A Star Has Left the Sky: John Wicks, R.I.P.
Soul Queen Aretha Franklin Is Dead but Her Spirit Lives on
A native of Reading, England, John Wicks was a longtime resident of the United States after moving to Washington, D.C., around 1994 and then relocating to Los Angeles around 2000. Over the years, Wicks performed frequently in Southern California and toured overseas with varying lineups of The Records. And while The Records are most often remembered for their influential early albums — Shades in Bed (1979), Crashes (1980) and Music on Both Sides (1982) — the later incarnations of the group also created numerous other crucial if underrated power-pop, new-wave and punk-inflected original songs.
Despite all that productivity, the English group most often were associated with their early single “Starry Eyes,” which was co-written by Wicks with Records drummer Will Birch. Wreathed in shimmering harmonies and gloriously jangling guitars, “Starry Eyes” initially sounds like an ebullient romantic pop song but, on closer inspection, the lyrics are actually a sarcastic and bittersweet kiss-off to a former manager.
Wicks was briefly a member of the mid-1970s pop band The Kursaal Flyers, which featured Birch. The duo eventually formed The Records, who were named by Birch, with bassist Phil Brown and lead guitarist Brian Alterman, although the latter musician was replaced in 1978 by guitarist Huw Gower, who appears on the recording of “Starry Eyes.”
The 2006 album Rotate , released under the name John Wicks & the Records, was not only a quintessential documentation of the group’s later era but also stands as the group’s final released recording. Rotate ranges from driving power-pop rockers such as “Different Shades of Green” and the breezily dreamy “That Girl Is Emily” to sumptuous ballads like “Desert Sky” and a version of The Beatles’“We Can Work It Out.”
When Wicks wasn’t fronting The Records, he had a productive solo career on such collections as the country-flavored album Solace in Wonderland (1994) as well as Lessons Learned (2011) and Works in Progress (2012)
“He was the best,” said Wicks’ longtime friend and booking agent, Keith Putney. “He had nothing but respect for his fellow musicians. His whole life was music. He fought and fought [against cancer] with the ultimate goal of continuing to perform and compose music. … I know he had a lot more in him. That was his one regret, because he knew that, too.”
Wicks, who had been battling cancer for several years, nonetheless was able to tour and perform locally until a few months before his death. His last show with The Records was at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill in Burbank on Memorial Day, May 28. Wicks’ final live appearance came at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills on July 3, when he sang one song as a guest with The Tribe. Among his recent collaborations, he had been working with Bangles singer-drummer Debbi Peterson on a project called Broken Sky. John Wicks and Debbi Peterson with Broken Sky Jill Jarrett
“When he came [to Los Angeles], he immediately gravitated toward The Bangles,” Putney said in a phone interview from Burbank. “They shared the same influences and drew from the same well. It’s no surprise that John and Debbi wrote songs together.” Peterson and Wicks shared lead vocals in Broken Sky, alternating between full-band arrangements and more stripped-down, acoustic songs. They also covered The Hollies’“King Midas in Reverse” and performed a handful of shows, but the band ultimately were unable to record their songs due to Wicks’ illness.
“With a heavy heart, I say goodbye to my partner in rhyme and fellow Broken Sky comrade, John Wicks,” Peterson writes in an e-mail. “He truly was an amazing human being. He was involved in many humanitarian causes, and I was thrilled to be a part of some of them with him. I had a blast working with him. When we were writing together, he always knew how to make me laugh. I will miss our long conversations about music and how our lives revolved around it. … So long, Mr. Wicked.”
“John Wicks and I shared in the brotherhood of music,” local pop musician Zak Nilsson wrote on his Facebook page. “We recorded songs for his album Rotate at my house. We shared a love of absurdist humor, like Monty Python. We would talk on the phone for hours.
“John could write a hook like nobody’s business, and he knew exactly how he wanted everything to sound,” Nilsson said in another Facebook post. “Helping him record songs for his Rotate album opened my eyes to how talented he was and, sadly, how underappreciated he was in the larger scheme of things.
“Over the years, I was fortunate enough to play live with him a couple of times, in addition to working with him to record some songs,” Nilsson explained. “But more than that, I was fortunate enough to call him a friend. It is a tribute to his large, ineffable personality that I retain very clear memories of so much of the time we spent together. I loved talking with John because he was so easy to talk to. Rare, in my experience.”
