Review: A Star Is Born
From the beginning, Lady Gaga’s constructed pop persona has always been that of a performer struggling with the concept of celebrity and the meaning of stardom. Singles such as “Paparazzi” and “Applause” satirically redefine the contours of the love song so it becomes about the romance between Lady Gaga and her true romantic partner: success. On her first album, even before she was officially enshrined as a superstar, she was already wailing, “We live for the fame, fame, baby / Isn’t it a shame, shame, baby?” There’s nothing inherently disingenuous about interrogating the trappings of fame while still on the ascent, but it does speak to a savvy calculation on her part, one that makes her the perfect avatar and performer for Bradley Cooper’s new iteration of A Star Is Born. This oft-told tale of what Hedwig Robinson once dubbed “the business we call show” is a skillfully executed example of a subgenre that exults in a self-excoriating stardom, that strangely pleasing kind of film in which general audiences get to vicariously thrill to and feel disgust at the destructive side of a fame most will never know. Already being pushed in pre-release interviews as a meticulous craftsman for this year-in-the-making project, director-writer-producer-singer-songwriter Cooper proves his film is, like Gaga, sculpted and calculated in its cake-and-eat-it-too masochism.
First directed in 1937 by William Wellman and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, A Star Is Born would, in its later remakes, increasingly become tied to the star personas of its leading women, in a way that almost negates common notions of auteurism. The 1954 version, when it was first adapted to a musical format, is probably remembered by most viewers less as a George Cukor than a Judy Garland movie, both by virtue of her volcanic force as singer and actor and the fact that the film—a well-timed comeback vehicle for Garland—was clearly riffing on her iconicity and still-fresh public dramas. In 1976, Barbra Streisand, at the height of her mainstream fame, took over the role, in a financially successful but largely forgettable film whose director most viewers would likely be hard-pressed to remember (it was future Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences president Frank Pierson, for the record). Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), like the earlier films concerning the rise of a female performer eclipsing the success of her self-destructive male partner, is also clearly a riff on A Star Is Born, often playing like a pastiche remake of the 1954 version, recast with Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli. Cooper’s version certainly puts its star front and center, and isn’t shy about the fact that its female protagonist, Ally, is modeled on Lady Gaga herself; yet Cooper’s need to own this film, to make his directorial control felt in every frame, is just as evident throughout and becomes its own assertion of stardom as well. The result is a sometimes exhilarating, occasionally frustrating, and always cunning Hollywood product that can feel like a battle of wills between two deliberately self-deprecating artists.
At the very least, the giddily effective first hour or so of Cooper’s A Star Is Born is a thoughtful example of how to engage an audience in the prepackaged texts of superstars while also convincing us that deep down they’re just plain folks, as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper are placed in dive bars, supermarkets, and parking lots. Cooper’s country rocker Jackson Maine is introduced via a following-from-behind shot as he ascends to an L.A. arena stage concert—the kind of image that has come to telegraph a seriousness of artistic intent (the film was shot by Matthew Libatique, who brought a similar aesthetic to otherwise goofy genre material with Black Swan). Lady Gaga’s Ally, on the other hand, we first see as a thick pair of black leather ankle boots poking out under the gap in a bathroom stall initiating a breakup over the phone before screaming, “Fucking men!” Then, after she leaves her stressful waitressing gig for the night, we see her walking down an alley singing to herself the lovely little-known verse to the achingly melancholy “Over the Rainbow,” as the title comes up over her silhouetted figure. These are savvy visual ways to set up a character who only will rise from here; meanwhile, those who know this story well will be aware that a long descent awaits seemingly top-of-the-world Jackson.
These two first come together when the perpetually half-soused Jackson, following his concert, stops in for a drink at a bar on drag night and finds himself entranced by Ally, who sports a leotard and fake, pencil-thin eyebrows and sings Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose.” Cooper’s dumbstruck expression is wholly believable: even if it can’t ascend to the heights of Garland’s narratively parallel heart-in-throat rendition of “The Man That Got Away” (but since that’s probably the most exquisitely performed song in any movie musical, what could?), Lady Gaga’s performance has an undeniable soulful charge to it. And it should: the scene was inspired by the moment that Cooper claims galvanized him to cast Lady Gaga in the role, upon seeing her perform this very song at a benefit in L.A. In these moments, Cooper seems willing to cede the floor to his star, as though reassuring her fans—specifically her queer fans—that this is the Lady Gaga they came to see, the Lady Gaga who has no time for bullshit, sings Piaf, and hangs with a well-rounded multicultural cast of drag queens (including D.J. “Shangela” Pierce and William Belli) on a Friday night. It’s reminiscent of the way Bette Midler’s already established cult fame was negotiated in Mark Rydell’s terrific The Rose (1979), which, though inspired by the life of Janis Joplin, used details from Midler’s early career to effectively queer that text. As welcome as this is in such a major studio film as A Star Is Born, it also inevitably feels like a calculated balance for a film that keeps a tentative foot in pop and its other, heavier one in the über-masculine world of country rock.
