Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Glutton for Punishment: A STAR IS BORN (1976)

 by JB

Watch closely now. Are you watching her now?

Barbra Streisand’s remake of A Star is Born must go down in film history as an epic misfire, an idea that looked good on paper but for various reasons did not turn out as planned. This film is the third of four remakes of the reliable Hollywood yarn, originally titled What Price, Hollywood? The fact that Streisand and producer John Peters apparently re-directed and re-edited parts of the film after it was taken away from director Frank Pierson only adds to the film’s problems. Could this be one of the reasons that the film ends with a SEVEN-MINUTE-LONG, unbroken close-up of Streisand? I’m at a loss to name any other Hollywood film that contains an instance of massive ego that even comes close to this. Pierson penned a now-famous essay, “My Battles with Barbra and John,” detailing the film’s troubled production history, which was published in New West magazine BEFORE THE FILM PREMIERED. One of the most telling passages sees Pierson recounting his days rewriting the screenplay, “I am writing new scenes and dialogue, and Barbra can't understand why I must work alone. ‘It would go so fast if we worked together. I could tell you what to write.’”
FULL DISCLOSURE: I do not hate Barbra Streisand. I think she is very talented. I love to listen to her sing, especially Broadway showtunes. I thought that she proved herself a gifted light comedienne in her 1970s films What’s Up, Doc? and For Pete’s Sake. I thought Yentl was a well-directed romantic comedy. I do think she is monumentally miscast in this version of A Star is Born. In every iteration of this story, the character of Esther needs to be insecure and unsure of herself, two emotions that don’t ring true with the massively talented Streisand. It just doesn’t work.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson) is a rock star with a serious alcohol problem. One night after a concert, his roadies take him into a small nightclub where Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand) is performing. Though drunk, Howard thinks that she is very talented. An inebriated fan tries to start a fight with him, but Hoffman rushes him out of the bar. They wind up at Esther’s for breakfast. Though drunk, Howard wants to take her to a concert, but an injury prevents him from doing so. Though drunk, Howard eventually gets Hoffman to one of his concerts and hustles her onstage to sing. Esther becomes a big star. Though drunk, Howard’s star is on the wane. The two marry. Can this mismatched couple navigate the vicissitudes of fame? I thought not.

1) At two-and-one-half hours, it is too long.
2) Kris Kristofferson gives a distracted, lazy performance. Ironically, this performance is one of the few things in the 1976 A Star is Born that has aged well. If it was his intention to show us a bored musician, cut off from all reality, he succeeded. He certainly looks bored. It has been suggested that this was originally one of the best “Method acting” performances in history, but the majority of it was left on the cutting room floor. In Frank Pierson’s (in)famous essay, he places the blame for Kristofferson’s odd performance on Streisand’s re-edit of his picture: “All night the movie plays over in my head. Kris's character often seems an unpleasant, drunken, dangerous bore: she seems silly—why would she love him? I see she has speeded up the film by cutting his establishing scene, moments of boyishness, of feeling the pain of his existence, that make us feel for him and with him; she has cut his reactions—when something happens to him, she cuts away from his reaction, so we fail to know how he feels. The sadness, the wonderful wasted quality Kris brought to the part, the exhaustion and the playfulness with which he courts her, his delight in finding her is diminished or gone, in order for the film to dwell on her.”

3) Streisand gives a performance more suited to a romantic comedy. She is in the wrong film.

4) Kristofferson plays a rock star but the producers didn’t let him write any of his own songs. This is odd because, in real life, Kristofferson first came to prominence as a songwriter, penning “Me and Bobby McGee” for Janis Joplin and “Sunday Morning Coming Down” for Johnny Cash. Kristofferson is stuck singing faux rock written by a disparate range of Hollywood songwriters. It’s foolish. The songs in the film are a mixed bag, penned by the likes of Rupert Holmes, Paul Williams, Kenny Loggins, and Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Notice that Streisand gets co-writer credit on two of the film’s ten songs.

5) I’m not sure what audience the Esther Hoffman character appeals to. She is thrust in front of John Norman Howard’s “biker bar” audience, sings pap like “Lost Inside of You” and “I Believe in Love,” and is somehow a big hit. This makes no logical sense. If a female singer got up at a real rock concert and sang these songs, the crowd would throw beer bottles at her.
ANNOYING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL PAUSE: In December of 1976, I saw this film at the late, lamented Woodfield Theatre, all 142 minutes of it. Weeks later, I saw it with a different group of friends at a second-run theater—the late, lamented Mount Prospect 1 and 2, where the wily theater manager actually added an intermission in order to sell more soda and popcorn. This intermission was managed amateurishly; in the middle of a scene the lights came up and some poor usher announced there would be a 15-minute intermission. Boo.

RUMORS ARE ALWAYS TRUE: One tantalizing bit of show business lore describes Streisand and Peters trying to get Elvis Presley to play John Norman Howard. Neil Diamond and Marlon Brando were also discussed as possibilities. Casting Brando is just crazy talk, but if you’re not sure Diamond would work in the role, consider that “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers,” his chart-topping “duet” with Streisand was released just one year after A Star is Born. This would have been a powerful song to include in the film. Then consider that Diamond gave one of the dopiest, leaden performances in movie history four years later in The Jazz Singer.


Holy cats, I would love to see the “Elvis Presley Version” of this film! Think of it: Streisand was 34 when she made A Star is Born. Elvis was only 41. It could have worked. I have read that Elvis was actually excited about doing it, but his manager, Colonel Tom Parker, put the kibosh on the whole thing because he didn’t want his precious Elvis playing a rock star who was “washed up.” Of course, in 1976, Elvis was only a year away from his actual untimely demise-- think of the method performance he could have given as the bleary, dissipated, pill-addicted, past-his-shelf-life Vegas rock star! I quiver inside my oversized, spangled jumpsuit just imagining it.
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE OUR BARBRA: Though I was only 14 when this version of A Star is Born was released, even I could see what was wrong with it. Streisand is miscast—she should have played THE OTHER PART! She should have played the sad, tragic star on the way down—a characterization that would have only served to highlight how incredibly popular she was still becoming. Imagine that performance. I think Streisand could have pulled it off. I really think she could have.

Who should have been cast as the new, fresh, up-and-coming star that Streisand propels to stardom? Simple. Bruce Springsteen. Think about it. He was 27 in 1976. He had released Born to Run the year before. Darkness on the Edge of Town was still two years away. He could have pulled it off; I really think he could have.

He would have shown Streisand who’s the boss.

1 comment:

  1. #5! I felt confused about this even in the recent remake. I can only imagine how confusing it would be to convincingly show biker dudes being into Barbra Streisand music.

    Last point that she should've played the aging star is brilliant! But also sad. This whole plot is too sad for me.