Bradley Cooper directs himself and Lady Gaga in the fourth version of the show business perennial A Star Is Born. Despite looking, at least on the surface, like a calculated shot at Oscar recognition and glory, Cooper’s own history with substance abuse and suicidal ideation marks the familiar story with a deep personal connection. The chemistry between the leads and the full-bodied musical numbers will certainly generate some serious box office receipts if not near universal critical appreciation. With its rags-to-riches elements and behind-the-curtain peek into celebrity life, A Star Is Born is the kind of movie that will be remade for generations to come.
Cinephiles argue that George Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood? bears enough similarity to the subsequent versions of A Star Is Born to merit a spot as the unofficial debut of the irresistible recipe: take one aging male star, add a meeting with a young and talented female aspirant, and combine into a tumultuous marriage that ends in tragedy. Cooper’s take is closest in milieu to Frank Pierson’s 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, following most of the key plot pegs but consciously limiting the motif of professional jealousy and skipping the betrayal of adultery.
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Cooper plays Jackson (not Norman) Maine as the booze and pill-addicted singer/guitarist invigorated by Gaga’s working class Ally (not Esther). A terrific early sequence in which the two spend the wee hours of the morning together, just talking in a supermarket parking lot, establishes the dynamics of their instant attraction and portends the future when Ally busts out an original composition that sobers up the part of Jack that recognizes a natural songwriter. With vulnerability on display by both participants, the A Star Is Born scene pulses with a sense of fates being sealed.
Neko Case, not buying the fairy tale, has been perhaps the highest profile recording artist to troll the film before its wide release, attacking Cooper as a “beige demon who makes sure very standard white dudes get to be in everything.” Case’s extended commentary assailed what she read as the inauthenticity of musician behavior during live performances. I am not sure whether anyone mentioned that movies are inherently constructed objects dependent on the suspension of disbelief, but most viewers won’t notice the “fakery.” A more legitimate character-based concern is the extent to which Cooper’s Maine is, as The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane notes, a victim whose tough background guarantees “our pity and love,” as opposed to the “nastier” and more “dangerous” takes by Fredric March and James Mason.
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Cooper’s filmmaking skills behind the camera are recognizably better than many performers-turned-directors (notwithstanding the staggering number of close-ups and the proliferation of the F-word). But on one account, his instincts are unimpeachable. The decision to cast Gaga in the part previously played by Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Streisand is a masterstroke. Gaga’s mere presence in A Star Is Born allows Cooper a wide berth to go big with scenes and moments that play with and embrace camp. Ally slays Maine with a killer rendition of “La vie en rose” at a drag bar in her first big scene. Later, in a moment fans of the previous iterations will anxiously anticipate, Jackson ruins Ally’s Best New Artist Grammy speech, this time passing out while standing up and pissing his pants on national television. The memes are already strong.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.