"The hairdresser did good!" That phrase, spoken by a low-level publicist around a luncheon table
at a Southern California restaurant where I happened to be sitting over the Christmas holidays in
1976, will forever define for me the third version of A Star Is Born, which starred Barbra
Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as star-crossed music superstars. In just four words, this effusive
gossip had summed up the controversy, the bad pre-release press and the favorable outcome of
what became one of the year's biggest hits. Allow me to explain.
Streisand was already a huge star, with bestselling record albums and box office successes like
Funny Girl (for which she won an Oscar), What's Up, Doc?and The Way We Were. Her
significant other at the time was her former hairdresser, Jon Peters, who aspired to become a
producer. Although Streisand didn't care for remakes, Peters sold her on A Star Is Born, whose
previous two incarnations had dealt with romance between two Hollywood actors, instead of
musicians, because Peters had the advantage of simply not knowing that it was a remake. He just
liked the script about rock musicians by veteran screenwriters John Gregory Dunne and Joan
Streisand agreed to fund the film through First Artists Corporation, a modern version of United
Artists founded by her, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Peters would get his shot at producing, with Streisand as executive producer. They hired yet another veteran
screenwriter Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) to direct. Pierson substantially rewrote the
script, and so eventually did many others, including Streisand herself. (She also reshot some of
Pierson's scenes behind his back.) Songwriters Rupert Holmes, Paul Williams and Leon Russell
were pulled into the mix to contribute, and Streisand made her first effort at writing her own
songs. Holmes quickly gave up on the project, and Williams complained that Streisand kept
interfering with his work, though his feelings were assuaged when their joint composition,
"Evergreen", won the Oscar for best song (the film's only win).
To play the part of the rock star whose plunging career trajectory demonstrates the dark side of
success, the power couple first tried to recruit Elvis Presley, then Marlon Brando and, according
to rumor, Mick Jagger. Eventually they cast Kris Krisofferson, who would later be quoted as
saying that the experience "may have cured me of the movies".
Shortly before the film opened on December 17, 1976, director Pierson, who apparently couldn't
contain himself, boiled over in an exposé
published in New West magazine airing every behind-the-scenes dispute from the film's production in excruciating detail. Peters was a
bully and Streisand an indecisive control freak. They weren't in charge, and they wouldn't let anyone else
But the last laugh was on Pierson. Streisand's fans turned out in droves to see the film. Even
Peters' detractors grudgingly acknowledged that, novice though he was, he'd put together a
decent piece of entertainment. Peters would go on to produce or executive produce such films as
Flashdance, The Color Purple, Rain Man and, of course, his greatest success, Tim Burton's
Batman, which cemented his reputation as a major Hollywood player. For all the carping and
complaining, the hairdresser did good.
The tragic hero of A Star Is Born is John Norman Howard (Kristofferson), a fading rock star
whose fans still scream for him, but who is so weary of the road and the lack of any private life
that he's lost even the joy of making music. "Are you a figment of my imagination, or am I one of yours?"
is John Norman's signature line, and one gets the sense that he means it literally. It's
like he's waiting for someone to blink and make everything go away.
After another in a string of disappointing concerts, John Norman disregards the advice of his
perpetually agitated manager, Bobbie (Gary Busey, who used to be a fine screen actor), to get
some rest. Instead, he goes out on the town. At a club, he encounters a girl group called "The
Oreos", so named because they're a trio composed of two black girls surrounding one white
singer named Esther Hoffman (Streisand). Naturally Esther is the standout. Especially in films
where she's exercised creative control, Streisand has often erred by letting her characters glow
too much against the background, but in A Star Is Born that quality is essential to Esther. She must
have the innate presence and star power to rouse John Norman from his stupor and then to
explain her rapid rise after he gives her an opportunity. John Norman doesn't make a star; he
simply recognizes one when she appears before him.
The scene of their first meeting is one of the best in the film, because patrons keep interrupting
Esther's act by accosting John Norman—look for Robert Englund, the future Freddie Krueger, as
the most obnoxious of the interlopers—and eventually a fight breaks out. John Norman seizes the
moment to grab Esther and flee the place in his limo, and a relationship begins.
A central element of the romance in all three versions of A Star Is Born is that personal life and
show business are inseparable. Here, as Esther and John Norman fall for each other—the turning
point occurs while they're writing a song—there's no distinction between their love affair and
John Norman's assistance to her career. In the romantic and uncynical bubble in which, for a
while, they manage to exist, neither of them "uses" the other. Esther isn't a groupie or a climber
and never asks to be mentored. John Norman expects nothing in return for helping her, because
he's really doing it for himself. Through Esther, he rediscovers the joy he once felt from playing
music, before the whole experience turned sour. In Esther, he sees what he once was, and he
passes the torch freely.
Of course, John Norman's entourage doesn't see it that way, especially his long-time producer
played by director Paul Mazursky. For them, Esther is a distraction—that is, until the moment
when John Norman forces her onto the stage in front of a huge concert crowd, and she knocks
them over with her singing. From then on, his own downward slide accelerates, as everyone
rapidly abandons him for new talent. Despite all the script rewrites, the film retains the critical
moment that occurs in the previous two films, where someone refers to John Norman as "Mr.
Hoffman". It's a turning point.
A Star Is Born has its flaws. Esther and John Norman are meant to be a tempestuous couple, but
occasionally their relationship strains credibility, as his behavior reaches extremes from which
it's hard to imagine any pair recovering. (The Grammy Awards scene is especially hard to
swallow.) And the film goes on for too long, with a final number performed in concert by
Streisand that would have worked better over the closing credits. But taken as a whole, the film
effectively captures the feel of the American concert scene and its inhabitants in the era of the 8-track tape (which John Norman is shown playing in
his car). For that alone, it's worth watching.
