"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Sisters Are Doin' It For Themselves


Like the Rogaine revolution, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and Rosie O'Donnell's war on the NRA, the perpetual remaking of A Star Is Born is a twentieth-century struggle we're apparently condemned to keep waging far into the twenty-first. More than two years after the first rumor that there might be a fourth iteration of the tragic romance, with formerly Fresh Prince Will Smith playing a substance-abusing show business icon whose downfall mirrors the rise of his starlet wife, the idea refuses to die. Last reported to be in trial balloon hell — with Jamie Foxx slated as the leading man, a chanteuse to be named later (variously described as ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill, ex-hitmaker Mariah Carey, and ex-surnamed person Aaliyah) attached as the title star, and hard-living Doors auteur Oliver Stone behind the camera — the project appears doomed to get made at some point. Sooner or later, we'll have a new version of the film that even the usually sobersided Mr. Showbiz called a "timeless tale of fame, fortune, and tragedy." And why shouldn't we? A Star Is Born is a kind of show business Christmas Carol — a story treatment so durable and iconically arranged that it can withstand godawful remakes beyond number. That it is also the last word on celebrity marriages and an eerily apt history of modern gender relations is merely the icing on a particularly creamy cake.

The timeless tale of fame, fortune, and tragedy can be described with merciful brevity. A girl from the prairie with the unwieldy name "Esther Victoria Blodgett" arrives in Hollywood, meets a boozy but still charming movie actor named "Norman Maine," marries him and becomes a star. At the same time, drinking demolishes her new husband's career — and in the days before Alcoholics Anonymous there's no option for the husband to craft a Behind the Music-style narrative of celebrity redemption. Maine eventually drowns himself in the ocean off Malibu; and after a brief bout of despair and a pep talk from a helpful grandmother, the heroine proves herself a trouper with a stoical return to the spotlight.

Although the two remakes dating from the 1950s and 1970s offer forensic interest and morbid curiosity, the original 1937 version, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, is the only one that actually functions as entertainment. Made in the full bloom of the studio system, the movie gives a benevolent but witty view of that form of dictatorship, as Esther is re-christened "Vicki Lester" and groomed into a series of parts in grandiose costume epics. The only one of the screen Esthers plucky or innocent enough to carry off the corniness of the conceit, Gaynor renders the conquest of Hollywood as the continuation of a frontier narrative, with the grandmother character providing a thematic link to what could still be called without sarcasm "the American spirit." (Granny's life hearbreak came when "some Indian devil put a bullet in" her sodbuster husband.) Connoisseurs of alcoholism appreciate the script's many boozer gag lines. (Written at a time when a whole nation of Barton Finks had taken a stab at movie writing, the script was variously claimed by, credited to, and disowned by Ben Hecht, Budd Schulberg, Ring Lardner Jr., Dorothy Parker, and others, while producer David O. Selznick stated that "95%" of the dialogue was taken from life; but the film's lines were pretty obviously written by people familiar with the end of a bottle.)

What the 1954 quasi-musical remake with Judy Garland and James Mason lacks in organic integrity, it fills in with a macabre combination of Garland's needy desperation and the seediness of a studio empire in flyblown late middle age. The encroachment of television is acknowledged in both the film's widescreen format and references to the fact that box office take is down industry-wide. But what really makes the picture a white-knuckle terror ride for the viewer is the fear that Garland may at any moment launch into a 20-minute production number. Even Mason, an actor who made humiliation a career specialty, rises to new levels of embarrassment when forced to endure his leading lady's flights of melody; in one scene of the couple at home, during which Esther rewards newly unemployed house-husband Norman with a song-and-dance routine that seems to go on for days, Mason's pained smile is a chilling window on the viewer's own torment. It's also one of many scenes in which the supposedly out-of-control Norman seems far more sane and responsible than his wife; when Mason's suicide finally comes, even the most hard-hearted audience members are wishing him godspeed.

