Now with four successful film versions spanning 80 years, it’s clear that A Star Is Born is among the most timeless stories modern American entertainment has produced.
Across the quartet of cinematic interpretations of the classic showbiz fairytale — led in the 1937 original by Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, then by Judy Garland and James Mason in ’54, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in ’76, and now Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the just-released version — the framework has changed, with the cultural signifiers updating for each era and the setting ultimately shifting from Hollywood to the music industry. But the heart remains the same, as do most of the biggest story beats and most popular scenes, which viewers have come to expect to be reinterpreted in each successive version.
We’ve already ranked the film versions from our least to most favorite, but now Billboard is going even deeper into the A Star Is Born series — picking out the most famous and commonly recurring moments across the four films and determining which version did it best. (For ease of discussion, we’ll refer to each scene with “she” and “he” as stand-ins for the female and male protagonists, respectively, whose names have shifted over the four films. And yes, major spoilers ahead.)
He publicly embarrasses himself with his drunken behavior before meeting her
The opening scene in each of the three most recent versions — the ’37 original prefaced it with several establishing scenes of Esther’s (Gaynor) pre-Hollywood life — features its male lead drunkenly stumbling in front of a large crowd, establishing his addiction and general instability from his first appearance. Both the ’76 and 2018 performances do this with him playing a concert: The ripping version of “Black Eyes” by Cooper’s Jackson Maine shows him as a relatively functional alcoholic, while Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard shows up late and obviously at diminished capacity but still gets through rocking opener “Watch Closely Now” before turning antagonistic on his audience.
The scenes make for strong openings and establish early that even when half in the bag, these dudes are pretty good at what they do. But the stronger introductions come for Frederic March’s Norman Maine, who humiliates himself in front of Esther at a concert by sparring with paparazzi and repeatedly missing his chair when trying to sit down, and for Mason’s Norman, a bleary-eyed stage crasher of the stage show featuring Garland’s Esther, forcing her to pretend his unexpected cameo is part of the bit. The ’54 version stands out not only for this early interaction between the two leads, but for its panoramic opening sequence outside the theater, featuring crackling spotlights, glammed-out red carpets and all the Golden Age glitz needed to establish Hollywood as the film’s true star.
She impresses him for the first time
The biggest weakness of the ’37 original might be that the film never really shows Gaynor’s Esther being great at what she does — we only see one short scene of her acting, and Norman falls in love with her before ever even seeing her at work. Luckily, the remaining three versions take full advantage of the generational hybrid talents at their disposal. We’ve already raved plenty about Gaga’s sparkling “La Vie en Rose” drag-night performance on the night her Ally meets Jackson for the first time, and Streisand’s two-song bar performance is nearly stunning enough to snap Kristofferson’s John Norman to sobriety when he witnesses her for the first time.
However, this one is a no-brainer: Judy Garland’s singular performance of “The Man Who Got Away,” delivered at an after-hours club that Mason’s Norman has tracked her to, has become one of the most iconic scenes of her legendary career. Filmed mostly in a single take, the performance captures all the talent, ambition and yearning of her character, even if it’s obvious her Esther doesn’t realize how much she’s showing any of the three. The song, written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, was ranked by the American Film Institute as the 11th greatest in film history in 2004.
One more look
Those less familiar with the Star series might not realize that the much-memed scene from the 2018 A Star Is Born trailer — featuring Ally smirking at Jackson’s cheesy “just wanna look at you one more time” fake-out — is actually a remake of virtually identical moments from the three previous films, which have been helpfully compiled here. All four moments are charming to some degree, though they range from almost impossibly winsome (Norman in the ’37 original, the only one who asks for permission for his extra glance) to borderline-sleazy (John Norman in ’76, who clicks his tongue and gives a little “oww!” at the end of his leer). But the brilliant editing, and the peerless facial expressiveness of Cooper and Gaga, unquestionably make this most recent version of the interaction the new gold standard.
She makes her big debut
Once again, we see more of the results than the process when Gaynor’s Esther makes her breakthrough, but Garland, Streisand and Gaga are all showcased at their absolute peaks. Streisand’s Esther gets two songs’ worth of stage time at John Norman’s concert, winning the crowd over with the power ballad “The Woman in the Moon” and the more uptempo “I Believe in Love,” and we’ve all watched Ally’s starmaking “Shallow” duet with Jackson a hundred times on YouTube already. But Garland’s Esther gets an entire four-part, 15-minute centerpiece musical number to serve as her big moment, a dazzling series of set pieces anchored by her incomparable singing, dancing and charisma. Hard to compete with Judy Garland and legendary director George Cukor when they’re pulling out all the stops.