Three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur, The Bad and the Beautiful
and King Solomon's Mines) shot A Star Is Born, for which his photography netted him another
Oscar nomination. Films of the Seventies are often noted for their "in your face" grit, but Surtees
cast an old-school sheen of studio glamor over the whole of A Star Is Born, imbuing every frame
with the romance of show biz success, even when the events happening on screen were less than
ennobling. An obvious measure of Surtees' achievement is the number of times that Streisand,
recording her commentary thirty years later, exclaims over how good he made everything look.
Warner is in top form with their 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray. The source material is in pristine
condition (or flawlessly restored), and the resolution of fine detail is some of the best I have seen.
In the various concert performances, the ability to distinguish individual faces in the massive
crowds is especially impressive. Fine details of clothing and hair styles (for better or worse, the
Seventies not having been a great era for fashion or style) are readily identifiable. Black levels
are excellent, and colors are beautifully delineated, ranging from the garish lighting of the
concerts to the earth tones of John Norman's ranch. I can't recall a single frame where I thought,
"This doesn't look right."
The film has a fine, natural-looking grain pattern, and nothing about it looks digital or artificially
manipulated. Compression errors were not an issue, with an average bitrate of 25.96 Mbps.
A Star Is Born is reputedly the first film released in Dolby Surround (though not the first in
"surround"). The Blu-ray's DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is presumably based on the original mix.
However, until the success of Star Wars initiated a push for theaters to upgrade their audio
capabilities, sound designers remained conservative in their use of rear channels, except for big-budget extravaganzas (which this was not). The mix is
front-centered, with the rear channels
largely limited to providing a sense of a spaciousness for the musical performances, many of
which were sung live on camera, at Streisand's insistence. (It was as much a novelty then as it is
today, when director Tom Hooper employed it on Les Misérables.) Mixed by Phil Ramone and
differing, often considerably so, from the enormously successful soundtrack album released
simultaneously with the film, the musical numbers sound excellent on this Blu-ray's track, with
clarity and dynamic range that convey the sense of a live performance without blurring into the
kind of aural mud into which so many overamplified concerts often degenerate.
The dialogue is generally clear, except occasionally when Kristofferson swallows a word here
The extras have been ported over from the 2006 DVD edition released by Warner, which was
also a digibook.
Commentary with Barbra Streisand: Streisand recorded this commentary nearly thirty
years after making the film. That's a long time in anyone's life, but especially so for
someone with such a busy and varied career (at one point she refers to making Meet the
Fockers with Dustin Hoffman). The commentary is front-loaded with everything
Streisand recalls about the origin of the project, the writing and the financial terms. After
about forty-five minutes, the comments taper off and the pauses begin. By the end of the
film, the pauses are longer than the comments.
Of particular note is the absence of any mention of director Frank Pierson, who
was still alive at the time the commentary was recorded. This tends to confirm
that the rift created by Pierson's "tell all" article on the making of the film was
never healed. Indeed, if you listened to Streisand's commentary and knew nothing
else about the film, you might think that she directed it.
Wardrobe Tests with Commentary by Barbra Streisand (480i; 1.85:1, non-enhanced;
3:12): A credit attributing Streisand's wardrobe to "her closet" was the source of
mockery, but, as she notes in her main commentary, her habit of acquiring vintage outfits
from thrift stores allowed Esther's wardrobe to have a timeless quality that hasn't dated.
It also helped contain the budget on a film where she was contractually obliged to pay for
any cost overrun.
Deleted Scenes/Alternate Takes with Optional Commentary by Barbra Streisand
(480i; 1.85:1, non-enhanced; 16:44): There are twelve scenes, most quite short, and they
are best watched with Streisand's commentary explaining what they are. Perhaps of
greatest interest are her observations on the film's conclusion and how she would do it
Digibook: I don't have the 2006 DVD digibook for comparison, but I suspect the Blu-ray
digibook is largely identical with minor updating of the stars' filmographies. The photo
galleries are interesting, but the text is more promotional than informative.
In her commentary, Streisand noted that A Star Is Born had been remade every twenty years or so
and that another version was past due. When she recorded her comments, there were rumors of a
new version, but so far none has been confirmed. Perhaps no one has been able to figure out how
to recast the story for an age in which stardom has been radically transformed by the internet,
social media and reality TV. Fame now has a much shorter half-life than when any of the three
Star movies were made, and the desire for privacy that informs all of them has far less resonance
in a world where people gladly fling it away just for the opportunity to appear on television or get
a million hits on YouTube. Would a modern audience relate to John Norman's desire to
withdraw to the solitude of his ranch and shut out the world? Or would they be screaming at him
to negotiate a contract for his own reality show on Bravo called "Mr. Hoffman's World"? We do
need a new Star Is Born, but it wouldn't look anything like the previous three. In the meantime,
Warner's Blu-ray of the 1976 version is highly recommended for its technical quality, with due
regard for its limitations as a film.
Blu-ray.com and Warner Bros. Home Entertainment are offering three members an opportunity to win a DigiBook copy of director Frank Pierson's A Star is Born, the 1976 remake of the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Fredric March and 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason classics of the ...
Warner Brothers is putting together a Blu-ray DigiBook version of A Star is Born for release early next year. Starring Barbra Streisand (Streisand: Live in Concert 2006), Kris Kristofferson (Blade), and Gary Busey (Lethal Weapon), the 1976 musical won 5 Golden ...