Flamin’ Groovies singer-guitarist Cyril Jordan also paid homage to Wicks in a Facebook post. “We didn’t know each other for very long, but when we met, we became close quickly,” Jordan wrote. “When we last saw each other in person, I showed him a version of ‘Starry Eyes’ with a different chord. John said, ‘Holy shit, why didn’t I come up with that?’ I had gotten permission from John to go ahead and do my version of ‘Starry Eyes.’ Now it seems fitting for the Groovies to add the song to our set and also record it as our tribute to John. He definitely will be missed.” John Wicks & the Records Jill Jarrett
Veteran power-pop singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple also paid tribute in a Facebook post. “The dB’s were asked to open the first two shows The Records played in the U.S., on the heels of ‘Starry Eyes’ and its success. John and Will became friends of ours. … The world has lost a wonderful, sweet person whose talent was boundless.”
In 2009, Wicks and singer-guitarist Paul Collins (The Beat, The Nerves) went together on an acoustic tour of small venues that included concerts in fans’ living rooms. “I was lucky enough to have spent real quality time with my friend John Wicks,” Collins wrote in a Facebook post. “He was such a great musician, much more of a musician than I am, so of course it was an honor to work with him. John is like so many great musicians from my class, guys who unfortunately will go to their graves without receiving the credit or financial compensation they are really due. This makes them even more honorable in my opinion — they do what they do because they love it.”
While Wicks was fighting cancer, he and Bliss also had to struggle against the bureaucracy and heartlessness of the modern U.S. health care system. “It was flabbergasting to John and Valerie to do what was necessary to save his life. And that aspect was maddening,” Putney recalls. If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters. SHOW ME HOW
Why Can’t Democrats Get Angry?
The Hot Seats: It Turns Out the Kavanaugh Saga Has Not Been Good for Democrats The salient feature of now-seated Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s testimony during the hearing that was intended to assess whether he had committed sexual assault in his youth was, as many have noted , his anger. It was anger that made him lash out inappropriately, anger that contorted his face in a way that made many viewers feel sick. He thought this anger would substitute for integrity, and he was right, or right enough anyway; he didn’t fool everyone, but he did at least shout them down. Meanwhile, the salient feature of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony was her calm, measured, deferential demeanor, complete with tension-defusing apologies and jokes. I am not the first person to point out how heartbreaking this was to witness: that even while talking about an experience that traumatized her for decades, she obeyed the unwritten cultural injunction that women must manage not only their own feelings but the feelings of everyone around them. This has been laid bare in the past few weeks in America, even as it’s a replay of something we’ve all seen before. What I haven’t seen discussed, though, is the way these same restrictions have constrained the entire Democratic Party. The left—even the moderate left—is feminized in this country to a degree that I have come to believe actually restricts its avenues for acceptable self-expression. Our weird cultural commitment to the gender binary goes way beyond actual living men and women—if it didn’t, people wouldn’t freak out so badly when someone declines to choose. Masculinity and femininity are concepts we layer on top of everything from people to pens to political parties. Sometimes there’s a middle ground, but often we seem lost without our familiar patterns; it’s the confused hetero doofus asking a gay couple “which one’s the woman,” except for the entire world. Take any opposed things—Democrats and Republicans, cats and dogs, even the sun and the moon—and you’ll find one of them associated with physical strength, action, and domineering behavior, and the other associated with emotion, reticence, and calm. That’s not just descriptive; it’s prescriptive, and proscriptive too. If we could judge the moon for yelling, we would. The left—even the moderate left—is feminized in this country to a degree that I have come to believe actually restricts its avenues for acceptable self-expression. “Everyone is mocking Lindsey Graham for expressing the kind of outrage Democratic Senators should’ve been expressing daily over Merrick Garland,” tweeted writer Isaac Butler after the hearing. He’s not wrong, but it’s worth imagining a similar tweet reading, “Everyone is mocking Brett Kavanaugh for expressing the kind of outrage Christine Blasey Ford should have expressed daily since this debacle began.” What would “should” even mean in this case? She would have been justified, yes, but she absolutely never, ever could have. Crying, screaming, blaming, complaining—Brett Kavanaugh can get away with it. She can’t. This thought experiment isn’t