Whereas the first three versions of A Star is Born (1954, 1937, and 1932’s What Price Hollywood?) were firmly set in Hollywood, the screenwriters for the 1976 remake (through multiple rewrites) transposed the core drama of a marriage destroyed by booze to the rock & roll world. Actor Norman Maine morphed into seventies rock god John Norman Howard, and Esther Blodgett became Esther Hoffman, a bar crooner singing white soul tunes with backup vocals by black singers billed as the Oreos.
There's always been something deeply compelling about gifted musicians disintegrating in the public eye; not unlike real-life counterparts Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin, John Norman Howard (played by charismatic Kris Kristofferson) knows the booze, nose candy and overall carelessness ain’t good, and yet he never bothers to slow down.
The press that have exploited his career have archives of his slow-motion downfall from rock pioneer to drunk, and the unwavering public adoration he firmly relied on has withered down to a mass of hardcore fans hoping for the regeneration of their floundering hero. Tied to that downward spiral are the friends and lovers who get burned along the way, with very few riding out the career demolition to the bitter end.
Production Preamble: 1975-1976
According to director Frank Pierson, who penned an unflattering account of the production in a 1976 New West magazine article, “My Battles with Barbra and John,” published before the film’s premiere, the John Gregory Dunne-Joan Didion script was never based on the ’37 nor ’54 films; the writers had used the title to make their project more palatable to Warner Bros., who took the bait and thought it ideal for Streisand, with whom they had a production deal, and recently made What’s Up Doc? (1972)
Jon Peters, Streisand’s new record producer / lover / hairdresser then pushed the actress to consider the property, since it provided a perfect platform for Streisand to sing and act in a youth-oriented / adult themed drama with an odd mix of light comedy, romance, a semi-tragic finale.
Frank Pierson, respected for writing Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Anderson Tapes (1971), had made his own feature film directorial debut in 1969 with The Looking Glass War, so based on his esteemed background, WB engaged him to fix an ailing production that had gone through six writers and three directors.
Streisand’s first choice for the disintegrating Howard was (incredibly) Elvis Presley, and she did fly out and meet with the falling icon to discuss the project. Presley had stopped making pictures after the dull drama Change of Habit (1969), and while he did express enough interest in Star to seriously consider Streisand’s offer, he declined in the end, allegedly because mentor Colonel Tom Parker nixed the whole idea.
Whether it was due to business reasons or a realistic view that Presley was physically at stage of John Norman Howard’s end-of-life stage is unknown, but as intriguing as a Streisand-Presley vehicle sounds, it would have been a disaster since the king of rock was forgetting lyrics to hit songs at live performances, and losing his struggle with demons and addictions. About a year after the film’s release, he would be dead from a drug overdose, and the impacts of plain bad health.
Kristofferson had been passed on before but he was brought back to the project, although Pierson wasn’t happy when the actor / musician drank real alcohol for key scenes, and started to voice displeasure about the songs he was supposed to play.
Much of the music hadn’t been written before filming began, and some of the changes Kristofferson made to the songs by latecomers Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher created an acrimonious atmosphere that exhausted Pierson further.
There was also Jon Peters’ insistence on action-oriented scenes to goose up the story, and then there was Streisand, testing waters as a fledging director.
In her commentary track for Warner Bros.’ DVD, Streisand's view of Pierson isn’t exactly negative: in her eyes, the film was to be comprised of a series of conceptualized scenes, and given her experience within the music industry, it was sort of understood that she would direct a few scenes of which she had insight; in the credits, Pierson would be the sole director, but she would have license to exert her influence, since she was the film's executive producer.
As a hired gun, Pierson’s direction and power within the production’s elite framework was being effectively neutered by his star - she bankrolled the $1 million in overages herself - plus boyfriend Peters flexing his muscles for what was his debut as a film producer.
Script-wise, Pierson’s work was also going through changes, and he was struggling to create some continuity within the Star template by referencing specific areas, characters, dialogue, and motifs from the prior films (each of which had fairly solid structures).
Moreover, the film wasn’t a lavishly budgeted production: at $5 million, Streisand tried to keep things tight, although whether the use of her personal wardrobe was a true cost-saving measure is fuzzy; most of the selected clothes ‘from her closet’ work for her character, except for a ridiculous turban outfit she sports in a horseback riding montage with Kristofferson, looking like some Egyptian princess who’s been needle-dropped into the psychedelic seventies.
