Mini Series: The Evolution of A Star is Born

By Amelia Field

 A Star is Born has served us the classic tale of the journey to stardom, revamped across four distinct eras showing us that the path to success never does run smooth. The story stays pretty much the same across the four films, however, the type of industry and traits of the characters changes with the time.

We are first introduced to the story in the first A Star is Born in 1937. Ester, the lead played by Janet Gaynor makes the move from North Dakota to Hollywood to pursue her one dream of being a Hollywood performer. This notion of origin story is a narrative often found in Hollywood movies at the time and reflects how Hollywood can change a person. From changing your name to making you prettier. Despite this seemly evil portrayal of the journey to stardom this movie is not an expose of Hollywood’s wicked ways. This transformation is one very familiar to those in and around Hollywood and is viewed as more of an inspirational message to watchers that ‘this could be you’.

Ester goes on to meet Norman Maine, a famous entertainer who is taken by her and therefore wants to help her develop her career. This then leads to a Ester changing her name to Vicki Lester and having a subsequent relationship with Norman ending with them getting married. After this, as most Hollywood films go, the story goes pear shaped and as Ester’s fame grows, Norman develops an alcohol problem which leads to him ruining Esters acceptance speech of a prestigious award and eventually leading him to commit suicide. Ester returns to the stage after a period of mourning to honour Norman. Norman in this specific film is viewed as being not very self reflective and aggressive towards Ester which causes the audience to feel negatively towards him.This portrayal set the groundwork for the later movies

The first remake is often regarded as the best out of the four films. Writer, Moss Hart made significant differences to the previous film including changing it into a musical. This change reflected the landscape of the time. Due to the introduction of the TV at the time, the numbers of people that attended the cinema shrunk significantly. This meant that in order to keep up, Hollywood had to up their game with production which included producing a number of musicals. The origin story adopted in the first film was lost as the traditional star system of the 1930s was shrinking.

The relationship between Ester and Norman played by Judy Garland and James Mason had changed slightly through how Norman discovers Ester performing at a benefit concert and so has backing for his mission to launch her as a star. Normans character has taken on a more sympathetic and introspective role which gives us a different vision of him when he ruins the awards ceremony. Judy Garland had a personal connection with the film as she struggled with a lot of the same things as Norman. These included struggling with substance and alcohol abuse, spending time in rehab and accidentally killing herself. This movie was able to pick up on the downfalls of the first while having a convincing performances by Garland and Mason.

The second remake seems to have completely abandoned the traditional elements of the first two films and completely embodied the 70s mindset. The film was reviewed poorly but was very financially successful and Barbra Streisand earned an Oscar for her role of Ester. Screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne changed the narrative of the story to have Ester and Norman be rockstars. This was a beneficial change because it allowed for the same narrative while musicals where becoming less popular. It also reflected how pop culture had changed with a shift from Hollywood starlets to actor/singers.

The rockstar breakdown was something that was a prominent issue of the time with stars like Jimmy Hendrix and Janis Joplin so this movie fitted in with the time. Along with the second wave feminism and the women’s movement being at full force at the time the film needed to reflect this change in society. This meant that Ester was more in control of her art. The film played with gender roles and put more of a focus on the characters individuality rather than their love.

The last remake is the one that is what a lot of readers may be familiar with as it swept up a number of oscars and feels like a 21st century take on this traditional storyline. The rock star vibe is maintained but the feminist twist of the 1976 version is gone. Ester has been changed to Ally and is played by Lady gaga who was nominated for an Oscar for the role. This film harks back to the 1937 version with the emphasis on origin story being prominent although now it is more focused on Jackson (formally Norman). We see that he has had a troubled past of family problems and mental health problems which puts more of an emotional focus on how we view the character. A current focus in Hollywood is that of the anti hero who is not a hero in the traditional sense through how they are shown to be flawed and struggle but within this struggle we relate to them and have an emotional connection with them. This means that during Jacksons breakdown and subsequent embarrassing ruin of Ally’s award acceptance speech we have less of a negative image of him as he is shown to be someone truly good just struggling with a problem.

Ally is shown to be more of the traditional Ester through how she goes through a big transformation and somewhat looses herself in trying to ‘save’ her husband’. This transformation is interesting as it is one which Lady Gaga went through herself although the opposite way. From her 2000s crazy looks and electronic music to her current self who produces more acoustic soulful music. Lastly, there is much more of a voice given to supporting actors such as Ally’s dad and Jackson’s brother. These characters help to develop the main characters and offer a much more human element to these Hollywood stars showing a comparison between the real world and the music industry.

A Star is Born is a traditional narrative that has been reflected in all different eras and therefore holds a special place in a lot of viewers hearts. It gives us a glimpse into these industries and shows how even though they can look glamorous from the outside they can also be extremely damaging.