just sophistry; the pressures are the same on the party at large, and for similar reasons. Lindsey Graham can get away with it; Kamala Harris would be pilloried. Even Chuck Schumerwould be pilloried. The gender of the legislator is significant, but so is the gender, if you will, of the party. And though we don’t really discuss it, the Democratic Party is a girl. This isn’t just about who’s allowed to scream without consequence; it’s also about who’s expected to be reasonable and who gets to be stubborn, who keeps the peace and who advocates force, who makes compromises and who makes demands, who can and can’t successfully run a human tantrum for president. It’s also about ideology. Democrats’ concerns are those that are cast as feminine: justice, feelings, women’s bodily autonomy, children, the ability to keep a family provided for and alive. Republicans’ concerns are those considered masculine: money, business, repelling those seen as intruders, the wielding of physical and economic brutality. It’s not an accident that people who are deeply invested in the sanctity of masculinity—the right of men to power, violence, and control—tend to vote GOP. It is not an accident that these same people tend to denigrate the other party as womanly. (They think it’s a denigration, anyway.) Take the now hotly contested race in Texas between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke. Even though Ted Cruz is clearly 3,000 bees in a rubber suit, Cruz and Texas Republicans seem to think the grander insult is to imply O’Rourke is ladylike . The Texas GOP tweeted a picture of Beto in his alternative rocker days wearing a dress and being extremely cool, à la the cover of that James album (a cool band). Cruz spoke scornfully of “tofu and silicon and dyed hair” as the main concerns of O’Rourke supporters—silicone (apparently what Cruz meant by “silicon”) as in what you use for breast implants, tofu as in the 2000s equivalent of quiche, which real men don’t eat. (I say 2000s because Cruz, like his ideological kinsman Mike Huckabee, has a sense of humor that is permanently a decade behind.) These are not, in an objective sense, insults. But they are intended to link O’Rourke firmly to the feminine—which is enough, in many people’s minds, to paint him as weak, subservient, and unfit to lead. The feminization of the party also restricts how much anger, outrage, and general disgruntlement Democrats are “allowed” to express; they are the party that has to be fair, that has to maintain its commitment to the principles of equality and reasonableness. Somehow, at the same time, every trivial emotion of the right is valorized. This is why Mitch McConnell can whine that Democratic nominees never suffer this kind of scrutiny while ignoring his own refusal to even consider Merrick Garland. Of course, this has to do with his undeniable personal hypocrisy, but it is also indicative of his absolute buy-in to, and utter trust of, the cultural restrictions on what’s allowed for liberals versus conservatives. Men can howl about a man’s “life being destroyed” by being subjected to scrutiny for an almost unimaginably prestigious (and lucrative!) job; women are expected to suffer with equanimity through death threats, cruelty, and trauma. Republicans can pitch a fit about the outrageous treatment of the screaming, sniveling liar they’ve thrown in with; Democrats are expected to calmly present their objections, then gracefully accept it when nobody cares. Deviation from this expectation is possible—but it’s also punished. The feminization of the party also restricts how much anger, outrage, and general disgruntlement Democrats are “allowed” to express; they are the party that has to be fair. The problem with misogyny in this country goes beyond the oppression of women—although that alone should be a reason to shatter the patriarchy where it stands. It’s also the oppression of anything seen as feminine: those who show “weakness,” which is defined in our patriarchal system as anything outside the two acceptable masculine modes of brutish violence and cold indifference. Even cisgender men suffer when they are not able to convincingly perform this twisted vision of manliness. One of the automatic black marks on your masculinity performance grade is caring too much about anyone outside the male/straight/white/able ideal (i.e., the people allowed into our toxic masculine vision of strength). The practical upshot of this is that the entire left wing—yes, even the socialist irony bros—is, on a metaphorical level, a bevy of maidens. Our culture is dominated by men, yes, but more than that, it’s dominated by masculinity. No matter how much male privilege you have and regularly wield, going up against cardinal masculine virtues like violence, wealth, and the unchecked use of power taints you with a feminine stain, and in our society, femininity is disdained. This is not to excuse the men, or indeed the women, of the Democratic Party for the times they are mealy-mouthed or cowardly. Eventually, everyone who cares about pushing the world forward has to navigate the gulf between what is right and what is allowed and decide