The Se­cret Jewish His­tory of... ‘A STAR IS BORN’

Forward Magazine - - & - By Seth Ro­govoy

Like the pe­ri­odic ci­cadas that spend most of their lives un­der­ground, emerg­ing only every  or  years (and how they de­cide is for you to know and me to find out), the movie mu­si­cal “A Star Is Born” gets re­made every few decades or so. The lat­est in­car­na­tion, star­ring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, is sched­uled to open on Oc­to­ber ‹, hav­ing pre­miered at the Venice Film Fes­ti­val in Au­gust and at fes­ti­vals in Toronto and San Se­bas­tian in Septem­ber.

Ac­tu­ally, this lat­est ver­sion of the tried-andtrue story of the ro­mance be­tween an as­pir­ing fe­male singer and a spi­ral­ing-down male per­former is the first since the Bar­bra Streisand ve­hi­cle of “”. But that was al­ready the third or fourth ver­sion, de­pend­ing on how one counts.

The ori­gins of the “A Star Is Born” fran­chise go back even be­fore the first film with that ti­tle, to a “• drama called “What Price Hol­ly­wood?” That movie starred Con­stance Ben­nett as an as­pir­ing ac­tress who meets a drunk movie di­rec­tor por­trayed by Lowell Sher­man. Ben­nett’s char­ac­ter winds up win­ning an Acad­emy Award, while Sher­man’s star goes down the tubes, in part be­cause of his reck­less drink­ing.

For our pur­poses, what is most in­ter­est­ing about “What Price Hol­ly­wood?” is that it was di­rected by Ge­orge Cukor, who would go on to be­come one of mid-•™th-cen­tury Hol­ly­wood’s pre-em­i­nent di­rec­tors, helm­ing such main­stream fare as “The Philadel­phia Story,” “Gaslight,” “Adam’s Rib,” “Born Yes­ter­day” and “My Fair Lady,” for which he won the Os­car for best di­rec­tor. Cukor was born on Man­hat­tan’s Lower East Side to Hun­gar­ian-Jewish im­mi­grants Vik­tor Cukor, an as­sis­tant dis­trict at­tor­ney, and Helén Ilona Gross. A few years af­ter “What Price Hol­ly­wood?” came out, stu­dio hon­cho David O. Selznick — whose par­ents were Jewish im­mi­grants from Ukraine — ap­proached Cukor about di­rect­ing the film that would be­come the first “A Star Is Born” movie, star­ring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Cukor noted that the script, about an as­pir­ing Hol­ly­wood ac­tress who meets a fad­ing movie star be­set by a drink­ing prob­lem, bore a re­mark­able re­sem­blance to the one he had just filmed a few years ear­lier, and he de­clined to di­rect the movie. Sure enough, the RKO ex­ec­u­tives who had pro­duced “What Price Hol­ly­wood?” wound up al­most fil­ing a pla­gia­rism suit against Selznick In­ter­na­tional Pic­tures.

The “ film in­tro­duced the char­ac­ter of Es­ther Vic­to­ria Blod­gett, played by Gaynor. While this ver­sion was still a drama, the Aus­trian-born Jewish com­poser Max Steiner wrote the mu­sic to the ti­tle song, which was sung by Buddy Clark (born Sa­muel Gold­berg) and backed by the or­ches­tra of Eddy Duchin, the son of Bes­sara­bian Jewish im­mi­grants.

When it came time for the first (or sec­ond?) re­make of “A Star Is Born,” the char­ac­ter of Es­ther Blod­gett re­turned (with­out her mid­dle name) and Cukor re­lented, agree­ing to di­rect the film for Jack L. Warner, who was born Ja­cob Warner in Lon­don, On­tario, to Yid­dishp68

The movie mu­si­cal ‘A Star Is Born’ gets re­made every few decades or so.

