A Star Is Born (1976)recommended viewing

I am become Barbra, destroyer of worlds
★★★★
☆☆☆☆
Released: 
1976
Director: 
Frank Pierson
Starring: 
Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Gary Busey
The Setup: 
Woman rises to the top of the music biz while the guy that discovered her sinks deeper into drugs.
Discussion: 

My friend and I had watched this a few months before I started this site, hence no write-up, no ESSENTIAL write-up, but when I saw that it was out on DVD—with a feature-length commentary by Streisand—it shot to the front of the list.

Since most DVD commentaries do not offer what I want to hear, which is a discussion of the themes of a movie and why it was directed in the way that it is, the only commentaries I really want to hear are ones that try to defend a movie that is fairly indefensible. WHAT could Streisand possibly have to say about this movie? I’ll tell you about the commentary as we go through, but suffice to say it didn’t offer much insight beyond how Streisand herself is great and knows the right thing to do in every situation, and falls notably silent for long periods of time, until I just gave up on it and watched the movie.

One thing we do learn from the commentary is that Streisand’s former hairdresser lover and producing partner, John Peters, had never heard of the story and DID NOT KNOW that there had been previous versions of this movie. Mmm, I love me a dumb Italian hunk. Supposedly the script was written by John Gregory Dunne and his wife Joan Didion, although they tried to distance themselves from the movie before it came out, claiming that Streisand and Peters had remodeled the script to their liking, which is fairly easy to believe. But what we’re supposed to take away is that this script was written and Streisand bought it, instead of commissioning the whole thing as a vehicle for herself. So that’s what they say.

By the way, director Frank Pierson came out with an article at the time detailing all of the struggles he had with Streisand and Peters in the making of this gfilm, and it makes for some fascinating, bitchy reading [I had a link to it, but unfortunately it's now dead]. You can also find, from that page, the LONG Playboy interview with Streisand in which she responds to the allegations--and reveals that she had psychosomatic illnesses as a girl, which I found fascinating.

Anyway, our story is set against the hard-driving rock n’ roll world of the 1970s. John Norman Howard, played by Kris Kristofferson, plays some kind of rock star [it’s hard to tell exactly what kind] who is late for a concert. He is said to have been legendary, but is now mired in booze and drugs and his career is going downhill fast. He comes onstage and croaks this hideous thing called “Watch Closely Now,” which you will hear a great many times throughout the movie and which seems to be his only song. He forgets the lyrics and walks offstage, gets into a limo and when he’s asked “Where to?” responds “Back about 10 years.”

He resists the advice of his manager, which is to sleep, and goes to some late-night club where Barbra is performing as the white part of “The Oreos,” sandwiched between these two black singers. If you think that is offensive, wait until you hear Streisand call them “two chocolate girls” on the commentary. Here Howard comes, but you see, life is very trying for a star of his magnitude. Fans are always bugging you and feeling like they know you even though they don’t, and turn on you in a second, calling you things like “Fucking STAR!” We hear about how very trying all this can really be in Streisand’s commentary. So Howard’s presence causes such a fuss he disrupts Streisand’s act, which she, being a sassy, self-directed woman of the 70s, calls him on. She sings another song, during which we are supposed to believe that Howard is touched and amazed at her voice—although he can never get to hear very much of the wholly average performance and neither do we.

This second song is supposed to sum up her character: “I want everything,” but the disturbance Howard causes and the subsequent fight keeps us from giving it the weight they intended. Incidentally, the opening song by The Oreos, “Queen Bee,” is about the stupidest song ever to have existed. You can’t hear much of the lyrics, but I located the soundtrack from this after I first watched it, and this song strings together a list of insects and arachnids into loosely-related and nonsensical statements demonstrating how women are not to be trifled with. Sample lyrics: “Long before Atlantis there has been a praying mantis and you know why he’s on his knees. He may have religion, but he’s just a sitting pigeon if a woman even starts to tease. He won’t even quibble if you have a little nibble on his neck—what a way to go. But now you’ve gone and told him he’s a-messin’ with a hornet, she’s a blue-blooded wasp, you know.” Anyway, there’s a brawl, like I said, and for some reason Esther [that’s Barbra] grabs Howard and sneaks him out the back door, and they have some sort of moment before Howard repairs to his mansion, where he describes Esther’s singing as “like hauling in a great big marlin.”