to hedge toward the former. It’s worth noting that many of the lawmakers who have recently been most courageous (or anyway least craven) in standing up against unacceptable miscarriages of power have been not only women but women of color , despite the fact that they have to contend with multiple layers of cultural disapproval for doing so. But there are constraints on how Democratic lawmakers can express themselves without repercussions, just as there are similar constraints on women—constraints that their colleagues across the aisle just don’t face. That doesn’t mean it’s correct to be diffident and polite; it just means doing otherwise comes at a cost. It also, to be clear, does not mean the answer is for everyone to become a pushy, whiny, hypocritical liar, even though they can get away with it. There’s a simplistic strain of feminism that holds women should be as demanding, rude, selfish, loud, and thoughtless as men because they’re never punished for it and we are. But this isn’t a situation in which one side should level up (if that even is “up”); it’s more about questioning the bigger picture and finding new rules. It’s more accurate to say that in most cases nobody should be an asshole, regardless of whether it’s expected—that, indeed, allowing half your members to be unchecked assholes is no way to run a society, never even mind letting everyone do it. Should Ford have thrown a fit? Should Senate Democrats have? They have cause, for sure, but it’s an ugly way to behave—one look at Brett Kavanaugh’s twisted mouth should tell you that. There need to be other considerations besides “well, he did it.” Among those considerations: Is it possible to get an equal or better effect without being a jerk about it? Can you trust the people around you to hold up their ends of the social contract? If so, for God’s sake do; we live in a dang society. Politeness and reasoning may be modes that women (and feminized groups) are constrained to, but that doesn’t make them worse—in fact, accepting the idea that politeness and empathy are fundamentally weaker modes than violence means accepting the patriarchal axiom that anything coded masculine is superior. In a functioning society, gentleness can and should rule. But we are not in a functioning society right now. Christine Blasey Ford certainly showed that she could get her point across without stooping to Kavanaugh-level hysterics, and it probably wouldn’t have gone better for her if she’d pitched a tantrum; that was the right call. But the reason women are being so widely called to access their anger right now is that politeness has become a room we’re banished to. The same applies to Democrats in Congress and anyone looking to replace our failed government in the future; they may have had no good option but to meet pigheadedness with the same. In this case, then, the path forward for a feminized group has already been laid out by the third wave: Learn to be a bitch. Be angry, even if you aren’t allowed. Be ruder than you think you can be (without losing your principles). If they say feelings don’t matter, turn your feelings into a weapon. Never shut up. Never stand down. This is not ideal; it is functionally a commitment to escalation, when in fact everyone should take a damn seat. But it’s one of the only options available when there are two rigidly outlined groups, and one of them has written the rules so that the rules don’t apply to them. Beyond that, it’s worth considering that our commitment to binaries is outdated in every aspect of our lives. Both the gender binary and the two-party system are susceptible to being layered on top of other opposed pairs: winner and loser, master and servant, loud and quiet, good and bad. Perhaps it’s time to learn to count to three. One more thing
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The Long Hollywood History of A Star Is Born
This article contains some spoilers for A Star Is Born.
In the spring of 1937, Louis B. Mayer, the gimlet-eyed ruler of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (and, at the time, the highest paid man in America) had special reason to be proud of his protean son-in-law David O. Selznick, the husband of his favorite daughter, Irene. Selznick had just produced a compelling motion picture about the doomed romance of an unknown performer and the fading, alcoholic matinee idol who makes her a star.
“Did you see what he did with A Star Is Born ?” Mayer asked of Selznick, who until 18 months earlier had worked for his father-in-law. “He took that story—if it came to me, I’d say, ‘Make it or don’t make it, what do I care; it’s been done 40 times anyway’—he took that story and made a tremendous picture out of it.”
Indeed, just five years prior, Selznick himself had produced the first version of what was essentially the same tale, and had called it What Price Hollywood? For more than 80 years—right up to this month’s premiere of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s latest remake — A Star Is Born has been the urtext, the film à clef in which Hollywood has sought to explain (and by extension to justify) itself—to itself, and to the world.