The next Star came after the last gasp of the studios, and fittingly enough, it stars the woman whose 1969 megaturd Hello Dolly dealt the studio system its death blow. In the 1976 version, the movie industry background has been dispensed with entirely, as Barbra Streisand plays "Esther Hoffman," the lone white woman in a Supremes knockoff wittily called The Oreos. When she hooks up with J.D.-swilling rock star Kris Kristofferson, the tension couldn't be thinner. Already looking like somebody you'd shoo away from your front stoop, Kristofferson is so obviously overmatched by La Barbra's all-consuming stardom that his downfall seems like a mere mopping-up exercise. What the movie really makes you realize is that the heart and soul of the story was never the doomed lovers at all, but Matt Libby, the bilious studio flack played brilliantly by Lionel Stander in 1937 and objectionably by Jack Carson in 1954 — and notably absent from Barbra's version. Without the milieu of a PR machine spinning personal tragedy into easily digestible fluff, the story loses all coherence; actors are at least worthy of our contempt, but who cares about a power guitarist? (The film did give Barbra one of her finest songs in "Evergreen," but even there the lion's share of the credit must go to the song's co-composer, diminutive Love Boat recidivist Paul Williams.)

The debate over whether audiences will accept films that explore Hollywood's sordid underbelly dates back to when Selznick was attempting to make 1932's What Price Hollywood? (an ur-Star that no library should be without). But as pure concept, A Star Is Born appeals to both the audience that realizes Hollywood exposé — from self-righteous fare like The Player to fluff like State and Main — is just another form of Hollywood tinsel, and to the even wider audience that sees the Lester/Maine marriage — and specifically its depiction of an up-and-coming woman dragging along a past-his-prime man — as a model of celebrity romance. As with Joseph Campbell's hero, there are a thousand faces of Star Is Born — from the merely ill-timed (Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio) to the possibly homicidal (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love).

The current model, of course, is the marriage of Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown — and for all the idle talk about Whitney's own peccadilloes, the golden-throated superdiva acknowledged as much when she starred in the 1995 film version of Terry McMillan's Waiting to Exhale. An entire film about accomplished, professional women stuck with deadbeat, unfaithful, lazy, or plain stupid men, Exhale was an underappreciated watershed of the mid 1990s. Punctuating a steady buildup of heterosexual misandry with multiple crowd-pleasing, man-dumping tell-offs, the picture is so perfectly crafted to agitate and please its demographic that only The Rocky Horror Picture Show rivals it as a film that absolutely must be seen with the properly primed audience.

Aficionados of Ms. McMillan's work recognize the motif of women fed up with proven (if often charming) losers as a central one. Even the amicable divorce that opens How Stella Got Her Groove Back (and slows the book down before it delivers the older woman-younger man meat and potatoes) is not entirely free from it, and the theme permeates bothMama ("I tell y'all boyfriends the same thang, and I mean it") and Disappearing Acts ("I can't stand vulgar men. Dumb men. Lazy men. Men who think the word respect means expect. Men who are so pretty they spend more time in the mirror than I do. Men whose brains can be measured by the size of their dicks. Selfish men. Men who don't vote"). We hope that in her upcoming A Day Late and a Dollar Short — already a certified bestseller — McMillan will continue her tradition of telling it like it is.

Back before she became America's leading proponent of the "one grope" rule, Gloria Steinem was fond of noting that a woman without a man was like a fish without a bicycle. Like any Terry McMillan heroine, Steinem turned out to have been looking for Mr. Right all along, but her aphorism bears remembering. It's regrettable that Oliver Stone and company did not acknowledge A Star Is Born's universal appeal by bringing in McMillan for a script polish — today's doyenne of women's empowerment literature might have brought out the fact that while the film has been remade for a variety of time periods, A Star's story of a woman's hard-won liberation from a layabout will always be slightly ahead of its time. Indeed, its post-feminist prescience may be due mainly to the fact that entertainment is one of the fields in which the irrelevance of male prerogatives first became apparent. Until Robert Downey Jr. can bag himself a blushing but ambitious second wife, A Star's story will be the story of all of us.


courtesy of Vicki Lester


pictures Terry Colon

Vicki Lester