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A Star Is Born

(1976) ** 1/2 R
139 min. Warner Bros. Pictures. Director: Frank Pierson. Cast: Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Paul Mazursky.

/content/films/4471/1.jpgIn one form or another (or another), the story of A Star Is Born has thrice been told on film, with a fourth production currently simmering in development hell. The original 1937 film (with a script credited to four writers, including director William Wellman and the legendary Dorothy Parker) starred Janet Gaynor as an aspiring actress and Fredric March as her mentor. The 1954 remake scripted by playwright Moss Hart added a musical angle in the casting—opposite James Mason—of Judy Garland as the rising-star actress who also sang a slew of tunes (mostly by Harold Arlen & Ira Gershwin). And so it was that the iconic Garland set a standard to be met by Barbra Streisand in a second remake, the 1976 A Star Is Born, directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson.

The deeply troubled Streisand version was its own offscreen drama of artistic angst, star egos, high-stakes careerism, and stressful industry romance. Produced under the auspices of First Artists (patterned after United Artists as an opportunity for stars to retain creative control over their films), this A Star Is Born was a highly personal project for Barbra, who earned her executive producer credit with intense involvement in every part of the filmmaking process, from the assemblage of talent to the screenplay to the shooting and editing (heck, her wardrobe infamously is credited as coming "from... her closet"). The film's producer was Jon Peters, whose reputation rode on the film's success: derided as Streisand's former hairdresser/current lover, Peters needed to prove he had the right stuff to producer blockbuster movies. Clashes between the lovers themselves and between the lovers and Pierson—and, for that matter, between all of the above and, respectively co-star Kris Kristofferson and the top-flight musical artists hired to write songs—reportedly turned the production into a nightmare for all involved.

And yet it all contributes to the texture of a film that's in no small part about the mania of combining art and commerce in America. Kristofferson plays John Norman Howard, an arena rocker fronting the group called John Norman Howard Speedway. Variously described as "a rude, joyless, burned-out, spoiled pain in the ass" and as "getting to be a cosmic joke," Howard has entered into a spiral of ennui, self-doubt and substance abuse that threatens to end his career for good. But when he stumbles into a meeting with nightclub performer Esther Hoffman (Streisand), her artistry and life force humble him and give him a reason to care about life again. Her presence calms the beast within Howard, who sets about making Esther a star. In most respects, each cares more about the other than about his or her own stardom or "success," but the demands of career, inextricable from the path of their relationship, ironically threaten to pull them apart.

While in its romantic and romanticized particulars, this A Star Is Born can often seem silly, hoary, disjointed or meandering, the essence of the showbiz narrative still exerts a powerful pull, especially with the unfaked, indeed mesmerizing presence of actual music stars Streisand and Kristofferson. As in the previous versions of the story, the man's wounded pride plays some part (Howard faces the ignominy of being called "Mr. Hoffman"). In this case, the man's self-destructiveness recklessness manifests in need-for-speed daredevilry as well as sex, drugs (and alcohol), and rock and roll, while the woman allows the demands of career and the pursuit of her higher calling to art to get just enough in the way to allow tragic consequences to her relationship.

In some ways, though, no theme resonates more in this version of A Star Is Born—with its script credited to Pierson and the high-toned novelist couple of John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion—than the circus atmosphere surrounding a superstar (a key sequence being an arena show turned bacchanalia, with audience frenzy fueling artist frenzy), the irrational neediness of the audience and the psychic toll on the individual-turned-celebrity. To hear Pierson tell it (which he injudiciously did in a tell-all magazine article timed to the film's release), such themes write large the neuroses of Streisand and Peters. Meanwhile, the picture also reflected reality with its giant-sized, star-fueled success, the film's hugely popular soundtrack featuring the Oscar-winning Original Song "Evergreen (Love Theme from A Star Is Born)" with lyrics by Paul Williams and music by Streisand herself.

Though a bit condescendingly framed as a sex symbol (he's constantly shirtless), Kristofferson demonstrates considerable acting chops to match the authenticity of his concert sequences: there's an almost Brando-esque realism to his shambling charm, and his willingness to be charmless or even terrifying as the occasion demands. In acting terms, Streisand gives a more conventional performance, but one defined by her inimitable star power: she's as luminous as everyone says Esther is, and her vocal performances are second to none (though almost as self-conscious as that of her co-star, Streisand's sexualization is less animal and more individualized: the wisecracker with the oft-remarked-upon cutie-patootie butt).

As aforementioned, Warner Brothers has kicked around the idea of another remake of A Star Is Born, to be directed by Clint Eastwood and originally to star Beyoncé Knowles (rumored male lead possibilities have included Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Gerard Butler, Will Smith, Christian Bale, Johnny Depp and, most recently, Bradley Cooper). But any leading lady will need to be able to reach the high bar set by Judy and Barbra before her in terms of star wattage and musical talent, and good luck with that.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/5/2013

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Warner brings A Star Is Born to Blu-ray in an edition that mirrors the 2006 DVD release in its bonus features while giving the A/V a significant upgrade. The image quality is astonishingly good, as good as it gets in presenting film on home video. By that I mean, this digital image never compromises the source's filmic feel (grain is natural) but stands head and shoulders above standard-def DVD in its finely resolved detail and cinematographic texture. The source print and/or digital restoration yields a remarkably clear image, with rock-solid black level, perfectly calibrated contrast, and what appears to me to be wholly accurate color. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix benefits from its original Dolby Surround design from 1976, which makes itself manifest mostly in the spaciousness accorded to the music. The Blu-ray audio of these numbers (unique to the film, as the soundtrack featured studio-recorded versions as opposed to the live-to-film performances seen and heard in the movie) proves outstanding, and will be reason enough for die-hard fans of Streisand and/or the film to pony up again for their collections.

The big bonus feature here is a 2006 commentary with Barbra Streisand, though it's not often "screen-specific." Fans will definitely want to give it a listen, though it gets spottier as the film progresses. The opening portion is quite entertaining, as Streisand rather charmingly rambles through her recollections of the project. She's tellingly selective in what she has to say, conspicuously avoiding saying anything about director Frank Pierson or even much about Kristofferson; it's her personal perspective on what was for her a very personal project that found her flexing her muscles as producer.

Also included are "Wardrobe Tests with Commentary by Barbra Streisand" (3:12, SD) and twelve "Deleted Scenes/Alternate Takes with Optional Commentary by Barbra Streisand" (16:44, SD). Both are interesting behind-the-scenes glimpses, as annotated by Barbra.

A Trailer Gallery includes the promos for A Star Is Born (1937) (2:50, SD), A Star Is Born (1954) (3:56, SD) and A Star Is Born (1976) (3:50, SD). And the disc comes gathered up in a Digibook with glossy color pages of stills and credits and trivia.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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