In my apparent determination to turn myself, once and for all, into a homosexual man, I have watched all three versions of the film A Star Is Born in as many days. The prompt for this was actually that when, for the first time in ages, I viewed the 1954 version with Judy Garland in the lead, I was unexpectedly impressed with her dissolute has-been husband, Norman Maine (James Mason), a person whom I had, for decades now, considered to be a colossal, parade-raining-on, pest.
The original film, made in 1937, with Janet Gaynor as the ambitious, if innocent, Esther Victoria Blodgett, gets off to a roaring start, with her battle-axe aunty cautioning her that ‘You’d better be getting yourself a husband and stop mooning about Hollywood!’ Suffice to say that Esther sensibly ignores this advice and takes off to what is described as ‘the beckoning El Dorado’, thanks to her eye-on-the-prize grandmother (May Robson) (of whom more later) having given her some cold, hard cash. After renting a room that costs only six dollars a week and yet is ‘close to all movie studios’, and having a period of struggle that seems entirely realistic, filled as it with frightening statistics, Esther lucks into a waitressing job at a fancy Hollywood party and attempts to be discovered by doing impressions (something I certainly wish I’d thought of while tripping on the stairs of the ‘original Bondi Tram’ at The Old Spaghetti Factory, back in ’86). While this gambit doesn’t work in exactly the way she had intended, Esther does manage to score for herself liquored-up box-office giant Norman (Fredric March), who quickly identifies her massive potential. They get married and are fortunate enough to live in a house with a lake that has swans on it.
Also, as I would hope everyone knows, and thanks to Norman orchestrating her big break, she ascends to the heights of glittering stardom, having been assigned a new name, Vicki Lester; and he descends from it, in a sad game of Snakes and Ladders. Norman, due to his career slide and his struggles with Signor Booze, and because he has overheard Esther saying that she is going to give up her career to devote herself to his care, drowns himself. Esther then wants to chicken out of showbusiness life, and the grandmother turns up again, to prove once and for all that she is the queen of monologues that are not only astonishingly persuasive but handily bookend the action. It seems that she and Esther have had no contact for years, given that the old lady declaims that she ‘never knew Norman Maine’, which I found peculiar, even as I respected Esther for doing what I would do in her situation and sweeping the existence of my humble relations under the carpet. At any rate, the grandmother shows an admirable directness regarding her burning, and primary, interest in her granddaughter’s celebrity, admonishing her that ‘I was proud to be the grandmother of Vicki Lester’, and even insinuating herself into the glare of the media spotlight at the end. The 1954 film has the same plot, with variations, such as Esther being a star of movie musicals; and the 1976 one – with, of course, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson – has the same plot, with variations, such as them both being ‘rock singers’, and Norman, unfortunately, having been renamed John Norman Howard.
I’ve got to hand it to 1937 Norman for definitely being the most gifted of the Normans at spotting potential, given that it would be difficult to imagine Gaynor as a big movie star except for the fact that she was one. The other two Esthers are supposed to be nice, normal humans as well, but you really believe in Gaynor’s Esther as a woman who can whip up a cooked breakfast in a moving caravan, which I don’t intend as a compliment. Garland, on the other hand, is simultaneously hard to watch, with all the high-strung laughing while singing, and the high-strung laughing while talking, and also impossible to look away from, as is Streisand. The freakish thing about the 1954 version, of course, is that Garland, in being the woman who loves Norman Maine, is basically playing opposite herself, while she, against type, plays the sensible one. ‘What makes someone want to destroy himself?’ she asks, doing the viewer’s head in, given that this is a lady who, as even a brand-new plastic chair in a Taco Bell must know, had one of the most self-destructive streaks in showbusiness history and who in her professional life, and in every other way, in no way shared Esther’s show-must-go-on approach.
In the 1976 version, on the other hand, given that it’s a Streisand movie, the leading lady’s good looks must be commented upon extensively, with John Norman complimenting her eyes, her mouth, and her ‘sweet little ass’. In keeping with the sweetness and littleness of her ‘ass’, Streisand’s Esther makes wisecracks with a deliberate adorableness that ill befits a woman of her years, and John Norman shoots off guns, in the manner of Sean Penn when he was married to Madonna. In the parlance of the time, he also ‘balls’ a groupie, who is, interestingly, a Rolling Stone writer, like, I seem to recall, the ‘younger man’ with whom Jacqueline Bisset has an affair in Rich and Famous. All this makes them a rather less appealing Esther and Norman than their predecessessors, but Kristofferson still manages to be strangely attractive, and even outclass being filmed for posterity sitting in a bath while Streisand applies rouge to his face.
As I watched the two later films, I came increasingly to appreciate the way that with Gaynor in the lead there is no roaring and hollering in song. In the 1937 version, the film within a film that launches Esther’s career, The Enchanted Hour, is wittily set (Dorothy Parker had a hand in the screenplay, after all) when ‘When the world tripped politely to the genteel music of spinnets.’ In the 1954 version, in contrast, the film within a film sticks us with the endless ‘Born in a Trunk’. What was taking place in the rest of the film within a film, for god’s sake, if Esther’s character has to deliver her whole autobiography in song at the end of it? Stone-hearted press agent Matt Libby (Jack Carson) gloats that ninety-eight percent of the preview cards ‘say you have yourself a new star’ and I can only imagine that the other two per cent were objecting strenuously to ‘Born in a Trunk’. As well, it is extremely difficult to imagine any human either voluntarily singing or purchasing on record the ‘rock songs’ in the 1976 version, tuneless and interminable as they are, not to mention referencing bizarre subjects, such as Cleopatra and the desire to play Othello.