Then he invites Esther to this big concert he’s giving that day, where he fucks up again and drives a motorcycle on stage and injures himself. You will notice that the HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of music fans who attended the concert are in their cars and out of the parking lot in less than five minutes, leaving Esther all alone. I’m sure anyone who has ever driven to a large stadium concert can attest to how quickly those parking lots empty out! We next see Esther with her “chocolate girls” as they are recording a cat food jingle. Around now is when you really begin to notice Streisand’s shameless, constant, intensely grating mugging, and how everyone in the movie JUST LOVES IT! For example, in this scene, Esther’s too-loud singing and inability to just do as someone else says loses them all the singing job. Oh, but her “chocolate girls” don’t mind! Whatever Barbra does is GREAT! She’s just being herself, after all. Which is SOOOO great. So Howard shows up at the studio [WHAT a coinkidink!] and takes her to his mansion, where she rattles off her rather rude and insulting commentary on his decorating tastes. She dismisses a studio he has built in his home with “Well, as long as you’re having fun in it. If not, I’d get rid of it.” Yeah, well who asked YOU?! She then plunks herself right down at the piano, where she plays some strains of this “sonata” she’s writing, which of course makes Hoffman exclaim: “Jesus, that’s pretty! What is it?” It is “Lost Inside of You,” one of the better songs from the soundtrack. Howard mumbles a few barely coherent lyrics, and of course Streisand pretends like he’s channeling Byron or some shit. By this time you will have noticed extensive and quite prominent product placement for Schlitz. So, having gotten all hot and bothered from the frisson of their musical understanding, they unleash their shaggy, unconvincing passions all over the pillows and bed and tub [and who, by the way, took time to light all those candles?]. If you look around 52:20 you will take note of a ludicrous edit meant to suggest but not actually show Streisand titty, and if you watch around 52:53 you will see that Streisand, reflected in the mirror, is unable to stop laughing during this lovemaking scene. She finally turns away, and just as Kristofferson is about to bust out himself, the angle shifts. Esther then applies makeup to Howard, and at that point you are just like WHAT the fuck EVER!?!?!? And can you believe we’ve made it almost an hour in and not much at all has really happened?

So we fade out on the love scene, and when we fade back in, we are panning across some pillows while we hear him; “Let’s do it again,” and her; “I’m tired! What do you want, to make me into a machine?” But… they’re only talking about practicing music! What did YOU think, you dirty-minded scoundrel? This is similar to an identical and equally stupid misdirection they gave at the beginning of the even-more dismal The Main Event, in which it sounds like they’re talking about illegal drugs… but they’re really just discussing perfume! It’s SO hilarious.

Around now one starts to think; what happened to Esther’s “chocolate girls?” Did she just unceremoniously dump them? We haven’t had mention of them at all, and it seems like several weeks have passed, Esther is recording an album, and where are they? Oh, and just as you’re wondering this, they appear, with a nod of the head indicating that Howard contacted them and brought them in to sing on Esther’s record. But please do not fail to note that Esther herself seemingly forgot all about them, and it was Howard who brought them in.

