An up-and-coming actress-singer goes all the way to the top as her actor-singer husband hits the bottle while his career tumbles. We’ve seen it again and again—in fact, we’ve seen it five times as the plot of A Star Is Born!
In 1932, What Price Hollywood? started it all, and later that became the inspiration for 1937’s A Star Is Born with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March as the ill-fated Hollywood couple. The most resonant version for gays, of course, is the 1954 George Cukor-directed one starring a tremulous Judy Garland as rising star Vicki Lester and a poignant James Mason as her declining spouse, the movie bedecked with brilliant set pieces like Judy’s “Born in a Trunk” montage and her heartbreaking “The Man That Got Away” number. (Tragically, the movie was seized by the studio after two weeks of release for a highly damaging recut.)
In 1974, the plot was transposed to the world of rock, with Barbra Streisand as the sizzling star and Kris Kristofferson as her messy man. (The movie was a hit, but one critic dubbed it “A bore is starred.”) And next month, we’ll see the wildly praised new version with Lady Gaga as a stellar singer and Bradley Cooper as a has-been musician. (Cooper also directed—and Shangela and Willam Belli appear in the drag bar scene that opens it.)
So it’s all too perfect timing for the book A Star Is Born, The Film That Got Away by Lorna Luft (the daughter of Judy Garland and Sid Luft, who produced Judy’s version) and Jeffrey Vance. I chatted with Lorna, one of the great old-time singers, about why this Star is constantly aborning.
Hello, Lorna. As you say in the book, A Star Is Born’s plot had parallels to Judy’s real life.
Yeah, but I never have thought of A Star Is Born as a movie about Hollywood. I have found it to be a movie about human emotion because it has every emotion we go through. Someone’s star descends and you go through love and joy and addiction and the tragedy that brings, and then suicide, and it ends in triumph. It’s set in Hollywood, but it’s not about Hollywood. I wrote the book because I have these amazing photos and no one has seen a lot of them. This movie meant so much to my mother and father. They staked everything on this movie. It’s the first time my mother really thought she had control, as part of the team that put this together. Much as I loved my dad, the people that worked on this film did so because of my mother. Sometimes you’re watching the red carpet be rolled out, you’re able to walk the carpet for a moment, and sometimes it’s pulled out from under you. That’s what happened on this film. Can you imagine if they took a Steven Spielberg movie away from him after two weeks in the theaters weeks and cut it up?
The studio felt it was too long?
The studio wanted more showings of it. They sent it out to movie theaters with notes for projectionists to cut it off. And they threw the film away! You want to talk about heartbreaking. It cost her the Oscar. To have that taken away from you and cut up is like an operation without anesthesia. That’s why I call the book The Film That Got Away. My mother used to watch it on TV and it broke her heart. Years later, crackpots who belong in the Haha Hotel told me they had master prints of the original, but they didn’t.
It’s amazing that it still holds up as brilliant anyway.
It’s one of the greatest movies ever made and that is strictly due to the performances of my mother and James Mason. Yes, the music is fantastic—there are only seven songs in the movie. The scene where she walks over to James with that beautiful smile and says, “Hello Mr. Maine,” it makes her so human. That’s why my mother is so loved, because of her humanity.
You love James Mason, too.
In the book, I ran a photo of him as Norman when he’s arrested. When you look at that, you realize Cary Grant couldn’t have done that. That’s who they wanted—my mom really wanted him—but his agent said, “We can’t do that to his image.” I’m sure Cukor could have gotten an incredible performance, but I don’t think Cary Grant could ever let himself himself be as vulnerable and open as James Mason did. Mason was fearless, whereas Cary had a persona to live up to. Then, of course, Bogie [Humphrey Bogart] wanted to do it, but unfortunately he was too ill.
How did George Cukor get involved?
He’d spent a week on The Wizard of Oz, so he knew my mom and was a fan. He had directed What Price Hollywood? Five years later, when they asked him to direct A Star Is Born, he said, “But I just made this movie!” My mom called him and said, “Do you want to put music into it?” He said yes. George Cukor was a woman’s director and he understood the fragility, how women think.
Wasn’t he fired from directing Gone With the Wind because he was gay?
No. I think that’s a story that’s been made up over the years. It had to do more with Clark Gable wanting his best friend Victor Fleming to direct it. I don’t think it had anything to do with sexual preference.
Did they trim the “Born in a Trunk” montage?