The story’s origins lie squarely in the real lives of several early Hollywood figures, and each interpretation has counted on audiences’ understanding of the overtones that stars as diverse as Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand have brought to the leading role. Over the decades, screenwriters from Dorothy Parker to Moss Hart to Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne have taken a crack at the script, while songwriters from Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, to Streisand and Paul Williams, to Gaga have supplied the music.
James Mason and Judy Garland in the film’s 1954 version. (Everett Collection) The film’s title, suggested by Selznick’s principal financial backer, John Hay Whitney, in his day one of the richest men in the U.S., and a grandson of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, is a quintessentially American meme. “I think it’s because many of us have a dream to be somebody, to make a mark, so the audience identifies with the female character,” Streisand told me recently when I asked her to reflect on A Star Is Born ’s enduring appeal. “The male character goes from being a star to an alcoholic has-been. The higher you fly, the farther you fall. As in Romeo and Juliet , we want to see the star-crossed lovers, and then when it doesn’t work out, we cry not only for the characters but also for ourselves.”
Streisand’s own 1976 version was panned by critics, but went on to become the second-highest grossing feature film of the year, behind Rocky and ahead of All the President’s Men . Of her film’s success, Streisand says the appeal of the tale is timeless: “Stardom can be fleeting … There’s always someone new coming up to displace you. And Hollywood can be a very competitive place. That’s the disgusting part of the business—the envy. And the pressures often drive performers to self-destruct. This story is about the thrill of fame, and its price. No wonder the first version in 1932 was called What Price Hollywood?”
What Price Hollywood? was based on “The Truth About Hollywood,” a magazine story by Adela Rogers St. Johns, the high-flying Hearst reporter and screenwriter (whose grocery delivery boy in California was a young Richard Nixon). The film historian David Thomson judges it “the toughest, the funniest, and the most interesting” of all the variations on the theme. The film tells the story of Mary Evans, a waitress at the Brown Derby (played by the alluring Constance Bennett), who is discovered by Max Carey, a talented, self-loathing director (played by Lowell Sherman, himself a sometime movie director and an alcoholic who would die just two years after the film’s release at 46). As Mary’s star waxes (she marries a priggish polo star—played by Neil Hamilton, best known as Commissioner Gordon in the 1960s TV version of Batman —who abandons her when he can’t take the Hollywood lifestyle), Max’s career wanes, and he becomes an unemployable drunk. After a bender and a humiliating arrest on a rubber check charge, he takes refuge in Mary’s mansion, where he shoots himself, but not before pleading with her as she leaves the room, “Mary, I just wanted to hear you speak again, that’s all.” One variation or another on that plaintive line of parting appears in every version of the story—including Cooper’s—foreshadowing the fate that keeps the mentor from fully sharing in the triumph of his protégée.
What Price Hollywood? is the telling of the tale with the happiest ending: Mary’s husband returns to take care of her and their child. In this version, the rising star is a more or less one-dimensional device for exploring the tragedy of the falling one, and Sherman’s brisk, unsentimental, self-knowing portrayal steals the show. The character of Max Carey is based on several real people, including the silent-film director Marshall Neilan, whose career was derailed by booze (he would show up on screen in a small part in the 1937 version of A Star Is Born ) and John Barrymore, the “Great Profile,” who was Lowell Sherman’s brother-in-law. George Cukor directed the film, and moved in the same circles as its inspirations.
But the central partnership of What Price Hollywood? —that of the director and his newfound star—was modeled after the marriage of the silent film star Colleen Moore and John McCormick, the one-time publicity chief and later production head of First National Pictures. It was McCormick who turned Moore from the saccharine heroine of a string of forgettable pictures into the No. 1 box office star of the Jazz Age, with a Dutch bob and short shorts. (“I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth ,” F. Scott Fitzgerald once declared of the 1923 film. “Colleen Moore was the torch.”) But as Moore’s career soared, McCormick’s cratered as his binges grew worse. Moore nursed him through hospital stays and covered for him at the studio before finally divorcing him in 1930. (In a typically incestuous Hollywood twist, the young married Selznicks had rented Moore’s house for a stretch).
