Friday, May 10, 2013

A Star Is Born (1976)

          First, the good news: This Kris Kristofferson-Barbra Streisand version of the oft-remade showbiz tale about a rising star’s doomed involvement with a veteran celebrity is not as bad as its reputation would suggest. Considering the vicious criticism the picture has received over the years, one might expect an outright disaster. Instead, A Star Is Born contains some credible dramatic elements, and the production values are terrific. As for the acting, it’s quite good—after a fashion. The main problem, which infects every aspect of the picture, is that viewers are asked to believe Barbra Streisand could have become a rock star in the mid-’70s. Considering that Streisand was a show-tune belter who incidentally dabbled in pop music, her casting creates fundamental believability problems. After all, the biggest song the movie generated was “Evergreen,” a ballad so gentle it could have been recorded by the Carpenters. A further complication is Streisand’s legendary vanity—the degree to which the movie contorts itself in order to showcase her looks is absurd. For instance, the number of Streisand’s costume changes seems even more comically excessive than it might have otherwise given the presence of a unique screen credit during the closing crawl: “Miss Streisand’s Clothes From Her Closet.” Oy.
          Anyway, Streisand plays Esther Hoffman, a singer-songwriter stuck working in small clubs until she meets John Norman Howard (Kristofferson), a darkly handsome rock star. (Never mind that Kristofferson found most of his real-life musical success on the country charts.) Howard mentors Hoffman until she becomes a bigger star than he ever was, at which point Howard determines that he must disappear—in every way possible—so as not to impede his apprentice’s ascent. Woven into this melodrama, naturally, is a love story between the musicians.
          Director Frank Pierson, who by this point in his career was a top screenwriter with such movies as Cool Hand Luke (1967) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) to his credit, made a major professional leap with this project; before directing A Star Is Born, he’d mostly helmed TV episodes and low-budget features. Considering that poor Pierson must have gotten diva demands in stereo—beyond Streisand’s micromanagement, Pierson had to deal with hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, who happened to be sleeping with Streisand at the time the movie was made—the fact that A Star Is Born moves along fairly well is a testament to Pierson’s innate storytelling abilities. Yes, the flick is overwrought and sudsy, but in some sequences—particularly Kristofferson’s final moments—Pierson renders solid drama about life under the media microscope. The picture also benefits from vibrant supporting turns by performers including Gary Busey and actor/director Paul Mazursky. Does A Star Is Born need to be 140 minutes? Not hardly. But is the picture worthwhile? Yes, especially for Pierson’s close attention to emotional detail and for Kristofferson’s charismatic performance. Plus, it must be said, Babs looks (and sounds) great.

A Star Is Born: FUNKY


Richard Kirkham said...

I haven't seen it in thirty years but your description and evaluation fit my memory exactly. I also remember liking Kristofferson' s stage songs.

Tommy Ross said...

Peter, you killed it on this one. Spot on!! Especially the comment about it not being as bad as it's reputation. I actually once saw this listed in a book called the worst movies of all-time and was really shocked at it's inclusion. I have it in my collection and watch it once every couple of years or so. I saw it when it first came out in the theaters (at age 14)so I have a little bit of an emotional attachment to it. Yes, the picture suffers badly from over-blown Streisand-o-rama. It's saving grace is actually Kris Kristofferson who I thought was excellently cast and perfect for the washed-up, burnt out rocker. Thank God they didn't cast their original choice....Elvis Presley.

Unknown said...

Just watched this for the first time ever, even though I was 9 when it first came out. Holy cow. Bad. Really, really bad. I think the most unbelievable moment is the guy -- the adult guy -- who, holding up a blaring push-button cassette player, in 1976, years after the device's introduction to society, yells at Streisand if she "has any idea how to turn this thing off?" I'm no audio engineer, idiot, but you know that button you just pressed labeled PLAY? Try pushing the one next to it marked STOP.