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The case for or against Barbra Streisand should always be a double one, for the actress without song is never more than half the talent, half the screen presence.
Her best straight dramatic films would try to deny this, while her best musicals build such divisions into their very structure, both in the analysis of character and, curiously enough, in the acknowledgment of story as star vehicle. The case should rest with both musical and dramatic gifts, but the relevant testimony has rarely been forthcoming.
Glenn Gould has given us the only extended, expert impression we have of the Streisand voice, a voice he ranks alongside Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s as ‘one of the natural wonders of the age, an instrument of infinite diversity and timbral resonance,’ with ‘the fastest vibrato in the west and the most impeccable intonation this side of Maria Stader’s prime.’
But Streisand, who began as a singer, has become an actress who seems always in danger of permanently lowering her screen voice into mere dialogue. Pauline Kael wrote a few years back: ‘Streisand could inaugurate a new kind of musical, because she uses song as Astaire used dance, expressively, to complete a role and make it a myth. I can’t think of a single greater waste of screen talent than there would be if, because of the new economic calculations about musicals, this actress-singer decided to turn to straight acting roles. She would be abandoning her true singularity – her ability to extend a character in song.’
These remarks have a way of descending on Streisand’s new film as a quintessential test case, for in A Star Is Born she is for the first time playing a singer, not a stage comedienne like Fanny Brice with song in her repertoire, and is personally responsible, as the end titles inform us, for the ‘musical concepts’. She has for once isolated her voice itself as a star property, almost a palpable presence on the screen. The mammoth close-ups and meticulous framings of the musical numbers seem to be trying to visualise for us the hyperbolic intimacy of Streisand’s voice, the almost geometric mastery of her phrasing and dynamics. The songs are also recorded live, as in no other movie musical of recent decades, unmediated by that fidgety distance of sound synchronisation to which we had almost grown inured in movie musicals.
Which brings us to a word about the songs as sung. The premise of the film, Barbra Streisand as a rock star, was from the first hint of production three years ago an invitation to venom – continued now that the film has opened from, laughably, both sides of the fence. Critics who fancy themselves aficionados of rock have bitterly criticised her for refusing to budge from her tested strengths as a singer (‘This simply isn’t rock music’), while the enemies of rock culture hear her degrading her gifts (‘wrecking her image, talent, and femininity’ by ‘trying to sound like those screaming banshees of ten years ago’). All we need to believe to make the movie credible is that, singing as she does in it, she would captivate today’s new musical public. And the fact is that Streisand did spellbind even the anxious, hostile, hard-rock audience before which the location filming for A Star Is Born was done.
In this movie she has worked closely with her songwriters to achieve a blend of raw energy and vocal finesse which are only her traditional strengths in a more hard-driving concentration. Barbra Streisand began to make her stamp on cabaret singing in the limbo years just before the Beatles’ transformation of popular music, before Grace Slick or Aretha Franklin or Laura Nyro, all of whom have influenced her recent albums.
To play a star emerging over a decade later than she did herself, she has not confected an untenable style, as some would have it, but has reimagined her talent the way it would be deployed if she were new to the musical public today. Esther’s material is not only authentically current, by some of the most important writers now working in the field (Paul Williams, Leon Russell, et al.), but it speaks for Streisand’s personality as never before.
This is scarcely guaranteed to please everyone. It must be said that Streisand’s parthenogenesis as a cult figure a decade and a half before the birth of Esther Hoffman in A Star Is Born ensured – largely, one guesses, because of the peculiarly aggressive grain of her emerging talent – the kind of ardent disfavour into which she almost instantly fell with the hordes of anti-fans.
Garbo too had her detractors, Garland her legions of them. It is the price this kind of female star pays for her oddity, her excess, and her autocratic insistence on both. The Streisand critics, however, have never been so virulent as in their reaction to A Star Is Born, where her stardom is not only flamboyantly at stake, once more, but thematically at issue.
