By Joe Ferrelli
As the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper take on the rising star/falling star showbiz tale opens around the world, Flagrant looks back at the Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson (Google him, children) juggernaut that rocked the box office, Billboard charts and awards shows in 1976-77.
If you count “What Price Hollywood?” (1932), the Streisand/Kristofferson version of “A Star Is Born” was the fourth time this oft-told tale had been brought to the screen – 1937 (starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March) and 1954 (starring Judy Garland and James Mason) were the other same-named versions. Was the fourth time the charm? It really all depends on who you ask, where you were at the time, and how it all fits into the 70s-Me-decade sensibility.
While the 1937/1954 versions had some mighty lofty screenwriting credits (which include THE Dorothy Parker), the 1976 version boasts then-contemporary wonder writer Joan Didion and her husband John Dunne as two of its credited and uncredited screenwriters. A true Streisand vehicle (although she was not sitting in the director’s chair yet), then beau and later Tinseltown studio mogul Jon “Batman” Peters served with her as co-producer. Kristofferson, hardly the first in mind for the role as both Elvis and Neil Diamond were names also thrown around at the time, does seem to embody the cliched 1970s over-indulgent, self-obsessed-coke-sniffing-groupie-loving-rock star.
By no means a schlep of a songwriter, having written among other things the Janis Joplin identified classic “Me and Bobby McGee,” Kristofferson does not have the best voice for a Hollywood musical but was perhaps the most competent in a long line of Streisand’s “musical” co-stars—Omar Sharif, Walter Matthau, James Caan, and yes even Jack Nicholson who had a solo excised from “On A Clear Day” (1970). Regardless, it is Streisand who is meant to shine. (Her directorial debut, “Yentl” (1983) bears mention here as Streisand’s chosen co-star was Broadway heavyweight Mandy Patinkin, who got to sing nary a note on a soundtrack consisting of only Streisand’s singing.)
The film and the production itself are the stuff that Barbra lore is made of. The on-set battles between Streisand and Peters as well as between the couple and director Frank Pierson, have been well documented. Which brings us to the main point, the main attraction, the main event, if you will! Barbra. Freakin’. Streisand. The credits themselves boast of Streisand’s wardrobe being “from her closet.” While it is difficult to entertain some elements such as the scenes of small time club dates, about which Roger Ebert laments “there’s just no way for us to accept her as a kid on the way up” to her becoming a quasi-John Norman Howard groupie, these are counterbalanced by scenes such as the glistening candle-lit bathtub lovemaking scene and Esther/Barbra learning to play the guitar and write a song, and winning an Oscar for said song, “Evergreen,” to boot. The huge concert (43,000 people) staged to film some of the musical sequences, which included such rock acts as Santana and Peter Frampton in addition to Streisand, was an elaborate indulgenced which seemingly paid off in the end. The nearly 8 minute finale of “One More Look at You/Watch Closely Now” (with botched lyrics that thankfully weren’t re-edited) is a one shot wonder that harkens back to Streisand’s first feature, “Funny Girl” with its wallop of an ending featuring her belting “My Man.”
Though not particularly a big hit with critics, The New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby groused that Streisand “never plays to or with the other actors. She does (it) as a solo turn.” Still, the $6 Million budgeted film was a huge success with audiences, grossing roughly $80 Million at the domestic box office (approximately $350 Million, adjusted for inflation today). The soundtrack held the number 1 spot for six weeks (ousted from the top by Eagles’ “Hotel California” briefly, then by Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours”) and eventually hit four time platinum status.
So, can Gaga and Cooper strike gold with their new re-imagining? I guess it will all depend on who you ask, where you are in life, and how well it fits into the 24/7-celebrity-media-reality-news-cycle of today.
(Writer Joe Ferrelli received his Master’s in Critical-Cultural Studies with a minor in Film and for his thesis project, he founded Filmout San Diego: An LGBT Film Festival, which just celebrated its 20th Anniversary. After relocating to NYC, he managed a small East Village cinema, The Pioneer, and performance space The Den of Cin. He has since returned to Buffalo, NY with his longtime husband Tom and appears as a guest speaker for various events at The Screening Room.)