“Hello, everybody, this film is about Mrs. Norman Maine”
William A. Wellman & uncredited co-director Jack Conway’s A Star Is Born is the original version of a story of the making of a Hollywood star. It’s been remade twice: For Judy Garland & Barbra Streisand. And Clint Eastwood has another version in the works scheduled for release next year starring Beyonce.
A Star Is Born received 7 Oscar Nominations at the 10th Academy Awards in 1938 including Best Actor (Fredric March as Norman Maine), Actress (Janet Gaynor as Esther Blodgett/Vicki Lester), Director, Screenplay, and Picture – the very first all-color film nominated in that category. And it earned two Academy Awards: W. Howard Greene received an Honorary Plaque for Color Photography; and Wellman & Robert Carson won the Oscar for Best Original Story. Gaynor won the first Best Actress Oscar in ‘29 for her roles in 3 movies: 7th Heaven; Street Angel; and Sunrise. That actual Oscar is used in the pivotal Academy Awards scene in this film. Frederic March, a five-time Best Actor Nominee, took home Oscars for Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde at 5th Oscars in ’32 and The Best Years of Our Lives at the 19th Academy Awards in 1947.
There are many fine supporting performances in the piece as well: Adolphe Menjou, who won the Best Actor Oscar in ’31 for The Front Page. is great as producer Oliver Niles. Clara Blandick, Auntie Em, plays Esther’s Aunt Mattie in an uncredited cameo role – demonstrating her versatility: Aunt Mattie is nothing like Auntie Em. Amazingly, Clara was never nominated for an Oscar. May Robson, glorious in her small role as Grandmother Lettie, was nominated for Best Actress in ’34 for Lady for a Day at 6th Academy Awards. And Lionel Stander is stunning in his portrayal of the film’s antagonist, publicist Matt Libby.
The film opens with Esther returning from a movie – she goes all the time. She dreams of being a movie star but mean Aunt Mattie belittles her. Grandmother Lettie, however, is encouraging & supportive. Esther moves to Hollywood but finds no opportunity there until she befriends Danny McGuire, a Second Director played by Andy Devine. Devine is best known for his role as frightened Marshall Appleyard in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. One night, the two of them go to a classical concert at the Hollywood Bowl where she witnesses one of her idols, leading man Norman Maine, at his worst. A drunken Maine loses his temper & gets violent with an overzealous photographer. Maine is developing a reputation as a temperamental drunk. He’s not unlike some modern stars – abusing the paparazzi, often deservedly, and with a penchant for binge partying. Shortly thereafter, Danny gets Esther a gig as a waitress at a party his director is throwing for the Hollywood elite in hopes of her turning heads. There she meets & impresses Maine by telling him how much he disappointed her at the Bowl.
A Star Is Born is a story of love, following one’s dreams, the measurements of success, rags to riches & riches to rags, the high price of fame, alcoholism, and the making & breaking of stars. How different is Vicki Lester from Emma Stone? Or Norman Maine from Charlie Sheen? A Star Is Born is every bit as vibrant today as it was when it was released 75 years ago because great art transcends time!