In other news, the decline of Western civilisation is clearly indicated when comparing the the films’ style of dress and the characters mode of conducting themselves. For example, Garland’s Esther wears high heels and earrings just to sit around the house and worry that her spouse has been killed in an accident. Streisand, on the other hand, aside from the film having been made during the miserable (at least in terms of hairdressing) Afro Years, wears clothes from, the credits tell us, her actual closet, and this wardrobe features a lot of nineteen seventies ill-advised bralessness, and includes horrible pantsuits, glittering braces teamed with tight pants and, worst of all, white shorts teamed with a Superman t-shirt and long socks. John Norman, that Christ figure in cheesecloth, is always swigging from a bottle, or clutching a can, a carton of Jack Daniel’s, not to mention a bucket of Kentucky Fried. At one point, Gary Busey as road manager Bobby Ritchie, upbraids him while he, Busey, wears a Hawaiian shirt teamed with a neckerchief; as well, another of John Norman’s many doubters teams a fishing hat with a very wide tie. On a happier note, no human being whom I would wish to know could object to the production design: John Norman appears to live in Westminster Abbey, and he and Esther, via a montage, build an awesome seventies ranch house, complete with doubles riding noble steeds.
Even with all these generational contasts in style and manner, though, the constant in the three films is that Esther and Norman are durably madly in love, being almost always a refuge for each other, even as they, just as reliably, cause each other mental agony. Indeed, Esther commutes home dressed in her costume (1937) and rehearsal clothes (1954), because she can’t wait to be with Norman, due to their passion for each other, but, even aside from all the physical business, they simply enjoy chatting and bantering, and each regards the other as being as interesting and entertaining as a festival that is actually interesting and entertaining. In the 1954 version, Esther makes fun of the stupid movie that she is making (Moss Hart was on board for this screenplay, after all), noting that it features ‘Patriotism without end – you should see the things that come out of the ground’, and parodying it in an extensive musical number. Personally, I’d be cheesed off at having to sit through something like this when dinner is on the table, but Norman appears to adore it: James Mason must have had to spend about a week looking delighted for the purposes of his reaction shots. In none of the films do Esther and Norman go on at each other about domestic issues; admittedly, this is probably because they have so much money, and servants, but, for the viewer who is alive today, their manner of relating certainly makes a refreshing change from the joyless nagging and general lack of spousal common ground in, say, This Is 40, as does the fact that no one is struggling with the question of ‘work/life balance’.
The bottom line is that Norman has wild enthusiasm for Esther’s talent, and, remarkably, in none of the movies, whatever their era, does it seem to occur to him, or to anyone in Hollywood, that she should ever stop, or never have started, the career in which this talent is best utilised to become his unpaid PA/household help and, generally, the woman behind the man. Geez, he even kills himself so that he won’t get in her way. Yes, I can see how people might think Norman being the author of Esther’s stardom is all a bit too Star 80, but I think it’s more that he applies to her his masculine inclination to be sure of himself. Too, I’d recalled Norman, who (inexplicably, to my mind) doesn’t want just to sit around on his wife’s dime, being a sulky brute, always having a turn when, for example, he is mistaken for Esther’s secretary but, really, it is not so. The only time that Norman acts unforgivably towards Esther (although, of course, which would seem impossible to anyone who isn’t Esther, she does forgive him, almost instantly) is when he turns up drunk at the Oscars (1937 and 1954) and the Grammys (1976), and spoils her big moment with a self-pitying speech. Aside from anything, this famous scene has set impossible standards when it comes to the possibility of anything interesting happening at the Oscars or at the Grammys, just as it’s impossible to go to a wedding and not hope it will all turn out like the end of The Graduate.
I had always detested the endings of the first two films, with Esther introducing herself at a big public appearance by saying,‘I am Mrs Norman Maine’ (in 1976, she double-barrels it, with ‘Esther Hoffman Howard’) but I don’t feel this way anymore, even though I am against women taking their husband’s surnames unless there are strong aesthetic reasons to do so. She really does owe him, after all, and, rather than her statement meaning that all she is at the end of the day is Norman’s lady wife, it feels more like a public assertion that she’s proud of this helpful bum, to whom a parade of showbusiness phonies, and the public generally, had stopped giving the time of day.
If Star is ever remade, again, which, let’s face it, it probably will be, I would like to see it not be a musical and, as was the case in 1937 and 1954, have famous wits involved in writing the script – it’s been the music that has let it down and I wouldn’t want to see be a big, heartless, by-the-numbers, brassy, humourless, tuneless bore, like The Bodyguard. There could even be a reversal of the sexes for the two leads – I would be glad to see, for example, in about fifteen years from now, the talented and persecuted Lindsay Lohan pulling a rabbit out of the hat and pulling off the Norman Maine role. Yes, taking it on would be intimidating for all involved but, as Mason’s Norman says to Esther before her screen test, ‘Of course you’re scared. We all are. What makes you think you wouldn’t be?’.