According to Streisand, the $1 million in overages was comprised of music production fees, engaging music engineer and music producer Phil Ramone to ensure the songs were recorded and mixed in top form, and a lengthy round of editing that prolonged the film’s postproduction schedule in spite of Streisand hiring two teams of editors working from her bungalow during the day and night.
Pierson’s published ire towards Streisand also details a prima donna personality, constantly criticizing his choices of camera setups, and wrangling the film away from him after he managed to force a single screening of his director’s cut for the WB brass. Streisand’s recollection is that she merely exercised her right to final cut, and made sure every nuance was properly attended to in order to make the best possible film.
From Pierson’s view, she took the film, whittled away portions of scenes, and edited out early character building material designed to make Howard more compelling and tragic. Apparently she took his critique of her dramatically bland edit seriously, and reinstated much of the material he felt was vital to the dramatizing the couple’s courting, and bumpy marriage.
One could argue that Streisand, through her right to final cut, was discovering how scenes are shaped in the editing room, and how their rhythm and meaning can be heightened, neutered, and ruined during the process. From the critical comments made by both star and director, one could deduce that Star was for Streisand a stepping stone in practical filmmaking, and it inevitably prepared her for her own directorial debut, Yentl, in 1983.
Midway through production, Pierson ended up winning an Oscar for his Dog Day Afternoon screenplay, and while that may have emboldened him in finishing the production, it seemed to have soured him from pursuing an active filmmaking career.
After Star, Pierson moved on to King of the Gypsies (1978), and as a director, he's done periodic work in TV; his few produced screenplays include In Country (1989) and a solid adaptation of Scott Turow’s best-selling mystery, Presumed Innocent (1990).
Screenwriters Dune and Didion, who had previously written the edgy drama Panic in Needle Park (1971) went on to pen just a handful of films, including True Confessions (1981) and Up Close & Personal (1996)
Star managed to defy sour-pussed critics and become one of the year’s top-grossing films, aided by a successful soundtrack that contained one of Streisand’s best songs, “Evergreen,” the film’s love theme. Streisand wrote the song on her own when initial composer Rupert Holmes bailed on the production, and had Paul Williams write the lyrics.
In the end, Streisand had the last laugh, with the film grossing a fortune, “Evergreen” winning an Oscar for Best Music: Original Song. The film’s Oscar Nominations were Best Cinematography, Sound, and Score (as adapted by Roger Kellaway).
The film, stars Streisand & Kristofferson, the score (credited to Paul Williams and Kenny Asher), and “Evergreen” also won Golden Globe Awards.
So is the ’76 remake any good?
It isn’t a disaster nor a 100% self-aggrandizing monster birthed by an egomaniacal star, but the script stinks from aged and sharply cured melodrama, and it relies too much on Streisand’s ability to be an awesome triple-threat.
Character Chronologies (1932-1976)
Esther Hoffman is close to her ’54 predecessor, Esther Blodgett, sharing the same background of a working class singer doing the bar circuit, but augmented by ‘the Oreos,' her backup singers. Esther Hoffman similarly struggles for work, is eventually recognized by peers, achieves fame (winning a Grammy instead of an Oscar), and watches her husband disintegrate and destroy himself. In spite of her personal tragedy, she re-emerges in front of her fans at a memorial event, ready to move forward in life, and career.
John Norman Howard stays within the Norman Maine template, although Howard's death remains ambiguous, since it’s never clarified whether his motor accident was due to drinking + driving + carelessness, or a concerted decision to get hammered before a deliberate rollover.
The character of studio boss Oliver Niles has been bisected into long-suffering but still loyal manager 'Brian' (Paul Mazursky), and stage manager / handler Bobbie Ritchie (Gary Busey). Ritchie is a villain insofar as he gives Howard the coke and booze he needs before each concert, but he’s otherwise loyal and tries to reason with Howard when he’s behind in his album deliveries, and lawsuits are on the horizon.
