In the aftermath of last year’s holiday dud The Guilt Trip, it’s difficult imagining a time when Barbra Streisand’s name was synonymous with major box office. But during the late ‘60s and ‘70s, Streisand starred in a string of massive movie hits, including Funny Girl, What’s Up, Doc? and A Star Is Born, all three of which would be considered the equivalents of a modern-day, $300 million-plus grosser after adjusting their ticket sales for inflation. (Quick, name the last time a female-starring romantic comedy or drama earned anything close to that amount, Mses. Bullock, McAdams and Witherspoon). Of course, we all know money doesn’t equal quality and, taken out of the context of its ‘70s-era success, A Star Is Born certainly stands as proof that yesterday’s milky-smooth hit can be today’s cheese-crumbled miss. Hit the jump for our review of A Star Is Born on Blu-ray.
The thing that really makes Star such a miss is Miss Streisand, who is totally miscast as Esther Hoffman, an aspiring singer-songwriter whose love life blossoms and musical career takes off after she meets the successful and self-destructive singer John Norman Howard, played by the ever-bearded and weathered Kris Kristofferson. By the time Miss S. took the role, she was the furthest thing from a no-name underdog. In fact, she was that rare triple threat: Oscar-winning movie actress, Tony-winning stage performer, and Grammy-winning singer. Unfortunately, Streisand made the mistake of playing Esther with the confidence of, well, an established triple threat. As a result, Esther never seems particularly excited or humbled enough by the opportunities her relationship with John Norman provides and her performance is mostly flat and uninspired.
Meanwhile, Barbra’s lack of humility off-screen apparently caused her to run riot over the film’s production, too; at least according to director Frank Pierson, who wrote about the trials of making the film in an infamous magazine article entitled “My Battles With Barbra and Jon,” (“Jon” being producer and former Babs sexy-time partner Jon Peters). According to the piece, Streisand was so upset when she discovered Pierson would not be filming her musical numbers in flattering close-ups that she took over the director’s chair and shot them herself. When a director’s vision is compromised by a star’s vanity, the results are usually off-balanced and it doesn’t help that the film already lacks a sense of clear perspective. Whose story is it, anyway? It constantly shifts focus from the falling John to the rising Esther and we never really get inside either character’s head. As a result, A Star is Born fails to fully deliver the wish-fulfilling scenarios of either instant stardom or healing love.
Maybe Streisand sensed she was stuck in a not-so-great film and sought to salvage it by making her own musical moments count. I guess it’s a good thing she did because they’re among the film’s few pleasures, especially her performance of the Oscar-winning ballad “Evergreen.” Other pleasures include a time capsule tour of ‘70s-era Los Angeles, a ridiculously amusing bathtub sex scene involving some silly gender role reversal, and Kris Kristofferson’s mellow, whiskey-breathed performance as a fading rock God.
If you want to see a great movie about rock Gods during this period, check out Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous: The Bootleg Cut. Now that’s a movie with a real sense of the majesty of rock superstardom and the thrill of getting close to it.
Streisand fans will be pleased with how extensively their diva is featured in the Blu-ray disc’s bonus features. There’s a “Wardrobe Test” with Babs commentary; 12 Deleted Scenes/Alternate Takes with optional Babs commentary and, last but not least, a Babs feature-length, amusingly egocentric commentary, in which she not only reveals juicy details of the making of the movie, but gets fairly personal while discussing the childhood neglect that fueled her drive for stardom.
The film was shot by three-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur, The Bad and the Beautiful and King Solomon’s Mines) and the Blu-ray disc’s 1080p picture shows off a striking visual mix of ‘70s grit and old Hollywood glamour (especially when it comes to the lighting of Streisand’s unique visage).
Back in ’76, A Star Is Born was the first film released in Dolby Surround but the Blu-ray edition up-converts its original mix to a rocking DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. The high definition sound makes the musical numbers soar, while most of the dialogue rings clear (except when Kristofferson mumbles). Additional audio options include French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Czech Dolby Digital Mono and Polish Dolby Digital 2.0.
Subtitle options include English SDH, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German SDH, Italian SDH, Czech, Korean and Polish.
A star she was and still may be, but A Star Is Born is not Barbra Streisand’s finest hour. Still, diehard fans are likely to enjoy all of the Babs-centric bonus features on Warner Brothers’ divalicious new DigiBook release.
A Star Is Born is rated R and has a run time of 140 minutes.