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in the film’s 2018 version. (Warner Bros.) What Price Hollywood? had mixed critical reception, but Selznick couldn’t get the theme out of his system and less than five years later, by now head of his own studio, he was immersed in making another version. “ Star Is Born came about because I nagged and nagged and nagged David,” Irene Selznick would recall years later. “I said, ‘Hollywood—it’s all around you—you can’t avoid it.’’’ This time, the story came to Selznick via the writer Robert Carson and the writer-director William A. Wellman, who conceived of a project called It Happened in Hollywood —which would soon enough be retitled, A Star Is Born . (Selznick himself at first favored calling it The Stars Below ). It’s not clear that Wellman and Carson knew just how closely their film paralleled What Price Hollywood? , but R.K.O., the studio that made the latter, saw enough similarity to briefly threaten a copyright infringement suit. Cukor, who directed What Price Hollywood ?, declined to take on the new project because it seemed so familiar as to be a backward creative step, and Wellman himself wound up directing it instead.
In Carson and Wellman’s telling (and in the final credited script by Carson, Dorothy Parker, and her husband Alan Campbell), the story centers on a fading male star, Norman Maine (John Norman Howard in the 1976 Streisand film; Jackson Maine in 2018’s), and the unknown hopeful, Esther Blodgett (Esther Hoffman in Streisand’s version; a woman simply named “Ally” in Gaga’s), whom he discovers and propels to superstardom. And as in What Price Hollywood? the Pygmalion self-destructs as his Galatea blossoms. Esther is a star-struck North Dakota farmgirl who dreams of making it big in Hollywood—and does—but her doughty grandmother warns her as the film begins, “For every dream of yours you make come true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak.”
Neil Hamilton, Constance Bennett, and Lowell Sherman in 1932’s ‘What Price Hollywood?’ (Everett Collection) Once again, Selznick and Wellman drew from multiple sources, and the film features real locations, from Grauman’s Chinese Theater to the Hollywood Bowl. “David asked everyone he could think of for ideas,” writes David Thomson in his magisterial Showman: The Life of David O. Selznick . “Didn’t everyone know Hollywood stories, and couldn’t the film accommodate all of them?” George Cukor had visited John Barrymore in an alcoholic sanitarium and described what became one of the film’s most touching scenes. The Maine character also had a touch of the real John Bowers, a veteran of more than 80 silent pictures who couldn’t make the transition to sound and who—during the film’s production—sailed out alone toward Santa Catalina never to be seen again. Wellman himself knew too well the brawls and divorces and night-court appearances that came with alcohol; he was on the wagon, and based Maine’s arrest for drunken driving on his own experience.
But the partnership at the heart of the 1937 movie was modeled on that of Frank Fay, the alcoholic vaudeville and Broadway star who had married Barbara Stanwyck before she became one of the biggest actresses in 1930s Hollywood. As Stanwyck’s biographer Victoria Wilson recounts, she would even appear onstage with Fay—a notorious anti-Semite and all-around nasty guy—when he was too drunk to perform. At the peak of her stardom, she would insist to reporters, “I’m Mrs. Frank Fay.” That line was deployed for the film’s heartbreaking finale, when Janet Gaynor, playing Esther (or “Vicki Lester” as the fictional studio renames her) makes her first public appearance after her husband’s suicide by announcing, “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”
Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the 1937 film. (Everett Collection) At 30, Janet Gaynor could hardly pass for an ingenue; after all, she had won the first Oscar for Best Actress nearly a decade before, and would retire from the big screen two years after A Star Is Born was released. The movie really belongs to Fredric March as the tortured Maine. A comparable problem bedeviled Judy Garland’s faithful but flawed musical remake in 1954. Garland was 32 (the same age Gaga is now), but in “child-star years” she was pushing 50, and her star power is so evident and overwhelming that it’s hard to believe Esther hasn’t already been famous for years, as indeed Garland had. The movie amounted to a much-needed attempt at a Hollywood comeback for Garland, after pills and suicide attempts and her ignominious firing from M-G-M. She lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly (as the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic actor in The Country Girl ), but the movie is saved by Garland’s tremulous vulnerability and James Mason’s understated British agony as Maine. When (having overheard Esther telling their old studio head that she intends to retire at the height of her fame to take care of him) Maine heads for the sunset swim that we know will be his last, and Esther heads to heat up some soup that we know he’ll never eat, he says, “Hey, I just want to take another look at you,” echoing the line he’d used on their very first parting.