Unlike the '37 and '54 films, the real villain isn’t a press agent but a local DJ named Bebe Jesus (M.G. Kelly), a media parasite who follows Howard around like a tabloid reporter, publicizes Howard’s most embarrassing tirades and criticizes him at every opportunity. As a character, Jesus is a half-note moron and a flea who disappears from the narrative but is brought back before the closing scene, reporting on the demise of the ‘great artist’ Howard.
A lesser villain is a wannabe Rolling Stone reporter named Quentin (skinny puppy Marta Heflin), who swims nude in Howard’s pool and bullies him for an interview, offering herself as an aperitif before the main Q&A. When Esther finds the two lovers making satin ripples in her bed, she tells Howard's she's leaving.
Howard’s reaction is a kind of ‘been there, done this, whatever’ which actually works for the character, but the scene becomes inane when Quentin quickly grabs her tape recorder, and starts the ‘interview’ by pointing the mic at Esther, and telling her subject to “Go!”
Pierson may have been trying to reference the pro-active reporters who break up the couple’s marriage in 1932 Star forerunner, What Price Hollywood? but the scene is laughable, and is followed by an even sillier scene where Esther and Howard engage in a contrived reconciliation that has his repeated ‘I love you’ quips returned with lip and shoulder bites by Esther, until she’s overcome with passion, and surrenders with an ‘I love you.’ Pierson then dissolves to a sunset shot where the couple ride a single horse together on their ranch.
Dialogue + Music
In his inflammatory article, Pierson explains the research done by Dunne and Didion paid off by giving the script plenty of insightful details of the rock world, but it’s hard to say whether the dramatic flaws always resided in the original script, were leftover from later drafts mandated by Streisand, producer Peters, and studio; or stem from unsuccessful efforts to integrate more thematic material from the prior Star films into the kludge pot that boiled up a horrendously foul screenplay.
The dialogue espouses to be hip, but one suspects a few years after its releases, it all just sounded like a silly attempt by Hollywood to capture the style and grit of the rock world through the filters of middle-aged writers.
Streisand’s music isn’t rock: it’s soft, lightly funky soul-pop that goes against the grain of Kristofferson’s harder sound; one can understand why he’s attracted to the pretty songbird and her personal lyrics, but why his fans would go gaga over her when he steps out of the limelight at a benefit concert is baffling.
Additionally, Howard / Kristofferson’s songs aren’t good; whether it’s due to Williams and Ascher’s lyrical structure or Kristofferson’s tweaking, his ‘classic rock’ anthem, “Watch Closely Now” is awful, as is “Hellacious Acres,” which he sings (for a while) under a monster mask in the film’s opening concert scene.
Some musical numbers do click, but they're scattered throughout the film.
Esther’s recording of “Evergreen” in the A&M studios is filmed in a slow revolving take that reveals she’s not alone in the recording booth after all; the concept was to show Howard’s nervousness in the booth as he sings backup vocals, and how the lovers continue to bond through music.
Almost as effective is that earlier scene where Esther plays a rough version of “With One More Look at You” for Howard on his piano, and his improvised lyrics that suddenly solve her dilemma in developing the song into something concrete. It’s a seduction scene, a bonding scene, and a moment where the two reactive creative minds find common ground, which makes their duet at the A&M studio more affecting.
However, there was another attempt to show how their romance began after Howard heard Esther sing with the Oreos at a local bar.
The DVD includes a scene extension after the two are in Esther’s apartment. He goads her into singing one of her songs, and she plays “Evergreen” on solo guitar, humming the lyrics, while Howard listens on the couch, clearly getting turned on by the afro’d songbird. The scene’s punchline is her finding him asleep when she finishes, and while cute, the scene is unnecessary because the piano as well as the A&M studio scenes cover their burgeoning romance, and Streisand playing the whole song would’ve ground the film to a critical stop. (Streisand admits in her commentary that the scene was indeed “boring” and delayed the film’s progression to the daytime stadium concert.)
The aforementioned piano scene also relates to other moments where Esther and Howard individually use “With One More Look at You” to solve an emotional block. Howard takes a crack at it when he’s home alone while Esther is living out her success. Just as Norman Maine is irked by a delivery boy who interrupts his bliss with Esther by thanking him as ‘Mrs. Vicki Lester’ in the prior films, Howard’s attempt to connect with his wife through the song is interrupted by the phone, with callers asking for Esther, and assuming he’s hired help. Howard’s struggle with the song is also well acted and directed, and it’s a rare moment where one has sympathy for an otherwise drunken asshole who’s unbelievable as a magnet for Esther.
