There are more versions of it than the four films called A Star Is Born (from 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018) and a radio version of the same name. The main elements are already in play in What Price Hollywood? (1932): the older alcoholic man whose career is on the skids, the younger female star, the fall of one against the rise of the other, ending in the man’s suicide. The only major change in the transition from What Price Hollywood? to A Star Is Born is the addition of sexual relationship or marriage between the two. What Price Hollywood? is itself a reworking of elements from the novel The Skyrocket (1925), made into a (now lost) film the following year: the rise and fall motif, the ingénue, the enabling man of power, the conflict (for the woman) between career and marriage. Between the 1976 and 2018 Hollywood versions, there were two Indian films to hit each of these plot points: 2013’s Aashiqui 2 (Romance 2) in Hindi and 2014’s Nee Jathaga Nenundali (I Want To Be Your Companion) in Telugu. The gay porn film The Light from the Second Story Window (1973) is sometimes referred to as a version, and there are very many films called things like A Porn Star is Born.
All versions in various ways worry away at the ambiguity in the most familiar title. What does it mean to say a star is “born”? The only time any of the films use the phrase is in the 1937 version, when Norman, the man who has discovered and championed Esther, says it to her after the premiere of her first film (where she now has her star name, Vicki). This is a straightforward colloquial usage, suggesting the way something may seem to suddenly appear. However, it leaves open the question of whether a star is someone indeed born with an innate star quality or whether stardom is something manufactured, a manipulation, an illusion. All versions want to hold on to some sense of the former, but they differ in the degree to which they see it as something that breaks through industrial cultural production uncontaminated and authentic. The Skyrocket unequivocally acknowledges that Sharon, a nothing special young woman outside the spotlight, comes to fascinating life before the camera, but it also emphasizes the role of the man, the director William Dvorak, in molding this creation: she may have no talent as an actress but “he could always trick her before the camera for the things he needed.” In the following versions, the idea of manipulation is played down. While there are scenes of the man Max (again a director) coaching the woman Mary in What Price Hollywood?, there is also a sequence in which, after a disastrous first shoot, she practices by herself all night so that the next day she delivers a mesmerizing performance in a tiny role. Certainly, when it comes to the rushes, it is clear that Mary is aided by editing and lighting, but still, it is she who glows.
Mary’s overnight labor on her performance suggests that her stardom is not (like Sharon’s) just a happy accident of presence before the camera. However, like Sharon and Esther in the 1937 Star, there is also a sense that all she wants to be is “a star.” None of them talk about acting. What Price Hollywood? has Mary dressing herself from the fan magazines and putting her own face in place of Garbo’s in a double spread with Clark Gable, and 1937 Star opens with Esther coming home dreamily after seeing a Norman Maine movie and avidly reading the fan magazines; they all just want to be “in pictures.” There’s none of this in the 1954 and subsequent versions. Of course Esther (1954, 1976), Aarohi (Aashiqui 2), and Lady Gaga’s Ally (2018) want success, but there is also a sense of their sheer love of performing — they’re longtime professionals who have finally gotten noticed. In each case, a sequence shows them singing in an unprestigious locale, establishing their exceptional, but as yet undiscovered, talent and quality. The starmakers are now actors or singers, who can open doors for their discovery but are not in a position to shape them. The film and music industry are seen as obstructive to varying degrees, but this is just what the star has to break through: authenticity will out.
The move away from an awareness of the manipulation, or at the least the role of others and technology, in the production of stars toward a wholehearted embrace of a notion of transparent star quality is aided by the role of men and black people. One of the things that most struck me about the new A Star Is Born was how very male it is. There are fleeting glimpses of comedienne Luenell, singers Brandi Carlile and Halsey, an engaging but brief appearance by Rebecca Field as Gail, an aide to the man here, Jackson Maine, and his childhood friend Noodles has a wife (Drena De Niro), but the only sustained representations of the female, apart from Ally, are the drag queens in the bar where Jackson first sees Ally. With these, the film plays on the paradox of a swaggering, often muscly masculinity being adorned with sequins, lip gloss, and baroque hand gestures, the male beneath the feminine accoutrements emphasized by having Ally perform there, an assertion of a non-paradoxical alignment of body and adornment. She sings “La Vie en Rose,” a song made famous by the ne plus ultra of raw expressivity, Édith Piaf, but covered more recently by another pop performance artist, Grace Jones. The song positions Ally between the performativity that has made Gaga famous and the expressive self that the film wants us to credit her with. It also completes the salute to the queer culture that Gaga has allied herself with — a tribute that began in the film with Ally singing a snatch of the verse to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; now the film, Ally, and perhaps Gaga can move on. When Ally makes forays into the kind of glam femme artifice that made Gaga famous, Jackson is contemptuous and the film shoots from behind television cameras and cuts away as soon as it decently can. By the end of the film, she has left queerdom behind.