Okay, now we have to talk about the commentary a little bit, as it very sharply colored my view of the entire film and why it ended up this way. It is Streisand, and must have been recorded recently, as she is referring to the release of this DVD. Okay, so recall that the screenwriters and director all distanced themselves from the film before it opened, all saying that Streisand and Peters had taken over and tried to control all aspects of the film, changing several things. The director alleges that Streisand directed some scenes herself, behind his back, when he didn’t agree that they were necessary. This all begins to form a profile as you listen to the commentary, the underlying theme of which is how everything Streisand does is perfect and touched with genius, and it’s really only the small-minded others interfering with her vision that soil the work. First she talks about how she insisted that all her singing footage be done with her singing live instead of lip-synching [one can only imagine how much this added to the budget], because “Lip-synching is against everything I’m about as an artist,” which is all about naturalism, spontaneity, and being comfortable. She mentions several times that she wears her own clothes in the film, a fact I would think she would want to conceal given some of the hideous ensembles she sports here, and she does this in order to keep it real for her character, because she can feel more comfortable being herself when she’s wearing her own clothes. For the same reason, she inserted her own little bits of dialogue into the script, because “these are really things that I say.” And in all of this the overwhelming sense comes that Barbra wants to wear clothes she herself wears and say things she really says and sing live like she really sings because for her, the main character in this movie is not Esther Hoffman, but BARBRA STREISAND HERSELF. Then as you hear the rest of the commentary about how Barbra really knows the best decisions for herself, like what songs to sing and how to be lit and what her apartment should be like, it all fits this profile, and it begins to rub one the wrong way that she thinks that what everyone wants is a movie that’s really about HER, with special emphasis on how wonderful she is. And then, once you become attuned to her CONSTANT MUGGING and “adorable” banter and heavy emotional scenes, which may as well carry a subtitle that says “Barbra Streisand is now acting,” the film becomes a real pain in the ass, something you don’t WANT to like. Guess what Barbra? Real actors are trying to be someone else, not “even more” of themselves. And we won’t even discuss the fact that Barbra’s career started its wayward trend around the same time she started making decisions for herself because she knows better than anyone else what she should do.

So we move into the rendition of “Evergreen,” which as I mentioned is performed live, with Kristofferson hanging around and croaking a few unfortunate vocals that will ensure that this take for her album had to be scrapped. There is commentary for this scene, Streisand talking about how it had to be live and in one continuous take [which might account for why there’s a large wooden board obscuring the performers faces for large portions], and how “it’s all about restraint,” while she’s shamelessly mugging and making ludicrous “Look at me! I’m SO adorable!” faces. Kristofferson sticks his hand into frame, entwining with hers, and Streisand’s commentary says “You see this hand—but whose is it? It’s a touch of mystery.” Uh… YEAH. Yeah, you know, because I really thought that maybe Charles Manson or maybe even Michael Jackson had snuck into the studio and was entwining their hand with hers. I had NO IDEA that it might be the other main character of this movie who is having a romantic relationship with the person singing! This woman really is living on Planet X.

So then Howard is giving a concert—he apparently only has one song in his repertoire, btw, and it’s a shitty one—and he stops it to bring Esther on and let her sing. During this scene we discover that 70s guitar-based hard rock bands can convert at the drop of a hat into a synth-based lite-rock band, complete with horns. So this audience who came to hear the hard rock sounds of Howard are DELIGHTED to have them bait-and-switched with drippy lite pop from Esther, and are magically transported by her very artistry! She sings two songs—gratingly mugging and making silly jokes throughout the second—and this is the moment when the star is born! Once she comes off stage the press is all around her and managers are trying to woo her—and she’s being separated from Howard! It’s SUCH a metaphor for like, you know. So finally she and Howard get in a car together and he’s all talking about how she’ll have to go out on tour now and she says “I want to marry you,” and he ignores her and keeps talking about the tour, and then YOU, the viewer, are like “I bet she’s going to repeat ‘I want to marry you’ again,” and sure enough… She really pushes for the relationship, maybe because she feels guilty [one certainly never senses any chemistry between them], when she should obviously be saying “So I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me, but boy, I sure am going to be busy from now on….”

So they get married in some sort of civil ceremony, then he drives her out to this empty field in the southwest, but you can’t admire the natural scenery because you are like “WHAT the FUCK is she WEARING?!” It’s this like Little House on the Prairie-type bustle thing with an, uh, ACTIVE pattern—and that’s all before you realize the front is cut down to her navel to showcase some Streisand cleavage! And on top of all that, THEN you realize that this ill-advised ensemble is probably from BARBRA’S OWN CLOSET!