Later on, after Howard’s death, Esther hears that hoarsely sung demo version from a tape recorder, and she then presents this final gift to the fans that have gathered for her performance in the film’s finale. In front of an audience bearing lit matches and lighters, she sings the fully orchestrated version in a medley that fuses “With One More Look at You” with Howard’s anthem “Watch Closely Now.”
“Look” represents a flowing tribute from her to her dead hero, and her greatest supporter. Esther’s music is locked to Howard’s words; it’s orchestrated by her; and it’s her seamless fusion with “Watch” – orchestrated for to accommodate Esther’s lighter style – that clinches her first steps in moving forward, and alone.
In her commentary, Streisand recalls how she tried to create an edit of the “Watch” segment using alternate footage comprised of low angles from all sides, but the edit (also in the deleted scenes gallery) never clicked, even though she admits she would use the alternate footage had she cut the finale today.
What remains in the film is a long, 7 min. uninterrupted take of the medley, with striking lighting design that covers mood changes from lone spotlight to warm colours, and an explosion of neon tones. Conceptually, the solo piece makes sense; it keeps Esther’s naked emotional release private even though she’s performing in front of a huge crowd.
It’s mostly a close-up to medium shot that hangs around her face, and it’s as ballsy as George Cukor filming Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” in one take for the ’54 film. For the finale, Streisand may have wanted to capture an emotional purity as was done for “Evergreen” at the A&M studios.
Visually, however, the finale plods along because when Streisand shifts to the second song and the full band kicks in, the viewer’s natural expectation is a cutaway or a slow pullback to reveal the stage, musicians, and audience – and that doesn’t happen.
Streisand-bashers would single out the long final shot as indicative of her ego gone nuclear, but that’s just facile… and yet it’s hard not to chuckle at the audacity of the concept, particularly since Streisand’s transmutation of “Watch” to a smoother, pop rock style is jarring. She also looks goofy when long chunks of her performance are covered so tightly by the camera, and the only movement within the frame is Streisand’s bobbing noggin’ and her lunar ‘fro.
Keeping Continuity (1937-1976)
Pierson’s efforts to create some continuity within the Star universe shows up in a few interesting bits that are worth examining.
Howard getting hammered on stage and making an ass of himself is similar to Maine sauntering on stage drunk at the premiere of his movie in the ’54 version. There’s also Howard seeing Esther perform in a local dive, and him trying to impress her with a screen test in the ’54 film, and being whisked off to a live concert in front of a massive audience in the ‘76) version. Because Howard sees Esther first at the bar instead of some bash, Pierson saves his drunkenness for the stadium concert, where he rides a motorcycle off the stage and into the audience – an embarrassing moment that evokes Maine’s stage wandering in the ’54 film.
In all three Star versions the couple gets married in a civil ceremony, away from the press and meddlesome handlers. The ’76 version simplifies it even further, with the ceremony happening by an outside fountain.
In both the ’37 and ’54 versions, the couple’s honeymoon offers up an opportunity for a bonding montage before they get back to the studio and return to work. In the ’37 film, Esther and Norman go on a lengthy honeymoon which the writers used to inject some screwball humour, mostly centered around the smallness of their camper trailer. In the ’54 film, the couple check into a hotel, and it’s really just a perfunctory scene that adds slow filler material between music sequences, even though one of Esther’s songs is heard as source music from the hotel room radio.
For the ’76 version, Pierson went for a ridiculously overlong montage designed to be cutesy and funny: after their marriage, the couple arrive at their remote farm and build their private dream home - a pueblo-ranch styled loft with a fireplace in the centre - and this they build all by themselves.
They don’t sing during the montage, but we see the couple working tractors, Esther choosing throw pillows before the house frame is completed, and other nonsense, until it’s just done. Not bad for Esther, who hails from the big city! Not bad either that their home comes with two horses and dogs who seems to take care of themselves and the house when mom and dad are off doing that music thing in big cities.
Another scene snipped from the film has Esther trying to bake like Julia Child, wearing an ugly apron and a frilly hat. Looking like a cherry red Stepford wife, Streisand plays the scene quirky, and it’s just awful and was rightly junked because of its utter uselessness, but it also illustrates the attempt to add a bit of screwball humour into the film.
