“I was not an overnight sensation”: "A Star is Born" and the American Dream

As seen through all four versions, as long as the illusion of the American Dream exists, the story of "A Star Is Born" will never grow old.
Leonardo Goi

Frank Pierson's 1976 A Star Is Born

Late in the night, early into their tumultuous romance, Kris Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard rescues Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman from a crowd of fans and sycophants she’s just floored with a breath-taking rendition of "The Woman in The Moon" and "I Believe in Love." It’s a pivotal juncture that marks Esther’s ascent to fame, her star finally welcomed into the entertainment industry. Hands on the wheel of a roaring Ferrari, Kristofferson gives Streisand a proud smile, then looks at the city’s skyline and drives away: “it’s all yours baby, everything you want—your own piece of the American Dream.”

Frank Pierson’s is the first version of A Star is Born to make explicit reference to the myth that underpins an eight-decades-old series of remakes. To be sure, the American Dream lingers all throughout the first two installments, William A. Wellman’s 1937 original (starring Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett opposite Fredric March as Norman Maine) and George Cukor’s 1954 remake (with Judy Garland and James Mason as the power couple), and reverberates 81 years after the first installment in Bradley Cooper’s latest version (and directorial debut), with the actor-director starring as Jackson Maine opposite Lady Gaga as Ally. 

At its core, A Star is Born is a classic rags-to-riches parable: a promising young artist (an actress in the first two versions, a singer in the most recent two) meets a fading male star, who helps trigger her ascent while turning from mentor into lover, and eventually succumbing to self-destructive addictions along the way (alcoholism in the first two renditions, drugs and booze in the following two). A star is born, another burns out. At the roots of the saga’s timelessness is the timeless allure of the dream itself, one imbued with the delusion that the door to success is open to anyone who’s ready to walk through it with oodles of hard work, talent and sacrifices.

George Cukor's 1954 A Star Is Born

The American Dream had first billowed to life in the pioneer aspirations of Janet Gaynor’s grandmother in the 1937 original (in an eye-opening early passage, she reminds Gaynor “there’ll always be a wilderness to conquer—maybe Hollywood is your wilderness now”). And long before Kristofferson races through the night with Streisand by his side, March and Mason had come very close to utter his very same words, congratulating Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland for their respective breakthrough performances with a magnanimous gesture that embraces the night sky hanging above Hollywood (“the Metropolis of Make Believe,” as one of Wellman’s title cards so eloquently introduced it), with a welcoming smile and the near-exact same line: “it’s all yours.” 

Which is why it is interesting that the myth would be called upon in the one installment where its sweat-and-tears component is discussed and shown the least. Possibly the most ironic meta-fictional element of the whole saga is that its four eponymous stars were born—as in, had blossomed—long before they signed up for their respective roles. More than a birth, their involvement in the films feels like a resurgence of sorts. Following an award studded decade in the 1920s (culminating with her 1929 Oscar for three performances in 7th HeavenSunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and Street Angel), by 1937 Janet Gaynor’s box office appeal was waning, and the star had recently left her contract with 20th Century Fox. Garland’s role as Esther Blodgett was supposed to serve as a musical comeback for a 32-year-old icon whose real-life battles against booze and pills echoed Norman Maine’s. By the mid 1970s Streisand had become an icon of planetary resonance—with an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Funny Girl (1968) already under her belt—but her role as Esther Hoffman (the first time in the series that Esther’s name is changed) was meant to serve as a kind of image makeover after one too many screwball comedies. 

But while the 1937, 1954, and 2018 versions give ample space to account for the difficulties and challenges faced by pre-stardom Esther (and Ally), Pierson’s version glosses over the past of Streisand’s Esther altogether. If not the 1976 chapter’s only flaw (for an infamous behind-the-scenes look at how Streisand’s ego and her husband-cum-producer Jon Peters’ incompetence butchered the whole project, refer to director Frank Pierson’s scathing article-memoir, “My Battles with Barbra and Jon”), I suspect this is the single most damning one.

Making a Cinderella-like parable believable is particularly difficult when the Cinderella at its center is a real-life icon—all the more so when the tale is set in a firmament prone to craft ad hoc background stories of hardships and difficulties for its stars (stories that contributed to depict Hollywood as a Mecca of self-made celebrities). How to forget the de-humanizing makeovers Gaynor and Garland undergo in their transitions from Esther Blodgett to Vicki Lester, turning from nobodies to stars, from persons to personas?

Bradley Cooper's 2018 A Star Is Born

Gaynor’s movie-struck Esther leaves her North Dakota snow-covered house and family with a one-way ticket to Hollywood and her grandmother’s savings; she finds a room in a $6-a-week pension and struggles to showcase her talents, while money runs out and her chances to make it in the industry stay low (“you stand 1 in a 100,000,” a studio secretary coldly informs her). Garland’s ascent to tap dancer and singer is paved with all sorts of rejections and humiliations (which Cukor compresses in a rollicking pre-stardom montage under the notes of "Born in a Trunk," Garland’s Esther dancing and singing her way through offices and studios so devoid of life they look borrowed from a De Chirico painting). A waitress by day, singer at a drag bar by night, Lady Gaga’s Ally struggles to finance her artistic career amid a stream of insults by her foul-mouthed boss, and her beloved father’s reminders that there’s a big difference between “nobodies and stars”—one that hints at the way stardom pivots around looks and charisma more than talent.

