***/**** Image A+ Sound B Extras B
starring Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Busey, Oliver Clark
screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson
directed by Frank Pierson
by Sydney Wegner Two-and-a-half hours ago, I didn't care one bit for Barbra Streisand. As a mega Kris Kristofferson fangirl, I was grudgingly willing to endure her performance alongside him in A Star is Born. I grew up with people who wouldn't be caught dead listening to her music; I'd never seen any of her movies. All I knew of her besides the larger-than-life fame and cloned dogs was her legendary ego. Diva, control freak, crazy, stuck-up--many of these distasteful adjectives stemming from the troubled production of A Star is Born. Despite its awards and box-office success (it was the third highest-grossing film of 1976), the years have not necessarily been kind, and almost every recent review has mentioned her presence as overwhelming the movie. That is, the lack of chemistry between the leads, the way the movie skips over chunks of badly-needed character development to make room for her songs, and the fashion disasters are frequent complaints with one common target: Babs.
All of these criticisms are, to some extent, true. I'd be lying if I didn't say that A Star is Born is kind of a mess. On paper, it looks like a walk in the park. We've got two of America's most prolific artists, both with plenty of experience in the music and movie businesses, teaming up for a modern remake of a classic story of tragic love proven twice hugely popular with audiences. There's music by Paul Williams and Streisand herself, in a time when wild, dirty rock led by growling leading men was beginning to be edged out by sleek upbeat disco with powerhouse vocals. In real life in 1976, though Kristofferson was still releasing albums and playing shows, as well as composing music for other singers, sales of his own records, with their increasing lack of catchy songs and Kristofferson's unfashionably gravelly voice, had dropped drastically, never to fully recover their late-'60s and early-'70s numbers. He struggled with self-doubt and had problems with substance abuse. Streisand, on the other hand, was churning out hits and starring in multiple movies, and was already an Academy Award-winning actress (for her very first film, Funny Girl). It was an electric time of transition in music and movie history, and both actors could obviously draw on their personal feelings of excitement and trepidation to enrich their characters.
A Star is Born's success at the time was most likely due to the idol worship of its female lead, much like Lady Gaga will surely draw hordes of lovesick fans to the 2018 iteration, regardless of the movie's quality. In a way, Barbra Streisand as the plucky Esther Hoffman is the wrong choice for the role--but not because her ego drove her to stealing the picture out from under everyone else's feet. It's because we can never buy that at the beginning, she doesn't think she's capable of being a star. Of course everyone has to start somewhere, to grapple with insecurity and self-consciousness. The moment Esther steps on the big stage for the first time, however, it's impossible to believe she hasn't been there a hundred times before. The plot tries to strip Streisand of what makes her a star--her ferocious independence, her outspokenness. But her persona would not be cowed. As we already know, A Star is Born follows a pretty simple trajectory: a man slowly fading from the public consciousness falls in love with and mentors a woman who is destined to take his place; conflict ensues. The first two versions took place in Hollywood, but here and in the Lady Gaga remake the milieu has been changed to the music business, allowing for another level of emotional distress--an actor's personal life is certainly scrutinized, but a musician must craft their own image rather than play someone else's script. Assuming they aren't rejected right out of the gate, any deviations from that front in public or private are subject to vehement dismissal.
Esther is a singer accidentally discovered by drug-addled rabble-rouser Kris Kristofferson, a.k.a. John Norman Howard. After a fight breaks out in the bar where Esther is performing (incited by none other than a young Robert Englund!), John whisks her away in his limo, and we can tell it's only a matter of time before the skeptical Esther will be worn down by her new admirer's persistence. Though she is supposed to be something of a fresh-faced innocent to counteract her man's worn-down, I've-been-everywhere charms, Barbra can't help seeming tough and savvy. For all her failings--the unfortunate perm, the odd clothing, the jaw-dropping bad taste of what she names her singing trio consisting of one white and two black women--something about her is irresistible. I hate to infantilize a grown woman, but...everything she does offstage is just so darn cute. So, yes, I scoffed at her magnetic presence being confined to a dingy coffee shop of patrons who can't be bothered to look at her, but it explains how a man who is accustomed to flings with eager, girlish groupies would find himself drawn to a woman wearing suspenders and an attitude. Similarly, Kristofferson overcomes the very poor decision to dismiss his country roots and mold him into a scuzzy, Morrison-esque rock'n'roll god by turning in one of the best performances of his career. His frisky, little-boy's eyes perfectly convey the way he's crafted a wall of bravado and daredevilry against the world, without having to say a word. And to see his moments of vulnerability is quite powerful, for what if, in the midst of women's liberation, men stopped puffing up to defend their masculine superiority? While their romantic chemistry is shaky, the actors' individual performances make up for it. Maybe we didn't get the epic love story we might have because the stars were too overwhelmed with how high the real-life stakes were for their respective careers, or because the material was too close to real life. Instead, we get two accidental biopics, becoming one coherent whole for only the brief moment their characters are happy together.
