Oh, autumn. I could howl from dread of winter’s approach. Evenings pull in as summer’s romantic dreams fade to sepia, then fall like brittle lace down to earth. Here in Manhattan it’s the season of tourists and torch songs, of ties worn but loosened in the lingering heat of the subway. Of stilettoed boots beating ambitious drumbeats against the pavement. Or it was before the wolf of COVID began to prowl the earth.
In this season of twilight the heart hungers for solace–and, brother, doesn’t Hollywood know it! Autumn’s the time for prestige pix, familiar weepies, and the gentling distance of nostalgia. If we’ve been very very lucky–and this year we are–we get a hum-fucking-dinger of a remake.
That trailer went down like a swift shot of bourbon after dinner with the ex: you knew you wanted it, you just didn’t know how much. Reviews varied between delirious and effusive. Gaga’s the real deal (Screams rang through the air as Madonna twerks and weeps. . .) and Bradley Cooper pulled off a directorial debut that turns fox-eyed boys into legends.
I first saw the original version of A Star is Born when I was 20, visiting a boyfriend in Boston for Valentine’s weekend. He had to work, so I slouched around his apartment and rustled my hangover up a meal before flicking on the tube. Rinky-dink music came through, then suddenly I was awash with the soft pastels of early technicolor and — with wonderful lack of fanfare — the 1937 version of A Star is Born began. (It’s marvelous, the abruptness with which 30s movies often begin and end: no goddamn esoteric images or bloated scrolls of laudatory credits. They just bloody well get on with it.)
Anyway, I settled down, plate of eggs and b. firmly on my lap, and for the next 90 minutes rinsed my psyche in those fairytale pastels, transmuting hangover into tears via the enviably simplicity, the inevitable cruelty, of this old, old story.
If you’re one of the twelve people on the planet who haven’t seen A Star is Born in one iteration or the other — there are two previous remakes*; the 1954 one into which Judy Garland sank her genius and her self-pity, and the 1976 crap-fest where Kris Kristofferson fell beneath the death-grip of Streisand’s acrylics — start with the 1937 version. It’s grounded by the genius of Frederic March, a scabrous script by Dorothy Parker, and real insider events from the Hollywood of the time. This is early Selznick, when he was still capable of irony, before dexedrine and pomposity straitjacketed his abilities. In 1937 he was also still sumptuously married to Hollywood royalty Irene Mayer and Gone with the Wind was firmly in his future. (It would both deify and destroy him.)
You will find many who adore the ’54 Garland version of A Star is Born. Me, I find it almost agonizing to watch, due to Warner’s brutal cuts and Garland’s choice to play Blodgett as the most self-pitying codependent in cinematic history. At times this movie flickers into vivid life, however, the aching brilliance of what-might-have-been. And it does miraculously contain Garland’s and the American film musical’s greatest five minutes of song. This simply-staged number is sui generis and, like Garland herself, made of finer metal than Oscar’s gimcrack gleam any day.
Soon I’ll lay down a few little riffs on how A Star is Born came to be such a deliciously poisoned box of Hollywood bon-bons. But right now, darlings, it’s time for a few beauty treatments.
*NOTE: There’s also a warm-up to the ASIB movie, 1932’s What Price Hollywood?–also Selznick produced, and well worth a gander.