Gaynor and Garland’s Esther were Midwestern Cinderellas, hopeful and resilient heroines written so that audiences could easily relate to them; Gaga’s lower middle class Italian-American family (her father so proud of his ancestry to let Pavarotti’s arias reverberate inside the house at the most ungodly morning hours) is one that hints at multicultural America—and Gaga/Stefani Germanotta’s own Italian descent—while echoing the relatively humble upbringings of the first two heroines in the franchise.

Just who exactly was Streisand’s Esther before Kristofferson entered her bar and heard her sing? Little do we know about Esther Hoffman’s past, save for the fact she was once married to someone who didn’t know “how to put up a fight.” We know nothing about the obstacles she faced prior to her encounter with Kristofferson, and while it only takes a few seconds of her singing "Everything" for us to get a sense of how outrageously talented she is, we still have no idea how much work, sacrifices and sorrows her hopes and aspirations have cost her. And this is particularly worrisome—not simply because it makes it impossible to rejoice in her success the way one does as soon as Gaga’s Ally musters all her courage to get on stage and join Cooper in a goosebumps-inducing version of "Shallow," but also because it further obfuscates her agency in a rise that remains fundamentally mediated by a chance encounter.

William A. Wellman's 1937 A Star Is Born

Premised on the illusion of a self-made success as it may be, the ascent of Gaynor’s Esther and all her successors’ is anchored on a serendipitous encounter with a male mentor-cum-lover—a fading star, but a star nonetheless—who “sees” her talent, and shares his spotlight to let her shine. A male star walks into a bar, and the life of a promising yet overlooked female artist is forever changed. To be sure, the several Norman Maines embodied through the decades by March, Mason, Kristofferson, and Cooper are truly genuine in their willingness to help their respective partners blossom, not simply out of an unmistakably deep love for them (however toxic and self-destructive that love may be), but also because of a heartfelt appreciation of and belief in their talents—culminating perhaps most explicitly and movingly in the way Cooper’s Jackson Maine encourages Gaga’s Ally to write her own lyrics, after her improvised singing leaves him emotionally wrecked.

Fame and success are ignited by an external ally, but while the latter is crucial for the entire ascent to kick off, glossing over all the efforts and hard work Esther/Ally have put into nourishing and financing their talents—a sin the 1976 script (penned by Pierson, John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion) is unnervingly guilt of—would be a gross misunderstanding. “I can’t quite be called an overnight sensation,” Garland sings of the character she plays next to Mason’s Norman in her breakthrough role in Another Dawn, but the statement applies to her own Esther, too. By the time James Mason—very literally—bumps into her, she is the lead singer in a jazz band; she has struggled hard to make it this far, and the choice she is presented with is to abandon a career she loves—and to which she has devoted all her life—to embrace a man who “saw something [in her] nobody else ever did” and become “something bigger [she] ever dreamed of.” In that, her position is markedly different from Janet Gaynor’s, whose path crosses with Fredric March’s when her career is still at a relatively embryonic stage.

Gaga’s Ally may not be in the situation of Garland’s Esther either, but it is clear she is no stranger to sacrifice and hardships: she finances her singing career working a job she hates, and yet carries it out with a matter-of-fact resilience, and it is worth comparing her stoic swagger with Janet Gaynor’s heartbroken look when she is offered the same job by a friend. Ally is bestowed with a preternatural, unhinged talent that swells concert halls into something majestic and uplifting, but long before she is given a worthy stage to perform on, Cooper’s Jackson Maine offers her an illuminating musing: everyone has talent, but only a few among us have something to say. It’s a veiled invitation to stay true to your story, and Ally’s—grounded in delusions, crushed dreams and hard work—appears undeniably richer and much more relatable than her predecessor’s ever could be.

Still, watching Ally skyrocketed into fame, I wondered whether Garland’s rejection of that “overnight sensation” label may hold as true for present day Ally as it did for 1950s Esther. To watch an installment of the A Star is Born saga is to capture the zeitgeist of the U.S. entertainment industry through the years, and while Wellman's and Cukor’s versions certainly do tease out with scathing irony the way studios used to package their artists as if they were properties over whose life choices producers exerted the final saying, Cooper’s latest chapter goes some way toward exploring just how much faster stars are born and burn out in a hyper-connected, social media-operated society. The morning after Ally sings to a sold-out stadium, her performance has already gone viral, and her father proudly shows clips of her show to awestruck coworkers.

At the heart of A Star is Born is the illusion that an ascent à la Esther Blodgett/Esther Hoffman/Ally may be within one’s reach. Hard work, talent, self-discipline and sacrifices—insofar as the plot goes —do pay off, albeit at a great cost (which is why Gaynor’s grandmother’s question, “could you do it?” still feels so ominous and important 81 year’s later). And though fame and success only become available after a chance encounter, its serendipity underscores the tantalizing message that luck truly is omnipresent. While abiding by the running leitmotiv of fame as a zero-sum game, where one star’s ascent is necessarily tied to another one’s demise, Cooper and Gaga’s 2018 remake grapples with the era of Internet celebrities, where notoriety is arguably less a finite resource and more an evanescent mirage conjured up by near-limitless venues to boost one’s popularity. In a hyper-connected society like the one Ally inhabits, where her ascent may be kickstarted by Jackson but ultimately skyrockets through social media platforms, the whole parable’s allure finds a richer, more fertile ground to blossom—foraging the myth of the entertainment industry as the “beckoning El Dorado” that had welcomed Gaynor in the 1930s, while tapping on the audience’s delusional understanding that the path to fame could be more easily accessible than ever before. So long as the illusion will persist, A Star Is Born will never grow old—in fact, its mythical aura may never feel as strong as it does today.

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George CukorBradley CooperFrank PiersonWilliam A. WellmanLong Reads
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