There have been other movies simultaneously by and about stars, of course, most obviously Garland’s 1954 A Star Is Born, directed by George Cukor, as well as two earlier versions of the same story, William Wellman’s in 1937 and Cukor’s 1932 What Price Hollywood ? – other movies directly about the surrender of self to its own celebrity, the erosions of privacy, the deprivations of fame.
Sadly, there is always something held back about them, a debilitating reticence just where they might cut loose and cut deep, laying bare the fortified and beleaguered ego that performing must erect. Streisand’s film is no different in kind, only in the kinetic tension it generates by the special prominence of her vocal artistry as a function of the rift between self and fame, artist and public phenomenon.
Though half of Streisand’s ten films in almost as many years have been musicals, A Star Is Born is her first considered departure from the expectations of the genre. She has repeatedly used song to escape from the creaking mediocrities of the script into some kind of self-definition, however aggrandising, as in ‘I’m the Greatest Star’ from her 1968 screen debut in Funny Girl. Yet the singing until now seemed never quite as important as the self-assertion; musical numbers were soliloquies that happened to be sung. In A Star Is Born they are, suddenly, arias.
The most successful movie musical in recent years, Cabaret, where all the numbers grew organically from the theatrical locale, used song and dance in ironic juxtaposition to the lives that surrounded and peopled the stage. In A Star Is Born, however, music wants to become the primary dramatic material. It neither orchestrates nor punctuates the key scenes, but rather composes them, or tries valiantly to, with the expressive density of a contemporary pop opera, where the love scenes and even the death scene are in music, not merely accompanied or counterpointed by it. This movie does not merely come alive when Streisand sings; it is about coming alive ‘in song, about lives lived, linked and ended in a lyric.’
When the movie is merely talking, however, the trouble with its formula narrative of male star on the skids and female star in the ascendant is that it becomes far more his story than hers. Even in the case of Streisand’s Esther and Kris Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard there is no way to redress the emotional imbalance, and Streisand is left the often thankless dramatic task of playing tragic foil to the doomed hero.
Inhabiting his role with a worn but magnetic distraction, Kristofferson stays consistently gripping as the rock star on the way out and down, while her young singer is much too gently on the make. The pitfall in the woman’s role, so conceived, is that it is one long soft spot in the script, anguished without being troubled, a study in suffering without neurosis. Precisely where we might have expected Streisand of all actresses to fuel this with the driving ego and obsessive competitiveness that instinct tells us, and publicity confirms, explain and complicate her stardom, her confessional energy goes inexplicably slack. So this film of such thinly veiled, widely vaunted autobiography runs aground in her half of the script upon too much gooey coy banter and matriarchal tenderness.
Partly the fault lies with the dialogue credited to John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion and Frank Pierson, the film’s director, which is never as funny, for one thing, as a Streisand performance needs for lift off. Discounting his and his wife Joan Didion’s contribution to the final product, Dunne has said that ‘the beads are ours, but not the necklace.’ Pearls they aren’t, with too many flippant and cuddly exchanges like ‘I told you not to call me cute’, ‘You’re cute, you’re cute, you’re cute.’ Gone for the most part from Esther’s spoken lines is the self-mocking, self-distancing humour that gives the characteristic depth and doubleness to a Streisand heroine, only to surface here in Esther’s lyrics. Yet the weakness of the dramatic stretches in A Star Is Born is also some failure of nerve or massive miscalculation on Streisand’s part as executive producer, overseer, and director by proxy. Her assiduous (some would say greedy) share of responsibility for the filming, at every stage from photographic set-ups to final edit, is variously described (depending on how the rumours are running) as anything from apprentice curiosity to an egomaniacal stranglehold on the production.
