A STAR IS BORN (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the 4th iteration I’ve seen of A STAR IS BORN. First there was writer/director William Wellman’s original version in 1937 which won the Oscar for Best Original Story, had 6 other Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March (he playing a veteran actor and she a starlet). Next came the 1954 remake with James Mason and the fabulous Judy Garland (he playing a veteran actor, she an upcoming singer/actress). Both were nominated for Oscars, and the film was directed by George Cukor (10 years later would win an Oscar for MY FAIR LADY). 1976 brought the second remake (third version), this one starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It won a Best Song Oscar for Paul Williams, and was directed by Frank Pierson, known best for writing the oft quoted line “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate” from COOL HAND LUKE (he also won a Best Screenplay Oscar for DOG DAY AFTERNOON). So perhaps it’s understandable that 81 years after the original, Bradley Cooper chooses this familiar story for a generational update and his directorial debut.

When it’s announced that a new version of this story is being made, the obvious first question anyone asks is ‘Who did they cast?”  Many were surprised when it was learned that Bradley Cooper had cast himself, and that Lady Gaga would take on the female lead. Sure, we all know Bradley Cooper as an Oscar nominated actor from SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) … but can he SING?  And yes, many had seen Lady Gaga in TV’s “American Horror Story”, but could she possibly carry a major film – sans heavy make-up and gimmicky stage gadgetry?

The audience reactions are in. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga blow away the 1976 version, and where they rank versus the other two versions, comes down to personal preference. Mr. Cooper delivers an odd, yet effective, performance as the boozy, aimless rocker Jackson Maine. Not only does he mimic Sam Elliott’s speaking voice and cadence, his performance seems purposefully close to that of Kristofferson from 42 years ago. The great Sam Elliott does play Cooper’s (much) older brother, so the oratory choice makes some sense … it’s just a bit off-putting at first. Cooper is believable as the rocker thanks to his stage presence and charm. We never doubt Jackson Maine is a rock star.

The most stunning and pleasant surprise here is Lady Gaga as Ally. For anyone who still thinks of her in terms of raw meat fashion at industry events, prepare yourself for astonishment. Her beautiful and powerful voice is on full display throughout the film. In fact, her songs and singing are the highlights of what is a terrific film that should have wide appeal. The first song she sings, “La Vie en Rose” (made famous by Edit Piaf) is quite simply jaw-dropping in its beauty.

Ally is a pretty grounded woman from humble means. She works as a waitress and sings whenever she can … having been held back from pursuing her dreams by a well-meaning father (Andrew Dice Clay) who says she doesn’t have the looks to be a star. Ally has a Carole King “Tapestry” poster on her bedroom wall, and we soon learn she could probably sing most any song from that classic album and make it her own. When Jackson and Ally meet, a complex romance and professional partnership forms. We know those rarely end well. As Jackson shuns his protective brother, battles an ever-worsening hearing issue and a self-destructive drinking problem, Ally tries to remain loyal to the man she loves … even as her own career explodes down a path Jackson barely recognizes.

In addition to the aforementioned Dice Clay (surprisingly subtle here), there is a musical duet with Marlon Williams (in the Roy Orbison tribute) and Presley Cash, and surprising supporting characters played by Dave Chappelle and Eddie Griffin. Probably not as surprising, Jon Peters is listed as a Producer on the film. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Peters, he was once a hairstylist to celebrities and in the early 1970’s fell in love with Barbra Streisand. His first credit as Producer was for her film … you got it … A STAR IS BORN (1976).

Mr. Cooper does a nice job tackling such a large scale and familiar project for his first directing gig, and we are certainly appreciative of his avoiding inclusion of Streisand’s “Evergreen”, and instead showcasing the talents of Lady Gaga. It’s likely Lady Gaga will receive a bit more credit for her acting than is probably deserved (an Oscar nom is possible), but her impact on the movie cannot be understated. Bradley Cooper’s next project as actor/director has been announced as BERNSTEIN, where he will play the great composer Leonard Bernstein. Kudos to Cooper for dreaming big!

watch the trailer:

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WINGS (1927)

May 3, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. This film holds the prestigious position of forever being the answer to a favorite Academy Awards trivia question: Name the first Best Picture winner. Of course, there should be an asterisk attached as the film officially won Most Outstanding Production. There was no Best Picture award that first year. It was also the first and last Silent Film to win the award until The Artist won this year (2012).

