The film industry’s relationship to male country music superstars has been — and will likely always be — an essential piece of both film and country music’s ability always to revive or diversify revenue streams. In the case of Kris Kristofferson’s star turn as a countrified rocker, John Norman Howard — alongside Barbra Streisand — in epic remake A Star Is Born, it’s a prime example of both previously mentioned notions at work. It’s also a clear place to note the modernization of how male country stars and pop culture branding continue to provide lucrative intersections for country music and the silver screen.
In the early 1970s, the then six-decade-old film industry — like America at the time — was in a financial crisis. Unable to repay financiers, film studios like MGM began selling off land, furniture, clothing (Judy Garland’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz, notably) and sets acquired over years of production. In how this relates to country music, consider that after a decade of making nearly 30, highly formulaic — and intensely critically disliked (one such critic, Andrew Caine, refers to them “as a pantheon of bad taste”) — musical comedies, Elvis Presley returned full-time to music by 1968. As well, country stars with film roots like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were past the age of 60 at the time. The idea that the film industry could turn to pop-singing or western-shirted cowboy analogs to assist them was not likely to work. A new breed of consumers interested in being socially progressive was present at the box office. They were likely not very much into anything remotely connected to country or rock and roll’s roots.
By 1974, the film industry — on the backs of action films featuring once-Hollywood-marginalized African-American actors, highly-stylized horror films, and big-budget disaster dramas — was beginning to revive itself. Pop superstar and well-regarded actress Barbra Streisand entered the fray, wanting to remake the 1937 film A Star Is Born. To play the role of the male lead, down on his luck rock star John Norman Howard, she wanted the previously mentioned Elvis Presley for the role. It’d been five years since the demise of his middling acting career, and he was interested in taking the part. However, because the role would involve a rock star having a show business career in decline, The King’s manager Colonel Tom Parker turned down the role. This moment is critical in the evolution of the archetype that evolved into modern male country stars and their relationship to the biggest of screens.
Simultaneous to the film industry reviving itself, Kris Kristofferson, in 1974, was emerging as both a country music and film superstar. Four years prior, he’d penned both Johnny Cash’s Country Music Association Song of the Year winner “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” plus Janis Joplin’s final hit “Me And Bobby McGee.” Furthermore, 1973 saw him release two No. 1 country albums. Foremost, with his then-wife Rita Coolidge, he topped the charts with a collaborative album, Full Moon. Moreover, he released the solo album Jesus Was a Capricorn, which included the hit single “Why Me.”
As far as films, Kristofferson eventually superseded Elvis, Neil Diamond, and Marlon Brando in taking the role as John Norman Howard for A Star Is Born. It marked his tenth acting appearance. In a 1975 interview with Roger Ebert, the level of seriousness with which he was starting to take his craft — and as well, the level of role possible for country music’s male stars — is noted when he says, “I never thought of acting as a creative process. I thought anybody could do it. Then I tried it and I got so uptight, I’m limited as to what I can do on film. If I can suck myself into a scene, I’m okay. If I had to go on stage and raise my voice, I’d notice my voice was raised, and then I’d get to where I was thinking about that, and, man, it’d all be over…,” he tells the legendary film reviewer.
Kristofferson’s ability to method act his performance as a star on the decline was praised by Variety Magazine as him “realizing his promise” as an actor. Moreover, it aided in keying the film earning — adjusted for inflation — nearly $400 million at the box office, making it one of the top 50 revenue-earning films of the 1970s. Ultimately, this success also realized the promise borne by singing cowboys and carried forth by Elvis of country musicians as film superstars. To wit, in 1977, Kristofferson won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, plus A Star is Born won as the Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy.
From 1976 to the modern-day, every significant male country music star has been able to — in borrowing something of the performance, swagger, or style exhibited by Kris Kristofferson in A Star is Born — seamlessly transition from stage to screen. Notably, Kenny Rogers as Brady Hawkes in 1980’s The Gambler, George Strait as Dusty Chandler in Pure Country in 1992, Garth Brooks’ late 90s’ works as alter-ego Chris Gaines, and Tim McGraw’s forthcoming work on Paramout+ program Yellowstone spinoff 1883 all owe some debt of gratitude to Kristofferson’s now 45-year-old starring role.
Now retired, Kris Kristofferson had a five-decade long motion picture acting career that saw him make over 100 appearances. Intriguingly, his best-regarded were those that fell into the category of grizzled, country-to-rock defined, or inspired characters. Regarding the success of the standard he set — and why other stars have been able to follow it so well — he says in a 2009 interview comes from a certain “aw shucks” authenticity baked into people connecting with stars’ most honest selves: “I was never worried about whether I was like the other people or not. I’ve never felt any pressure to be as good as [anyone else]. I used to just stand up there, amazed to be on stage with them. I have no idea why I didn’t doubt whether I could do it, but [obviously] it’s all worked out.”