Certainly she has gone some distance toward enrolling herself as the latest candidate in the small star-as-auteur category of American cinema, with Jerry Lewis perhaps the last unqualified example and Orson Welles in Citizen Kane the most instructive precedent. Kane is great where A Star Is Born at its best merely engrosses, partly because the charismatic might and bravado that galvanised the earlier production of that megalomaniac’s film biography were installed at the centre of its thematic interest in the person and performance of Orson Welles.
Streisand would not, or her scenarists for some reason could not, unharness her ego or her will so candidly. The exception in A Star Is Born can only be felt to prove the rule. When Esther wields the sheer power over her manager that we know Streisand must have commanded in order to make the film in the first place, urging him to listen to John Norman’s new songs and withering him with the icy precision of a single line, it is her finest scene outside of a lyric in the film, and a hint of what might have been.
While too much of the script is flimsy and limp, A Star Is Born can for the most part be counted upon to go taut in its musical numbers. They graph their own subplot and emotional trajectory, first divided up between two stage numbers each by Kristofferson and Streisand in that order, then converging in two private love duets (‘Lost Inside of You’, his words to her piano, and ‘Evergreen’) and from that point leaving her alone on stage.
Her first number as an aspiring singer in an out of the way club is an aggressive, sometimes clever history of strong women from Nefertiti and Cleopatra through Elizabeth I, a song called ‘Queen Bee’. It is followed in the same set, while John Norman is all the while drunkenly interrupting, by another feminist number called ‘Everything’ about a woman who wants not much, but more, including the White House.
Streisand and her songwriters have obviously worked hard to make her film a theatre of war in what she recently called ‘the unconscious psychological battle between men and women.’ This is true even of those faltering, half thought out moments of intimacy between the lovers, as when, in a bizarre bathtub scene, Streisand is seen mysteriously applying glittery make-up to Kristofferson’s face. Feminism is even more overt, though far less discussed, in A Star Is Born than in her hedging, ambivalent Up the Sandbox (1972), and it seems a natural progression from the strong roles to which Streisand has always gravitated, often with an edge of androgyny.
There has always been a strain of tough-willed independence in Streisand’s recorded material, ever since her ironic, accusatory ‘Cry Me a River’ or the fiery defiance of ‘Never Will I Marry’. Until her new film, the screen number that best caught the gaiety of her aggressive side, in an otherwise witlessly overdressed movie, was when she flung her feather boa around Walter Matthau’s neck in Hello Dolly (1969), grabbed his top hat and cane, and in parodic drag spat out the blistering ‘So Long Dearie’.
Male and female are not the only psychic alternatives that can cohabit within a Streisand role, though the androgyny, as with her men’s suits in Funny Lady and A Star Is Born (after Garland’s in the 1954 version), serves to exaggerate into clarity that doubleness which lies at the heart of her versatility and her appeal. From the first, even on records, her genius has shown itself in a skittish, schizoid mix of tough and tender, abrasive and softly yielding, a manic vacillation between hauteur and kittenish need, between solipsism and dependence.
Streisand pushes to the point of relentless self-irony that emotional tension which characterises the two great American actresses she most resembles, Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo. Hepburn’s alternating current between shyness and self-assertion made her transvestite performance in Sylvia Scarlett almost a paradigm of her screen personality; and for Garbo, whose aura of cultivated glamour Streisand deliberately approximates, duality became an habitual strategy in her film roles.
Streisand’s freshest screen acting to date remains her reformed prostitute in The Owl and the Pussycat (1970), perhaps because the archetypal paradox of the ‘whore with a heart of gold’ released most compellingly the tensions in her screen presence between domineering confidence and vulnerable naivete. It is just this kind of role to which Garbo was drawn again and again, most notably in Anna Christie, Susan Lennox, Her Fall and Rise and Camille.
