Ever since 1937, it seems each new generation has had their own version of A Star is Born to watch. Its success is easy to understand. The tragic story of a young up-and-coming star who falls for the fading celebrity they are destined to surpass is inherently engaging. As is surely demonstrated by the number of times the story has been retold. But now it’s time to determine which version of A Star is Born did it better?
In this article, we will be comparing the 1937, 1954, 1976, and 2018 versions of the story across various categories to see who was more successful at what. Then at the end, we will add up the score and declare a winner. Let’s begin by looking at our stars.
The Best Star Couple
This is definitely the hardest topic to make a decision on. Despite each film’s flaws, all the central couples have fantastic chemistry. To pick between the couples, therefore, it becomes a question of which duos work best together and do the characters work as well individually?
The 2018 couple have some beautiful moments, like how Jack turns Ally’s feelings about her nose into a cute display of affection between them. Lady Gaga is also terrific as Ally. Her great vocals make her musical numbers a joy to behold, and she does well pulling off her character’s vulnerability. That said, the movie focuses so much on Bradley Cooper’s Jack and them as a couple that we don’t get to know much about what makes Ally a true star. She has a great voice but as this franchise often shows, sometimes that isn’t enough. Some of the couple’s fights also feel too mean-spirited. Which can sour some on their relationship. Then there is Jack, who despite having a decent amount of back-story, feels like a typical cliché burned-out rock star. Which is disappointingly bland for a modern adaptation of this story. And Cooper’s mumbling performance quickly becomes irritating.
There is a marked improvement in the 1976 central couple. Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson unlike Cooper and Gaga feel more like equals. Both get similar screen time devoted to them and both get musical numbers showcasing their star talent. Something the earlier films lacked. Streisand’s Esther is also a departure from many of the franchise’s female leads as she is very self-confident. Even getting out of her depression in the finale by herself without being pressured, like other leads. Making her a welcome change. Kristofferson also feels authentic as rock star John Norman Howard. But every improvement here brings a drawback. Despite feeling more like equals, some of this movie’s choices destroy John’s likeability, such as when he cheats on Esther. Streisand’s confidence and lack of background also makes her less relatable than other franchise leads. And regrettably, Kristofferson just doesn’t compare to the male stars in earlier adaptations.
The original 1937 film easily makes the audience warm to the stars. Thanks to the lead’s chemistry and how real it feels compared to the film’s superficial presentation of the rest of Hollywood. Janet Gaynor’s Esther feels very grounded and sympathetic. Her backstory of coming from a low-income home and how hard she works to break into the movie business instantly endears her to audiences. And Fredric March is on top form as Norman. He’s funny and likeable and seems genuine. However, the film does wind up focusing too much on March’s character by the end. Leaving Gaynor on the sidelines and making this partnership also feel unequal. It also doesn’t help that the film gives us very little to convince us of Esther’s supposed star talent.
Judy Garland and James Mason however are the best couple. They feel like a loving husband and wife, their similar time on-screen makes both feel equally important and despite their dark moments, they never feel malicious towards one another. Both actors also offer stellar performances. Judy Garland’s Esther mixes the finest qualities of all the franchise’s female leads. Like Gaga and Gaynor, Garland feels very human. Persevering through many dead-end jobs to keep her dream within reach. And like Streisand you can see what makes Garland’s Esther stand out, thanks to her musical performances across the narrative. But what elevates the character is Garland’s raw and impressive performance. She sings, dances, and runs the gamut of emotions, sometimes going from infectiously happy to emotionally distraught within the same scene, without it feeling overdone. Other leads may do some things mildly better, but Garland’s Esther is a genuine star. And despite the narrative not giving Mason’s Norman much to demonstrate why he’s famous, his performance is still great. His love for Esther feels incredibly sincere, he has impeccable comedic timing when it is called for and his drunken antics have a huge amount of pathos to them. Mason feels like someone truly self-destructive, but his performance makes him someone you truly want to see succeed. Ultimately both actors offer magnificent performances which greatly impact the audience and work well together and separately, making this couple the winner.
Winner: A Star is Born (1954)
The Best Supporting Cast
Conversely, this section is easy to select a winner for. As many of the movie’s focus, understandably, on nailing the central relationship over developing the supporting cast. Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford) and Danny McGuire (Tommy Noonan) in the 1954 version along with Bobby Ritchie (Gary Busey) in the 1976 version are notable. But they don’t make much of an impact compared to the leads.
