With the upcoming release of the 2018 version of A Star is Born (this time starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper) it is a good time to look back at the original version starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. Fredric March was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as the tragic Norman Maine (he lost to Spencer Tracy). Fredric was 40 years old when he acted in the film and his portrayal of a fading movie star remains one of his best.
The character of Norman Maine was loosely based on John Barrymore (who blew his career because of his alcoholism) and silent film icon John Gilbert (who’d died in 1936) whose career was ruined when The Talkies came into existence. John Gilbert’s voice was fine but it did not match what audiences were expecting it to sound like and his career went off the tracks. In the film, Norman Maine’s falling star is contrasted to the career of his love, the rising star Esther Blodgett whose Hollywood name becomes Vicki Lester played by Janet Gaynor. Similarly, John Gilbert’s career was failing when he was married to rising star film Virginia Bruce.
The film takes a hard look at the nasty underside of Hollywood stardom and is definitely one of the best films of the 1930’s. It would be remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, again in 1976 with stars Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and here we are in 2018 with the Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper version of this timeless Hollywood tale.
Yes, many of us do still have a crush on a young Fredric March! 🙂
The 1954 version is a celebration not just of Ms. Garland’s talents but also the steely charm of James Mason. As Vicki Lester’s career spins to the heights of Hollywood, you feel as if there is no room for anyone else, let alone a lover. But it’s also a raw depiction of the desperation of living with alcoholism and denial amid the hypocrisy and hysteria of show business. The 1937 version is delicate and stripped of ’30s Hollywood glamour, and Ms. Gaynor is a light in Depression-era darkness, and not dolled up like Jean Harlow or Joan Crawford. And does anyone else besides me still have a crush on a young Fredric March? His pain as his fame dissipates is a study in restraint in an era of filmmaking not exactly known for subtlety.
“A Star Is Born” is very much a product of our times. Jackson Maine’s problems date back to a wretched childhood, guaranteeing our pity and love, whereas Fredric March and James Mason gave the hero a nasty and dangerous edge. Cooper’s camera crowds the characters, getting in their faces, and the dialogue is determinedly foul with oaths: “If you don’t dig deep into your fucking soul, you won’t have legs.” What? In striving to make the whole thing rough and rooted, Cooper slakes our need for the apparently authentic, and yet the story he tells, with its sudden shock of fame, is little more than a fairy tale. The result is pure Saturday-night moviegoing: it gives you one hell of a wallop, then you wake up on Sunday morning without a scratch.
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"If you think it is so easy to be a critic, so difficult to be a poet or a painter or film experimenter, may I suggest you try both? You may discover why there are so few critics, so many poets." - Pauline Kael