‘A Star Is Born’: Four ver­sions, same old story

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Mon­ica Hesse binge-watches the films and re­al­izes that, with slight vari­a­tions, they all treat gen­der equal­ity as a zero-sum game.

Com­par­ing the re­make of a movie with the orig­i­nal can be a fas­ci­nat­ing way to gauge so­cial progress. Which prob­lem­atic scenes get axed? Which anachro­nis­tic lan­guage gets up­dated? Are all the char­ac­ters still white, or do peo­ple of color get roles, too?

This is all to say: Yes­ter­day I had seen zero ver­sions of “A Star Is Born.” To­day I have seen four.

That’s all of them, from the 1937 ver­sion where Janet Gaynor played the as­pir­ing star whose own fame even­tu­ally eclipses her al­co­holic hus­band’s, to the one re­leased last week where Lady Gaga is the in­genue, Bradley Cooper the ad­dict, and ev­ery­one’s cry­ing by the end.

The other ver­sions were re­leased in 1954 (Judy Gar­land, James Ma­son) and 1976 (Bar­bra Streisand, Kris Kristof­fer­son). Which means that once ev­ery gen­er­a­tion or so, Hol­ly­wood has re­vis­ited this par­tic­u­lar mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship and the jeal­ousies and frail­ties con­sum­ing it. The fla­vor of fame changes — be­hold the 1937 ver­sion, in which the Os­cars are de­picted as an in­ti­mate lit­tle sup­per — and the male leads get hairier and the vice piv­ots from gin to co­caine. But it’s hard not to read these movies, at least par­tially, as a study in male and fe­male power dy­nam­ics over time.

Specif­i­cally, the dy­namic be­tween a hus­band and wife when her ca­reer is tak­ing off while his is stalling, and it sucks for both of them. Even though, in ev­ery ver­sion of the movie, he loves her. Even though, in ev­ery ver­sion of the movie, he cham­pi­oned her ca­reer to be­gin with. He dis­cov­ered her, and he wants her to suc­ceed.

In 1937 and 1954, our hero’s tail­spin be­gins when a de­liv­ery­man calls him Mr. Wife’sLastName; in 1976 it’s when an in­dus­try con­tact as­sumes the rock star played by Kristof­fer­son is the sec­re­tary, not the hus­band. The fad­ing men try to make the best of it. In mul­ti­ple ver­sions, there’s a scene of the newly stayat-home hus­band jovially mak­ing din­ner for his wife. But then she gets home from work, and slowly it be­comes not jovial. It’s emas­cu­lat­ing.

And the women, my God, they try. They try to find some­one to hire their has-been spouses; they of­fer to can­cel their own con­tracts un­less he gets a gig, too. They try not to look too ex­cited about be­ing nom­i­nated for Gram­mys or guest­ing on “Satur­day Night Live.” And most of all, they try not to cel­e­brate their own suc­cess too much, wor­ry­ing how it might wound their hus­bands’ egos.

To use a 2018 phrase, there’s a

lot of emo­tional la­bor go­ing on here.

Re­makes suc­ceed when they touch on some­thing universal, core themes that carry through time. But “A Star Is Born” has been made and re­made for 80 years, and I’m try­ing to fig­ure out what it says about our cul­ture that this theme — the tragic, fa­tal con­se­quences of a woman pro­fes­sion­ally leapfrog­ging her hus­band — gets nearly as many re­hashes as “Ham­let.”

At the week­day mati­nee where I watched the new ver­sion, my seat­mates were two chatty ladies who talked to the screen. Af­ter yet an­other Gaga suc­cess and yet an­other Cooper set­back, one of them help­fully ad­vised, “GAGA, THIS IS BAD NEWS.”

There’s an ar­gu­ment to be made that the uni­ver­sal­ity of the story doesn’t come from gen­der dy­nam­ics. That the story is re­ally about the chang­ing of tastes and the suf­fer­ing of an artist whom the pub­lic no longer finds in­ter­est­ing.

Ex­cept, I don’t think the story would ring as true if the roles were re­versed, if Lady Gaga was the one lash­ing out in protest of her own ob­so­les­cence. The gen­der-re­ver­sal ver­sion has al­ready been made: It’s Norma Des­mond in “Sun­set Boule­vard.” It’s not a tragic love story but hor­ror-filled camp.

I should men­tion that I loved the new ver­sion. It’s ev­ery bit as good as you’ve heard. You should see it. Bradley Cooper, who also di­rected, por­trays his char­ac­ter as not bit­ter, but lost and sick. His trou­bles started long be­fore he met Lady Gaga. He’s a good per­son. She’s a good per­son.

But — do I have to say SPOILER ALERT for some­thing in its fourth re­make? — he still dies at the end. And that’s what I thought about as the cred­its rolled, and what I thought about when I went home and watched Kris Kristof­fer­son die, and James Ma­son die, and Fredric March die. I thought about how gen­der equal­ity is still so of­ten por­trayed as a zero-sum game.

Women can rise, but it means men will fall, or so goes this nar­ra­tive.

A good man can sup­port his wife’s ca­reer, but the cost is his own sense of self-worth and then his own life.

A good woman can achieve her pro­fes­sional dreams, but the cost is her mar­riage, and the nag­ging worry that it’s all her fault. Then she can per­form at her hus­band’s me­mo­rial ser­vice, and fi­nally, pub­licly, take his last name, and — crap, if she’d taken his last name all along, was that the so­lu­tion?

Is that what we’re re­ally afraid of? Is that the story line hold­ing us back?

In real life, this isn’t how it works in healthy re­la­tion­ships, at least not the ones I know.

But the “Star Is Born” nar­ra­tive keeps be­ing re­made for a rea­son. There will be an­other re­make soon, and then an­other, and I won­der if any of them will look dif­fer­ent. Mon­ica Hesse is a colum­nist writ­ing about gen­der and its im­pact on so­ci­ety. For more visit MON­ICA HESSE

Mon­ica Hesse

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