“Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

A STAR IS BORN – the saga


1 .   George Cukor . 1931


Hollywood’s favourite story  about Hollywood…  That’s why they keep telling it, about every 20 years or so.

It started life as a tale by Hollywood journalist Adela  Rogers St Johns (based on actress Colleen Moore and First National production chief John McCormick), filmed in typical David O Selznick style in 1932 as… What Price Hollywood?  

Constance Bennett (instead of Clara Bow) played the saucy waitress falling for polo-playing millionaire Joel McCrea (rather than Bruce Cabot) after being made into  a star by Lowell Sherman – as a dipso director, largely based on his alcoholic self and, indeed, his brother-in-law John Barrymore – and silent  film-maker Marshall Neilan.


2 . William A Wellman . 1936


Five years on, the re-make solved all  the faults of the original (credited to four writers)  by adding three more…including Dorothy Parker.

Suppopsedly, it was all William Wellman’s idea,. He worked on the scenario – then dubbed It Happened In Hollywood– with  an ex-magazine journalist Robert Carsond from  New York.

Producer David O Selznick was not interested.  His wife, Irene (daughter of MGM’s head lion, LB Mayer)  read it and changed his mind.  That is one legend.

Another, born and bred by DOS, himself,  was that it was all down to him.

“I refused to take credit on it simply as a matter of policy… The actual original idea, the story line, and the vast majority of the story ideas of the scenes themselves are my own.”  His plan was to  disprove the Hollywood theory that films about Hollywood would never succeed. Having proved the sceptics wrong with what became America’s #1 film of 1937, DOS started toying with the notion of a sequel, Budd Schulberg’s Heartbreak Town,about child actors (set for Tommy Kelly and Ann Gillis from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), not to mention a history of Film City, itself. Cavalcade on Hollywood.

Norman Maine . The writing committee combined the alcoholic actor and millionaire  lover  into the most  durable  second  banana in Hollywood history – based as before on Barrymore and Bowers (who did drown off Malibu during the  production) plus  John Gilbert, ?  Paramount production chief BP Schulberg (Budd’s father, besotted with Sylvia Sidney) and also on Mary Pickford’s first husband, Owen Moore, who had a small role in the re-make.  Fredric March had no rivals for Maine. 

Esther Blodgett/Vicky Lester . For the rising star with Cinderella touches falling for the fading star, Selznick dithered between Elizabeth Bergner,  Janet  Gaynor, Merle Oberon and Margaret Sullavan, who called it   “bizarre, elaborate  theatricalism.” Gaynor won.  Her Esther farm girl character was renamed Vicky Lester and sure enough, by 1938, there was  an actress of that name  making movies  at  RKO! In a memo as late as 1938, Selznick revealed  he tried to get the original’s director George Cukor to make the  film.  No thank you! But he made the second re-make…


3 .  George Cukor . 1953

Moss Hart loses Cary Grant, round two. The Broadway playwright scripted the next re-mould withGrant in mind.All ofhim.Every last quibble foible, bottle, complex, depression. And he’d caught him rather too correctly.

Grant would have nothing to dowith it.

Throughout December, 1952, Cary was wooed by Judy Garland’s producer husband, Sid Luft – every day at Hollywood Park races, every night over dinner at Chasen’s,Romanoff’s or at the Lufts’ home.”I was,” laughed Luft, “beginning to talk like him.”

Luft just wasn’t listening.

He thought it was all a matter of money.  Grant suggested $300,000 against 10% of the gross profits. Warner boss Jack Warner,whose budget had been under $3m, refused any profit participation and offered “a flat $450,000”- and that doubled his budget. Grant was just playing. He had already decided to retire

George Cukor took over the courtship.He had Grant read the script aloud at his pool – while the lovers, Greta Garbo and Katharine Hepburn, swam naked. The veteran director never forgot the experience… of Grant, that is.

“He was,” said Cukor, “absolutely magnificent, dramatic and vulnerable, beyond anything I’d ever seen him do. But when he finished, I was filled with great, great sadness. I knew Cary could never expose himself like that in public.”


Cukor to Grant: “This is the part you were born to play.”

Grant to Cukor: “That’s why I won’t.”


He didn’t and Cukor never forgave him.  (Three films later, in February 1953, Grant announced his retirement. But there was still “plenty of room up front” until 1966).

Luft next considered their neighbour and close pal.  Bogart talked about doing it.  “ButJack [Warner] brushed him off quickly – the contrast, facially, between this young pretty girl and this older, withered-up man was just too much….He was probably right.”

Result:  Bogie quit Warners after 20 years.

Judy lost more of her top ten choices…Guys fled for two reasons.They had no (death?) wish to be seen as (or with…) a Hollywood hasbeen. They didn’t dare work with Judy because as Bing Crosby said: “There wasn’t a thing that gal couldn’t do – except look after herself. “

Jack Warner was not enthusiastic about Laurence Olivier. Richard Burton was too busy changing the very face of the screen with CinemaScope in The Robe.

No one got a hard-on for Montgomery Clift, Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Henry Fonda, Ray Milland, Gregory Peck, Tyrone Power, Frank Sinatra, James Stewart or Robert Taylor.    Much less for Garland’s most surprising nominations, Glenn Ford and…  Stewart Granger who told Cukor where to shove the script for continually telling him how to act in his test. “I walked out. What a shame. I could’ve played the part on my head.”