The divided mentality of the Garbo heroine could take even more curious forms. After an uneasy flirtation with doppelganger psychology in Pirandello’s As You Desire Me (1932), she next took the lead in the feminist tragedy Queen Christina (1933), not only playing the resolutely unwed queen of Sweden but at one point impersonating a young nobleman. In Ninotchka she divided her screen time between the severe Russian agent and the romantic heroine into which love transformed her, a virtual dual role, and in her next and last movie, Two-Faced Woman, she played a strait-laced woman masquerading as her own uninhibited sister, a selfdevised alter ego.
Such an explicit role-within-a-role, the self as its own imposture, a manipulation of masks, typifies not only Garbo, with her list of sexually riven or otherwise duplicit characterisations, but that whole tradition of female screen acting which Streisand so instinctively continues past the heyday of the star system. Acting becomes a metaphor for the division and projections of a self, the embodiment of alternative urges, with Streisand’s heroines repeatedly standing back from their own impulses, looking out for themselves by warily looking on.
If for no other reason, Streisand’s part in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970) was an ideal role for her, allowing the actress to play two versions of the same self centuries apart in time, and further, as the contemporary half of this reincarnated duo, to sing a duet, through trick photography, with her stronger present self, her psychic guardian angel.
More recently we see something of this divided nature in the less byzantine structure of The Way We Were (1973), where ‘style’ is examined not only as an ingredient of screen acting but as an implement of the self in its efforts at definition, sometimes an impediment. The kinky-haired Jewish radical heroine decides that she doesn’t have ‘the right style’ for her lover, so she impersonates, in Hollywood no less, the smoothly coiffured romantic fixture with which he wishes to furnish his life. It is yet another dual role for Streisand, of a sort, but the inauthentic half of her self must finally be discarded. By the end of the movie she must give up her man to get herself back, curls and all, regaining her identity in a consolidating gesture: integrity as integration.
In Streisand’s roles as a stage star, in Funny Girl, Funny Lady and now A Star Is Born, the emotional division is likely to cause stress at the boundary between the performing and the private self, between actress or singer and woman, and even on stage between male and female stereotypes. The idiosyncratic singer-actress who for years said she wanted, like Bernhardt, to play Hamlet, now sings in the ‘Everything’ number about wanting to play Othello, and in fact about that urge for a second self – ‘I’d like to have the perfect twin, one who’d go out as I came in’ – to extend and enlarge her identity. Usually one of Streisand’s selves looks askance at the other from a defensive vantage, with sarcasm asked to bridge the chasm between everyday identity and the fantasised self.
The first time the world saw Streisand’s face on camera she was staring at it too, in the famous opening of Funny Girl when she looks into a mirror and says with lowbrow archness, ‘Hello gorgeous’. The closing shot of its sequel, Funny Lady (1975), also has Fanny Brice looking into the mirror at the romantic failure of her personal self, only to have the image superimposed upon by a montage of her professional triumphs. Both these earlier films are about the failed effort to reject stage life for personal life.
From the central ‘Woman in the Moon’ number in A Star Is Born, on the other hand, the life of a performing artist emerges not simply as an alternative to private life, but as a metaphor for it in a world ‘overrun with rules’, where the oppressive injunction is always to ‘memorise your lines and move as directed.’ The idiom ‘changing that tune’ grows to an encompassing metaphor as Esther urges her audience to begin ‘learning new rhythms from the woman in the moon.’ In the world at large ‘change’ may be a ‘word for wrong’, she laments, but – and her voice soars enormously as if to make space for the metaphor of amplitude and freedom – ‘NOT IN MY SONG.’ That song, that sense of herself residing in the wider possibilities opened up by music, is for much of the film Esther’s greatest strength, and by the end all she has. Funny Girl saw this coming.
After the precarious blend of irony and congratulation in the ‘Hello gorgeous’ opener, Fanny takes her place third row centre in a deserted theatre, herself as sole audience. From the best seat in the house she stares past the proscenium at an empty stage as if it were an allegory of the unpropped barrenness of her life, as it turns out to be when the movie immediately dissolves into a two-hour biographical flashback.
