A Brief History of Hollywood Fame, via A Star Is Born

In Depth

There is nothing Hollywood loves more than working through its complex relationship to the very notion of fame. And in A Star Is Born, Hollywood tries on a theory borrowed from one of its own founding genres, the Western, rendering fame as a kind of Manifest Destiny.

Here’s the thing about the four different adaptations of the same (rather meta) movie, which were spread out across eight decades: Even when the story isn’t that compelling, all the versions start chattering away with one another, and if you watch all of them together, you find yourself with a strangely richer text than anticipated. Hollywood has produced takes on this tale in 1937, 1954, 1976, and now, 2018. (If you want to get a little more flexible, you could even say five and include What Price Hollywood?) The story: A famous man whose career is in the process of skidding out of control meets a young woman, in whom he sees something captivating. He gives her the initial boost into fame, they marry, but as she rises, his issues only grow worse and worse until he meets a tragic end.

It’s fairly straightforward why Hollywood is so obsessed: The story renders fame—first movie stardom, and then musical success—as something big and tragic and bittersweet and grand. It’s flattering to the industry in a way that, say, the caustic noir Sunset Boulevard absolutely is not. What’s fascinating for those of us outside the bubble is that it’s been made so many times in so many different cultural eras of Hollywood. Many scenes are lifted entirely from other versions, offering a new spin for their time.

There are four different versions of the “one more look at you” scene that became a Twitter meme. The fading star always dies—in the first two, he literally walks into the sea, like the protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. He always ruins the heroine’s moment of triumph, upstaging her with drunken antics. In the 1937 and 1954 versions, he accidentally hits her, flinging his arm out dramatically in his moment of self-pity. Watch each version in succession and it’s apparent how the industry’s view of itself shifted over the years. In her book about women’s pictures, A Woman’s View, film historian Jeanine Basinger traces the arc of the first three, starting with What Price Hollywood? and continuing through the Garland version:

These three movies show the glamorizing process across three decades, reflecting changes in women’s clothing, makeup, and fashion, as well as changes in attitude toward Hollywood’s manipulation of a young woman’s life. At first, in 1932, the story is treated as a comedy, with some tragic events, although it ends happily. In 1937, the movie becomes a tragedy, with some comedy, and a sad though upbeat ending in which the woman ends up alone, but strong. In the 1954 version, even though it is a musical variation, the story is told as a tragedy.

What Price Hollywood? has different plot beats—the female star isn’t hitched to a man in an awful downward spiral, but rather chooses between her fast Hollywood life and her more staid husband. It’s got that sort of flashy toughness of the movies from the era, like a Bakelite radio. While the latter two versions include a fairly realistic interpretation of the studios’ star-creation process, complete with makeover and name change and new biography, this one just opts for an incredibly literal transformation sequence.

The 1937 A Star Is Born is what really cemented the story’s major themes. It makes a nod at the wised-up quality of the first movie, opening and closing with views of the script they’re shooting from, but it’s among the most straightforwardly sentimental of the lot. Starring Janet Gaynor, it opens on a rural farmhouse and a family ragging Gaynor’s character, Esther, for her love of movies and her foolish desire to go to Hollywood. “What’s wrong with wanting to go out and make something of myself?” she demands, insisting, “I’m going to BE somebody!”

Esther’s grandmother approves heartily, giving her a big speech about the difference between dreamers and doers: “The dreamers just sit around and moon about how wonderful it would be if only things were different. And the years roll on and they grow old and by and by they forget everything, even about their dreams.” She contrasts this passivity with, uh, her own crossing of the Great Plains in a prairie schooner as a pioneer. She gives Esther her nest egg and escorts her to the train to California.

It’s hard to actually critique fame in a big-budget Hollywood movie with one eye fixed on an Academy Award statuette

Hollywood is therefore positioned as an iteration of Manifest Destiny—sure, your husband might take an ax to the head from a Native American who takes offense to your incursions, as Esther’s grandfather apparently did, but how glorious, to live your dreams! And at the end, Granny returns and gives Esther—now Vicki Lester, glamorous Hollywood star—a stern talking-to about not giving up, just because her husband’s dead. Vicki rallies to attend a premiere, with her grandmother tagging along all dolled up. Granny delivers a rousing speech about how it took her so long to get to Hollywood and she did so don’t give up hope, and then the bittersweet finale to the movie: Vicki identifies herself to listeners as Mrs. Norman Maine, carrying bravely onward.

The movie in no way critiques the notion that young women go to Hollywood to “BE somebody.” If anything, it’s an advertisement, complete with a montage of all the means of transportation just waiting to whisk you to the city of dreams.

By the 1970s, Hollywood in its original form was basically toast. (Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast on the Manson murders does a great job of tracing all the ways the old system had utterly broken down.) So a superstar team—Streisand was incredibly famous already, and they got Joan Didion and her husband do the screenplay—relocated the story to the more thriving music business and got Kris Kristofferson to play, basically, himself.

The 2018 version has come full circle to Janet Gaynor’s incarnation, in a way. In Bradley Cooper’s interpretation of it, stardom is good—it just has to be a particular kind of stardom. In this movie, the star creation process, represented by Ally’s sleazy, Colonel Tom Parker-adjacent manager, is downright villainous. In one way, it’s a clever use of the source material; country music is obsessed with authenticity, which is silly, because it’s just as constructed as any other form of art. The right kind of stardom, according to this movie, is one where you have “something to say.”

The 2018 version of A Star is Born is almost like a revisionist Western. It’s purporting to critique its own genre, but it sticks to the same basic trajectory of it. You may want the right kind of fame—but you still want fame. Then again, it’s hard to actually critique fame in a big-budget Hollywood movie with one eye clearly fixed on an Academy Award statuette, and anyway, we don’t seem to live in an era where anybody wants to critique the basic notion of stardom.

Again, this is the way Hollywood wants to see itself. Janet Gaynor soldiers bravely onward, assuring her public that dreams are worthwhile. Judy Garland—so, so damaged by the Hollywood machine and the men who pulled its levers—is transformed into a nobly suffering, supportive wife to a loving alcoholic. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta ends the movie having transformed, essentially, into Lady Gaga, presumably with a similar message. Fame is turned into something like fate in Greek mythology, a power beyond the scope of mere mortals to control, rather than the result of a series of business decisions. And that’s exactly what makes it so perfectly melodramatic. Even when the machinery is the subject, we want to fall for the show itself.

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