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How — and why — A Star Is Born became one of Hollywood’s most remade stories

It’s a well-loved theme with many variations.

Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Lady Gaga have each played a rising star in a version of A Star Is Born.
Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Lady Gaga have each played a rising star in a version of A Star Is Born.
United Artists/Warner Bros.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Like a martini, or a bowl of chili, A Star Is Born is a staple that welcomes reinvention. All iterations of the film — including the latest, directed by Bradley Cooper and starring Cooper and Lady Gaga — sing the same tune, but each version has new variations on the theme, flourishes and inversions that reinterpret the old story.

Spoilers for the basic plot of A Star Is Born, in all its iterations, follow.

Simultaneously a romance, a tragedy, and a rags-to-riches story with a magnetic young woman at its center, A Star is Born follows an essential arc that has, thus far, stayed the same: An aging male celebrity, hamstrung by his addictions, meets a talented, younger woman with whom he is instantly smitten.

He connects her to the platform and contacts she needed, and she becomes a sensation almost overnight; meanwhile, his career is bottoming out. The two fall in love and marry, and her success then becomes a problem for him.

In every version of A Star is Born, he meets the same end. There are also a few repeated lines in each version, and always a scene in which the rising star’s first major awards win (at the Oscars in two versions and the Grammys in later ones) is ruined by her dissipated husband.

Janet Gaynor in the first A Star Is Born.
Janet Gaynor in the first A Star Is Born.
United Artists

But looking beyond specific plot beats, it’s always, at heart, a story about what it takes to be a celebrity in America, as well as what addiction does to close relationships. The faces, details, settings, and character motivation may all vary, but A Star Is Born keeps getting remade for a reason: It’s a story of romance and mortality, with a swooning arc that borders on epic. It feels so familiar, so archetypal, that it seems almost as if someone must also have carved it into cave walls in prehistoric France, or drawn it in cuneiform on some Sumerian scroll.

But of course, it’s not an ancient story — it’s one that depends on the unique machinations of the American celebrity-making machine. No wonder it’s proven so attractive to the filmmakers and actors who keep retelling the story, retooling it for another generation.

There are actually five Hollywood versions of the story — the first one is just a little different in some key details, and doesn’t have the same title. And while they each shift focus and change certain details, the allure remains the same, particularly to Academy Awards voters, who nominated the first four films in multiple categories and seem likely to do the same with the newest version.

So if you want to understand what’s most interesting about the 2018 A Star Is Born — and why the story keeps being reinvented — it’s worth looking at each of its predecessors, which intersect in dramatic and even tragic ways with the lives of the people who made them.

What Price Hollywood? (1932): The one where they don’t get together

Director: George Cukor

Writer: Gene Fowler and Rowland Brown, adapted from a story by Adela Rogers St. Johns

Starring: Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman

Oscars: One nomination for Best Story

The legend: Some film buffs call 1932’s What Price Hollywood? the true first version of A Star Is Born, because the basic arc strongly resembles the later films. The stories are similar enough that when What Price Hollywood? director George Cukor was asked to direct the first A Star Is Born five years later, he refused. The similarities were so pronounced that RKO even considered suing, though they ultimately decided not to.

The theme: What Price Hollywood? is the story of a young waitress and aspiring actress named Mary (Constance Bennett) who encounters a drunk, famous movie director Max (Lowell Sherman) one night at work. He brings her to a movie premiere and promises her a screen test, but doesn’t remember any of it the next morning.

She does finally get her chance and, after some failed attempts, becomes an Academy Award-winning success. At the same time, Max’s career tanks, and he begins to avoid Mary to keep from dragging her down with him. In the end, Max finally takes a hard look at himself and decides his dissipated self is a disgrace to his former glory days. He shoots himself in the chest, bringing shame and controversy to Mary in the process.

The variations: The film’s plot isn’t exactly the same as the classic plot of A Star Is Born, in which the ingenue and the aging star always end up together. Mary and Max never have a romantic connection: She marries another man, who grows jealous of her time and her career, and becomes pregnant by him — a fact she discovers just after their divorce is finalized. After Max’s death by suicide, Mary flees to France, where she and her ex reconcile.

But the marked similarities between What Price Hollywood? and the subsequent A Star Is Born show something key: a story like this has always been in Hollywood’s DNA. How stars get made has captured imaginations since the beginning — and how they fade has always felt like a tragedy. Put the two together in the same film, and the sparks fly.

What Price Hollywood? is available on DVD and is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

A Star Is Born (1937): The one that isn’t a musical

Director: William A. Wellman

Writer: William A. Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell

Starring: Janet Gaynor and Fredric March

Oscars: Seven nominations; one win for Best Writing (Original Story)

The legend: The first A Star Is Born was directed by William A. Wellman, whose 1927 film Wings won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. One of his co-writers was critic and satirist Dorothy Parker, for whom A Star Is Born represented one of her two Academy Award nominations before her left-wing politics landed her on the Hollywood Blacklist.