As the film continues, it becomes less preoccupied with starry-eyed Ally than the vodka-guzzling, emotionally tortured Jackson, whose alcoholism and psychologically crippling father issues (mother died in childbirth, father died when he was 13) ultimately unravel him and—in the film’s most consistently poignant thread—his relationship with his long-suffering older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott). Sporting a guttural, octave-lowered drawl that makes him sound like a cross between latter-day Jeff Bridges and Sling Blade’s Billy Bob Thornton, Cooper at times seems like a parody of an all-American boozer; when he and Elliott get into one of their recurring spats, it’s like two grizzly bears fighting over a T-bone. There’s no question that the Actors Studio–trained Cooper has given himself the part that requires the heavy lifting, and he’s swinging for the fences, sometimes quite effectively. Lady Gaga, on the other hand, is playing a naturally reactive role. Whatever conflict the film allows her is related to Jackson’s self-destruction (aside from some mild self-doubt about the size of her nose), while Ally’s backstory is relegated to a series of silly scenes with Andrew Dice Clay as her loving father, who appears to never be without a cohort of race-track-betting goombah pals. These faux-casual, “Whaddayoo tahlkin about?” hangout moments constitute only the most extreme example of the film’s attempts to signify vérité—which most often manifests as shaky-cam tracking shots and light flares—while also verifying its cool, realness credentials. This is also felt in the film’s strangest passage, which features both a cameo from Dave Chappelle, as the wise buddy who takes Jackson in for breakfast after he passes out on his lawn, and Jackson and Ally’s spur-of-the moment wedding, which you know is cool and real because it takes place in an all African-American church.
Yet, in a film so increasingly obsessed with questions around maintaining authenticity in show business, its most authentic figure remains, contradictorily, its most untouchable star. Unsurprisingly, Lady Gaga soars during the musical numbers, her profound feeling and thrilling vibrato slicing right through “Shallows,” her first arena duet with Jackson and the film’s de facto anthem. (This is the film’s best scene, as it’s when it most abandons logic and becomes a true movie musical.) But offstage, Lady Gaga offers a flat, affectless delivery that, especially in contrast to Cooper’s studied mannerisms, is quite compelling throughout, and transcends questions of being merely “de-glammed.” It’s as though the film becomes a simultaneous document of Cooper helping make the singer an actor—through direction and editing choices—which brings out the metatextual experience of Jackson encouraging Ally to become a singer. As the ascendant Ally becomes a pop star, dancing in skimpier clothes and performing songs that are clearly intended to read as vapid, she begins to assume the more traditional persona of Lady Gaga. (I thought of when Liza Minnelli finally becomes Liza Minnelli in the last scene of New York, New York by wearing tights and a loose red blouse!) In this case though, a fascinating irony emerges through this doubling: Lady Gaga begins to become Lady Gaga at the very moment that Jackson fears she’s selling out.
“People want to listen to what you have to say—musically,” Ally’s manager, Rez (Rafi Gavron), enthusiastically tells her. But since we never learn what it is that Ally wants to say, we have no recourse other than to equate her professional intentions with that of Lady Gaga’s, dissolving the line between the two. In the place of Ally’s void saunters Jackson, who also tells her, “If you don’t dig deep into your fucking soul, you won’t have legs.” At this point, Jackson is about to hit rock bottom, culminating in a scene of grotesque public humiliation at the Grammys that seems to exist only to try and one-up the devastating scene at the Oscars between Garland and James Mason in the 1954 version. Both are effective as outlandish spectacles of pain, but it’s the follow-up that counts: in the next scene of Cukor’s film, set in a dressing room in between takes on a movie shoot, Garland expresses an outpouring of torment at the irresolvable pain of loving a man with the disease of alcoholism. It’s absolutely wrenching, and simply not the kind of emotion a neophyte actor could likely access. For Garland, the desperate agony of love transforms into the desperation of song. As this update of A Star Is Born moves to its tragic end, Lady Gaga is given a big syrupy final ballad that at least has the appearance of being deeply felt. After all, that’s showbiz.
Michael Koresky is the Director of Editorial and Creative Strategy at Film Society of Lincoln Center; the co-founder and co-editor of Reverse Shot; a frequent contributor to the Criterion Collection; and the author of the book Terence Davies, published by University of Illinois Press.