Talented rock star John Norman Howard has seen his career begin to decline. Too many years of concerts and managers and life on the road have made him cynical and the monotony has taken its toll. Then he meets the innocent, pure and very talented singer Esther Hoffman. As one of his songs in the movie says "I'm gonna take you girl, I'm gonna show you how." And he does. He shows Esther the way to stardom while forsaking his own career. As they fall in love, her success only makes his decline even more apparent.Written by
A. Lloyd Adams [email@example.com]
To grasp where this 1976 version of A STAR IS BORN is coming from consider this: Its final number is sung by Barbra Streisand in a seven minute and forty second close-up, followed by another two-and-half-minute freeze frame of Ms. Streisand -- striking a Christ-like pose -- behind the closing credits. Over ten uninterrupted minutes of Barbra's distinctive visage dead center, filling the big screen with uncompromising ego. That just might be some sort of cinematic record.
Or think about this: The plot of this musical revolves around a love affair between two musical superstars, yet, while Streisand's songs are performed in their entirety -- including the interminable finale -- her costar Kris Kristofferson isn't allowed to complete even one single song he performs. Nor, though she does allow him to contribute a little back up to a couple of her ditties, do they actually sing a duet.
Or consider this: Streisand's name appears in the credits at least six times, including taking credit for "musical concepts" and her wardrobe (from her closet) -- and she also allegedly wanted, but failed to get co-directing credit as well. One of her credits was as executive producer, with a producer credit going to her then-boyfriend and former hairdresser, Jon Peters. As such, Streisand controlled the final cut of the film, which explains why it is so obsessed with skewing the film in her direction. What it doesn't explain is how come, given every opportunity to make The Great Diva look good, their efforts only make Streisand look bad. Even though this was one of Streisand's greatest box office hits, it is arguably her worst film and contains her worst performance.
Anyway, moving the melodrama from Hollywood to the world of sex-drugs-and-rock'n'roll, Streisand plays Esther Hoffman, a pop singer on the road to stardom, who shares the fast lane for a while with Kristofferson's John Norman Howard, a hard rocker heading for the off ramp to Has-beenville. In the previous incarnations of the story, "Norman Maine" sacrifices his leading man career to help newcomer "Vicky Lester" achieve her success. In the feminist seventies, Streisand & Co. want to make it clear that their heroine owes nothing to a man, so the trajectory is skewed; she'll succeed with or without him and he is pretty much near bottom from scene one; he's a burden she must endure in the name of love. As such, there is an obvious effort to make the leading lady not just tougher, but almost ruthless, while her paramour comes off as a henpecked twit.
Kristofferson schleps through the film with a credible indifference to the material; making little attempt to give much of a performance, and oddly it serves his aimless, listless character well. Streisand, on the other hand, exhibits not one moment of honesty in her entire time on screen. Everything she does seems, if not too rehearsed, at least too controlled. Even her apparent ad libs seem awkwardly premeditated and her moments of supposed hysteria coldly mechanical. The two have no chemistry, making the central love affair totally unbelievable. You might presume that his character sees in her a symbol of his fading youth and innocence, though at age 34, Streisand doesn't seem particularly young or naive. The only conceivable attraction he might offer to her is that she can exploit him as a faster route to stardom. And, indeed, had the film had the guts to actually play the material that way, to make Streisand's character openly play an exploitive villain, the film might have had a spark and maybe a reason to exist.
But I guess the filmmakers actually see Esther as a sympathetic victim; they don't seem to be aware just how cold-blooded and self absorbed she is. But sensitivity is not one of the film's strong points: note the petty joke of giving Barbra two African American back up singers just so the film can indulge in the lame racism of calling the trio The Oreos. And the film makes a big deal of pointing out that Esther retains her ethnic identity by using her given name of Hoffman, yet the filmmakers have changed the character's name of the previous films from "Esther Blodgett" so that Streisand won't be burdened with a name that is too Jewish or too unattractive. So much for ethnic pride.
The backstage back stabbing and backbiting that proceeded the film's release is near legendary, so the fact that the film ended up looking so polished is remarkable. Nominal director Frank Pierson seems to have delivered the raw material for a good movie, with considerable help from ace cinematographer Robert Surtees. And the film did serve its purpose, producing a soundtrack album of decent pop tunes (including the Oscar-winning "Evergreen" by Paul Williams and Streisand). But overall the film turned out to be the one thing Streisand reportedly claimed she didn't want it to be, a vanity project.
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