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How has "A Star is Born" treated substance abuse over the past 81 years?

Jessica Fuller • Oct 14, 2018 at 11:38 PM

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see “A Star is Born” on opening night last weekend. 

Despite it being the third remake of this movie, I’d managed to never see any of the other versions until this one – frankly, I’m a big Lady Gaga fan, and I was just excited to see her first starring role on the big screen.

By some miracle, I made it to opening night without having the plot spoiled for me, and boy was I unprepared for the emotional roller coaster that defined the next two hours.

So I did what I always do when I fall in love with a movie — I tracked down and watched the other three versions (from 1937, 1976 and 1954, in that order) in less than a week so I could write a column about how each version of the film reflects the cultural attitude toward addiction and substance abuse at the time. 

Just in case you’re like me and have somehow managed to avoid details of an 81-year-old story, spoilers for all versions of “A Star is Born” below.

What they have in common:

 

The main plot across all four movies remains the same at its core: A falling star (Norman/John/Jackson) discovers a talented female star (Esther/Ally), and helps her rise to fame.

They fall in love and get married on impulse. Her career waxes while his career, plagued by alcoholism and sometimes drug addiction, wanes.

She wins an award, he shows up to the ceremony late and intoxicated, climbs on stage and embarrasses her by interrupting her acceptance speech.

In three of the four movies, he goes to rehab after this incident, returns sober and does well until someone tells him he is ruining his wife’s career.

He relapses, finds out she plans to end her career to help him, and the movie ends with his death by suicide or suspected suicide. 

Overall, what I noticed over the four versions of the movie is the shift of addiction and substance abuse as a plot device to one of the main themes in the latest movie.

The intent of the original film is a cynical narrative of the toxicity of stardom and Hollywood, and Norman’s addiction is just a facet of how Hollywood destroys people.

2018 – Directed by Bradley Cooper starring Cooper and Lady Gaga 

The latest film explores Jackson’s (Cooper) addiction separate from his status as a celebrity, and even examines the roots of his substance abuse issues through backstory that was introduced in this version of the film. 

Throughout the movie, we witness Jackson’s addiction to alcohol and drugs – he downs a handful of pills with liquor in the first five minutes of the film. 

This is the only version of the film where addiction is explicitly referred to as a disease. Ally (Gaga) visits her husband in rehab where he tearfully apologizes for publicly embarrassing her at an awards ceremony. She embraces him and tells him that it isn’t his fault.

“It’s a disease,” she tells him.

This is a notable change from the other versions of the film, where Esther blames herself for not being enough for him to overcome his issues. 

Throughout this film we see the complexity of addiction – Jackson is a sweet and caring person caught in the snare of substance abuse. Ally supports and loves him, but she isn’t immune to the difficulty of loving someone struggling with addiction, and occasionally lashes out. 

This echoes today’s opioid epidemic, and through backstory we find that Jackson’s addiction began long before his rise to stardom and exists outside of his status as a celebrity.

Addiction can affect anyone, and that is portrayed through this film. It feels more real and personal than in earlier versions of the movie in which the male lead’s addiction is married to his stardom. 

1976 – Directed by Frank Pierson starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson


I felt this version of the film had the most cavalier attitude toward addiction. It is the only version in which John Norman (Kristofferson) doesn’t go to rehab, and dialogue suggests that his relationship with Esther (Streisand) should be enough for him to overcome his addiction issues. 

Esther tells his manager that she’s good for him because he stops drinking when their relationship ignites.

But as John’s career continues to decline, his substance abuse issues resurface. Esther in her frustration asks John why she isn’t good enough after he has an incident while drunk. 

While it is inferred that John Norman’s drinking and drug use are aiding his fall from stardom, I didn’t feel as though his issues were treated as addiction even though they are treated as a “problem.”

This was the first of the movies to switch the focus from the film to the music industry, and while I wasn’t around in the 1970s to know what the culture was like, I’m familiar enough with the adage “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” to know that drug use fueled music creativity in the 1960s and 1970s (and continues today). While drug use was weaved into nearly every genre at the time, it didn’t come without a cost, and this version of the film reflects that.

1954 – Directed by George Cukor starring Judy Garland and James Mason 

Going into this one, I knew Judy Garland was struggling with drug addiction during the production of this film, and I was interested to see how that would affect the attitude toward addiction.

The scene that struck me the most was Esther’s (Garland) conversation with the studio executive after Norman (Mason) goes to the sanitarium.

She acknowledges that her husband is trying to quit drinking, she expresses she wants to be supportive, but she resents him and herself for his continuing problems.

I found the emotion in this scene to be overwhelming as it was tinged with Garland’s personal struggles with addiction. 

Society in this movie regards Norman as a useless has-been and a public nuisance, something carried over from the original 1937 version of the film.

I felt Norman’s addiction was taken a little more seriously by Esther in this movie than in the 1937 and 1976 versions, even though she still chastises herself for not being able to fix his issues. 

1937 – Directed by William Wellman and Jack Conway starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March

 

The intent of the original movie is to be critical of Hollywood, and this film was spiced with campiness that created a confusing tone for me. This movie is the one in which Norman’s addiction is tied heavily to his failing career – one feeds the other and the cycle pushes him over the edge to the end of the movie. 

The severity of addiction is overshadowed by the cynicism of Hollywood, which is precisely the point of the film.

The studio executives make jokes about Norman’s death the scene following his suicide, and no one but Esther really cares that he’s gone.

It’s hard for me to make much commentary on addiction because it was used more as a plot device in this movie than in the other versions.

It is worth noting that this movie came out about four years after the end of the Prohibition Era, so attitudes toward addiction were a little more serious than I was expecting.  

There are plenty of other themes to explore across the four movies – body image, the duality of stardom, mental health and suicide, just to name a few.

Since my first experience with the story was the latest version, I was struck by how realistically addiction was portrayed in the film in a time where lawmakers and health care professionals are scrambling to address a nationwide epidemic.

I was curious to see how addiction was portrayed in other versions that span almost 100 years of our culture. Films often give us a snapshot of the culture they were created in, and I find it both fascinating and important to analyze how the portrayal of something as serious as addiction has changed over almost 100 years. 

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