In the ’32 version, the tactic worked, because that film was steeped in cynicism; in the ’37 version, it more or less worked (except in the silly honeymoon sequence where Esther tries to fry up giant steaks while the camper trailer is bobbing through potholes); in the ’54 version, humour was virtually gone; and in the ’76 version, it feels like Streisand wanted something light yet retro and chic, and played the scene like an outtake from What’s Up Doc? (1972).
One interesting difference from the prior films is the way Esther is introduced to the mass public by Howard. In the ’37 version, she co-stars with Maine in a film and gets the lion’s share of favorable commentary cards, with Maine referred to as a has-been. In the '54 film, Esther has the big “Born in a Trunk” sequence that we see in full, placing us with the audience who are wowed by the lengthy (er, overlong) number that transforms her into the new It Girl.
In the ’76 version, Howard stops playing his signature song at a First Nations benefit, pisses off the audiences, tells them he’s got something better than ‘the same old shit’ and calls out Esther. Angry, nervous, and feeling betrayed, she nevertheless sings two songs to the crowd. Howard was so convinced his crowd would groove with Esther that he also brought in her two ‘Oreos’ so she can have the same vocal ensemble with her new material. Esther was aching to groove on her own, because she performs the second song that’s staged like an extract from a finely rehearsed Broadway show.
Timeless Conflicts (1937-1976)
Booze, fame, and self-hatred are the main villains in each of the Star versions, but in the human realm, the most agitative in the '76 version is Bebe Jesus.
Jesus flies via helicopter to Howard’s palatial mountain home where he barks at the singer to appear on his radio show, and gets shot at by Howard. When Howard comes to apologize with a case of scotch, Jesus ridicules him on the air, which causes Howard to hurl the box of booze through the recording booth’s glass pane. The scene serves no purpose except to place Howard and Esther – who was left her stranded by Howard at the stadium concert – in the same building (where they obviously meet, makeup and get along smashingly).
Jesus later appears with video camera and battery of lights (uh… he’s a radio DJ, right?) on the night of the Grammy Awards. In the ’54 film, Maine crashes the Oscars ceremony, interrupts Esther’s speech, and asks his peers for a job; in the ’37 film he excoriates them and the value of the award, and demands an award for the worst performance of the year; in both versions he slaps Esther hard, and is led back to the dining table.
In the ’76 version, Howard barges in, annoys Esther, berates his peers, demands an award for the worst performance of the year, and storms out, with Esther in tow, after which Jesus corners the couple and gets punched by Howard for shoving camera lights in his face.
Instead of Maine slapping Esther near the podium, Howard just leaves the auditorium, but his punch to the symbol of the fickle media (Jesus) is actually borrowed from a later bar scene in both prior versions where Maine punches studio press agent Matt Libby, and is swarmed by a mob and plenty of press flashbulbs, sending him on a bad booze bender.
Like studio boss Niles visiting Maine at the sanitarium with a job offer, manager Brian drops by for a chat at the couple’s country home, where Howard’s been contemplating his future. Brian, however, brings no good news; he asks Howard to step away from accompanying Esther on her tour, and Pierson echoes dialogue from the prior films by having Brian tell Howard ‘he’s blown his career’ – which is a reworking of an exchange where Niles tells Maine ‘You’re not slipping, you’ve already slipped.’
The last significant elements ported over from the prior films include Howard’s touching request to look at Esther one more time, which forms the basis of the song “With One More Look at You,” and the suicide run, which in the original films is also implied off-camera: just as Maine walks down the beach and swims out under a beautiful sunset, Howard drives up a hill and disappears under horizon.
Streisand preferred not to show the car crash, but a coda was filmed giving her final moments with Howard’s body by the mangled car.
The same strained melodrama happens in a following scene where she hears Howard’s rough version of their song, “With One More Look at You,” playing from the old tape recorder. At first moved, she then gets angry and tears the tape into pieces, but is overcome with grief and regret. Like the final concert, it’s photographed in one take, with a slow tracking in motion designed to capture her emotions moving lethargically from shock to sadness, anger (“You’re a liar!”) to an explosion of remorse (the latter perhaps coming from a realization that she just wrecked the only copy of the song, and has to start to orchestrate the song from scratch).
