What Makes ‘A Star Is Born’ a Story Worth Retelling

Watch a video essay that explores this beloved story and its presence in our media landscape.
A Star Is Born
By  · Published on October 9th, 2018

In an age of inescapable remakes, sequels, and reboots, it’s easy to condemn Hollywood’s love for recycling the same stories, archetypes, and genre conventions. The artistic stagnation encircling Hollywood blockbusters may seem like a modern phenomenon, but the film industry has relied on formulaic revivals and modern updates of classics since its conception. Between 1931 and 1941, the novel “The Maltese Falcon” was adapted into three wholly distinct adaptations. “Jane Eyre” was adapted into eight silent films alone between 1910 and 1936, and King Kong endured half a dozen reimaginings in the 20th century.

Even amid this long history of Hollywood remakes, few stand out like A Star is Born. As a new ScreenPrism video essay notes, there have been four total iterations of A Star Is Born spanning across 80 years (released in1937, 1954, 1976, and now 2018). Each film tells the iconic story of a jaded male star encouraging a female entertainer to pursue a music and/or film career. The two artists fall in love, her success skyrockets, while inner turmoil and substance abuse prompts the decline of his career.

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper star in the latest remake of A Star Is Born. The film has generated rapturous critical acclaim — our very own Max Covill praises the film as having “that immeasurable power to draw an audience and take them along for a ride of dreams, romance, and show-stopping musical number.” The film is also shining at the box office, bringing in $43 million for its opening weekend in the US. Clearly, after four iterations, A Star Is Born continues to compel critics and audiences alike. Why do we keep returning to this tale; how does it continue to spark our interest; where does its enduring appeal lie?

Watch the video essay below to find out.

A Star Is Born has consistently featured established actresses or singers in the titular role. As the video essay illuminates, the films often comment on the actress’ offscreen life or personas, which indulges “viewers’ curiosity about the actors’ real personality and the past.” The actresses experienced career trajectories similar to their own fictional counterparts; this thought-provoking blurring between fiction and reality prompts attuned insight into the celebrities we idolize, as well as the nature of performance itself.

The original David Selznick-produced A Star Is Born features Janet Gaynor, one of the heroines of the silent era. Gaynor’s career and box office appeal waned in the mid-1930s, but A Star Is Born revitalized her career: the film was a critical and commercial behemoth, and Gaynor’s performance granted her a second Academy Award nomination. In the 1954 adaption, the formidable Judy Garland stars as the rising actress. After a period of personal upheaval and substance abuse, Garland was viewed as a has-been. Intended as Garland’s comeback, A Star Is Born showcases her unmatched screen presence, and the world was re-introduced to her stirring, emotive talent. According to the video, critic Karina Longworth argues the 1976 movie sought to reinvent leading lady Barbra Streisand‘s image. Streisand yearned to prove that her acting prowess could extend to grittier, more grounded, and hipper films, as opposed to the outdated, kitschy musicals defining her earlier career.

The extension of fame and stardom outside the screen has played a crucial role in each A Star is Born movie, and the latest entry into the canon is no exception. The casting of Lady Gaga fits “both the narrative and the history of A Star is Born,” and the story capitalizes on Gaga’s journey from Stefani Germanotta to renowned pop icon.

In one Entertainment Weekly interview used in the video essay, Gaga claims, “This movie is a story that I know, that’s a part of my real life.” Here, Gaga evokes the central appeal of the film: enriching exposure to one of the 21st century’s most alluring and enigmatic musicians. Through her bizarre costumes and public appearances, Gaga’s identity has been latent with an intentional performativity, and audience members have been coolly detached from her real-life persona. A Star Is Born presents a stripped-down and vulnerable version of Gaga, which allows us to feel like we have received new, profound insight into Gaga’s previously mysterious pre-fame self.

Besides the captivating operation of stardom across all A Star Is Born remakes, the series also forefronts a “quintessential Hollywood story.” Narratively, the film has it all — it’s a love story, a rags-to-riches story, a tragedy, and a cautionary tale. There is simply a narrative for anyone to extract some meaning from, and even the lesser remakes strike a nuanced balance between the film’s various themes and genres. A Star is Born gives us the pleasure of witnessing an underdog’s rise to fame, all the while illuminating the tragic arc of our other protagonist, who undergoes addiction, failure, and self-destruction. The films celebrate glamour and stardom butwarns us of their perils: hedonism, decadence, and ephemerality.

Even when A Star Is Born exposes us to the pitfalls of fame, it maintains its lighthearted appeal with a charming love story and uplifting underdog narrative, which deeply intertwine with each other. The films present an intriguing depiction of love as a facilitator of talent. The male lead places boundless faith into the titular star’s skills, and he selflessly devotes himself to her budding career. The man’s belief in the star’s talent makes her more assured in herself, resulting in both a supportive, albeit complex, love story and a deeply satisfying underdog narrative with a grand payoff. We see the woman’s rise juxtaposed with the man’s fall, and the parallel narrative only enhances the visceral complexity and fundamental catharsis of the film.

Ingrained in our public consciousness, A Star Is Born entails the ingredients essential for eternal audience adoration: meta casting, equally inspiring and downbeat narrative, a poignant love story, and the inclusion of multiple genres. With this beloved and resonate story, film will likely continue to penetrate our collective consciousness for decades to come. A star will be born…again…and again…and again… And we’ll all be grateful for it.

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