Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper lead the latest incarnation of the films that have, since 1937, told a simple yet resonant story of life in the impossible spotlight
A man stands on the stage. The sun is setting on his career but he is for now still in the spotlight. He suddenly reaches out into the shadows and plucks a woman from the crowd. She takes the spotlight from him, and he self-destructs into oblivion.
Hollywood is built on remakes and reinventions, but the most interesting and certainly the longest-running of these first emerged more than a decade before the first Superman movie. A Star Is Born, which gets its fourth outing next week after months of ecstatic hype, is now 81 years old and has starred, in its various incarnations, increasingly improbable pairings: Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the 1937 original; Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 remake; Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version; and now Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Often described as a Pygmalion story, A Star Is Born is more like Cinderella, with the leading man playing not just the fairy godmother who gives the woman a makeover, but the prince who marries her and finally the wicked stepmother who needs to be destroyed so the woman can live happily ever after.
One of the most striking things about the Star Is Born films is how faithful the post-1937 versions have been to what came before them. The storyline has remained steadfastly unchanged and certain scenes and even some lines reverberate between each one (the already heavily memed exchange between Cooper and Gaga from the new trailer, in which he tells her to turn around so I can take another look at you, is straight out of both the 1976 and 1954 versions). The gender politics of the films has remained almost defiantly untouched by feminisms second, third and fourth waves, as they all suggest that the womans success emasculates, even feminises, the man. In the 1954 version he makes dinner so it is ready for when she comes home from work, to her embarrassment; in the 1976 and 2018 films she puts makeup on him as her career starts to eclipse his. In all of them, a happy ending of sorts is achieved when, at the end, she introduces herself to her fans by her married name. You dont come to A Star Is Born for subtlety. The remakes all follow a template, too: the female lead is played by a singer-performer who has a lot to prove to the public, while the leading male role is dumped on some poor schmuck forced to accept that he will be very much the second fiddle here.