Not only does this A Star Is Born sideline women (despite its central star and protagonist), it is also bursting with masculine maleness. The film opens with Jackson Maine in concert, his country rock among the most virile of authenticity musical genres (and the band used in the film is named Promise of the Real). Neither he nor Ally has mothers anymore. She has a father who hangs out with his taxi driver chums (all men), plays opera, and venerates Frank Sinatra. It’s a cheerful background and we learn no more, and she seems to have no women friends or colleagues. Jackson, who has the fuller backstory and attendant occasions for melodrama, with a brother-manager old enough to be his father, anguishes over the destruction of his drunken father’s grave and hard-drinking, hard-driving habits. The screen treatment of Ally’s performances cuts back to him — his pleasure, his drunkenness — and her final affirmative performance, for the first time giving herself a surname, his, with a song he wrote that declares she’ll never love again.
Earlier versions of the story have also had few women in them other than the star who is born. It is the incandescence of the star who played each one that distracted attention away from the lack of other women. There is even something of a progression through the various versions, as men gradually eclipse women. This may have something to do with the decreasing involvement of women in their making. Adela Rogers St. Johns, a successful journalist well connected to Hollywood, wrote The Skyrocket and the original story for What Price Hollywood? Dorothy Parker contributed to the script of the 1937 Star and Joan Didion to the 1976. Judy Garland was the driving force behind the radio version, although she had to wait until she left MGM and married Sid Luft to get the 1954 film made. Barbra Streisand was an even more decisive driving force behind the 1976 version.
The Skyrocket has a best friend, helpful wardrobe and make-up artist, rival and supportive stars and ex-stars, all women. While Max in What Price Hollywood? is a magnetic male figure (whose lack of apparent sexual interest in Mary, together with prissy mannerisms, might suggest him as queer), the film keeps Mary center screen. And though much of the drama focuses on both her gratitude toward and need to get away from Max, there is also a well- (some say too well-) developed plot concerning her marriage to a playboy. In the 1937 Star, Esther’s parents and brother make fun of her fandom, but it is her grandmother, a pioneer woman who compares Hollywood to the frontier, who understands Esther’s aspirations, lends her the money to go to Hollywood, and then, at the end of the film, after Norman’s suicide, persuades her to go back to work.
In the 1954 Star, attention is more or less equal between the man and the woman, but later versions build on the melodrama of his troubles, providing him with more screen time and backstory. One index of this is the presentation of his death. Norman Maine in 1937 and 1954 wades into the sea and drowns off screen, as if easefully swallowed by the watery element; John in 1976 kills himself in a car crash and Rahul in Aashiqui 2 throws himself of a bridge, both in drawn-out dramatic sequences; in 2018, more discreetly but horribly, Jackson hangs himself.
It might be objected that the films do no more than reflect the fact that most of the powerful roles in Hollywood and the music industry have been occupied by men. Occasionally there does seem to be an awareness of this. In the 1937 Star, men discuss what name to give Esther, in front of her but without consulting her, and others worry over the qualities of her face. The latter idea is developed in the 1954 version, where three make-up men stand around Esther on the morning of her screen test, wondering what to do with her unsatisfactory face. The composition features mirrors within mirrors that Esther has, as it were, to peer round as the men discuss the problem, herself unable to get a word in edgeways. The men produce her as a pink amalgamation of a number of other stars, unrecognizable to Norman when he comes to pick her up. Yet such perceptive moments are rare and nowhere to be found in the later versions.
Men change women’s names in more than one way. The studios make Esther Blodgett “Vicki Lester” in 1937 and 1954, while bridegrooms make Mary Evans “Mrs. Lonny Borden” in What Price Hollywood?, Esther/Vicki “Mrs. Albert Henkel” in 1937, and “Mrs. Ernest Gubbins” in 1954 (Norman Maine’s birth name respectively in the two films). The films play on the tensions between these names. Being treated as Mr. Evans or Mr. Lester is wounding. After Norman’s suicide, Esther/Vicki makes her first public appearance proudly announcing she is “Mrs. Norman Maine,” effectively subsuming her identity in both that of her husband and the film industry that gave him his name. In 1976, Esther refuses to have her name, Hoffman, changed, a gesture as much to do with not eclipsing a Jewish identity as female autonomy, but she does, after John’s suicide, announce herself as “Esther Hoffman Howard,” a common gesture that nonetheless parades a woman’s connection to a man in a context where the man rather seldom does the same vice versa. In 2018, Ally has a surname for the first time in the film, when, after Jackson’s suicide, she is announced as “Ally Maine.” Only in Aashiqui 2 does the question of the woman’s name not come up, neither from the studios nor from Rahul, since they do not marry.
