Thursday, August 17, 2017

Barbra Streisand's 'A Star is Born': Still Cheesy After All These Years

Streisand and Kristofferson are two rockers in love in 1976's 'A Star is Born.' No, this isn't a science fiction flick!

Way back when I was a teenager, before 24-7 media and the Internet, the making of 1976’s A Star is Born was still a major showbiz scandal. Barbra Streisand and her hairdresser-turned boyfriend-turned producer Jon Peters received reams of unflattering publicity for turning A Star is Born into an expensive ego trip. Though a typical Streisand commercial success, the reviews were scathing. As a junior old movie buff, I stuck with the ‘54 Judy Garland version and never saw Streisand’s Star until this summer, 2017!

At least Kris LOOKS the part of a rock singer. Barbra, in hippie chick mode.
The leap of faith it takes to believe country songwriter/croaking singer Kris Kristofferson as a legendary Jim Morrison-type rock star seems reasonable when later faced with Barbra Streisand as an aspiring rock star. I will keep calling them Kris and Barbra, because they pretty much bring their own personas to the film. Not to mention that their characters have the most non-musical star names ever: John Norman Howard and Esther Hoffman. The ’76 version was supposedly striving for realism, but they sound like people who work in an office cubicle.

The opening scenes of Kris’ huge concert, pre-CGI era, are awe-inspiring. The buildup of the impatient fans, the frantic entourage, and the late-arriving superstar is a promising start. But when Kris' starts caterwauling, it's all over.

Gettin' down with her bad self. As 1/3 of The Oreos, guess what part Babs plays?
After a debacle performance, Kris decides on an afterglow at a club where Barbra performs. Streisand at 34 is the world's oldest up-and-coming singer, following in the footsteps of a 32-year-old Judy Garland (looking far from fresh) as a singing starlet, and similarly aged Lady Gaga in the upcoming remake. Odd that A Star is Born always picks huge, established stars to play showbiz newcomers. In this 70’s version, Streisand as Esther is part of a trio, flanked by two black chicks, called The Oreos! After a fight caused by a fan of Kris’ breaks up the show, the two flee in his limo. Not wanting to be a one-night stand, Streisand invites him to breakfast.

We only get one look at Esther's apartment, but it’s divine, as those voice-over jingles and nightclub gigs must really provide plenty of dough for a 1930’s era pad with plenty of antiques. Streisand's never-ending wardrobe changes run the gamut, straight from her closet, according to the credits. Some are shabby chic, the tailored suits are Ralph Lauren, while others look like Laura Ingalls meets Frida Kahlo, with one hippie getup that makes her look like Luke Skywalker.  And Streisand, a huge fan of that ‘70s backlighting trend, often looks like she’s either sporting a halo or is on fire.

Streisand Skywalker in a wardrobe test from 'Star.'

At least Babs didn't have a light saber!
The oft-filmed A Star is Born story gets the Cliff Notes version here: Kris and Babs fall immediately in love for no apparent reason, but their careers and fame thwart their happiness. Kris literally flames out, and Streisand musically soars without him.

'A Star is Born' remake is about an addicted southern rock star
and his pop star wife, who wants to rock...hey, that's us!
Even worse, is when he later pushes Streisand onstage to sing at an Indian fundraiser. Expecting to rock out to Kris, Streisand wins the unruly crowd over with her over-emoting power ballad. Rock and pop didn’t exactly work in real life for Cher and Gregg Allman, when they attempted to tour together in the ‘70s. But in Barbra’s movie reality, a star is improbably born.

With the exception of the undeniably catchy superhit Evergreen, Star’s music ranges from elevator variety to cringe-worthy. Streisand's endless power ballads don't exactly rock, and Kris' rock anthems are anemic, even more so when Streisand sings his signature tune Watch Closely Now at the finale. Babs rocking out is like watching a drunk mom at karaoke night.

Like most Streisand movies, Babs is surrounded by big talent, but they are often reduced to background scenery. Kris seems there only for Streisand to obsess over. The motivations for Kristofferson character’s behavior are barely explored. Why does his character drink so much? Habit? Boredom? Insecure? Why didn’t somebody just ask Kris, who was still drinking and drugging at this point? His alcoholism is used only to set up dramatic confrontations for Streisand to show off in.
Kris Kristofferson was the real star that was born in this movie.
 Kristofferson actually gives a naturalistic, charismatic performance. It would be easy to say Kris is just playing himself, but he’s not just going through the motions. Kristofferson is the anchor to reality here. Ultimately, it's all about Barbra: her mugging, her rapid-fire line delivery, her tears, her singing, etc. Even during Kris' death scene, the camera’s focus is on her, with her face and hands obscuring him.
At the end, she comes out and rouses the audience with a seven-minute take of two songs, ending with Watch Closely Now, Kris’ signature song. Tribute, or Barbra’s version of Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better?

Who's death scene is this, anyway? Look hard and you might see Kris!
Don’t get me wrong. While I am not a huge Barbra Streisand fan, I respect her great talent and versatility. Streisand is in great voice here and her musical finale, sung live, is technically a musical marvel—especially in our current era of lip-synching and auto-tune. Certain singers are natural actors—and this includes Barbra. Streisand won an Oscar for her debut in Funny Girl. I think Barbra should have won her second for a great dramatic turn in 1973’s The Way We Were. By the time Streisand filmed A Star is Born, less than a decade after Funny Girl, she had already become an over-acting and over-singing egomaniacal movie star.

'A Star is Born' was Barbra's first bonafide vanity project.
In an unprecedented move, Pierson wrote a blow by body blow account of the making of Star BEFORE the movie was released, for New West and New York magazines—which infuriated everyone involved. Streisand later claimed to feel professionally betrayed. The article actually praises Streisand’s talent to the heavens and Pierson is glowing when the star is aligned with the rest of the production. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen often and he was worn down by Streisand’s ego, temper, self-centeredness, constant meddling, indecision, and stubbornness. 

