The Tech in the Birth of Four Stars

Hollywood has now made four films called A Star is Born, all of which followed the same basic story of love, substance abuse, one star rising while the other falls, and inevitable tragedy.

But each of the films, except the most recent one, has been a trailblazer in cinema technology.

1937 version, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, directed by William Wellman (who gets story credit on all of the movies)

This version was shot in Three-Strip Technicolor, which was only five years old when the film was completed. Hollywood put out 300-to-400 narrative features in those years, and A Star is Born was only the ninth to use full color. Neither Gaynor nor March had appeared in color before.

By the way, this was the only version that was in no way a musical. Gaynor’s character is an aspiring actress, not a singer. I saw this one ages ago and barely remember it.

1954 version, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor

Twentieth-Century Fox introduced its widescreen process, CinemaScope, with The Robe in 1953. Unlike three-strip Technicolor, it was an immediate hit. I’m not sure if A Star is Born was the first Warner Brothers film to use their competitor’s format, but I do know it opened only 13 months after The Robe.

This was the first musical version of Star is Born. Garland’s character is a singer who breaks into Hollywood as a singing-dancing star. This is the sort of realistic musical where people break into song only because they’re rehearsing or performing. In fact, the joyful songs in the films-within-the-film play a strange counterpoint to the serious story, reminding us of the artifice of Hollywood make-believe. I give this version an A.

1976 version, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; directed by Frank Pierson

Dolby Stereo, the technology that blew Star Wars into the stratosphere and changed movie sound entirely, made its first appearance in two movies in 1976. One of them was A Star is Born.

This was the Star is Born for my generation, but bad reviews kept me from seeing it. For the first time, the main characters are rock stars instead of movie stars.

2018 version, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, directed by Bradley Cooper

Unlike the Technicolor, CinemaScope, and Dolby versions, this remake (which is also set in the world of rock and roll) didn’t use any major new technology. True, it was shot and projected digitally, but that’s hardly new in 2018. If it had been shot digitally ten years ago, it would have been cutting edge.

On the other hand, Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper probably wouldn’t have been ready. This fourth version is at least as good as the 1954 classic.  Lady Gaga holds the screen and proves she’s a movie star as well as a singer/songwriter (she also wrote most of the film’s excellent songs). Co-star Bradley Cooper proves that along with acting, he can sing, write, and direct. Sam Elliott has a major supporting role. I give it an A.

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