Rarely have a film and director been so perfectly matched. William Wellman was known as “Wild Bill” thanks to his actual WWI flying experience and his penchant for fighting and partying in Hollywood. Wellman handled some of the stunt flights in the film and is also seen as the dying soldier near the end who shouts the “buzzards” line. Much of the film was shot at Kelly Field in San Antonio, and its popularity was certainly assisted by the patriotism of the time and the recent aviation excitement created by Charles Lindbergh‘s transatlantic flight.

The story is based on the WWI Army Air Corps and features some stunning aerial photography and combat flying missions, with an incredible-for-the-times 3500 soldiers, 65 pilots and 165 aircraft. The lead actors are Richard Arlen (David) and Charles “Buddy” Rogers (Jack). They are local rivals battling over the heart of the same woman played by Jobyna Ralston (Sylvia). It’s a pretty interesting love story as Jack thinks Sylvia loves him, Sylvia loves David and David knows it, and Mary loves Jack, and Jack has absolutely no clue.

 Mary is played by the always outstanding Clara Bow (pictured left with Rogers). She truly lights up the film and screen in her scenes. Not only does she have the expressive eyes necessary for silent films, her physical presence is wonderful for such a tiny lady. Other interesting cast members include El Brendel as Herman Schwimpft. His German sounding name and somewhat effeminate manner are constant sources of comic relief. Hedda Hopper plays Jack’s mother. You might recognize her name as the founder of Hollywood gossip columns … she started out doing some acting.

 Beyond the “Wild Bill” fun, there was also some romantic shenanigans on set. Richard Arlen and Jobyna Ralston ended up getting married after meeting during filming. Also, Clara Bow started an affair with a new actor named Gary Cooper. Yes, THAT Gary Cooper (pictured below, standing). It is startling to see such a young Cooper when he makes his first appearance. It’s a small, but vital role in the film. There has been an ongoing debate in the film world about the homosexual undertones between Jack and David. In the famous death scene, we get the first on screen man-on-man kiss on lips. Quite shocking for the times.  From a technical aspect, the Handschiegl Color Process was used for the flames and explosions – dramatic splashes of color in the aerial combat scenes. This was also Costume Designer Edith Head‘s first film. She went on to become the most famous Hollywood costume designer and worked on hundreds of films.

 The theatrical re-release of the film coincides with its 85th anniversary and celebrates 100 years of Paramount Pictures. The opening credits provide a time lapse view of the numerous Paramount logos through the years. There are many reasons to see this film: its ground-breaking action scenes, the history it addresses, its place in Hollywood lore, and of course, if you want to see the inspiration for Betty Boop (Clara Bow). What I won’t do is mention that the love story was copied by Michael Bay in the less-than-stellar Pearl Harbor film. Forget I even mentioned it.

*note: a bit more trivia … the film was released the same year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs.  That’s the record Roger Maris would break 34 years later.  Also, this film is one of only three to ever win Best Picture without also receiving a Best Director nomination.  The other two films are Grand Hotel (Edmund Goulding, 1932) and Driving Miss Daisy (Bruce Beresford, 1989)

watch a one minute trailer:


TMI (2-29-12)

February 29, 2012

TMI (Today’s Movie Info)

February: Director’s Month

 WILLIAM WELLMAN (1896-1975)  was nominated for 3 Best Director Oscars, and won for Best Screenplay on the original A Star is Born (1937).  Known as “Wild Bill” for his brave and daring work as an aviator in WWI, the name stuck when he hit Hollywood as a larger than life figure.  At age 19, he joined the air wing of the French Foreign Legion and flew for the famed Lafayette Escadrille until he was shot down. In 1927, Paramount hired him, based on his real life experience, to direct its WWI flying epic Wings.  It took him a year to wrap production (unheard of in those days), and the film was over budget and way behind schedule.  However, it went on to become the very first Academy Award winner for Best Picture (and the only silent film winner until The Artist won in 2012) and was a box office smash.  The film starred legendary silent film actress Clara Bow, and also featured a small role for a young Gary Cooper (25 years before High Noon).  Despite Wellman’s reputation as bullying director, he went on to direct The Public Enemy (1931) which is still considered one of the great gangster movies, and also sent James Cagney direct to superstardom. Wellman directed three films famous for their biting satire of Hollywood and stardom: A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937), Roxie Hart (1942). He also continued making westerns and war films including: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Battleground (1949), The High and the Mighty (1954, with John Wayne).  He walked away from Hollywood after the post-production studio tampering of his last film Lafayette Escadrille (1958).  Wellman rarely receives due credit for his place in Hollywood history.  This is usually attributed to his head-strong inability to collaborate with others, as evidenced by his quote: “Get a director and a writer and leave them alone.  That’s how the best pictures get made.”  Wellman was the great-great-great-grandson of Frances Lewis, who signed the Declaration of Independence.