Ego maniac? Who, me?
And it wasn’t like Barbra was working with hacks here: Kris went on to become a popular movie star for the next decade. A platoon of well-regarded writers came and went. Director Pierson won an Oscar for his Dog Day Afternoon screenplay during Star’s production. Streisand complained that cinematographer Robert Surtees was too old (a three-time Oscar winner, 16 times nominated) and ran roughshod over highly-regarded Polly Platt’s production design. Numerous songwriters were subjected to Streisand’s “collaborating” on their songs, including the late, great Leon Russell.

Robert Englund aka Freddie Krueger, as Kris #1 fan!
Here’s some amazing Barbra Streisand’s Star Wars trivia… I mean A Star is Born trivia: Revered essayist Joan Didion had a hand in writing this, with husband/author John Gregory Dunne. I bet that Didion’s contributions were buried early on, given the flurry of rewrites and “contributions” courtesy of Streisand and Peters. Director Paul Mazursky acts, and gives one of the film’s best performances as Kris’ manager. There are some cool, uncredited cameos. Robert Englund aka Freddie Krueger, is the unruly fan who hassles superstar Kristofferson during Streisand’s show. And Maidie Norman, Baby Jane's antagonist/housekeeper Elvira, is the Justice of the Peace presiding over Kris and Babs’ wedding!

Is this version of A Star is Born watchable? Hell, yes—especially if you have low expectations or enjoy high camp. Bab’s A Star is Born is not like buttah…it’s like Velveeta.
No! Watch ME Closely Now!


  1. I love Babs but the movie made me squirm when it came out. I do like some of her songs in it though and even catch myself singing them! I thought Evergreen was so so however....This movie was dated faster than any film ever. After seeing this version it's amazing ANYBODY would consider a remake!

    1. From the little snippets of the upcoming version, it sounds like the Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version will resemble the Streisand version more than the others...which isn't a good thing! Thanks for writing, Rick

  2. My GOD, that article!! Jon Peters was just... wow. I always thought that this movie would have been legendary had they somehow gotten Elvis to say yes to it. Lord, what a pair that would have been to deal with. This movie is hardly ever aired and I'm not sure I've ever actually seen it in its entirety. What I have seen was over 20 years ago. Interesting that you JUST saw it for the first time and I don't believe I've truly seen it either when we have such similar tastes and background when it comes to Hollywood product. I recall as a kid being shocked to see photos of Kris and Babs in the bathtub together. Fascinating that Kris initially went au naturel in the tub until someone "fixed" the situation. I agree that this film seemed dated VERY soon after its release. It was everywhere and then almost instantly, her afro-ish 'do seemed so old hat (and I don't recall ever seeing any clothing of hers in the movie that I liked even a tad.) I need to watch this sometime and see what I think. Your assessment of the characters' names had me cackling out loud at my desk this morning! Thanks.

    1. Glad you enjoyed, Poseidon! You and Ken are my blog gurus : )
      I think some movies get such hype and publicity, there's a huge initial interest... but instantly forgotten.
      It's a fun watch, preferably with your favorite snack or libation in hand!
      Cheers, Rico

  3. Thanks for this interesting article. I was at the premiere of the film. It was a benefit premiere for a film society called Filmex and cost $125 for the premiere and after-party, where I met and photographed Barbra and other stars. Unfortunately my camera was a Polaroid SX-70. You can find my photos on flickr here

    1. That's fascinating! I'm gonna check these pix out : )
      Thank you for sharing,

  4. I like the movie, and love the music. I'm a Streisand fan who believes she can do no wrong. She's a galaxy among stars, whose accomplishments will never be matched.

    1. I definitely agree that Streisand is a great, versatile talent...
      Cheers, Rick

  5. Hi Rick
    My workload has eased and I'm at last getting around to reading some of my favorite blogs. You always write wonderful pieces on films, but I have to say this was the most fun and what I think is one of your best. Perhaps that isn't fair, because it feeds into the obvious (there's something vicariously enjoyable about having someone else say about a film what you were perhaps already thinking), but honestly, this piece is a perceptive crack-up.
    I haven't seen ASIB in years, but your photo choices and commentary brought back so many memories. The clothes, the music, her hairdo, Streisand rocking out ("like watching a drunk mom at karaoke night")...hilarious.
    You have made me want to watch it again just because I want to compare my current sensibilities (whatever they are) to how excited I was about seeing this movie when it came out. Thanks for another extremely enjoyable read!

    1. Bab's "Star" is still very watchable, but oh so '70s! And I'd love to read the Le Cinema take on the '76 "A Star is Born." Just the snippets I've seen about Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga's upcoming version will make this perennial remake hit rock bottom!

  6. Rick, wonderful post on a fascinating failure, which you have captured perfectly. I too wish that Elvis had played the lead role, maybe something exciting would have happened. I do like the music here more than you do, Paul Williams, Kenny Loggins, Rupert Holmes and others made contributions, along with Barbra herself. I agree that Kristofferson is the only natural performance, he is the same lovable guy as in one of my favorite films Alice doesn’t Live Here Anymore. And I also agree that Streisand is far far better in The Way We Wete, which I just rewatched and loved the other day.

    I look forward to catching up on some more of your wonderful blogposts!
    - Chris

    1. Chris, thanks for your comments! You should FB friend me at Richard L Gould Jr... I'm working on a post now referencing Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore, because of a dear friend who it reminded me of!
      Cheers, Rick

    2. Just friend-requested you, Rick
      - Christopher C.

  7. Well done, Rick! Putting this on the list to re-watch.