That wasn’t in the original script at all. They ran the movie at a test screening and they thought it was very odd when Norman and Vicki go down to watch the preview and there was no song there. Six months later, they shot “Born in a Trunk.” Some people have said they don’t know if it fits into the film. It does—it shows how talented and what a complete star Vicki Lester is.
Do you feel Liza’s “Happy Endings” montage in New York, New York in 1977 was a homage to “Born in a Trunk”? I always felt that way.
I don’t know. I haven’t seen that movie in so long.
You mentioned your mother’s Oscar loss. [Grace Kelly won for A Country Girl.] I love what you quote her saying, that her new baby boy, Joey Luft, was more important than any award.
Yeah, that’s true.
I also enjoyed you saying that you wish you looked more like your mother than your father.
Because of my mother’s skin. She was really beautiful. She had such a rough time at MGM because she was put against what they called “movie queens, “the faces,” like Hedy Lamarr. [MGM head] Louis B. Mayer was not very kind to her and really had such an effect on her psychological being. I never saw that. I thought my mother was gorgeous. I didn’t know the back story growing up. Every once in while, she’d blurt things, like “He used to call me ‘the little hunchback.’” They put tiny little rings in her nose to perk her nose upwards. They put caps on her teeth. They treated her like a commodity. In those days, MGM was a commodity. They did 3,500 makeups an hour. It was a factory. When my mom got ready to do A Star Is Born, she had all that under her belt and she thought, “No one’s gonna tell me anything anymore.”
Let’s move on to the Barbra version. In the book, you’re rather kind to it.
I don’t know [producer/Barbra-ex] Jon Peters and I’ve met Barbra a couple of times and she’s been generous and very kind. They went out to make their own version. Whether it stands up today is up to the audience that looks at it. They got to make their movie. Imagine taking a Barbra Streisand movie away and cutting it up? It wouldn’t be pretty.
As for the Gaga version, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is on the soundtrack album.
I’ve heard she sings a part of it in the movie. That’s a lovely, lovely tribute—typical of her wonderful admiration for the arts. She’s so talented. I think Bradley Cooper is today’s Gary Cooper. He can sing, dance, and is a wonderful actor and we’ll see what a magnificent director he’s going to show us all. I couldn’t be happier that this film is coming out. When I saw Crazy Rich Asians, they showed a trailer for it. Afterwards, a girl said, “That I wanna see.” I had a big grin on my face.
A Star Is Born might also be a Broadway musical.
Directed by Bill Condon, my friend. I’m so happy.
Has any other movie been made more than five times?
Three Musketeers! I think they had D’Artagnan Goes to College. [Laughs]
Eat Drink Man Woman Man
And now, a star is re-born: When I met Tish Gervais in the 1980s, she was a voluptuous singer and party girl who had been an army wife and now was living the high life on downtown NYC’s nightlife scene. Maybe too high. Tish—who had transitioned from Brian Belovitch—ultimately sobered up, settled down, and transitioned back to Brian.
The fascinating double-trans story is in his book, Trans Figured, which comes out September 25. Brian told me, “Throughout the writing process, revisiting my childhood, I would reach back in time and wrap my arms around my younger self, giving him the long neglected hug he waited decades to receive. Profoundly, I discovered a sense of self respect and acceptance, which was always denied me as a little kid. And surviving, against all odds, our modern day plague, memories and mission intact—that in itself was an act of divine providence. In the immortal words of Auntie Mame’s personal secretary Agnes Gooch, ‘I lived!’”
Tidbits From the Edge
I hear Shade: Queens of NYC was renewed for a second season, but then the Fusion channel had a change in personnel and it was squashed. Shade!
In more hopeful news, Daniel Nardicio and Alan Cumming (partners in the East Village boite Club Cumming) have started a TV production company. Gird your loins, folks. Speaking of Club Cumming, I’m doing another Duets night there, this time a fundraiser for New Alternatives, benefitting homeless LGBT youth. Come join us.
And for a taste of the avant-garde at its finest, check out Soundstage, a live theater and film hybrid created and performed by Rob Roth, with Rebecca Hall on film. Says Rob, “Throughout my career, I’ve been fascinated with the archetype of the strong female lead character as both a reflection and salvation for gay men. In my work, I hope to reveal a hidden history of queer individuals who used fantasy as a means of survival and existence.”
The work employs three cellists, songs, a film crew in bodysuits, a makeup mirror, and synchronized videos to create a hypnotic tale of melding psyches. No remakes are necessary.