The movie stars Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett, a fresh-faced young woman who moves to Hollywood with stars in her eyes, and Fredric March as Norman Maine, a stumbling drunk whose career as a screen star is already on the wane when he meets Esther at a party where she’s working as a caterer.

He promises to get her a screen test and, eventually, she’s signed to a studio contract and renamed Vickie Lester by studio executives, who find her real name off-putting. Esther and Norman fall in love and elope; he struggles with her rising fame and spoils her Academy Awards speech; eventually, he kills himself by walking into the sea.

This was a comeback moment for Gaynor, who was no rising star: She had been a popular actress and huge box-office draw in the 1920s and early 1930s, beginning in silent films and transitioning successfully to sound. She was the first actress to win an Academy Award, and she won for three films in the same year, 1929: 7th Heaven, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and Street Angel. (She’s the only actress to ever win for more than one role.)

But by the middle of the 1930s, amid shifts and mergers among movie studios, her career started to flag — especially with younger stars like Loretta Young and Shirley Temple gaining prominence.

Then she landed the role of Esther Blodgett (incidentally, the same year she starred in a film with What Price Hollywood? star Constance Bennett). The film was a huge success and revitalized her career, earning her a second Academy Award nomination, though she lost to Luise Rainer.

The poster for A Star Is Born
Is the price for stardom a broken heart?
United Artists

A Star Is Born was Gaynor’s only Technicolor film, and the first Technicolor film for March, who originated the role of the alcoholic falling star and earned his third Oscar nomination for the film. (He’d won one previously, in 1931, and would go on to win an additional Oscar and two Tonys in the 1940s and 1950s.)

And while both March and Gaynor were among cinema’s most recognizable faces, Gaynor’s recent misfortunes meant that it was easy to root for her as she portrayed a young woman on the rise.

The theme: As the first real iteration of A Star Is Born, this one’s plot exemplifies a lot of the things that would mark future versions of the story.

To modern eyes, A Star Is Born’s gender politics can feel a little creepy, particularly Esther’s declaration at the end of the film — repeated in each successive film, but in different configurations — that she will be known by her late husband’s name, “Mrs. Norman Maine.”

Since her (older) husband has both helped her reach success and acted in ways that intentionally or unintentionally will sabotage that success, her dependence on him can feel frustrating at times. And though the gender politics change a little with each iteration, the gap in age and questions about men’s and women’s routes to fame remain.

Yet there’s an authenticity to the relationship between the two characters, and the jealousy between them, that feels as if it could have been drawn from life. In fact, it was rumored that the marriage of screen legend Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay was the film’s real-life inspiration.

Another aspect of A Star Is Born that would be repeated in future versions is the centrality of the female character, and, perhaps most importantly, the way that the role was seen as a way for an actress to breathe new life into her career. The Norman character is an important one in A Star Is Born, but there’s a reason that the Esther character has always been played by an icon, and that reason, most likely, is that Janet Gaynor played her first.

The variations: Gaynor and March’s version is the only non-musical version of A Star Is Born. Instead, it’s framed as a screenplay; the first and last frames of the film are images of a script page. And so the whole thing takes on a kind of mythical quality, a story of Hollywood fame, written and produced by the Hollywood famous.

Norman and Esther struggle to maintain control of their own star images, eloping in order to avoid the prying eyes of celebrity journalists. The film is particularly clear-eyed about how the fan magazines of early Hollywood and the tightly controlled images the studios created for its contracted stars affect the real people off screen — something that feels a little startling, given that those same studios responsible for this movie. That adds a layer of meta-commentary to the entire endeavor that is mostly absent from other versions.

The 1932 version of A Star Is Born is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

A Star Is Born (1954): The one that stars Judy Garland

Director: George Cukor

Writer: Moss Hart

Starring: Judy Garland and James Mason

Oscars: Six nominations; zero wins

The legend: In 1954, George Cukor — who had directed What Price Hollywood? almost a quarter century before but turned down the Gaynor/March A Star Is Born — was finally ready to take another crack at this story. The studio brought in Moss Hart, the wildly successful playwright and theatre director, to adapt the 1937 screenplay into a movie-musical, with songs by Harold Arden and Ira Gershwin. They cast James Mason, the British actor who had made his transition to Hollywood five years earlier, as Norman Maine.

And, most importantly, they cast Judy Garland as Esther.

Garland was, by most accounts, not entirely stable while shooting the film. It had been 15 years since her most famous role, as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. In the intervening years, her life had grown more tumultuous; she’d experienced breakdowns and addiction and several suicide attempts. In 1950, she negotiated a release from her contract at MGM. She hadn’t made a film since.