The 2018 version is a step up. Characters like Ally’s endearing dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), the deadpan funny ‘Noodles’ Stone (Dave Chapelle), Rafi Gavron‘s slimy executive, and Sam Elliott’s great emotional turn as Jack’s brother Bobby all stand out and give the movie more substance.
But when compared to the number of stellar supporting characters in the 1937 movie nothing comes close. There is amoral publicist Libby (Lionel Stander), the initially dismissive but ultimately caring studio head Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou), the adorably kind assistant director Danny McGuire (Andy Devine), Esther’s fire-tongue grandmother Lettie Blodgett (May Robson), and even Esther’s landlord (Edgar Kennedy) is given enough to make him memorable. With many unforgettable supporting characters both big and small, the 1937 version takes the prize.
Winner: A Star is Born (1937)
Which Movie Tells the Story the Best?
Now let’s examine A Star is Born’s story and see if we can say which film delivers it in the best way. The story across all the adaptations has very similar beats. A fading creative celebrity discovers an up-and-coming star by chance and is so impressed by them that they decide to help get them noticed. Upon doing so the up and comer eventually becomes a huge star and they decide to marry the fading celeb. Eventually, the new stars fame begins eclipsing the fading celeb, making them jealous and resulting in many spats. Then an outburst at an award show results in the celeb’s disgrace. They try to better themselves but something to do with the industry stops them. Eventually resulting in the fading celeb taking their own life to save the star’s reputation. Finally, after grieving the star returns to the spotlight in tribute to their partner.
In terms of who delivers the story the best, surprisingly, the 1976 version is the most well put together. Unlike the 1937 version, you get to see both leads perform some good music which helps us to buy both people as stars in their own right, rather than needing the movie to tell us. The film also gives equal focus to both journeys which doesn’t result in one being short-changed like in the 2018 version. And the conclusion feels a lot more satisfying than the 1954 version because it doesn’t result in the star becoming a monument to the fallen celeb, neither are they pressured to get over their death, instead of allowing the star to be her own person. While it does have some stumbling blocks, the 1976 version from a narrative perspective delivers the best version of this story.
Winner: A Star is Born (1976)
The Best Music
Lastly, while this category excludes the 1937 entry, music and musical numbers have been an established part of this franchise since the 1954 movie. So it would be remiss not to discuss it here.
A Star is Born (1976) has some great tracks. Particularly the fun Queen Bee, Kristofferson’s rock anthem Watch Closely Now, and Streisand’s showstopping reprisal and upgrade of the song with the long mashup With One More Look At You/Watch Closely Now. With that said despite how nice the songs are, unlike other films in the franchise the music here doesn’t leave too much of a lasting impression.
Something which no one can say about the 2018 version. Of course, this version features the song Shallow, which has since become a hit in its own right thanks to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s delivery. It even managed to reach number one in the UK during the film’s release. And this version also features underrated songs such as Gaga’s cover of La Vie En Rose. But despite its highs a lot of the songs do end up falling into the background when compared to the iconic Shallow.
However while Shallow may be good it doesn’t beat the huge blowout numbers of the 1954 version. Such as the legendary Born in a Trunk, which mixes styles and moods in a way that should never work. But thanks to Judy Garland’s bravura singing it becomes a monumental triumph. There is also the poppy and uplifting Lose That Long Face, which never fails to make you smile. And there are catchy and joyous numbers like Someone at Last and Gotta Have Me Go With You. All of which will remain in your mind long after the credits role. With the sheer number of great tunes available within the 1954 version, it is the clear winner of the section.
Winner: A Star is Born (1954)
Overall Winner: A Star is Born (1954)
Many may take umbrage with the lack of love shown for A Star is Born (2018) in this article. But be assured the 2018 version is a solid adaptation of the story. With some good songs, an impressive lead performance from Lady Gaga, and a good supporting cast. It is just that when compared to other versions of the story it does feel underwhelming.
The 1976 version is a good update of the story for the rock star era. It does lack relatability, but it makes up for that with some good music, fantastic chemistry from the two leads, and structurally the best telling of the story.
The original A Star is Born (1937) remains a well-made piece of classic Hollywood cinema. With iconic and engaging leads, an incredible supporting cast, and a fascinating story that has proven very enduring over the years.
But with astounding central performances from Judy Garland and James Mason, both of whom have electrifying chemistry, an epic scale, amazing musical numbers, and a story that while not perfect still manages to have a great emotional impact on the viewer, A Star is Born (1954) is the star of the franchise.
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