When we are returned to the present, and her husband to her, only for a last goodbye, she wanders numbly on to this same stage for her big number, to the riotous reception of the theatre audience, yet at the end of this Brice signature song, ‘My Man’, there is not a sound from the house. In this last assertion of her need, Streisand as Brice moved through a purgative rite of confessional self-projection that anticipates the end of A Star Is Born, a public moment so private that applause would be a violation. At the end of her therapeutic ordeal in both films, singing in and of the isolation and solipsistic grandeur of stardom itself, she is lost in that art which alone, and only alone, can repair her desolation.
The cheers from the movie audiences that in early showings of both films greeted her last number, though there is no ovation on the soundtrack from the concert audience, merely highlight the distance between the removed artist, present in this case only through the one-way medium of film, and the spectators reached by her talent. Unlike Funny Girl, however, A Star Is Born annexes an extra dimension to the last solo which seems intended to make it almost a transcendental duet, to round out the theme of communion through music which has given the love story, at least in conception, its power and originality.
Many lines in the new film are borrowed from previous versions, yet one in particular by Esther Blodgett in the Garland remake that does not appear in Streisand’s is richly implicit in everything about her relationship with Kristofferson. ‘I somehow feel most alive when I’m singing,’ says Garland in her first conversation with Norman Maine (James Mason), and that momentary effusion seems more like the fostering idea of the latest version, which might have had Esther Hoffman saying to John Norman Howard: ‘Somehow I feel most in love when we’re singing.’ It is in the effort to bring this notion up from latency into a series of elating moments that the movie takes its real imaginative risks.
One seems to backfire with audiences, another detonates too early. We cut from the scene of first love-making to the lovers’ voices in a room in which the panning camera has not yet found them, as John Norman says, ‘Let’s do it again.’ Esther groans, ‘I’m too tired,’ and many in the audience titter so loudly that they seem to miss the intended joke that the lovers are talking not about sex but, as we see when the camera shortly catches up to them, about practising one of Esther’s songs on the guitar.
The joke is meant to jostle our expectations into line with theme, for in this movie music is an act of love. The foreplay that sent them to bed in the first place was performed at the keyboard, Esther playing a gentle, lilting melody she had composed and John Norman extemporising lyrics about the paradox of self-oblivion in love, a reciprocity that will bring meaning to his own death later: ‘You came inside my life/ Now I’m lost/ Inside of you/ Lost in the music/ And lost in your eyes.’ Esther moves her hands across the keys until his lyrics move her to passion, and as she reaches for him the same piano melody, unaccompanied by the lush strains of standard romantic scoring, is continued even though her own fingers are at his face. This is the non–comic idea that always backfires with some of the audience, who snicker at the supposedly ludicrous liberty – as if we were not intended to realise that she is no longer playing. The scene is too blatantly illogical for accident, and is clearly meant to suggest what is later borne out: that music between these lovers is touch.
And can touch us. Their harmony is enacted here in this shared moment of composition and emotional composure, as it is again in their duet in the recording studio, to the other ballad for which Streisand wrote the music, ‘Evergreen’. This second and last moment of musical union is a psychic island flanked by the pressures of the public lives each of them must lead, and the number is edited into and out of with devastating accuracy.
Pieces of this film, as well as their piecing together, are cinematically articulate in a way difficult to detect in any of Streisand’s earlier nine movies, none of which could be said to have had a consistent visual style. Yet for once director, cinematographer and editor (Streisand herself being responsible for the final cut) have combined to give the film a clean momentum and pervasive hard-edged sheen, a kind of rarefied naturalism that at its spare best can elegantly argue a mood.
Especially in the electrified abstract opening and in the concert sequences throughout, Robert Surtees has captured, through his craftily matched and muted colour cinematography, the weight and press of the volatile rock audience, as well as that thin line between exhilaration and panic on and back stage.
The non-musical soundtrack is recorded with an Altman-influenced density of sound, at times muffled and heavyhanded, that tries at the expense of some crucial dialogue to complement the heightened photographic realism.
