Maybe the best place to begin with A Star Is Born is the hair. Okay — now, how to put this nicely? Her frizzy perm is a freakin’ train wreck. It looks like Vidal Sassoon and Medusa had a love child and that child proceeded to puke on her head. I know, we’re talking about the late ’70s here. And to damn a person’s fashion sense just before the Carter years is like blaming the victim. But somehow we expect — no, demand — more from Barbra Streisand. That’s always been part of the deal.
Plus, Streisand’s tonsorial nebula is about more than just hair. It’s a crash course in semiotics — an urgent shorthand to the audience signaling that her character, Esther Hoffman, is spontaneous, fun, crazy. Kind of like Rhoda Morgenstern and her scarves. As for Streisand’s costar, Kris Kristofferson, his shaggy, mountain-man mane is pure Me Decade machismo. One look at him, and you can tell he’s gruff, he’s sensitive, and he owns Gordon Lightfoot records. If only as much thought went into the rest of A Star Is Born.
Of course, the most famous take on this rising-star/falling-star love story is the 1954 Judy Garland-James Mason classic. And updating Star for the age of Laurel Canyon highs and hangovers was an interesting idea. Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard is a burned-out rock star fond of shirts unbuttoned to his navel and self-destruction. That is, until one night he drunkenly stumbles into a dive bar where Streisand’s struggling Esther is singing. He falls for her, they shack up, he fast-tracks her career, and her fame is soon eclipsing his. He’s left guzzling Schlitz and feeling sorry for himself. She’s too busy changing outfits to notice.
The script by director Frank Pierson and husband-and-wife team John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion is pure hooey. It makes Bette Midler’s The Rose look downright subtle. If it felt dated in 1976, you can imagine how well it plays 30 years later. Especially Streisand and Kristofferson’s romantic candlelit bubble bath, which is so embarrassingly icky they actually seem to emerge from the tub dirtier than when they went in.
And yet, over the years, as Streisand has become our Blue State Baby Boomer Goddess, Star has gained a straight-faced cult appeal. Why? I’m guessing the fashions (which Streisand fetishistically details on the DVD extras) and the Bicentennial-era soft rock. In the film’s most famous scene, the couple record a duet of ”Evergreen,” caressing and groping each other as they coo into the mic. Surely, there are some people who still swoon to the soft-core pantomiming of this K-tel classic, but it only made me want some penicillin. And I’m allergic to penicillin.