Lastly, although she doesn’t introduce herself at the final concert, she’s obviously asked the emcee to present her as “Esther Hoffman Howard” – a direct tie to the spoken words at the end of the prior Star films where Esther introduces herself as “Mrs. Norman Maine” to audiences.
A major flaw in Star is that its two main characters aren’t likeable; they have poignant moments, but they don’t articulate themselves very well, are generally childish, and don’t personally change during the course of the film.
Esther Hoffmann started off strong and independent, and her medley makes it clear she’s still the same person. She can sing real swell, but she isn’t a person anyone would like being around. Howard stays emotionally one-noted, and his songs aren’t good, whether sung sober or stinko.
The only secondary character that’s believable is handler Bobbie, and Gary Busey’s physical ticks and mannerisms enliven what’s generally a throwaway character. There’s a nice series of little bits of business he adds when Bobbie is annoyed that Howard is spending time recording his girlfriend’s music, and not the albums he’s contractually obligated (and behind schedule) to complete. Busey conveys disappointment, betrayal, and increasing exasperation – all of which give his minor character more depth than expected.
As Howard's manager Brian, Paul Mazursky has a few scenes but he often hangs around with little to say or do except look annoyed. (A bigger waste is Joanne Linville, who has one or two lines in two or three scenes as Brian’s wife.)
An unbilled Robert Englund has one amusing scene being a bullying jerk who wants Howard to ‘get up and sing’ when he’s enjoying Esther’s performance with her Oreos in the bar, but Sally Kirkland's credited appearance as a photographer later in the film barely registers because of the way her shots are cut: she always has the camera over her face, and once the one photo shoot's over, she’s gone from the film.
Besides a few songs, most of the music is banal. Williams and Kenny Ascher wrote the bulk of the songs, but Streisand claims to have written the much of the underscore, which was adapted for pop orchestra by Roger Kellaway. Phil Ramone’s music engineering, however, is superb, and there isn’t a single instrument lost in the mix during the live and studio recordings. Unlike the dialogue, the music mix will benefit the most should Star get a Blu-ray release with uncompressed audio.
Robert Surtees’ cinematography is gorgeous, and the veteran would photograph three more films before retiring in 1978. Peter Zinner (In Cold Blood, The Deer Hunter) remains the film’s credited editor, and he has a small cameo, playing an annoying stage manager who keeps interrupting a conversation between Esther and Brian.
Warner Bros,’ DVD includes a feature length commentary by Streisand, but she talks in sporadic clumps, and the smarter move would’ve been to index key blocks of commentary so viewers don’t have to re-watch whole scenes.
Most of the extras seem to come from Streisand’s archives, and they include wardrobe tests with negligible commentary by Streisand; and 12 deleted scenes: the aforementioned ‘baking’ scene; an alternate version of Esther rehearsing with Howard at the A&M studios before recording “Evergreen”; Streisand performing that whole take of “Evergreen” on solo acoustic guitar; a short scene where Howard describes the lack of fine cuisine when traveling on the road; Howard meeting ‘the new kid’ his band has hired during his prolonged convalescence and soul-searching; various trims and outtakes; and different takes of Howard almost cutting off his beard after the couple have a ridiculous tussle in farm mud, the mud tussle, and Esther putting makeup on Howard in the film’s silly hot tub scene
Not included on the DVD (and worth porting over for a Blu-ray edition)is Barbra: With One More Look at You, a 1976 making-of documentary that was shot and aired on TV. Footage from the 55 min. doc was actually used in the feature film when Streisand (wisely) felt one needed to see Esther on the road, handling fame, and the press.
Clips of real press conferences and Streisand singing at that massive stadium with 50,000 fans were edited into a montage, and it’s a fascinating glimpse at the media frenzy that accompanied the production. Most likely this was a problem due to music rights, since Streisand performed music from other films, such as Columbia The Way We Were (1973).
Streisand fans will certainly enjoy the film for its colour, music, and vintage style, but it is fortuitous that unlike prior versions of A Star is Born, thoughts from its director were printed in a lengthy article, providing a different angle to the film’s making, as well as a younger and perhaps more arrogant star who seemed to step back from acting, and slowly eased into the director’s chair during the eighties and nineties.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan