'A Star Is Born': THR's 1976 Review
In December 1976, Warner Bros. unveiled its 140-minute, R-rated adaptation of A Star Is Born, featuring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The film went on to be nominated for four Oscars at the 49th Academy Awards, winning one in the original song category. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.
As a concert film for Barbra Streisand, A Star Is Born proves excellent. As a dramatic lover story, the film is beautifully photographed and appropriately sad. Streisand and co-star Kris Kristofferson make an appealing romantic pair, and director Frank Pierson guides Kristofferson to the best acting performance of his career.
The screenplay updates A Star Is Born to the mid-'70s with great skill. The Streisand-Kristofferson relationship delicately portrays a liberated alliance without preachiness, almost as a given fact necessitating little ego hassle. Particularly impressive is one scene where the two fight almost violently and then make up. It finds Streisand as Esther Hoffman showing her alcoholic lover that she has become just what he wanted, a strong person in her own right. Yet she, too, is a victim of her passion for him; this is, after all, a modern romance.
Additionally, the screenwriters were right on the beam when they shifted the background of A Star Is Born to the rock world. It gives this new remake added punch. Here the physical pressures of that world are carefully visualized. Director Pierson stages with strong impact scenes showing the booze and drugs, the dangerous fans, the groupies with their casual sex, and most importantly, the live performances on tour. Filming the highly publicized outdoor concert at Arizona's Tempe Stadium proves well worth all the efforts of producer Jon Peters and promoter Bill Graham. When Kristofferson and Streisand arrive in a helicopter for his performance, the view of the crowd impresses tremendously.
However, as a statement about its central theme, the pressure of super-stardom and the decline of a self-destructive rock singer, A Star Is Born works less satisfactorily. Screenwriters Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne along with director-writer Pierson concentrate so much on their two stars that the film becomes claustrophobic. An interesting ensemble of secondary characters exist only as vaguely realized, one-dimensional people. They have a fair amount of screen time, but we never learn anything about them. For example, the two black singers who round out Barbra's trio, "The Oreos," are given hardly a line of dialogue. Played by Venetta Fields and Clydie King, we wonder how they feel about Barbra's newfound stardom. Has she changed in relationship to them? (This film would have us believe that the pressures that ruin Kristofferson hardly affect her at all.)
Gary Busey has little to do but push drugs onto Kristofferson. Apparently he worries about the fading singer only for business reasons, though they seem at the outset to be good friends. Busey's charm carries him a lot further than his ill-defined role warrants.
Perhaps the best drawn of this supporting group is Paul Mazursky's role as Brian, Kristofferson's manager-producer. His part waffles interestingly between being the film's villain and its single reasonable citizen. Still, only one scene with Streisand provides an opportunity to learn something of how this character reacts to Kristofferson's decline as an artist. At that, the scene boils down to a protestation by Brian that he remain the singer's friend.
Of course, the music constitutes the heart of the film. A host of collaborators, including executive producer Streisand, create a varied musical score. The masterful Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher provide many of the songs including, among others, "Watch Closely Now," "With One More Look at You" and "The Woman in the Moon." Williams wrote the music to "Evergreen" with lyrics by Streisand. She also composed the words and music with Leon Russell for "Lost Inside of You." Kenny Loggins composed the powerful "I Believe in Love" with Alan and Marilyn Bergman creating the lyrics. Donna Weiss contributes "Crippled Crow" and "Queen Bee" is by Rupert Holmes with "Everything" by Holmes and Williams.
Phil Ramone produced the music and live recordings with impressive results. Indeed the sound quality is superb on the musical numbers. Unfortunately, there are occasional conversations during songs, especially early in the film, and the mix makes it impossible to understand dialogue. In one early scene where Kristofferson is in a nightclub that effect could be intentional, but at times plot information is missed.
Concert lighting by Jules Fisher is excellent, and the brilliant Robert Surtees does his usual fine job as cinematographer. His lighting coupled with Polly Platt's imaginative production design creates a marvelous atmosphere. Film editor Peter Zinner crafts a tightly constructed film. (Of course, with all of the reports of numerous editing hands at work on the film, one hesitates to single out anyone for praise or blame.)
Jon Peters' first production achieves a high level of quality. Barbra Streisand's fantastic singing voice shows to the best advantage her incredible talent. The movie falls short of greatness, but it compares more than favorably not only with the usual concert film (good as a few of them are) but also with the current love stories on film. — Jean Hoelscher, originally published on Dec. 20, 1976