The true star of the 956 film was Judy Gar­land, play­ing a singer with dreams of Hol­ly­wood star­dom.

speak­ing Jewish im­mi­grants from Poland. Warner, who owned a movie stu­dio with his broth­ers (guess what they called it?), re­fused to ac­cede to Cukor’s wishes to cast Cary Grant and then Frank Si­na­tra for the film. The more white­bread ac­tor James Ma­son was cast, but the true star of the ‚ƒ„… film — this time out, a mu­si­cal ver­sion — was Judy Gar­land, play­ing a singer with dreams of Hol­ly­wood star­dom. The script was writ­ten by Moss Hart, whose English­born Jewishim­mi­grant par­ents were Bar­nett Hart, a cigar maker, and Lil­lian Solomon. Jewish Amer­i­can song­writ­ers Harold Arlen and Ge­orge Gersh­win teamed up to write most of the songs for the ‚ƒ„… ver­sion.

A lit­tle more than ŒŽ years later, Bar­bra Streisand took up the gaunt­let, reimag­in­ing “A Star Is Born” for the rock era. Un­able to get Elvis Pres­ley, Mar­lon Brando or Neil Di­a­mond for the male lead, Streisand — who co­pro­duced the film — wound up cast­ing Kris Kristo˜er­son as the self­de­struc­tive rock singer­song­writer who takes a fancy to her as­pir­ing songstress, sig­nif­i­cantly re­named Es­ther Ho˜man this time out, in one of the movie’s only overt nods to the char­ac­ter’s im­plied Jewish­ness (im­plied mostly be­cause she was played by Streisand). As in the pre­vi­ous films, Es­ther winds up be­com­ing a star — win­ning a Grammy Award (as Streisand her­self later would, as com­poser of the movie’s ti­tle track, “Ev­er­green”) — while her ro­man­tic in­ter­est, who first gave her a leg up in the world, flames out. While the film was a com­mer­cial suc­cess, it tanked crit­i­cally, with many not­ing the lack of on­screen chem­istry be­tween Streisand and Kristo˜er­son (al­legedly as a re­sult of a to­tal lack of o˜screen chem­istry). “A Jewish Star Is Born” this was not; that would have to wait for the ‚ƒ›œ film “Yentl.”

Es­ther is gone in the new­est ver­sion of “A Star Is Born,” as are any traces of Jewish­ness in Lady Gaga’s por­trayal of the upand­com­ing singer named Ally, who gets her big break when the rugged if trou­bled Amer­i­cana singer­song­writer Jack­son Maine, as por­trayed by Bradley Cooper in his di­rec­to­rial de­but, takes a fancy to her. With the mu­sic this time out be­ing writ­ten by Lady Gaga her­self along with Lukas Nel­son, son of Willie Nel­son, the Jewish con­tri­bu­tions to the movie are lim­ited to cowriter Eric Roth (“For­rest Gump,” “The In­sider,” “Mu­nich”), who was one of the many un­for­tu­nate vic­tims of Bernard Mado˜’s Ponzi scheme, and An­drew Dice Clay, who is the son of Jac­que­line and Fred Sil­ver­stein and as a teenager worked as a drum­mer in the Catskills un­der the name Clay Sil­vers, here play­ing Ally’s fa­ther.

Still, it re­mains to be seen if the star power and con­sid­er­able tal­ent of Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper can over­come the some­what tired and trite plot that has driven “A Star Is Born” since it was first con­ceived as “What Price Hol­ly­wood?” If it doesn’t suc­ceed this time, they can al­ways try again in ŒŽ years or so.

A CO- STAR IS BORN: Bar­bra Streisand with Kris Kristof­fer­son (right) and Jon Peters (left) in 1976.


A FILM IS RE­BORN( AGAIN): Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga star in the 2018 edi­tion of ‘A Star Is Born.’


WHAT PRICE REP­E­TI­TION? Fredric March and Janet Gaynor starred inthe 1937 film ver­sion.

AN EV­ER­GREENROLE: Streisand played Es­ther in 1976.


THIRD TIME’S THECHARM: Ge­orge Cukor (above)di­rected Judy Gar­land in the1956 film.


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