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