A Fallen Star Ending (Part 2)
Updated: Aug 20
After I had completely fallen in love with 1954's A Star is Born (and became an avid Judy Garland fan and classic Hollywood memorabilia collector), I decided to give its predecessor and runners-up a fair viewing chance. Watching all the films in the series, my impression changed drastically with each remake, and I was in awe of how the story and characters had evolved to fit the context of the decades in which they were shot. Some good, others not so great.
Knowing that most of my friends would be watching Lady Gaga's 2018 release in theaters, as they very well did, I felt compelled to share my recently acquired and much broader viewing of the story with them. In short, I decided to host a Star movie marathon, the first of many we would experience together, starting with 1937's non-musical version that featured a refreshingly captivating Janet Gaynor in the lead role of Hollywood hopeful Esther Blodgett. With an expired copyright, the original film under the title A Star is Born — which is coincidentally based on a 1932 production of What Price Hollywood? — has long since gone into public domain and been released by countless distributors in a variety of subpar formats and poorly executed screen transfers. Nevertheless, it held up well among my group and set the mood for Judy Garland to take the stage.
It wasn't until we got to the third film, the 1976 remake that was the second highest-grossing film at the time of its release, one that most audiences (sadly) seem to remember as the only other Star version made outside of Gaga's, that things took an interesting turn. One of my closest friends had purchased a copy of the DVD just for the occasion, convinced it would become an essential part of her rather robust movie collection long after our marathon came to an end. I'm sad to report that her enthusiasm was short-lived. But while the magic of Star slowly began fading right before our eyes during that eventful evening, the memories of the time we shared together have stayed with me to this day, inspiring me to climb down the least favorite of my Wonderland rabbit holes once again.
Star of 1976 begins just like the 1954 version does but with a twist that clearly showcases it as the product of its time: the more theatrical Shrine Auditorium filled with the glamorous and well-to-do members of Hollywood society has been converted to a concert venue complete with a stomping, rowdy crowd waiting for the belated appearance of the John Norman Howard Speedway band. By the time John Norman Howard himself, depicted by Kris Kristofferson as a more modern (but not necessarily better) reincarnation of the Norman Maine character from the 1937 and 1954 films, stumbles into the spotlight, he is clearly intoxicated and unfit to sing or play. But due to a court order following a disastrous performance in Detroit, Michigan, which we find out about from his manager later that night, the show must go on.
Unlike the previous versions of Star, where we only hear of Norman Maine's stardom and acting accomplishments, we get to see the man himself in action for the first time. When the audience receives an exclusive invitation to hell ("Hellacious Acres"), during which the band members don masks ranging from zombies, werewolves and ghouls — the more traditional acquaintances of Sir Satan — to Donald Duck, we're not so sure that focusing on John/Norman/Howard or Johnny, a much easier name to remember, is such a good idea. As the wrongfully accused Donald Duck would put it, "Oh, boy!"
By the time we meet Esther at a bar that specializes in herbal tea service but does not hold a liquor license, she is no longer a Blodgett but a Hoffman with an increased level of self-assuredness that's matched only by the height of her stylish 70s hairdo. Played by the legendary Barbra Streisand, she is a force of nature who's as clever as a black widow spider — make that a "Queen Bee" — and has caught in her web a couple of background singers that make up a delicious trio called The Oreos. Recalling the spectacular opening-scene performance of 1954's Esther Blodgett, which I've covered in detail in my first blog post, this oddly named, placed and executed little number pales by comparison.
Johnny, who missed the no-alcohol memo and conveniently brought in his own bottle of booze, is too caught up in an argument-turned-brawl to pay any attention to the act. Not that one can blame him, of course, but Esther 2.0 is not impressed. Calling Johnny out on his behavior, she launches into an Oreo-less ballad called "Everything" that leaves him with no other choice but to quiet down and listen up. Before long, something sparks Johnny's interest; in an ongoing state of stupor, he leaves the bar in a personal limousine, Esther 2.0 now in tow.
There's no denying that the actresses who have traditionally been chosen for Star's leading role of Esther, whatever her last name may be, are powerhouse females who have made a significant cultural impact in the respective decades they embodied with their careers. Though she's not well-remembered now, Janet Gaynor was a hugely popular, award-winning actress, as well as a major box office draw, starring in nearly 50 films between 1924 and 1961 before making a final stage and television comeback in the 1980s. Judy Garland (the former Baby Gumm), who made her unofficial but much-talked-about stage debut singing "Jingle Bells" at the age of two, went on to become an iconic legend of the silver screen, leaving behind a legacy of film and concert performances that have lived on long after her untimely passing in 1969.
