known for. His singing voice is a raspy, nasty howl that I can’t imagine ever having had a hit record. Perhaps it’s meant to be part of his ongoing downfall, maybe he used to be able to sing beautifully but there is little evidence of that here.
Kristofferson’s acting isn’t bad, he has an authentic quality that keeps him from being one note. Streisand definitely makes things easier for him. She’s magnetic, she could make anyone seem better just by how well she sees them. That she’s falling for him helps us to appreciate him more. That, and the character is superbly written. Pierson along with the brilliant Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne are credited with the screenplay and it’s some kind of shame they didn’t receive an Oscar nomination.
This version of A Star is Born is filled with transcendent moments from Esther’s first time on stage, to the hothouse romance of her recording the hit song “Evergreen” to that ballsy, brilliant, teary ending that I adore so much. It doesn’t quite reach the emotional or romantic heights of what Janet Gaynor and Fredric March reached in the 1937 original but it’s far closer than the Judy Garland movie.
Plus, this version of A Star is Born only serves to make me even more excited about the newest iteration of this story. If Bradley Cooper can create the moments, we already know Lady Gaga can blow the doors down with her voice. If she’s set for an ending like the one we got in 1976, get ready for the waterworks, have some tissues on hand because we are in for some classic emotional rollercoaster rock n’roll romance.