A Star Is Born was promoted as her comeback film. Production was reportedly difficult, having to contend with Garland’s addictions, weight fluctuations, and illnesses. Executives at Warner Bros. also decided, after a significant portion of the film had been completed, to reshoot so that it could be the first of the studio’s films in widescreen CinemaScope. Some sequences, including the lengthy “Born in a Trunk” musical sequence, were shot after Cukor had already departed the production for another project.

And after test screenings, it was cut drastically in length by executives without Cukor’s input, down to 154 minutes. Cukor called it “very painful” to watch. A number of the cut scenes and musical numbers were re-added in a nearly three-hour “reconstructed” version of the film, released in theaters and on home video. Some of the scenes had to be added using production stills and audio instead of moving footage. (This is the version you can watch today on Filmstruck.)

The theme: In this A Star Is Born, Esther is a singer whom Norman encounters one night as she sings in a club with her band after hours. (The song Garland sings, “The Man That Got Away,” was ranked No. 11 on AFI’s list of 100 top songs in films, and is often re-recorded.)

The contours of the movie are much the same as the first one; Esther still becomes a Hollywood star — this time via a movie musical, Garland’s signature genre — and is signed to a studio contract, and Norman’s mental health deteriorates as he watches her become more successful. He ruins her Academy Awards speech, and he kills himself, as in the previous version, by walking into the sea. And after his death, at a tribute event, Esther introduces herself to the crowd as “Mrs. Norman Maine.”

The variations: Yet the film feels different than the 1937 version, and is among the best big-studio movie-musicals of the form’s mid-century heyday. Garland owns the screen, her powerful voice unforgettable even though you visibly can see fluctuations in her physical health throughout the film.

Garland’s magnetism accounts for much of what distinguishes this Star is Born from the prior one — and makes Esther’s talents clear pretty much right from the start. When she’s called in to substitute for the lead in a movie-musical who has to withdraw, it’s no surprise that she nails it. It was hard for someone like Judy Garland to not seem like a star.

Among the movie’s six Academy Award nominations was one for Garland, who was in a hospital room recovering from the birth of her son during the ceremony. NBC sent a camera crew to her hospital room, but she lost to Grace Kelly for The Country Girl.

Though this version of A Star Is Born delivered the highly lauded comeback performance from a beloved star, Garland’s screen career never really recovered. She would perform on TV specials and as a musical entertainer, but illness plagued her. Garland wouldn’t be in another film until 1961’s Judgement at Nuremberg, and she only made five films total after A Star Is Born. She died, in 1969, from a barbiturate overdose at age 47.

The 1954 version of A Star Is Born is currently streaming on Filmstruck.

A Star Is Born (1976): The one set in the music industry

Director: Frank Pierson

Writers: John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and Frank Pierson

Starring: Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson

Oscars: Four nominations; one win for Best Original Song (“Evergreen”)

The legend: Garland’s performance in the 1954 version was truly iconic, but about 20 years later, another legend decided it was time for another version of the story — this time, a much different version. Barbra Streisand executive-produced the film alongside her then-partner Jon Peters; she also wrote some of the songs and starred in it, playing Esther (who acquires a new surname, Hoffman, here). That makes it the first version in which one of its stars took an active role in its production — something that would be echoed in the 2018 version.

Unlike her predecessors in the role of Esther, Streisand was in no need of a comeback in 1976. She was at the top of her game, and A Star Is Born would be her 10th film. Married screenwriting duo John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion, along with director Frank Pierson, wrote the new screenplay.

And by now, with the Star Is Born story firmly rooted in Hollywood’s iconography, the casting was extremely important as well. Streisand and Peters considered Neil Diamond and Marlon Brando for the male lead. At one point, they wanted Elvis, but his manager’s demands proved too much. Eventually country musician Kris Kristofferson was cast in the Norman role, his character rechristened as John Norman Howard.

The theme: In this version of the movie, the young, aspiring talent — played by Streisand — is discovered by a drunk, aging star as she’s performing in a nightclub. He trails her back to her apartment, sleeps outside in his car, and then meets her for breakfast, where he falls in love with her and gives her a big break. She falls for him, too, and they marry.

But while she becomes more successful, he becomes a jealous wreck in thrall to his drug and alcohol addictions — even after they move to a remote desert home. She inspires him to create some great work, and he loves her. But he eventually, in the end, drives his car off the road in what we’re meant to understand is suicide. At his memorial service, she sings a song he wrote for her that she found on a cassette tape after his death. And she introduces herself as “Esther Hoffman Howard.”

Kristoffersen and Streisand in A Star Is Born.
Kristoffersen and Streisand in A Star Is Born.
Warner Bros.

