A Star Is Born is about the rise of a new talent, played by a star who becomes synonymous with the film. Actors like Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and Lady Gaga have all held the coveted role. But the rise can’t come with the fall of the older half of the couple, which in the latest iteration of the A Star Is Born films is Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper. Although the character was initially based on an actor with a waning career, the 2018 reimagining made Jackson Maine a singer; the film is about Jackson Maine’s death as Gaga’s Ally Maine rises to fame. But some fans were a little perplexed by Cooper’s character. He’s such a plausible country-rock star, some wondered whether Jackson Maine’s story was based on a real person. I mean, A Star is Born practically feels like a biopic.
The original 1937
A Star is Born movie was apparently inspired by a true story of the rise of a Hollywood starlet that coincided with the collapse of her (much older) husband's career. But that character, here called Jackson Maine, was not based on a real, specific person. In the 2018 version (which is the fourth iteration of the story), "Jackson Maine" is merely an updated version of an archetype that's lasted nearly a century.
But this doesn't mean Cooper didn't base his characterization on a real rock god. Speaking to Yahoo in September 2018, Cooper revealed his take on the character was
an amalgamation of many rock and roll inspirations. He relied heavily on Pearl Jam frontman and ‘90s-era rock god Eddie Vedder to help create the details. "I went up to Seattle and spent four or five days with him, and I asked him 9,000 questions," Cooper admitted. "And he gave me minor, little things that only musicians know about what to do, just aesthetically and the inner workings."
So, where did the character of Jackson Maine originate and how much of him is based on reality? Let's dive into the history of the films.
The Original Character Was Norman Maine
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Before the 1970s, the story of
A Star Is Born wasn’t set in the world of rock and roll. Instead, it was a story about Hollywood actors who faded away as the next generation took over. The initial version is referred to as a "timeless" story, but the film was a product of its era. The “aging star with a substance use disorder” was named Norman Maine, a former vaudeville performer whose transfer from stage to screen hit the rocks due to his substance use disorder. Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, was originally a farm girl named “Esther,” who, via Norman’s connections, became a movie darling under her new name, "Vicki Lester." 02
The Story Of
A Star Is Born Is Apparently Based On Real People
It was heavily rumored (
and still is) that the inspiration for the initial story of A Star Is Born was based in real-life Hollywood. "Esther" was supposedly based on the career of a significant actor of the era, Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck initially began her career as a chorus girl on Broadway before hitting it big as the lead in a 1920s-era musical called Burlesque. During her critically acclaimed run, she met vaudeville performer Frank Fay, who became her first husband. The two moved out to Hollywood when the show closed the following year.
Fay was considered a pioneer in stand-up comedy and was a great vaudeville performer. His move was part of a mass migration of talent being lured from the theater with promises of new fame and fortune on the big screen. Fresh off her Broadway run, Stanwyck immediately found work and began climbing the ladder to major stardom.
But Fay was not so lucky. His act (and his fame) came from routines that relied on risque humor and sex-driven comedies. Unfortunately, only a few years after he arrived, Hollywood adopted a new set of "moral guidelines" for motion pictures. Known as the
Hays Code, it lasted from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s. Fay's onscreen career came to a screeching halt. He died in 1961, barely having worked since the outbreak of World War II. 03
But Is Jackson Maine Really An Updated Frank Fay?
A Star Is Born arrived in theaters in 1937, which coincided with the peak of Stanwyck’s career. She was nominated for her first Academy Award for Best Actress in that same year. Fay and Stanwyck’s divorce, which happened in 1935, had been national celebrity news. It was a natural connection in the minds of critics and viewers. Stella Dallas
But the truth is, Stanwyck was already on the up and up when she met Fay. Hollywood would have come calling for her with or without his connections. Moreover, Fay wasn’t already on the way down when he married Stanwyck either — his career collapse only came after the Hayes Code was implemented, by which time their marriage was already in shambles.
A Star Is Born Character Has Gone Through Significant Changes
So how did Jackson Maine go from actor to musician? Blame the 1954 remake, which cast Judy Garland, whose career desperately needed a boost at the time. Her character, Esther (who was once again rechristened "Vicki" as part of her makeover), couldn't, therefore, just be an actor. If you're casting Garland, she has to sing.
That meant changing both characters to fit the needs of Garland. Actor James Mason still played Norman Maine. But this time, he was no longer a former vaudevillian but an aging matinee idol from the 1930s and '40s, who sings as well as acts. The result turned the film into a musical, with famous composer Ira Gershwin writing the songs.
The 1954 remake was a smash. Ironically, it was the comeback Garland needed at the right time, as a starlet on the rise. The movie became
one of her most enduring hits, alongside The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me In St. Louis. It became so popular, it eclipsed the original film from the 1930s, imprinting the story as a musical on the public mind forever after. 05
By the 1970s, The Name “Norman” Was Dated
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When Barbara Streisand got her hands on the rights to
A Star is Born, she was determined to remake the film for herself. Although she had a long career on Broadway and film to pull from, she didn’t want her version to be too close to the Garland classic. So, instead of a Broadway musical-type film, Streisand reconceived the story with a new genre, rock and roll, which had risen to mainstream prominence in the intervening years between movie remakes.
Moreover, Streisand made it the rock and roll of the time, with a singer-songwriter starlet in the vein of 1970s acts like Carly Simon, while her aging rocker husband was of the hippie 1960s era of sex and drugs.
Kris Kristofferson, who was known at the time for his 1960s era music career, to join her as her co-star, lending credence to the “roll and roll” spin on the tale. His character was renamed “John Norman Howard,” a nod to the original character while giving him a more timeless first name. Notably, Streisand remained Esther, but, in this version, did not change her name to Vicki. That detail was in keeping with the move away from Hollywood and the now-dated practice of renaming Jewish starlets to be more culturally mainstream. 06
The Character Could Have Changed Even More For A Never-Made Iteration Of The Film
It may seem odd that
A Star Is Born was remade every 20 years, and then from 1976 to 2018, there was a 40-ish-year jump. That’s because there was almost a 1990s version. In the wake of The Bodyguard, the plan was for Whitney Houston to star in a remake, with Denzel Washington as her aging Motown-and-gospel singing husband. The early scripts would have played into Houston’s own rise to fame via the church and the Houston family’s legacy as gospel singers.
Unfortunately, the project never panned out (According to an
Entertainment Weekly article published at the time, Houston’s people rejected it as having too much profanity, among other things.) Fans sadly never got to see a Black-led version of Norman and Esther. But hopefully one day soon, a new remake will come along to rectify that. 07
Jackson Maine Was Once Again Renamed For The 2018 Version
Baby names have changed drastically over the decades, and although “John” is pretty timeless, it’s also a little on the bland side. On the other hand, Jackson was right on trend for the remake; it was precisely the kind of name that’s been in fashion since the 1980s and has that country rockstar flair. It pairs well with the last name of “Maine,” too, which helps tie the character back to the original story.
Another reason the name sounds so natural: Jackson, Maine, is a real place
. Check Google Maps and you'll find it. According to CityData, it's a tiny town with a population of under 600 residents in the 04921 zip code. It's about a seven-and-a-half-hour drive from New York City or a seven-and-a-half-hour flight from Los Angeles. This appears to be a coincidence rather than a deliberate move to name the character after a place, but it does help to further ground the character of Jackson Maine in reality all the same.