A Star is Born

October 20, 2018
Jack already regrets letting Ally hold the microphone

One learns to mistrust the movie that is hyped to the skies – whether it be “critically acclaimed” or simply a “box office sensation”. The box office is the worst guide to quality because popular taste is fixated on superheroes, brain-dead action films, lame comedies and sentimental mush. As for the critics, they couldn’t stop fawning over Crazy Rich Asians because it was about, well… Asians. Nobody mentioned it was also rubbish.

So when it was announced that A Star is Born was undergoing its fourth, arguably fifth, Hollywood incarnation, I got that sinking feeling. With immediate success at the box office and rave reviews, one could only prepare for the worst.

What a pleasure it is to be surprised! A Star is Born, with Lady Gaga (real name: Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta) and Bradley Cooper in the lead roles, instills new life into one of Hollywood’s oldest and corniest stories. In the first version of this movie, made by William A. Wellman in 1937, an aspiring young actress is taken in hand by a famous male star who launches her career. They fall in love and marry with precipitous haste, but as her popularity soars, his goes down the gurgler. Jealous of her success, he drinks himself into oblivion while she remains loyal and steadfast. As one star is born another is extinguished.

Wellman actually swiped the plot from George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932), but A Star is Born has proven to be one of the most resilient titles in film history. When Cukor did his own remake in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason, the aspiring star became a singer rather than an actress. Frank Pierson repeated the dose in 1976, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kistofferson. The Garland-Mason film is widely regarded as a screen classic, but every version has been a hit. What could go wrong?

Plenty, one suspects, if Will Smith had been allowed to handle the remake, as orginally planned. Neither would it have been the same with Beyoncé and Leo DiCaprio in the lead roles. The only wistful thought is what Cllint Eastwood might have done with the film had he remained as preferred director.

Instead, Bradley Cooper has stepped up to plate as male lead, director and co-scriptwriter, in a remarkable all-round effort. It may well be that Cooper learned a few tricks from Clint when making American Sniper (2014). He brings the same mix of hyper-masculinity and brooding sensitivity to his role as singer, Jackson (Jack) Maine, as he did to his portrayal of marksman, Chris Kyle.

Belting out chords on an electric guitar, Jack is the embodiment of the country-rock hero, mixing riffs with big ballads. Neil Young might be a model, especially as his backing band plays the role of Jack’s band. But Jack’s songs have an exaggerated sincerity quite alien to Young. There’s a touch of Lynyrd Skynyrd or some other icon of redneck rock.

Cooper came to attention in slob comedies and banal romcoms, but has flourished in more demanding roles. As a director he is aware of the power of his own blue eyes, continually shooting his face in extreme close up. We see every blemish, every hair of his beard. We also see his vulnerability, and the dissociated stare of a personality that needs vast quantities of booze and pills to stay afloat.

To make this story work there has to be chemistry between the two leads, and Cooper’s pairing with Lady Gaga is a revelation. I half expected the kind of travesty we’ve seen from singers such as Madonna when they try to be actors, but Lady Gaga is another story altogether. Forget about the goofy costumes, this woman can act.

There’s an autobiographical aspect to her portrayal of Ally, who has the voice and the ambition, but has constantly been told she isn’t beautiful enough to be a star. Surely this was one of the reasons Gaga has cultivated such freakish taste in costumes and make-up. When you’re dressed up like a Christmas tree nobody notices if you’ve got a big nose.

Gaga without the disguises is perfect for this part because she isn’t a dazzling beauty, but knows how to transform herself on stage. As Ally’s career escalates, the stage persona becomes increasingly artificial. Jack, by contrast, believes that a performer has to dig deep and find those heartfelt truths. The marriage becomes a battle between artifice and authenticity, an allegory for the popular music industry. It also restages those distinctions we made as teenagers between the superficiality of pop and the hidden depths of rock.

In these days pop is firmly in the ascendency while Jack’s music retreats to the backwoods. He predicts his own demise in a song in which he croons that maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.

The early scenes in this movie are irresistible, as Jack and Ally fall for each other during the course of a long, messy night. The musical numbers are integrated into the plot and delivered with real feeling. This changes with Ally’s meteoric rise, as she allows herself to be made over and repackaged by the record company. Jack’s decline is equally rapid, perhaps a little too rapid, as his alcoholism and tinnitus send him into a self-destructive spiral.

A Star is Born is a long film but never less than engaging. If anything, it feels slightly rushed. All the rudiments of romance and tragedy are in place, but another 10 minutes might have allowed the emotional edge to cut a little deeper. The film leaves us wondering if it’s ever possible to hold on to a stable relationship in a profession built on fantasy. It may be that Jack’s need to ‘keep it real’ is his most destructive addiction.

A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
Written by Eric Roth & Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters, based on a story by William A. Wellman & Robert Carson
Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Ellliott, Ravi Gavron, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle
USA, rated M, 136 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 20 October, 2018