I Watched All the Old Versions of 'A Star Is Born' So You Don't Have To

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 5 years old.
(L-R) Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, all playing Esther in 'A Star Is Born'.

With Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper starring in the fourth (yes, fourth) version of A Star Is Born, I decided to look back at all the previous stars who've been born, to try and figure out why this story is simultaneously so timeless and so in need of constant updates. (Spoilers are coming, but these films are between 42 and 81 years old, so...)

A Star Is Born (1937)

The first one!
Look! It's the first one!

Starring: A bunch of people you're too young to have heard of.

Esther and Norman after he's Kanye'd her speech.

Story: Naive, skinny-eyebrowed poor person, Esther Blodgett, uses her granny's savings to run off to Hollywood to be in pictures. After drinking massive White Russians for a while, she gets a waitressing job. One night at work, she meets movie star and raging alcoholic, Norman Maine, who relentlessly hits on her in front of his date, then drunk-drives her home. (The 1930s, everyone!) Thanks to Norman's connections, Esther gets a studio contract, a makeover and a new name (Vicki Lester). Fame, fortune and wedding bells follow, but as Esther's star rises, Norman's plummets. In the middle of Esther accepting an Academy Award, Norman does a stage invasion, basically shouts "I'ma let you finish, but..." then literally backhands her in the face. After a stint in a sanitarium, Norman goes on a bender and gets arrested for being drunk and disorderly. A judge releases him into Esther's custody, and she decides to give up her career to take care of him. In a fit of guilt, Norman tells Esther he's going out for some exercise, then promptly drowns himself in the ocean. Then Granny shows up and guilt trips Esther until she agrees to keep being a movie star. Esther introduces herself at her next premiere as "Mrs. Norman Maine" and the crowd goes wild.

This version exists because: Rags to riches! Wish fulfillment! People who are really ridiculously good-looking! Romance! Comedy! Tragedy! This story has everything...except, rather crucially, music, which, with hindsight, was a massive oversight.


A Star Is Born (1954)

It's the second one!
Get your jazz hands out! It's the second one!

Starring: Judy Garland and James Mason.

Dear 1954, this is not appropriate attire for a sad scene.

Story: Esther is updated here to be more of a modern gal. Before Norman "discovers" her, she tours with a band! She takes care of her own bills! She actually expresses hurt when a movie studio tells her she's not beautiful enough! But goddamnit, Esther will just not stop singing (even when she's just chillin' in the house with Norm)—which is why this movie is three hours long when the original was less than two. The endless singing and dancing is, for many people, why this is the quintessential version, but it sure does make the tone weird. Take, for example, the part when Esther finally breaks down in tears over Norman's alcoholism. It's impossible not to be distracted from the rawness of Garland's performance by the fact that she's got freckles drawn on her face and a straw hat on her head! It's... awkward. Despite it all, this one still manages to have the most harrowing ending of all the old Stars, thanks to James Mason acting the crap out of it.

This version exists because: In 1942, Judy Garland did a radio performance based on the original and fell in love with the story. She wanted to turn it into a musical immediately, but, because she was only 20 at the time, studios didn't feel comfortable casting her in the role of an alcoholic's wife. She had to wait 12 years to get it done. It ended up being the most expensive movie in Warner Bros. history.

A Star Is Born (1976)

Oh, boy...

Starring: Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Esther's excellent wedding hair.

Story: In this perfect '70s time capsule, John Norman's very neat beard meets Esther Hoffman's very poofy perm after he finishes an arena show and drunkenly wanders into one of her club performances. His presence disrupts the entire thing, so he drives her home. She invites him over for breakfast and before you know it, they're jamming in his mansion and making lurve. He says things like "There's a little ball of fire inside you" and then mentors her, before forcing her to perform for his audiences. His fans fall in love with her hair frizz and vibrato, and she wins a Grammy without having to change her name like the other two Esthers did. Then Esther puts baby's breath in her hair so she and John can get married and ride horses around in the desert. As Esther's fame grows, John's masculinity gets more fragile, so he sleeps with a journalist then crashes his car about five minutes after promising Esther he would never die (which, let's be honest, is a really stupid promise for any human to make).

This version exists because: There just wasn't enough bathtub sex,  cocaine or references to "strawberry douche" in the first two. Updating the story to be set in the hedonistic, drug-fueled world of '70s arena rock was a no-brainer, and both Streisand and Kristofferson definitely breathe new life into a classic tale.

So... do we need the new one? Hell, yeah, we need the new one! The reason we're still watching Shakespeare's greatest plays well over 400 years after he started writing them is that he focused on universally-relatable themes. A Star Is Born has all of them, plus great music. If anything, a movie about the power and perils of fame is more suited to 2018 than at any other point in the story's history—younger generations are now more interested in becoming celebrities than ever before. Plus, with Lady Gaga's combination of blinding star power and scrappy, relatable, real-life backstory, she's the ideal choice for the first 21st-century Esther. If we're lucky, there'll be another one before the 22nd rolls around.

Version number 4 of A Star Is Born is out nationwide, October 5th, 2018.