Published 7:13 PM EDT Oct 2, 2018
“A Star Is Born” is born again.
Movies that share the same name usually come from a franchise, but the “A Star Is Born” movies – including the new Oscar-ready musical fable starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper – aren’t sequels or even conventional remakes. They’re more romantic revivals that happen every couple of decades when filmmakers and actors take the same template and narrative threads but put their own special sauce on them.
The central conceit is always an alcoholic male artist on a career downswing who helps to raise (and also hurt) the profile of an up-and-coming starlet, though there are other hallmarks: “Star Wars” movies have lightsaber battles; “A Star Is Born” has a guy telling a girl, “I just want to take another look at you.” The rest is what defines each in the canon of filmmaking.
Here is every version of “A Star Is Born,” definitively ranked:
4. Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand (1976)
The famous lead singer of a rock band, John Norman Howard (Kristofferson) meets aspiring chanteuse Esther Hoffman (Streisand) at a bar where Howard gets into a fistfight with a fan. She saves his bacon, they go out for breakfast and he invites her to a show where he drives a motorbike off stage. Somehow after all that, Esther sticks around and, with his help, she becomes a huge disco-era pop star while he struggles to balance her fame with his fading.
The acting and songs are truly cornball (the Oscar-winning ballad “Evergreen” is its lasting cultural achievement), Kristofferson’s Howard is a total jerk, and often the movie just turns randomly into a Streisand concert. This one’s only for Babs completists.
3. Fredric March and Janet Gaynor (1937)
The original “Star” focused on Tinseltown itself: With the emotional and financial support of her grandma, Esther Blodgett (Gaynor) trades her North Dakota farm life for the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. She has trouble getting acting gigs, though things turn around when she's passing out appetizers at a party attended by A-lister Norman Maine (March). His drunkenness gives his studio pause, though Norman still has enough pull to get Esther a screen test and a plum role that launches her stardom.
It’s goofier than you’d expect – a woman smashes a porcelain tray over Norman’s head in one slapstick scene – which doesn’t quite jibe with the more tragic signature “Star” elements, but Gaynor and March have undeniable chemistry.
2. James Mason and Judy Garland (1954)
The most famous “Star” – at least so far – is an almost three-hour song-and-dance extravaganza that doubled as a comeback for its iconic actress. The movie sticks closely to the script of the first but makes Garland’s Esther Blodgett a singer in a jazz orchestra who saves famous British actor Norman Maine (Mason) from making a drunken fool of himself at a big event. He thinks she can be a movie star but their paths diverge until Norman hears her singing in a commercial, tracks her down and gets her a small film role. All that leads to a major breakthrough in a movie musical for Esther, newly renamed "Vicki Lester."
Mason is spot-on but mainly takes a back seat because this is definitely Garland’s showcase. She gets quite a few musical numbers, none more epic than the extended “Born in a Trunk” medley, a meta semi-autobiographical aside that hijacks the film for a good 15 minutes.
1. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (2018)
The newest take adds nuance and character development that's missing from its predecessors. Plus, it’s just a great modern cautionary tale. Getting his drink on after a show, country rocker Jackson Maine (Cooper) is smitten when he hears waitress Ally (Gaga) in a drag club. After a late night discussing life and songwriting, Jack has her flown to a gig, where she becomes a YouTube phenom when he brings her out to sing. Ally hits the road with Jack and begins a journey toward pop stardom, and Jack suffers from hearing loss and one unfortunate alcohol-fueled episode after another.
Also in the director’s chair, Cooper unleashes surprisingly good vocals and an emotional performance, Gaga is at the height of her acting powers (and like Garland, she takes the film over when she starts to sing), and the original tunes are all superb. Who knew the fourth time would be the charm?