What follows their serendipitous meeting isn't surprising, whether you've seen the previous two versions or not. John spirals downward, buoyed only by the effervescent purity of Esther. They meet in the middle for a while, as all divergent paths must, and enjoy a slice of marital bliss before falling apart. What is a surprise are the undeniably striking images--how tiny Kristofferson looks in his mansion or before a crowd vs. how he fills Streisand's apartment; Streisand bathing Kristofferson while surrounded by candles resting on Schlitz cans; Streisand with a constellation of wedding-day baby's breath scattered through her galaxy of frizzy curls. Barbra's lighting seems to come straight from God, and her crazy fashions pop in their richness of texture and colour. Another filmmaker might have chosen to update the aesthetic into something harsh and gritty to align with the times, but Frank Pierson clearly takes inspiration from the bold Technicolor of his 1954 predecessor. The attention to detail is impeccable, each setting carefully crafted to underscore the story. An image like Kristofferson, in deep shadow, snorting cocaine for the first time since falling in love, may sound heavy-handed, but it is always a treat to notice a director actually making an effort. These instances of artistry overcome the ludicrous clothing and interiors--from top to bottom every single stylistic choice is laughably outdated, but boy does the light fall on them beautifully.
A midpoint montage of John and Esther building a house in the desert is unique for being equally the cheesiest and most genuine sequence. In this portion of the movie, John looks healthy as opposed to drunk and half-dead, love having given his life the purpose he thought he'd lost. Esther glows, enraptured with her new husband, dreams of her future within reach. In a fit of recklessness, he runs outside to ride his motorcycle through the mud and falls off, calling back to an earlier attempt to drive his bike around on stage that left Esther and concertgoers traumatized. Fearing he's injured, she rushes to his side, doesn't even blink when her bright white trousers get covered in grime. This moment of character insight--it's about his slow return to self-loathing--struck me because in any other movie, the woman would have shrieked over her ruined clothes. (It's an even bigger deal seeing Barbra Streisand shrug it off.) Esther has bigger priorities than fashion; John is still literally riding in circles. It's here that A Star is Born hits its turning point. Cute as the couple is, in the first half of the film, we don't get enough opportunity to see Esther change her mind about John or for the build-up of their romance sink in. As they frolic through the construction site of their future home, it certainly looks as though they've been together a decade. We can see what they love in each other, she encouraging him in her hardass way to be a better man while simultaneously dependent on him for support and advice and friendship, he seeing a better man reflected in her honest gaze. When they first meet, it's difficult to imagine Esther putting up with his bullshit for one second, but something clicks when they are finally together.
After a few fleeting moments of joy, John starts to slip while Esther goes on her first tour. This pivotal shift in their dynamic is essentially crammed into one scene, in which John attempts to compose a grating solo song in an empty house, the phone interrupting him with calls for his new bride. It would be funny to see one of the greatest songwriters of all time pretend to struggle with imperfect singing and playing if it wasn't so damned depressing. It's an effective scene, although hardly enough to justify his seemingly instant relapse into his old ways. An unintentionally amusing scuffle at the Grammy awards follows, pretty nearly undermining all the sincerity the filmmakers have worked for--and that's the heart of the problem. Where A Star is Born falters is in the storytelling itself: too much it is a highlight reel of small moments. Before we can adjust to the new status quo in the couple's relationship, it's changed again. Despite that the film is so long, one is left wondering where the time actually went. They meet and suddenly they're in love; she's a nobody and then she's a superstar; he's doing well and then he acts out; and then it's over. It feels like only days have passed since he first met her; he was so devoted to her in their cozy honeymoon home on Monday, but by Friday he's back to drinking and womanizing and hellraising, and suddenly she's performing in front of a giant neon ESTHER sign? I suppose it does help keep things moving along at a nice, non-boring clip, if you decide to leave your analytical brain at home and go along for the ride. The dubious chemistry, the outrageous costumes, the less-than-stellar songs--all forgivable, if not outright endearing. It's these incoherent jumps in time and tone that prevent A Star is Born from soaring.