They marry and live in domestic bliss
The ’54 version is more effective when Esther and Norman try to weather the lows of their love story than when they enjoy their highs, and the most exciting moments of Ally and Jackson’s romance in the most-recent version are them on tour together at the outset of their relationship, taking in so much for the first time together. But the most winning scenes between Esther and John Norman in the ’76 film show the married couple building a home and a life together in the desert, the latter introducing the former to his undeveloped property by carrying her over an imaginary threshold. And the honeymoon scenes in the ’37 original, with Esther and Norman decamping from Hollywood in a trailer, singing and cooking and showering and running around, are among the most charming in the whole series.
Winner: ’37 & ’76 (tie)
He drunkenly humiliates her at an awards show
All four of these scenes are thoroughly brutal in their own way, the climactic event in each story that makes the tragic fall of its male lead a practical inevitability. The first two versions see Esther’s Oscar win interrupted by a late-arriving and sarcastically applauding Norman, drunk and jealous and bitter at the room full of former peers who have since turned their back on him — ending with Norman accidentally hitting his wife, much to his own horror. The ’76 version transports the scene to the Grammys, with John Norman upstaging Esther’s win with similar grandstanding.
But the most recent version is the most gut-wrenching, because its Jackson is the drunkest of the four (so gone by the time of Ally’s best new artist win that he barely even knows where he is), because he isn’t trying to steal her spotlight as much as just being despondent over his own demons, and because Ally very nearly plays his obvious drunkenness off as rock-star hard living — until he pisses himself onstage, turning a merely potentially viral moment into a career-defining embarrassment. It’s masterfully acted and directed, and its fallout is absolutely devastating.
He goes to rehab
One of the more affecting scenes in both the ’37 and ’54 versions comes when Norman is visited in rehab (a “sanitarium,” as they refer to it) by his old studio head Oliver Niles, who offers him a smaller role in an upcoming movie, and Norman turns it down out of pride, lying about having already signed another contract elsewhere. This scene was inexplicably absent from the ’76 version, in which not even John Norman’s Grammys meltdown encourages him to get properly clean. But the 2018 version doubles down on the emotional impact by having Ally herself visit Jackson at his facility. The latter tries to apologize but is so overcome with shame at his behavior, and fear that he’s already hurt his wife too much to ever come back from, that he can’t stop crying for long enough to get the words out. It might be the most overpowering scene in the entire series.
The final relapse
Norman comes back from recovery in the ’37 and ’54 films and tries to turn over a new leaf — “A whole new book,” he puts it, as he orders a non-alcoholic drink at one of his old haunts. But when a bitter encounter with his vengeful former PR man goes ugly, he instantly turns back to a hard drink, and the next time he sees Esther is when she has to bail him out in court after a drunk-driving accident. This scene never happens in the ’76 version, since he never gets clean in the first place — and in the ’18 version, Jackson takes himself out of the equation almost expressly out of fear that he won’t be able to avoid this exact scenario eventually occurring. James Mason’s emotionally drained expression in court in the ’54 version probably seals it here, the face of a man brought so low he knows there’s no point in trying to climb back up.
The one image you might know from A Star Is Born even if you’ve never seen the movies in full is the sight of either Frederic March or James Mason in their bathing suit, walking slowly and fatefully into the Pacific, never planning to return to the shore. The scene unfolds almost as a triumph, filmed at dawn with Norman looking more resolute and confident than he has for at least half the movie, feeling he’s doing the right thing by his wife for once.
The ’76 version is kept strangely ambiguous; producer Jon Peters reportedly disliked the idea of John Norman killing himself, so when the character drives off to his demise, it’s unclear if he’s suicidal or just drunk. The ’18 version is the most nuanced, with Jackson hanging himself in his garage in heartbreakingly even-keeled, methodical fashion — determined but none too pleased at his self-imposed fate. Still, we have a long way till seeing if it can remain as unforgettable as the ’37 one has 80 years from now.
Her return to public life
Again, both of the original versions end the same way: Esther fighting through her grief and returning to her life, via a public appearance in which she honors her late husband with the introductory line: “Hello, everybody — this is Mrs. Norman Maine.” The two most recent versions close with an additional musical number — in ’76, Esther (introduced as “Mrs. Esther Hoffman Howard”) performs the John Norman-written “With One More Look at You” in a medley with his old band’s “Watch Closely Now,” and in ’18, “Ally Maine” (we never learn her character’s original last name) performs the Jackson-penned “I’ll Never Love Again.”
But as powerful as those two musical numbers are, they don’t quite carry the same weight as Esther struggling to even get to the microphone in the first two Stars, then putting her entire soul into that one line. It’s one of the most famous closing lines in movie history for a reason.
Winner: ’37 & ’54 (tie)