There are some properties destined to be eternally refilmed: certain Shakespeare plays, Jane Austen, Dickens, and so on. Then there are the less likely and yet equally persistent sources. One, oddly, is “A Star Is Born,” currently due for its fifth incarnation. The archetypal tale of a alcoholic star on his way down and the ingenue he elevates who eclipses him is due, once more, this time with Russell Crowe and Beyoncé. Guess who’s who.
“A Star Is Born” originated as 1932’s “What Price Hollywood.” Long before “Sunset Boulevard,” David O. Selznick thought it would be an excellent idea to do one of the first Hollywood-as-savage-jungle movies. The inspiration came from long-forgotten silent movie star Colleen Moore and her alcoholic producer husband John McCormick; other heavy drinkers were added into the mix, and Selznick considered the resulting film “95% accurate,” so much so he toyed with calling it “The Truth About Hollywood.”
The film was subsequently remade in 1937 as “A Star Is Born” with a plot so close RKO almost sued for plagiarism, then backed off. The project then resurfaced as the mostly-definitive 1954 Judy Garland version, and once more as a tribute to Barbra Streisand’s ego in 1976, opposite Kris Kristofferson. Over the course of the four remakes, the milieu kept changing with the times: from two straight movies about Hollywood to Garland’s movie about movie musicals and finally straight-up to the world of music.
What’s interesting about the persistence of the project are the eerie meta aspects that keep creeping in. In the 1932 version, the alcoholic part was played by Lowell Sherman (once John Barrymore’s brother-in-law, he knew what he was playing), who would die three years later of pneumonia. In 1937, there was a switch: the ingenue was played by former silent queen Janet Gaynor, a year away from effectively ending her career, and the alcoholic was Fredric March, who was on the up and up.
The 1954 version kicked it up a notch: Judy Garland really was in all kinds of trouble, and she wouldn’t work in a movie again til 1961, while James Mason was settling into a comfortable career of being supercilious on a regular basis. In 1976, Streisand was holding steady at the peak of her career, while Kris Kristofferson’s musical career was soon to start heading downhill — he was about to waste years of his life on the flop of “Heaven’s Gate.” “A Star Is Born” is like the film-world equivalent of staging “Macbeth.”
Some of the meta-casting that was planned but never happened is even more chilling. Clara Bow was originally going to be in “What Price Hollywood?,” but her own alcoholism left her too heavy (just like Garland’s weight fluctuations during her own version). And Streisand had the bone-chilling idea that Elvis himself should be the downward-spiral star to play opposite her; Colonel Tom Parker broke that one up for petty reasons.
So don’t fool yourself: whoever had the bright idea of casting Crowe as a star on the way down opposite Beyonce knows precisely what they’re doing. The question is more like “why”; part of the sensation of those earlier films was showing a public much less savvy about the inner mechanisms of the entertainment industries what was going on in there. Everyone knows everything now.
[Photo: “A Star Is Born,” Warner Bros., 1954; “A Star Is Born,” Warner Bros., 1976]