Thus far, everything seems to be going right for Bradley Cooper. He has consistently shown his smarts (and patience) in surviving the celebrity interview circuit. Even the Tomato Tyrants have been downright loving to A Star Is Born (91% “fresh”). Academy voters formed a geriatric line along Wilshire Boulevard for the rare sold-out screening and Q&A at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater, though Lady Gaga blew them off.
But while exuberant trade reviewers have already anointed Cooper a kudos contender, a few grumpy New York critics have raised this question: Will A Star Is Born become yet another victim of The Gatsby Syndrome as it pursues the long and winding road to the Oscars?
As with The Great Gatsby, Cooper has fashioned the fourth remake of a venerable story — one that poses an enticing “set-up” and vivid characters, but a fragile third act. Gatsby, of course, traces back to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s hit 1925 novel (the first Gatsby movie appeared and disappeared a year later). A Star Is Born‘s original story in 1937 was attributed to William Wellman, the director, and to Robert Carson. Through the years a long list of screenwriters (including the fabled satirist Dorothy Parker) toiled on various drafts, all of them struggling to overcome a classic problem: a third act that is as downbeat as it is predictable.
By the end of the 1973 Gatsby, Robert Redford looks a bit bored while, in Star Is Born, Cooper decides to take a more drastic way out. As Anthony Lane points out in the New Yorker, “Despite its sudden shock of fame, Star is little more than a fairy tale. It gives you one hell of a wallop, then you wake up on Sunday morning without a scratch.”
Putting it more bluntly, David Edelstein comments: “The story remains schmaltz.”
Whatever its narrative problems, the success of A Star Is Born, in this, as in previous versions, stems from the power of performance. Each new “Star” has been memorable in her own way — the poignancy of Judy Garland in 1954 and the vocal power of Barbra Streisand in 1976. Lady Gaga is a revelation in her own unique way, combining a bit of each. Their male co-stars, meanwhile, have struggled manfully to lend energy to their status as losers — Fredrick March, James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, heroic drunks all. For someone who claims he’s never sung, Cooper offers up “a solid, gnarly, hairy, hard-driving sound” (Lane’s words), suggesting prospects of a Willie Nelson-like future, had his script not been bent on his self-destruction.
With Gatsby, as with A Star Is Born, loyal filmgoers harken back to a few memorable performances — the stalwart Alan Ladd in 1949, the stolidly glamorous Redford (1974) and the moody narcissism of Leonardo DiCaprio (2013). There were also some affecting Daisys along the way, though Mia Farrow seemed a bit lost amid the massive party scenes in the 1974 version. Carey Mulligan seemed sharper in the Baz Luhrman 2013 iteration. To be sure, Gatsby appearances over the years did not guarantee stardom: witness Toby Stephens and Mia Sorvino in the 2000 made-for-TV Gatsby.
A cadre of writers felt both emboldened and defeated by the task of converting Fitzgerald’s golden prose into a tenable screenplay. I spent time with an apprehensive Truman Capote when Paramount anointed him for the assignment in 1973. Capote diligently started writing, but then, as he freely admitted, switched to mere typing. “I couldn’t figure out how to improve upon it so I just typed it,” he confessed, turning in scenes identical to Fitzgerald’s literary prose.
Francis Coppola succeeded him, but, while his approach was far more disciplined, he designed his script with a different cast in mind. Coppola saw Marlon Brando as Gatsby — older, tougher and more worldly (the team had already struck gold with The Godfather). Jack Clayton, who directed the Paramount film, favored Redford, even though he strained credibility when describing his war service or his shady business dealings.
A generation from now there’s little doubt that both Star and Gatsby will be remade yet again with new stars and new filmmakers. And no one will bother to ask, “What went wrong the last time?”