In What Price Hollywood? Mary has a black maid, Bonita (Louise Beavers, who had played the black support for a white career woman in the 1934 Imitation of Life), whom she treats casually even as Bonita attends to Mary’s material and cosmetic needs. In 1954, black dancers are briefly seen, leaping with tambourines or performing a crooked walk, in the “Swanee” routine in the “Born in a Trunk” number, a routine celebrating, in time-honored fashion, a Southern white homeland with marginalized and merry blacks. Later, in “Lose That Long Face,” a number cut from the original release, Esther is dressed like a street urchin and dances between two black kids. In 1976, Esther is first encountered as lead singer between two black women in a trio called the Oreos, a naming decision which I won’t even begin to try to unpack; the first word of their number is “black” (sung only by Esther/Streisand, with a near-Afro hairdo alongside her African-American back-ups’ relaxed styling). In 2018, Jackson’s school friend Noodles (yes, well) is black, and it is he and his black wife who encourage Jackson and Ally to marry and in the former’s local black church. This shift from servant to terpsichorean and musical support to emotional, even spiritual validation suggests that in telling this story it is hard quite to let go of, or exactly to acknowledge, the role of African Americans in securing the material, rhythmic, and affective authenticity of white Americans. Perhaps Esther’s grandmother in the 1937 Star is not all wrong when she compares Hollywood to the frontier.
Nearly all versions of the story have the moment in which the man sees the woman in performance for the first time. It’s the moment when the man — and we — must be convinced the woman is the real deal, has “that little something extra,” as Norman says in 1954. From 1954 on, that moment is a song, and in all cases they do not perform their own material and what they sing has nothing to do with what is happening in the story at that point. “The Man that Got Away,” the big torch song hit of the 1954 version, has no relation that we know of with Esther’s past and everything to do with her skill and pleasure in singing, signaled by this emotionally desperate number ending with her smiling and laughing with her fellow musicians. Later, Esther, in deep despair at Norman’s self-destructive drinking, pours out her sorrows to the studio boss, but in between takes of the upbeat “Lose That Long Face” that is the antithesis of what she is feeling.
The following Stars close that gap between self and performance. This is partly signaled extra-textually: it is widely known that Streisand part-composed the songs she sings in 1976 and that Gaga was even more involved in the composition of the 2018 songs. Their characters in each film also write, to varying extents, the songs they sing. This conflates tropes from the musical biopic — where the song expresses the person’s inner self and also what they are feeling at the moment of composing and/or performing — with the mythos of the singer-songwriter. (The cover of Carole King’s LP Tapestry is prominent on Ally’s bedroom wall.) Potentially, then, the Star Is Born template, and the ambiguity of that title, lends itself to exploration of the strange tension between self and performance in cultural production since romanticism, and even more so in conditions of industrial, capital-intensive and now digital production. However, in different ways, both the premeditated quality of Streisand’s performance style, evident in every spontaneous wisecrack and affective grimace, and Gaga’s chameleonic theatricality sit uneasily with this.
In Aashiqui 2, the song at the moment of discovery is by Rahul and he later tells Aarohi that she sang it better than he has and that he “never felt any of my songs like this.” As she sings it she looks at a large portrait on the wall of Lata Mangeshkar, uncontested as the greatest playback singer in Hindi cinema; Rahul notices this and later tells Aarohi it was this that made him realize that she, Aarohi, wanted to be a singer. In fact, Shraddha Kapoor, who plays Aarohi, is sung for by three different singers: within the fiction of the film, the voice belongs to her and makes her special enough to be considered alongside Lata, but, to a culturally incompetent viewer at any rate, there is something giddying when in the film we see Aarohi/Kapoor recording a soundtrack to be dubbed for another actress when the voice we hear is anyway not Kapoor’s. At this moment, Aashiqui 2 seems to register the problematic of self and performance.
In the 1954 Star, we see the end of the screening of Vicki’s first film. “Swanee” comes to a climax and theater curtains close on it; the lead singer steps through the curtains, thanks the audience for the applause, and then, in the “Born in a Trunk” number, tells her life story, illustrated by danced and sung moments culminating in the just seen “Swanee” number, which then, as the curtains close, dissolves back to the singer bringing the song to an end. But who is this and whose story? Vicki, who has only recently been invented by the studio? The character she plays in the film, about whom we know nothing? Esther? Judy Garland? A change of framing near the beginning of the sequence shifts it from being something more evidently a film within a film to something apparently taking place in a theater and addressed to — whom? The theater audience? The audience in the film (including Esther) watching the film? Us? These ambiguities are in part a result of the whole piece being added under a different director after the film had supposedly been completed, but it also catches the shifting ontological levels of stardom — real person, star image, character — that run through both this film and the whole star phenomenon. Lady Gaga would seem to be the perfect performer to play more fully on such complexities, but it is not the road that the film, or she, has chosen to go down. Rather than a celebration of female image-manufacture, we have the fantasy of male parturition and the lure of authenticity. A film for our times.
Richard Dyer is Professor Emeritus at King’s College and Honorary Professor at St Andrews’s, and a Fellow of the British Academy. His books include Stars, Heavenly Bodies, White, The Culture of Queers, Pastiche, In the Space of a Song, Lethal Repetition, and La dolce vita.