A masterwork it ain't, and yet...there's something about the soap opera soft-focus and the 1970s interior design and four blue eyes drinking each other up that hypnotized me. I loved the vintage cheese, the lush cinematography, the ridiculous outbursts, and by the time I'd finished my rewatch with the commentary, even the overwrought songs had won me over. Touches of '70s feminism (a minor fit about Esther omitting "obey" from her wedding vows and casual talk of scented douche, to name a couple examples) transform it from a story of competing egos into something of a meditation on how a strong woman can give herself over to love while staying true to herself--that mythical work/life balance that was the plight of the Modern Woman of the era. Yes, it's about the music industry, the Me Decade, shifting gender roles, a drowning man and a flying woman. But take away the hysterics and the dorky style and the production woes, and you're left with two people whose overwhelming love for each other still isn't enough to save them. Maybe it was just me, my state of mind, but in that final long take of Esther singing an absurd Broadway medley version of her husband's biggest psychedelic rock hit...I swear, I meant to roll my eyes; yet as the stage lights faded and swelled, I found myself starting to cry instead.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner's 1.78:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation of A Star is Born is downright stunning. From Kris Kristofferson's opening number--the crystal-clear beads of sweat on his chest, the blue and pink lights like gaudy watercolour--to bandmate Gary Busey's soft denim-and-snakeskin jacket and tombstone teeth, there is something breathtaking in virtually every shot, and this pristine transfer facilitates an indulgent appreciation. The desert landscapes are rich with every fathomable shade of brown; the concert performances, with their endless blacks and dazzling lights, are a particular joy. It's impossible to miss how beautifully photographed the movie is in HD, such that I'd recommend the disc even to people who don't like A Star is Born itself, purely for its aesthetic pleasures. As for the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundmix, it delivers on the music scenes but is never as striking or dynamic as the visuals. I did have to adjust the volume between performances, which are notably rich and distinct, and dialogue, which can get muddy, but it is partially Kristofferson's mumbly fault.
This review refers to the 2013 disc, packaged in a digibook or "songbook" featuring a 40-page booklet of behind-the-scenes photos and production stills. (Warner later reissued it in a standard Blu-ray keepcase.) Aside from the deluxe housing there isn't much in the way of supplementary material, though one featurette of Streisand doing commentary over a 3-minute, standard-def compilation of her wardrobe tests is a gem I probably could have watched for hours. There is also a fairly hefty chunk of deleted scenes--a dozen running 17 minutes in total, again in SD--with Streisand commentary as well. Mostly they're worthwhile for her remarks alone, but there are a couple (an early one of Esther in the recording studio, a later one where Esther sits in John's lap as they discuss "wanting it all") that would have brought some needed depth to the picture. Similarly notable is a moment that sees Esther playing the guitar for John, which Streisand says multiple times in her yakker for the movie proper was incredibly difficult for her, as the movie's producer, to cut. She took guitar lessons, wrote her Oscar-winning song "Evergreen," and clipped her nails (she likes talking about her nails) specifically for this bit, but in the interest of tightening the flow of the film she said goodbye to it. While I agree with Barbra that it's a little rough and embarrassing, it should have been kept in the final cut. Luckily for her, she was able to supervise a new version that showed up on Netflix, in which remastered versions of her guitar-playing debut and new footage of her final number (also featured among these elisions) were included. Unluckily for us, it was only available for a few months before expiring, as is the tragic ephemeral nature of our modern digital age.
Aside from those and SD trailers for the first three incarnations of A Star is Born, there is a commentary for the film itself in which Streisand again flies solo. This will be either disappointing or a dream come true, depending on what you like about the movie. It's more of an interview with Babs about how she wrote the songs, and overall how great she is, occasionally connected with what's happening onscreen. Yeah, she makes it sound like she was in charge of every aspect of the movie, that the majority of it is drawn from her life and her relationship with co-producer/former hairdresser Jon Peters, without anyone else's input. At the same time...she did win those Oscars, so why not let her brag? Though Frank Pierson wrote an inflammatory tell-all article soon after the film's release, it would be nice to hear from him (still living at the time this track was recorded for the DVD release), or anybody else involved with the technical aspects. Although knowing how emotionally exhausting the production was, one can hardly blame anyone for being unwilling to revisit the experience. To Barbra's credit, she has loads of praise for many of the people who worked on the movie, and frequently cites the handsomeness of both Robert Surtees's cinematography and Kristofferson. If she was bitter or angry about it at the time, the thirty intervening years have left her with more good memories than bad. Of course, there is nobody else there to argue, and surely she would want viewers to focus on the positive, so a grain of salt should be taken alongside what she says. She's best in her explanations of the love scenes, particularly her ideas about having the two leads connect romantically through their music. For me, it definitely lent more poignancy to what, at first viewing, felt awkward and somehow unnatural.
Speaking of love scenes, she had a specific shot in mind for the "putting makeup on Kris Kristofferson in the bathtub" part: their kissing in the living room fades to black, and the black gradually morphs into the black tiles of the bathroom. For this, Streisand asked for a black and pink bathroom to be built, but the tiles on the completed project were pink with a black border, rather than the other way around. The crew stayed up all night to repaint the tiles so the shot would work--a diva move, absolutely, but it is a wonderful transition. She knows what she's doing; it's certainly no surprise that soon after completing A Star is Born, her years-long dream to star in a production of Yentl shifted to a campaign to become its director. Also significant is her mentioning that she wore clothes from her own closet in the film, not because she had better taste than the costume designers or wanted total control, but because she was so busy acting, singing, writing, and producing that she simply didn't have time to try anything on. What hustle! Why this attitude gets her called a bitch and not an auteur is a different piece entirely--but over the course of my A Star is Born study I did learn to respect her as a powerful artist and businesswoman. Not one I'd ever want to work with, but still.