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