The lighting is more successful, because its effort is to accentuate rather than to homogenise. On stage, spotting and backlighting and colour changes suggest a variety of synesthesia in which the look of a song takes fire from its own dynamic charge.
At its most meticulous, too, the movie is edited, within and between scenes, to catch the disorienting surge and psychic voltage of the concert world, its race and disarray. As we were about to see in the central section surrounding the ‘Evergreen’ duet, scene can also follow scene, and unfold from the inside, with the implacable pace of a fate.
Esther has just told John Norman’s manager, ‘I am good for him, you know,’ alluding to his new sobriety and high spirits, and the manager has replied, ‘But he ain’t working, Esther. This is rock-n-roll, you know.’ The ominous note thus sounded, the love duet becomes its momentary but shadowed reprieve, followed immediately by a jump cut to the rock benefit where John Norman interrupts his own moribund act to bring Esther, unprepared and unwarned, into the limelight.
Pressed in upon from both sides by the onus of their public lives, the ‘Evergreen’ number has a special impact, and it may be the most mercurial and ecstatic love scene on film since Garbo’s fabled neck went back to the caresses of Robert Taylor in Camille, and one of the most unabashedly sensual. The lovers gaze mesmerised at each other as she carries the melody and he joins her tentatively along the way. Kristofferson is to date Streisand’s most exciting leading man, and some of the best dramatic scenes are in fact his. He not only brings his rough-hewn hypnotic charm to the duet, but he gives himself over to it with real emotional abandon. Few male stars have allowed themselves to be so grandly giddy on camera.
Glenn Gould has noted a Puccini-like bravura in Streisand’s early standard, ‘He Touched Me’, but here, as never before in her musicals, she makes true operatic contact with her partner, however vocally hesitant his half of the duet. Streisand has sung with men before on screen, but this is the first time she has been joined to one in song, by song. It is the least static of all her big romantic numbers, and it shows what singing on film can be.
As the camera wheels languorously back and forth in a semi-circular arc around the recording booth, we at times see only his face, not hers, the recipient at the height of his wonder and gratitude; we see, that is, her gift visualised as a grace bestowed. As recording artists Hoffman and Howard this is their one mutual moment in the film, the one instance of professional parity, and the seamless flowing camerawork confirms this harmony.
We at once jump to the public arena in which shots of John Norman in the wings are intercut with those of Esther on stage, a disjunction he, at least, knew had to come. Not only this intercutting, but camera placement and movement italicise the metamorphosis of the star in this sequence. Her first big song, ‘The Woman in the Moon’, is edited in close-up with a compelling inner logic of its own, but when Esther returns to the stage for her second number she is suddenly dwarfed amid the cheering crowd by a lightning-fast reverse zoom that plummets the driving intimacies of the first solo into the theatrical cavern of the performing self, at once the personal triumph and the personal diminishment of stardom. Yet the second song she sings now, as if to complement the feminist manifesto of ‘The Woman in the Moon’, is the jubilant ‘I Believe in Love’. And in the next scene – Streisand tells in interviews how she fought for the shape of this sequence – she proposes marriage to her man wearing the man’s suit in which she has just won the heart of the crowd.
The marriage comes off, with a feminist dismissal of ‘the honour and obey part’, but it doesn’t work out, and neither does much of the dialogue from here on. But what the songs showed us Esther and John Norman had together is more than enough to make us feel its tragic slippage and the grief of its loss, and to make us understand that loss, and its transcendence, in terms of music. Esther wants desperately for them to go on tour together, yet everyone but Esther knows that John’s public participation in her career can only endanger it. When he interrupts a photographic session to tell Esther that he can’t do the tour, her look of perplexity and hurt is captured with congratulations by the photographer, life fed upon and converted into a publicity still.