No stranger to musicals, Barbra Streisand may very well be considered a veteran of the arts in many a regard. In the early 1960s, she was already appearing in various nightclubs and theaters, earning a Tony Awards® nomination for her performance in 1962's I Can Get it for You Wholesale, the soundtrack for which became her first studio recording and ultimately paved the way to a lucrative solo career she lives and breathes to this day. Some of Barbra's most notable films — including The Way We Were, Yentl and The Mirror Has Two Faces — are known to and well-remembered by most moviegoers, but it is her iconic depictions of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl and Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! that have forever secured her position among musical film royalty.
In the more recent remake of Star, the 2018 film that embodies the spirit and direction of Barbra's version above all the others, international superstar Lady Gaga is at the helm, and the Star ship has sailed full circle.
On the other hand, the casting of Norman Maine and his futuristic counterparts, 1976's John Norman Howard (Johnny) and 2018's Jackson Maine, has always felt like a challenge. While even James Mason was initially overlooked by a production team that favored Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Humphrey Bogart and many others for the part, Barbra Streisand's personal choice for her would-be-partner was none other than Elvis Presley. Kenny Loggins, Mick Jagger and Marlon Brando were all in the running as well, but it was Kristofferson who ultimately ended up in the Johnny role that ironically, as he himself has stated, "...may have cured me of the movies."
In previous Star films, the unspoken connection between Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine was evident from the very beginning. Despite an uncalled-for appearance and awkward first introduction made in the 1954 version, Esther immediately saw something in a man who has lost his way but had a certain quality about him that put her at ease. Norman's honesty and conviction of Esther's undeniable talent made her believe in herself; that, in turn, gave her the strength she needed to dream big and overcome preconceived notions of what it took to make it in show business. Norman's support while he stood by Esther's side during her rise to stardom earned him her love in return, and the relationship the two embarked upon became their greatest test of faith in themselves and each other.
In the 1976 remake, Esther 2.0 is a divorcee with the confidence of a seasoned performer and the skilled eye of a fashionista. Reaching within the deep confines of her own closet, Barbra single-handedly produced the type of wardrobe that channeled both the likes of Luke Skywalker (during a recording of the Meow Chow Cat Food jingle, the premise of which feels like a nod to the Trinidad Coconut Oil Shampoo commercial Judy Garland showcased in the 1954 film) and Lawrence of Arabia, forever trapped in the sands of non-daylight-savings Arizona time. But more on that later.
Esther 2.0 has no reservations about her talent and probably does not need Johnny to give her any advice. But she does want breakfast and welcomes a pizza with open arms when he hand-delivers it to her home on Orchid Street — a floral name most likely inspired by Oleander Arms, an apartment complex where 1954's Esther lived — the morning after their first meeting. The film's reference to its predecessor continues when Johnny tells Esther 2.0, in a not-as-eloquent way, that she sings like a fish. After all, when you catch a marlin, you're not likely to forget the encounter (unless, of course, you're at a bar that serves only herbal tea...).
As Esther 2.0 gets to know Johnny better, he compliments her on her nice behind, tells her she's the first girl he's met with a last name (even though Hoffman is actually Blodgett in disguise) and woos her with a flight to Sun Devil Stadium, where yet another concert fueled by drugs and alcohol goes awry following Johnny's impromptu motorcycle stunt. The Norman Maine of days gone past is no more; in his wake is a washed-up rockstar who uses crutches to get his wasted self out of his pool, shoots down a helicopter, vandalizes a glass window and even spray-paints a perfectly good wall with Esther 2.0's name in what could be considered yet another reference to the more subtle lipstick-drawing approach of 1954's Norman.
Rebellious Johnny obviously has many redeeming qualities, but it is his gentler, more sober nature — and a striking pair of almond-shaped eyes that garnered plenty of cheeky commentary from my team of movie marathoners — that finally melt Esther 2.0's heart. Though Kristofferson is not a particularly good actor, at least in my opinion, one can't deny that his sense of touch is strong. As Johnny overhears Esther 2.0 playing the unwritten "Lost Inside of You" melody on his piano, his hands reach up to feel her face, and the two share an intimate moment on a pile of conveniently placed fireside pillows, followed by a glitzy and glamorous makeover (something that Johnny needed desperately) in a candlelit bathtub. Romance at its finest, indeed!