Judy’s list was meaningless. Mason wasn’t even on it.

And then Luft said Yes… to Sinatra.


They had first talked about it before the famous comeback in From Here To Eternity, 1952. “Frank was a great friend of our’s, an old and close friend of Judy’s – and he wanted to do it.I thought he and Judy would be great together. But at the time, his name was poison… taboo.”

Cukor wasn’t thrilled, Warner hated the idea, only Garland and herhusband were keen about the fading Sinatra asthe fading Maine. No one even queried the notion of two fading stars searching for a comeback in the same film.

Nor the fact that Sinatra would hardly have agreed notto sing in a Garland movie, thus changing Maine into a singer… an idea that did not happpen until 1976. 

Cukor eventually went acalling on Marlon Brando while he was asking for the loan of Roman ears inJulius Caesar. “Why would you come to me?” asked Brando. “I’m in the prime of my life… If you’re looking around for some actor to play an alcoholic has-been, he’s sitting right over there”- pointing at James Mason, his bete-noir because of the way Mason’s lover (and his wife’s), the director Joseph Mankiewicz, was throwing scenes Mason’s way. Brando bawled them both out on the set. “You’re the hottest ménage à trois in town. But that’s no excuse for you to favour your fuck-boy here over me. It’s not professional.”

Mason never thanked him for one of his finest roles-merely called Brando “one of the dwellers inthe lower circles of Hell.”

William Powell refused to play the studio chief Oliver Niles – reported Daily Variety in September. Charles Bickford inherited trhe rôle. Don’t you think I’ve tried through the years to know why, to help him? I don’t know, Esther. I don’t know what the answer is.” 

With everything riding on the film, Judy Garland still acted like it was the old days at MGM – and didn’t even turn up for the first day’s shooting! Head brother Jack Warner quickly put a stop to that by hiring her pal, Harry Rubin, to make sure she got to work on time. Nothing, however, could curtail her anxiety attacks – and hitting the bottle.

The film was a miracle in every sense of the word.


4 .  Frank R. Pierson . 1976


“If I can’t playa self-destructive musician – what can I play?” said singer-actor Kris Kristofferson.

That could have been Elvis talking.

Because as far as Time magazine was concerned, his screen career was done. “His cheeks are now so plump that he looks like a kid blowing gum. Age and affluence have altered his style. His songs have about as much rock as a rocking chair and the most widely deplored pelvis in history has practically ground to a halt. The Presley phiz moves even less – it just twitches now and then, maybe to scare off flies…”

This time, Elvis  came second. The 1971 draft of the re-make was   written for “Sweet Baby James” Taylor but he’d had enough of movies after his “torturous” 1970 debut in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, 1970.

Then, during his (unsuccessful) first gig at Las Vegas in March 1975, Barbra Streisand  came a-calling with her ex-hairdresser-turned-lover-turned producer Jon Peters.  They wanted Elvis to reprise the old Fredric March/James Mason alcoholic movie star role, Norman Maine, now written  as a fading, drunken   rock star called  John Norman Howard.  E was flattered.  Of course, he was. He hadn’t made a film since 1969 and nothing great since 1958.His manager, the the omnipresent dumbass and  self-styled “Colonel” Parker  was horrified:  Mah boy playing a loser… and what the… blazes, shall we say… did a hairdresser know about producing movies. Actually, as had long been obvious,  Mickey Mouse  knew more  about producing than The Colonel did!  

In April,  First Artists –  the UA-style combine set up up by Barbra, Dustim Hoffman, Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Sidney Poitier –  offered $500,000 plus 10% from the first box-office dollar.  No, barked Parker, a  million plus $100,000 in expenses, the 50% cut… and top-billing  By the time Elvis wrapped up Vegas and gone out on tour, the idea was, as his biographer  Peter Guralnick put it, ancient history

So here was the film that could have saved  Presley’s  movie career.

Indeed,  his life…

Barbra Streisand was Esther Hoffman.  And The Boss as Frank Pierson found out. La Barb wanted her James Mason to be Elvis, Brando orNeil Diamond (!).

Or, then again,  Mick Jagger… Not often she wanted a co-star uglier than herself.

Pierson was still writing the script when…


“Brando!” yelled La Barb.

“I’ve always wanted to work with Brando.

Why does it have to be a musical?”


Co-producer Jon Peters said they met Marlon to talkabout playing John Norman Howard. “He was cute!The sonuvabitch, he wanted to screw Barbra! They’d make a great pair – Streisand and Brando.”

Not the billing to win Brando.  Or Elvis. 

Edward Asner was beaten by film-maker Paul Mazursky, to the role of Brian.Despite his TV fame from 1970, Ed never won a film for ten years” until John Travolta proved you could bring your television following into the theatre.”

Frank Pierson later wrote about the horror of working with La Barb- egocentric, manipulative and controlling. They never spoke or worked together again.

It could have all been so much easier…

When La Barb refused the first draft, Jon Peters decided his original thought was best – Cher!  

Then  again, most hot singers hadn been in the mix throughout  the 70s – such as Liza Minnelli,  Helen Reddy, Diana Ross.

If nothing  else, Che r was a more credible rock star.  She was tempted enough to start work with Kristofferson It was the standard 30s ploy: When your star leaves, hire her rival… and your intended star comes to heel. As Peters anticipated, Streisand caved. 

Pity about that…