So it seems that Kris bought this abandoned field because that is where they are going to build their dream home. Barbra wears her Superman T-shirt and tight white short-shorts [and obligingly bends over with her ass straight into the camera, a la The Main Event] in order to do heavy construction, and a few minutes later is seen spraying Kris with a hose, which leads to further amusing antics. A few seconds later the house is done. This is apparently the first Southwestern dream home built entirely through frolicking.

Okay, part one of the movie over, it’s time for them to start having motiveless fights and to drift apart. They have one completely pointless fight, then he goes out and drives his dirt bike around while she flutters uselessly, leading to her being dragged into the mud in this sheer white… thingy. We learn from the Pierson article that she actually wanted MORE mud, but he drew her back from it. Then Esther refuses to sit still and shut up for one second so the album photographer can take her picture, she keeps moving and interrupting and making ‘adorable’ banter, meanwhile wasting all the photographer’s time and the label’s money. She and Howard are indiscreet enough to have a fight while the photographer is there, but we are then supposed to feel for how Esther is being exploited when the photographer shoots pictures of her in a deeply emotional state—when Howard tells her he won’t go out on tour with her. This is very typical of the movie; Esther’s character is too obsessed with herself to sit still for a photographer—those are just the little details, while Esther sees beyond, to the true art—but the photographer, who is trying to do her job, is cast as exploitative for merely taking a picture the one second during which the woman shuts up and sits still.

So Esther goes out on tour by herself, while John Norman sits home and has his songwriting process disturbed by phone calls for Esther. He is composing “One More Look At You,” which she will movingly [please remember, when you get to the end, that it is supposed to be moving] sing at the very end as a tribute. Then she is accepting a Grammy award [back when the Grammys were dinner theater, apparently] and he comes onstage and throws a maudlin scene. As the press crowds around them on the way out, Esther shouts “When is it ever enough? God damn it, don’t you EVER have ENOUGH?” Then she’s rehearsing for some TV special with a giant “Esther” in the background, and she keeps stopping the rehearsal, and you realize—she is ALWAYS stopping the rehearsal or recording or whatever. Because she’s so committed to her artistry, and she knows what’s perfect and no one else does, natch, they just want to do a lazy job and get it over with, but if one went back and looked at all the recording and rehearsal sequences in this movie, I bet the number that make it to completion without Esther blowing the take or stopping because she’s such a perfectionist would be less than 10%. We’ll just have to take their word for it that a whole album was recorded… somehow.

So then Howard is alone at home when this nubile blonde reporter comes by saying she’ll do anything…I mean, ANYTHING… to get an interview with John, as long as Esther is there. She says, soon after offering her body, “Gary says I’m terrific. He really gets off on me.” Then Esther comes home and catches him in bed with her, and the reporter ridiculously gathers her tape recorder and demands an interview right there, while she’s naked and still in bed with Esther’s husband! And THEN she can’t understand why Esther won’t talk to her! Oh, the vile, vile press.

SPOILERS > > >
Then Howard comes downstairs and they have one of the more laughable scenes of the movie, the one in which she’s saying “I hate you” over and over, and he keeps responding “I love you,” until they end up having TORRID emotionally-unhealthy sex. The next morning Esther is satiated and beaming while he wakes her up to say goodbye, he’s just going out for a drive. She is beaming because she has to let the audience know that she loves him and does not, repeat, does NOT want him to go off and kill himself, as we know he is about to do, although this scene goes on so long you may find yourself shouting “Will you just go kill yourself already!? JESUS!”

