(Welcome to Classically Contemporary, a series where we explore the ways in which new releases echo classic Hollywood.)

When classic film fans heard Bradley Cooper was directing A Star is Born a collective sigh went out. Telling a story that’s been done no less than three times already isn’t exactly innovative, and yet A Star is Born has been a popular story to tell since its inception in 1932.

Unlike the previous Classically Contemporary article, we won’t be looking at outside influences from the classic era, but how this incarnation of A Star is Born is influenced by the versions that came before. How does Cooper’s story hold up alongside its previous iterations, and what does its placement in 2018 say about us and celebrity? Let’s go far from the shallow and get classically contemporary with A Star is Born.

This post contains minor spoilers for all four versions of the film, including the new one.

A Star is Born: A Brief History of Cinematic Time

The progenitor of what we know today as A Star is Born can be found in the 1932 George Cukor-directed drama, What Price Hollywood? All the pieces we associate with the title are found here: Constance Bennett plays small-town waitress Mary Evans who falls into a business relationship with the drunken Hollywood producer, Max Carey (Lowell Sherman). Max is intent on turning Mary into a star – she has what Elinor Glyn would call “it” – but it comes at the expense of his sobriety.

Based on the relationship between silent movie star Colleen Moore and her husband, John McCormick, this pre-Code drama wasn’t afraid to get messy, complete with Max Carey shooting himself in the chest. Mary returns to Paris and re-establishes a domestic life with her husband, Lonny, with whom she has a son, reminding audiences that all that glitters isn’t gold. It’s certainly the happiest iteration of the story despite the time period.

Four years later producer David O. Selznick planned a lavish remake, this time starring Fredric March and the first Academy Award-winning actress, Janet Gaynor. A Star is Born lays the groundwork for the remakes that would come in 1954, 1976 and 2018. In this case, scrappy Midwest girl Esther Blodgett dreams of stardom and finds it, along with a toxic love, with star Norman Maine.

Hollywood and the “Woman’s Picture”

The subsequent films take-off from this simple idea, that when one star rises another must fall. And the further the films have moved from the original feature, the more changes have been made, most specifically to who is the actual “star” that is born. In both the 1937 and 1954 takes on the feature, Esther Blodgett is the protagonist of the feature. Her relationship with Norman Maine is the crux of the narrative, but we see events through her eyes.

Concurrently, her success is aided by Norman Maine’s intervention, but never because of it. Janet Gaynor’s Esther in 1937 knows she’s a star, and works hard to make events happen but just needs the right person to vouch for her. The same can be said about Judy Garland’s Esther in 1954. The audience watches her pay her dues singing, and it’s only by Norman getting her a screen test that she’s given a career. Really, fame is destined for the characters and Maine is little more than an introduction to it.

So Norman Maine’s death in all four versions is directly in proportion to how we’re meant to see our heroine. For Janet Gaynor in 1937 it is the reminder of her domesticity. Her grandmother speechifies to her that she must live for her husband, and carry on his legacy by being the great actress he knew she was. Judy Garland, in 1954, follows the same message, but considering the autobiographical tone of this version – which essentially details Garland’s life more than anything else – her declaration of being “Mrs. Norman Maine” is validation of her own acting prowess. And for 1976, Barbra Streisand presents her Esther as a partner in John Norman’s success.

Who’s Our Main Maine?

The 1932 character established as Max Carey eventually transformed into movie star Norman Maine, portrayed by Fredric March in 1937 and James Mason in 1954. Like 2018’s iteration, Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, March and Mason have a wide-eyed love of their respective muses/soon-to-be-spouses. Mason, in particular, practically falls for Esther Blodgett (Judy Garland) at first sight, writing “EB + NM” in a heart on the wall. Though their relationship is one of ups and downs due to Norman’s drinking, the relationship is propped up by Esther completely. Incidentally, neither the 1937 or the 1954 version could be considered Norman Maine’s movie, with Esther being the protagonist in both.

After the 1954 version the movie took 22 years to be remade, plenty of time for audiences to forget that Norman Maine was necessarily the hero of the story. Barbra Streisand’s version segues from Hollywood to music, with Kris Kristofferson playing John Norman, a hard-rocker in the vein of John Fogarty. In comparison to the early versions, which were bound by the Motion Picture Production Code, 1976’s John Norman transitions from both alcoholism to drug addiction (though it’s a fairly tame portrayal of drug use, especially by ‘70s standards). John Norman adds an additional air of recklessness to the proceedings, riding a motorcycle on-stage and falling off. And his death even comes with an air of ambiguity. As he drives wildly on the road it could be a suicide just as much as an accident.

Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a combination of all three takes on the character: possessing March and Mason’s drunkenness, alongside John Norman’s musical background. But what he does differently than the other three is examine how his character has been shaped like celebrity, a facet that holds more in common with the 1937 version which emphasizes how tightly Hollywood controls a star’s persona.

Esther, Esther, Ally

Each of the actresses playing Esther Blodgett have become far more distinct than their leading men due to a combination of star persona and scriptwriting. Janet Gaynor’s performance as Esther (soon to become movie star Vicki Lester) is wrapped up in the Hollywood star machine. She’s scrappy and sweet, a beautiful girl who believes in love, not unlike the character Gaynor played in her Oscar-winning film, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Her and March’s Maine have a crackling, for 1937, sexual chemistry, but she’s hampered by how women were treated during this time. Hence, Esther’s grandma having to remind her to stand by her man and live for him.

Judy Garland hoped A Star is Born would be her big comeback, and though it secured her an Oscar nomination, she didn’t win and much of what people remember about her interpretation of the film is the parallels to her life. But as this take on Esther Blodgett, the script actually takes the time to deconstruct the nature of addiction. In one scene, Esther discusses how much she loves Norman who “tries” to keep drinking, yet she “hates him” for continuing to lie and fail her. “I hate me, too” she cries, blaming herself as much as him. It’s a powerful moment none of the versions, then and since, have attempted to recreate. Not only does it show the thought process of a spouse dealing with a partner who is an addict, but it touches on Garland’s own public issues with alcoholism and pills.

Ironically, Cooper’s performance holds more in common with Barbra Streisand’s take on Esther. Both actors felt they were more suited to directing and both had claims lobbed on them that this was a vanity project. Barbra’s Esther, steeped in the rise of second-wave feminism, blends alongside John Norman. Their careers aren’t necessarily divergent, but that John is too wild and irresponsible to hold onto his fame.

Lady Gaga’s Ally is certainly the most divergent, being a blend of Gaynor’s sweetness, Garland’s tenacity, and Streisand’s feistiness. In fact, Ally holds more in common with John Norman at times – punching a man in a bar in a scene similar to a fight John has in the ‘76 film. But Cooper uses Ally more as a symbol of the difference in the music industry. It’s hard to dissociate Ally from Lady Gaga, a move that mimics Garland’s performance in ‘54, and leads to unintentional humor at Jackson trying to mansplain the industry to a woman we know has lived in it for years. It’s also hard to see Ally as anything more than a recreation of Gaynor’s Esther, a woman meant to stand by her man, despite her presumed independence and autonomy. When Ally performs her final song at the end, it isn’t about showing that her husband gave her a career, nor is it perpetuating the idea they were partners. It’s a romanticization of all that’s come before, and seems more at home in 1937 than 2018.

Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is its own animal, but one that owes its life to a longstanding history of Hollywood and the star persona.

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