Esther 2.0 doesn't require much guidance or mentorship when it comes to singing, but she does allow Johnny to drop in for a recording of what is destined to become "Evergreen," Barbra Streisand and Paul Williams' classic of luminescent brilliance, skillfully arranged by composer Ian Freebairn-Smith, that took home a 1976 Golden Globe Award® and an Academy Award® in the Best Original Song category. The iconic standout hit certainly stands on its own, and it may very well be considered the saving grace of the entire movie.
Esther 2.0's music career takes off like a rocket following her performance of "Woman in the Moon" at a benefit show, but there is little progression in her development as a character or in her musical abilities. She is as vocally gifted and confident on stage as she was when we first met her, and there seems to be little in the way of obstacles that she has to face and overcome to get to where she end ups.
Johnny's moon, meanwhile, is a bit more blue. He is mistakenly confused for Esther 2.0's secretary and her answering service — both via a telephone call that comes through as he's strumming his guitar — paying one final homage to our old friend Norman Maine and his equally as demoralizing encounter with a delivery man in 1954's Star, which opens the door to the unpleasant experience of being out of a job. But despite a few professional setbacks, Esther 2.0 calls the shots; evergreener pastures are on the horizon for both her and Johnny as they tie the knot and proceed to settle into a quaint ranch house in Arizona.
Newlywed life is attractive for awhile, as is the home's eclectic decor, but a relationship with very little substance at its core (or maybe quite a bit of substance, depending on how you look at it) is tested when Esther 2.0 finds Johnny in bed with a freelance journalist who's willing to do anything it takes to get an interview. Esther 2.0 is clearly upset — so much so, in fact — that Johnny's signature face-touching move no longer works on her. This time around, only a passionate kiss and a horseback ride off into the glorious sunset of the Arizona desert will do.
Out of all the unusual scenes in 1976's Star, this one is the most peculiar by far. The act of betrayal on Johnny's part seems random and uncalled-for, but what makes it completely unacceptable is the character's lack of reaction and remorse. It doesn't take much for Esther 2.0 to forgive him, nor does he have to earn her trust. Instead, the entire situation is completely glossed-over and never spoken of again. To me, the overall scenario demonstrated in the film sticks out like a sore thumb, especially when viewed against the depiction of the loving, caring and devoted relationship of Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine in previous film versions.
As a predecessor of 1976's Star, the 1954 film set yet another precedent: when it became clear that only a sacrifice of the greatest magnitude could save Norman Maine from himself, Esther made a heart-rendering decision to give up her career to stand by her husband's side, which led to a tragic turn of events during which Norman made his own sacrifice. It very well took all the strength Esther had inside of her to get back on stage for the sake of keeping Norman's memory alive. In all fairness, Esther 2.0 does grieve when she hears of Johnny's untimely demise, ensuring a blanket is placed over his head at the scene of his own crime, the motivation for which is a bit unclear, and yet, making a choice between her music career without Johnny in her life is not one she seems to consider.
With a strategically placed closing song, which to me is lacking in the 1954 film — in this case, Barbra's "With One More Look at You/Watch Closely Now" — Esther 2.0 summarizes the final moments of revisiting her relationship with Johnny while also shedding light on how she will move on and look toward the future. After all, her star is burning bright, and she still has plenty left to give. And just as many awards to receive. Yes, the 1976 version of A Star is Born came out on top at the Golden Globe Awards®, receiving recognition in the Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Actor categories, to name a few.
Though I can honestly say that my first movie marathon was a success, the overall impression of the 1976 film was anything but. As I've mentioned before, the 1976 version of a story that's been remade over the course of several decades is one that is easily recalled and remembered against those that went before it. And yet, not a single person in my group seemed to think much of it. When my friend offered up her copy of the movie to the rest of us, there were no takers. But I imagine that the DVD didn't sit in the Goodwill bin for too long; there are plenty of people who love this film, have given it a high rating and think the world of it. All you have to do is go on Amazon and read all the five-star reviews for yourself.
Whatever reason may be behind all the praise this movie has received, I don't think I'll ever understand it. All I know is that my friends and I had plenty of laughs along the marathon way — all in good company, as they say — unable to tune out the absurdity of the script, the lackluster acting and the overabundance of bizarre, unexplainable storylines that led to a faulty and, frankly, fallen Star.