Unable to offer even a moment of screen time to Streisand’s co-star, we hear the full version of “Lost Inside of You” while Howard is driving to his doom. Streisand gets a big Oscar-clip death scene as she is shown the body and demands a blanket, because he’s cold. You can feel the cold calculation—“I’ll seem like I’ve lost a little grip on my sanity because I’m so shaken by his death!”—from several miles and 30 years away. A scene or two later she runs through several rooms in the house because she hears Howard’s voice, a moment that caused Pauline Kael, in her very good [and SPOT-ON] review of this film, entitled “Contempt for the Audience,” to surmise that Esther is apparently unfamiliar with voice recording technology. Esther then gets to throw another Oscar® clip while she yells at Howard via voice recorder and tears up the tape of him. One wishes we could have the corollary scene of Howard screaming at her memory for being such a pain in the ass, but the entire movie is about what a saint she is.

So then it’s time for the final concert, for which Streisand rips off her own ending of Funny Girl with a seven-minute song medley of Howard’s songs, the first being “One More Look at You,” which is supposed to take on a moving significance now that he’s dead, but really more makes you wonder why he would compose a song like that at that particular point in his life, and her re-working of “Watch Closely Now,” in a radically altered version. I was questioning exactly how much of a tribute it is for Esther as a superstar to redo one of his old songs in a new style, as, given her level of stardom, her new version will probably have the effect of driving his into obsolescence all that sooner. Girl don’t waste no time.
< < < SPOILERS END

The main problem with this movie is BARBRA STREISAND. First of all, she seems determined to make the movie ABOUT HER, as opposed to this character she’s playing. The whole thing about wearing her own clothes and inserting lines of dialogue that she really says indicate that she sees the movie as being really about herself, and many things in the Pierson article confirm this. In the article he says that she and Peters really saw the movie as being about THEM, and thought that what the audience is really interested in seeing is how they live. He even says that she tried to take out a lot of the earlier Kristofferson character scenes that she wasn’t in! So it’s a little odd for her to wonder why the press “hates” her or why reviews of this movie were “personal attacks,” when she obviously bent the movie to be all about her. So of course, when one is attacking the movie, one is attacking HER. And one is, because the entire movie IS her.

Add to this her seeming unawareness that she appears supremely annoying in this movie. As noted, she is always messing up recording or rehearsal sessions with her insistence that “something’s just not right,” ignoring photographers and others while they’re trying to do their jobs, losing her “chocolate girls” their job on the cat jingle—or just dumping them when she gets a break for herself—and through all of this is the perspective that she’s just SO GREAT. And then there’s the matter of the backlights. Barbra likes her some backlights, turning her ill-advised perm [perhaps the most tangible symbol of the wayward Peters influence] into a brilliant halo surrounding her blessed face. If you have seen a photo of Streisand during this period, you have seen the backlights. They [and the majority of the issues described here] also afflict the horrendous The Main Event, with the addition of a ton more distasteful material of Barbra trying to cast herself as a sexy, sexy hootchie that black men are dying to fuck. But all this gave me the inspiration for a fabulous name for an ironic gay band that anyone can just take and use for free: THE STREISAND BACKLIGHT PHENOMENON.

There are myriad other problems. For one, Howard only has that one song and we don’t get much sense of even WHAT kind of performer he is, so it’s hard to latch onto him emotionally or have much of a sense of what’s passing away or being lost. Then there’s the whole issue of Streisand’s Broadway-style lite rock being switcherooed for audiences who paid to see hard rock, and the audience being wholly enthusiastic about that. Then there’s the issue that the two leads have NO chemistry, and never seem to have any feeling for each other at any point. We never understand what he sees in her, and why he is so determined to shoot her to stardom—especially since he seems to have such contempt for stardom himself. And then there are the multitude of scenes [“I love you/I hate you”] that just don’t work and verge on the ridiculous. And then that the thing has no shape. There’s a lot of things going wrong.

At the same time, you HAVE to see it. It’s a big movie with a famous soundtrack and it’s got a lot of fun 70s rock n roll background and its veers wildly from campy fun to campy trash. It’s definitely amusing and certainly worth making it through once. The glitter... the glamour... the spotlights—and the backlights.

Should you watch it: 

Definitely worth watching once. Friends, booze and attitude of sneering contempt recommended.