3 Lessons About Art from A STAR IS BORN
Lesson 1: A Good Story Can Be Retold
It is doubtful that when William Wellman wrote and directed the 1937 film, A Star Is Born, that he knew he would set into motion a story that would be so successful that there would be three major remakes. (Although one could argue that the 1937 version was not the original, in that it borrows a great deal from a 1932 film titled, What Price Hollywood?)
His original version tells the story of a North Dakota farm girl named Esther Blodgett and her journey from obscurity to world-wide fame as a Hollywood actress. Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, follows her dream, moves to Hollywood and becomes a movie extra. She and her friend, Danny McGuire, attend a concert where she meets her onscreen idol Norman Maine. Maine, played by Fredric March, is a famous actor adored by millions. They fall in love and soon marry. Through his help Blodgett gets small roles in feature films, which allows her to be discovered and move onto stardom. But there is a dark side. As Blodgett’s star rises, Maine’s star dims. He soon turns back to alcohol, putting a strain on their relationship and harming his own career. But through Blodgett’s steadfastness, intervention, and love for her husband, things seem to mend for her and Maine. Then, in a discussion with a friend, Esther reveals that she is giving up her career for her husband. Norman overhears his wife’s plans and decides it is too much to ask, so he drowns himself in the Pacific Ocean.
Sound familiar? In 1954 Esther and Norman once again hit the big screen, and A Star is Born is reborn, but this time as a musical staring Judy Garland and James Mason. The story is about the same, except Esther is now a singer and Maine a stage actor. The same story unfolds with some twists, Esther Blodgett’s name is changed to Vicki Lester by the studio that represents her and Maine enters a sanitarium to dry out. However the story unfolds as before and Mason’s character meets the same demise, drowned in the Ocean. Fast forward about twenty years and the 1976 musical version hits theaters staring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as the lead characters. This time they are named Ester Hoffman and John Norman Howard. The story is basically the same, but instead of the ocean Howard gets drunk and recklessly speeds off to meet death. Ester carries on and sings a tribute to her now late husband.
The same story told three different times in three slightly different ways, each making their way into film history. This illustrates Joseph Campbell’s the hero’s or heroine’s journey and his thesis The Hero With A Thousand Faces (recommended reading for all storytellers). A great story can be told over and over and people will listen.
Lesson 2: A Retold Story Can Be Better Than The Original, If Told Correctly
Forty plus years later, A Star Is Born again appears on screen. This time directed by and staring Bradly Cooper as Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally Campana. The film itself does not mention Ally’s maiden name, but Bradly Cooper does refer to the character as Ally Campana in an interview - see http://www.papermag.com/ally-a-star-is-born-2611459407.html).
The New York Times and USA Today both found Cooper’s version the better of the four films. Billboard lists it in second place giving first to the 1954 Garland/Mason version. Still, the point remains - it is possible to make a great film better.
Cooper does it in a number of ways. First, he proves he knows how to direct, and that Lady Gaga knows how to act - a first for both. Cooper also holds his own singing with such a powerhouse and talent as Gaga. But there is also chemistry between the two, which is lacking in other versions. Additionally, there is depth of character which causes the viewer to care about what happens onscreen. And then there is song selection. Not only are the numbers approbate for when they appear in the film, they tell their own message. When Ally joins Maine on stage and sings Shallow it is telling two stories at once. The first is about Maine, as he states earlier in the film as Ally sings for him in an abandoned parking lot.
Ally: [singing] Tell me something, boy. Aren’t you tired trying to fill that void? Or do you need more? Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?
Jack: Is that me?
Ally: That’s you.
Jack: Did you just write that now?
Jack: Pretty good.
Later, and now on stage for the first time with Jackson Maine, Ally sings:
I’m off the deep end
Watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground
Crash through the surface
Where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now.
The lyrics allow us to see Ally as one who has taken a leap of faith in response to Maine’s comment moments before in telling her, “All you have to do is trust me.”
The same is true of the music throughout the film, appropriate choices for that moment in time. So when the final number is sung, it is believed because we have believed each song throughout. Plus there is the added feature that Lady Gaga insisted that the songs sung be live and not pre-recorded lip sync, adding to the believability of the film.
Lesson 3: A Good Story Has Meaning
“Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that's a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you'll never know. That's just the truth. And there's one reason we're supposed to be here is to say something so people want to hear. So you got to grab it, and you don't apologize, and you don't worry about why they're listening, or how long they're going to be listening for, you just tell them what you want to say. Don't you understand what I'm trying to tell you?” - Jackson Maine (played by Bradly Cooper), A Star Is Born, 2018.
This is the essence of art - story. Having something to say and not just saying something. It does not matter what the art is, if the story is told well people will pay attention.
Photographer Ansel Adams noted the difference between talent and having something of value to say. “There’s nothing worse” says Adams, “than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Vincent van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime, but the passion he had for his art despite the pain in his soul and mind still speaks to us today - it is art that has something of value to say. It reminds us that despite circumstance, there is still something very beautiful to see if we just take time to open our eyes and look.
In the 2018 version Ally is almost swallowed up by circumstances. Her star rises and she is almost consumed by it, becoming something other than the singer songwriter she really is. Yet, despite his own fall, or maybe because of it, Jackson reminds her again that she needs to have meaning in what she sings.
Jack: If I don’t say this then I’ll never forgive myself.
Jack: If you don’t dig deep into your soul you won’t have legs.
A great story has soul and touches ours because the artist has placed his or her soul into it, with meaning.
A Star is Born is a great movie no matter which generation made it, but for our generation this latest version is a must see for every artist and lover of art. Not just because the music is unbelievably fantastic, or the acting is Oscar worthy (which it certainly is), or the star quality - but because it effectively and powerfully tells a story - which is the essence of all art.