It is one of many enlarged photos of her that surround her husband at the recording studio in the very next scene – again the film’s treacherously apt editing – as he hears that his band has gone on to new success without him. The partnership is over, indeed every collaboration for the faded star, and the marital duet is doomed. John Norman Howard has nowhere else to turn professionally, and the next and last time we see him trying to make any contact with his talent is the bleakly moving scene where his efforts to write a quiet love song, ‘With One More Look At You’ (based on the exit lines of the two previous Norman Maines in earlier versions of A Star Is Born), are interrupted by telephone calls for his famous wife.
Too soon he will be taking, silently, that one more look and driving to his death in a red Ferrari that has been carefully set up as a personification of Esther. When first sitting in his black Cadillac limousine, she joked that it was the kind of car people get buried in, asking him in a later scene, ‘Where’s the hearse?’ Instead he shows her his Ferrari, licence plate ‘WANTED’, which he says ‘reminds me of you… fast, but not my lady.’ It becomes a death car, if not quite a hearse, and as he pushes the speedometer to 160 m.p.h., going (in the words of his greatest hit) ‘faster and farther than I’ve ever gone,’ he is listening on a cassette tape to her voice.
Looking back repeatedly in the rear-view mirror on a love he cannot help but flee for its own good, he first plugs in a tape of his hit song, ‘Watch Closely Now’, and just after the ironic lines ‘Are you a figment of my imagination/ Or am I one of yours?’ he switches to a tape marked ‘Esther’ and becomes a figment of her own vocal imagination and mastery, ‘lost in the music’, as the song sings, and driving over the fatal hill into invisibility as the last lingering strains of ‘now I’m lost inside of you’ die out with deadly timing. He gave her those words, and she in her greater artistry gives them back to him in a displaced Liebestod, her last lyric attenuated sweetly into his oblivion.
In the Garland version, Norman Maine was delighted to have ‘the original belter’ in the flesh, and on his honeymoon turned off her hit song on the motel radio to have her sing it in person. As he walked to his death in the ocean after taking the obligatory last look, Garland was singing quietly in the kitchen.
The idea of the hero’s suicide softened by the voice of the heroine is therefore not new, but its reciprocity is, for Streisand’s Esther is allowed to work through her loss in song. After her husband’s death she is shaken from her silent grief by hearing the tape he made while trying out the lyrics of ‘With One More Look At You’, turned on accidentally by a workman in their mansion, and she thinks for a touching few moments, if rather too many, that he may somehow be alive. Which of course he is, in his song to her.
She listens to the tape in tears and baffled rage, arguing back at his recorded voice, calling him a ‘liar’ for the cheating optimism of the lyrics. Yet she goes on, in the next and climactic scene, to debut this song for him, and to blend it in medley with his hit song ‘Watch Closely Now’. She dresses for this memorial concert not in black but in white, and again in a man’s suit, her performance being both in her husband’s honour and in his stead, begun standing stock still and ended in a Jagger-like wild fury, purging her rage.
The star must be reborn if she is to ‘go on’ in either sense, and this she manages by reincarnating her lover in his own music. It is her half, in person now, of the Liebestod, with an elegiac urgency meant to transfigure the love-death into hope for continuance, however impersonal. ‘Star’ itself becomes a resurrected metaphor, not a dead one, when she promises, ‘I’ll have the constellations paint your portrait too.’ It is without doubt a spectacular performance of the self as performing spectacle, the stronger half of Streisand’s recurrently divided screen nature.
It is unfortunately the other half of that self, whose offstage psychology the dialogue should have intrigued us with, which has been so wispily realised that it cannot bear the weight of that awesome but flawed last scene, the most immediate sadness of which is that nothing Streisand can muster will quite activate its tragedy. To take the full measure of the scene, however, must be to estimate intention rather than impact, to sense a structural motive behind the claustrophobic extravaganza.