For her part, Streisand says she had loved the Garland version and initially had no interest in remaking the film. The project was the brainchild of Joan Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, neither of whom had seen any previous version, and Streisand explains that they’d conceived it in the mood of a rock documentary. Streisand’s then-boyfriend, the Hollywood hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, found the script in a pile she’d been sent, and did not realize the story had ever been filmed before. At least three screenwriters later (Didion and Dunne were bought out for $125,000 and a percentage of the gross), the film got underway, with Streisand as executive producer, and with Peters getting his first producer credit, mainly because he’d convinced Streisand to do the project. She offered Kris Kristofferson the part of the rock star, chose the cinematographer, production designer, and director, and co-wrote the film’s monster hit, “Evergreen,” with Paul Williams. Streisand was criticized for taking on so many jobs, but her deal gave her complete creative control, and personal financial responsibility if the film went over its $6 million budget. It was also Streisand’s idea to end the movie with Esther singing a song written for her by her husband, one she discovers on a tape recorder after his death: “With One More Look at You.”
Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 film. (Everett Collection) “In the previous versions, the woman acquiesced to the man,” Streisand told me. “She was willing to give up her career for him and that seemed normal back then. But in 1976, when we were making the movie, it was the height of the women’s liberation movement and I couldn’t see myself as that submissive, almost passive character. I wanted my Esther to be a liberated woman. I didn’t want her to change her name or her style. She’s his equal intellectually, emotionally, sexually. She takes what she wants, and she is not ashamed to want everything—and I asked Rupert Holmes and Paul Williams to write a song called, ‘Everything.’”
Cooper’s remake has had a winding road to the screen. Clint Eastwood was long attached to direct, with notional casting that at various points included Will Smith and Beyoncé. Eventually Cooper was signed to star, while also making his directorial debut, and his film pays fond homage to the previous versions. Early in his movie, Gaga’s Ally, leaving her job as a waitress, sings the verse from “Over the Rainbow” a cappella, a nod to Garland, and there are crucial scenes in L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium, the setting of the opening scene in the Garland film. Cooper’s debt to Streisand is also evident. He invited her to see some footage, she says, and, “I was a bit surprised that he started the film like we did, at a concert, and then he goes to a little club where he hears her sing, and when I asked him about that, he told me that he based his film on my version, but he was adding more of her family background, and I thought that was a good idea.” She predicts Cooper’s version “is going to be a big hit—it’s a great story, and it always works, especially with two amazing stars in the lead roles.”
Perhaps the best explanation for the story’s endurance is a simple one. Late in his life, at the peak of his fame and success, Humphrey Bogart, whose birthday was on December 25, made an annual Christmas ritual of showing a 16-millimeter print of the 1937 version of A Star Is Born for assembled friends, crying every time . The tradition struck his pal, the director Richard Brooks, as maudlin. Yes, Bogart was in his 50s, a high-functioning alcoholic, married to a beautiful, still-rising star in Lauren Bacall. But he was happy, the proud father of two young children, with an Oscar for The African Queen .
“What the hell are you crying about, Bogie?” Brooks asked one year, according to Bogart’s biographers A. M. Sperber and Eric Lax. “If you don’t like the movie, don’t watch it,” Bogart replied. Unsatisfied, Brooks pressed again at yet another screening. “What are you so unhappy about?” he demanded. “I’m not unhappy!” Bogart answered. “I’m happy. I’m having a great time.” “You sure seem unhappy,” Brooks persisted. “Why do you knock yourself? You’re always putting yourself down. You do it with humor, but nevertheless you do it.” Bogart’s answer was swift. “Well, I expected a lot more from me,” he said. “And I’m never going to get it.”
Who among us, taking “one more look” at a life, hasn’t felt that way? So why should there be any doubt that in 20—or 40, or 60—years, audiences will be flocking to A Star Is Born , 6.0 , and contemplating the price of fame all over again, as if for the very first time?