The variations: This version of the story deviates significantly from its predecessors in one huge way: Instead of being set within the star-making machinery of Hollywood, Dunne, Didion, and Pierson moved the tale to the music industry. And so A Star Is Born became the tale of an aging rocker and a young crooner, and shifted its awards-show sequence from the Oscars to the Grammys.

It also became an obvious artifact of the 1970s. This version of A Star Is Born is more sexually explicit than previous ones — it was 1976, after all — and John Norman Howard’s decline feels steeper than those of his predecessors. Esther’s reclamation of her husband’s name feels more influenced by the feminist movement of the era: she adds his last name to her full maiden name, rather than calling herself “Mrs. John Norman Howard.” And just stylistically, it feels like a product of its time — in contrast to the controlled and tightly produced nature of its Hollywood predecessor, it feels loose, with more kinetic camera movement.

The response to this version of the film was mixed; you can find people who hate it, and others who declare it’s the best of the bunch. It was generally disliked by critics, but it was a massive hit, becoming the third highest grossing film of 1976 — probably owing to both Streisand’s and, to a lesser degree, Kristofferson’s fame, as well as to high interest in seeing Streisand in a role that most iconically belonged to Judy Garland.

Among the film’s Oscar nominations was one for the song “Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born),” which Streisand composed and performed with lyrics from Paul Williams. When it won, Streisand became the first woman to win an Oscar for composing. And it was a massive hit, spending three weeks at No. 1 in the United States and becoming one of Streisand’s biggest hits.

And while opinions are mixed on this version of A Star Is Born compared to its predecessors, there’s no doubt that it’s a star turn for Streisand — though the fact that she hardly needed it may have hampered its chances overall. It also served as the primary inspiration for the newest version of the film.

The 1976 version of A Star Is Born is streaming on Amazon Prime and available for digital rental on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

A Star Is Born (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper

Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Starring: Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper

Oscars: To be determined

The legend: This remake of A Star Is Born is Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, but there were lots of other ways this movie could have gone. At one point, Clint Eastwood was supposed to direct the film. Jennifer Lopez, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, and Beyoncé were all floated as possible female stars, with a host of leading men attached as well — Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Christian Bale.

But finally, in 2016, Cooper was signed on not just as co-star but director, and Lady Gaga was added soon after. The movie started shooting in 2017 at Coachella. Scenes were later shot at Glastonbury as well, where the 1976 film’s star, Kris Kristofferson, gave four minutes of his set to Gaga for her performance. The film finally premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018.

The theme: Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star Is Born draws most clearly from Streisand’s in a number of ways. As in that film, the 2018 version is set in the music industry; it’s about a blues-rocker whose star is falling due to his addictions and a woman with undeniable talent as a pop star; and there’s a scene set at the Grammys.

Also as in Streisand’s version, this is a true passion project for Cooper, who went through extensive vocal and musical coaching. He’s kept his personal connection to the film’s material private, but with his fingers in the film’s directing, writing, songwriting, and performing, it’s clearly something about which he feels strongly.

Like both the 1954 and 1976 versions of the film, this A Star Is Born seems poised to nab, at minimum, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song, this time for the power ballad “Shallow,” which Cooper and Gaga perform at a pivotal moment in the film. But it seems to be a likely candidate for a few other nominations as well — including for Sam Elliott, who plays Jackson’s older brother and manager, and on whom Cooper modeled his own performance.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Warner Bros.

The variations: But there are differences, too. Now, the male star is named Jackson Maine (Cooper), a nod to the Norman Maines of earlier films, and the female star (Lady Gaga) has shed the name “Esther” entirely, for “Ally.”

It’s also the first version that seems to have almost entirely kicked the male jealousy trope, or at least considered it unjustified. Jackson experiences a bit of envy that Ally is experiencing success, and in some cases it causes him to lash out. But Ally calls him on it, and they handle it like any couple would. It’s not his jealousy that ultimately does Jackson in; it’s his addictions — partly his reaction, it turns out, to a very troubled childhood — that ultimately are his biggest problem.

As such, this version of A Star Is Born is most interested not in the machinations of celebrity, but in the way relationships between successful, creative people can both spawn and hamper that creativity — and how addiction can play into that. That distinction feels natural and authentic in 2018, perhaps because stardom feels less mysterious in a world of Instagram influencers and YouTube stars than it did in the past. The bigger question has become whether and how people who attain fame can remain grounded.

Will this be the final A Star Is Born? It seems unlikely. As long as there is Hollywood, there will probably be more versions of the same old story. The shape they take and the details will morph with the times, but the core story — a love story, a melodrama, and a tragedy all wrapped into one — seems to hold unending appeal.

The 2018 version of A Star Is Born opens in theaters on October 5.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece contained inaccuracies regarding the plot of What Price Hollywood? as it pertains to Max and Mary’s relationship and her Academy Awards win. They have been corrected.