The all but hysterical ego-projection of this last number is not just Streisand as star giving herself over to us as she has always wished to do, but an act of self-preservation and sanity on the part of the star she is playing. The camera holds her tear-stained face in locked caress, struck immobile for the seven unalleviated minutes of these two dovetailed songs, as Esther delivers herself from quiet anguish into an orgiastic invocation beyond the grave.
The problem is not that this scene plays for a misjudged two or three minutes too long, or that the camera keeps needlessly glued to Streisand’s favoured left side, too fixated perhaps to be transfixing. The problem is that for Esther it is the apotheosis of a character who has not earned it, and who cannot repay our attention to it.
The deepest flaws of the movie run right down its middle to this last scene like a geological fault, a cleft dividing character from singer, dialogue from song. The screenwriters’ idea of the hero’s laconic cynicism serves Kristofferson well, but the script gives Streisand as Esther too little to say for herself, too lightly. We know the dignity she is giving back to her husband in his absence, but not what fears of her own her song sublimates, what demons of remorse or self-doubt it must arrest and wrestle down, what strengths other than vocal it draws upon.
Streisand knew better than this. She knew by instinct what was missing from the other versions of A Star Is Born, both in their statements about female suffering and in their emotional architecture. She knew that her film should end in an act of art, not just of fortitude, in a gesture that turns strength itself into art, art into strength. Yet she knew how to lay a foundation for this only in the music, not the dialogue, and the last of the songs, with all her talent going for it, needs to have more going into it.
Taken as an abstract emotional pattern, the musical segments of the picture gather to a satisfying shape, from interrupted solos through duets to a recorded song at the moment of suicidal escape, then another taped song mistaken for a resurrection, and on to the final solo, the star lost in solitude, reaching out. In an earlier scene, rehearsing for a television special reminiscent of Streisand’s own Emmy-winning experiments in the middle 60s, she is put through the silly footwork of a production number that is so over-choreographed as to prevent her from singing ‘The Woman in the Moon’ with its proper deliberation and emphasis. ‘Memorise your lines and move as directed,’ she is in effect being told, but she pleads against a required descent down underlit steps with: ‘It comes at a very important part of my lyric. Why can’t I just stand there and sing ?’
She gets her chance to do just this at the end of the film; it may be bravura in a vacuum, but it is a vacuum not unlike that at the end of Funny Girl, planned to be ravishing. Again the performer’s effort grows to such privacy that it banishes the fiction of an audience and closes unapplauded upon silence, followed behind the credits and the long-held last image of the star by a reprise of ‘Evergreen’, with its faith in love’s perennial bloom. Esther’s head is flung back on the last pounding beat of ‘Are you watching me now?’ and the atemporal punch of the freeze frame, which so many recent commentators have noted in other films as a visual metaphor for death and the stoppage of time, is here clearly meant as a flight from time into the thrilling fixity of art.
Perhaps it is merely the last brave failure in this passionately executed instance of popular art, a movie pushing and presumptuous in the way all original art must be, a movie by turns splendid and empty. Pitted against the timidities of the script, the musical numbers of A Star Is Born, the best of them, still have the nerve and invention of a great film experience.
But we have a right as re/viewers to ask for more, and Streisand has it in her. Pauline Kael’s polemical essay on Streisand as an endangered species of actress-singer was called, in an allusion to the words of her title song in Hello Dolly, ‘Keep Going’, and when Streisand sings to us in ‘The Woman in the Moon’ to ‘Keep on pushing’, we should even now want to say the same to her. With a script that would finally let her acting sing, there is no telling what wonders her singing might enact.
On record, her last medley in A Star Is Born is an incandescent tour de force, at once nuanced and huge. On camera, and with too little characterisation behind and within it, the number must seem to many strangely depleted, even preening. But it knows what it is after, if not yet quite how to get there, and its high intent is the essence of Barbra Streisand’s as yet only fractionally tapped promise as a creative artist.
Sight and Sound June 2022
In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.Find out more and get a copy