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Film & Television

Lady Gaga mesmerises in the uneven ‘A Star Is Born’

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
After a beguiling first act, director Bradley Cooper struggles to maintain momentum

A Star Is Born is pure Hollywood mythology, a legend told and retold for the times. Once you get beyond the simple plot of girl meets boy, of rise and fall, what makes the storyline so malleable across now nearly a century is its foundation in the American Dream. With the right combination of grit, chutzpah, talent and kismet, you could be the one-in-a-million plucked from obscurity and thrust into the astral plane. Like any good fairytale, it has moral lessons to impart. Nothing comes for free, especially in the land of opportunity. So be careful what you wish for.

In the 1937 original, our starlet, Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor), starts life as farmer’s daughter Esther Blodgett who dares to aspire to something more. When Esther arrives in La La Land and tries to register with an extras agency, the receptionist gestures toward a switchboard twinkling with hopeful lights, each one a dream about to be extinguished. We recall Esther’s grandmother sending her on her way with a speech about the difference between dreaming and doing: “When I wanted something better, I came across those plains in a prairie schooner with your grandfather.” Grandma Blodgett was a pioneer braving the frontier to build a new world, forging on through fire and ice, even when “some Injun devil” put a bullet through her beloved. “You know Esther, there’ll always be a wilderness to conquer,” she tells her. “Maybe Hollywood’s your wilderness.”

The 2018 remake is co-written and directed by Bradley Cooper, who also stars as Jackson Maine, a fading rock dog who’s bearing the weight of the prairie on his shoulders. You can take the boy out of Arizona, but it’s still writ there in his outdoorsy tan, and we learn through the sadness that creeps into the corners of his eyes that you can’t take the messed-up childhood out of the man. In the opening scene we see the obliteration he’s seeking as he necks prescription pills with liquor before he heads out on stage – hints of the cowboy daddy who loved the bottle more than his sons. Lately, Jackson’s elder brother (Sam Elliott) who raised him is getting sick of picking up the pieces.

When Jack stumbles into Ally’s (Lady Gaga) act at a gay club later that night, desperate for another drink, her Edith Piaf drag pulls him out of the muck for just a second – something we suspect his own performances stopped doing for him long ago. What’s astounding is that Cooper, a seasoned actor but a debut director, so completely transmits that momentary transcendence: Ally’s powerful modulation when she sings “Mon cœur qui bat”, my heart beating; her flirtation with the enraptured crowd, in a nod to Gaga’s real-life queer following.

Ally reclines on the crowded bar mid-song and sees Jackson properly for the first time. The instant their eyes lock is captured in an extreme close-up of her face lain horizontal, gazing directly into the camera. We know then that Gaga isn’t just a pop star moonlighting as an actress. She can seduce us with a look.

The meet-cute that follows largely takes place in a supermarket parking lot, after Ally punches out a mouthy fan on Jackson’s behalf and he ices her fist with a bag of frozen peas. She starts singing something she makes up on the spot – what becomes their signature duet, “Shallow” – and now it’s his turn to see Ally: as the songwriter the image-obsessed music industry has never allowed her and her distinctive schnoz be. It may not be Judy Garland, in the 1954 release, saving a wasted James Mason when he stumbles onstage by working him into her song-and-dance number. It may be schmaltzy, pure Hollywood guff. And you know what? It’s also genuinely romantic, if beguiling. I’m fall-ing, as the ballad goes.

In all A Star Is Born’s incarnations, the female leads aren’t conventional beauties (after Gaynor and Garland, Barbara Streisand in 1976), and this is something the world keeps reminding them. Part of what makes the 1954 version so poignant is the extra-textual knowledge that Garland herself suffered similar indignities at the hands of studio executives. “My eyes are all wrong and my ears are too big and I, I’ve got no chin,” she cries. “What difference does it make how I sing if my face is all wrong?” There’s something similarly moving in seeing Lady Gaga’s face – usually obscured by costume makeup and extravagant headpieces – stripped bare. She looks like a regular woman, with a strong nose and one slightly wayward eye. And yet she’s mesmerising. “Hey,” says Jack, tricking Ally into turning back towards him. “I just wanted to take another look at you.”

After a killer first act, Cooper the director struggles to sustain momentum. A Star Is Born starts to lag when he gets mired in the mechanics of plotting: Ally’s ascension from Jersey waitress to pop megastar, and the fissures that emerge in the starcross’d romance as the couple’s fortunes diverge. The story itself proves just as pertinent to the present day, though the markers of success look different – a headlining spot at Coachella, crowd-shot footage of an impromptu duet that goes viral, a coveted booking for Saturday Night Live. But more than any previous interpretation, Cooper privileges the contours of the male lead’s pain.

Considering how much more nuanced discourse around addiction is today, it’s understandable why Cooper’s fleshed out a backstory. The grinning dipso of 1937 or 1954, teetering around in a tux, probably wouldn’t cut it. This Jackson Maine isn’t a musician who’s failed to move with the times, as Kris Kristofferson’s 1976 character was. This isn’t the tragedy of the male ego, rebuffing help when he needs it most, nor even the jealous husband realising his wife has escaped his grasp. Instead we get an abundance of originary wounds, his sad fate sealed when Ally drinks the Kool-Aid offered by a cartoonishly evil manager (Rez, played by Rafi Gavron) and “sells out”.

Jackson doesn’t realise just how washed up he is, and Cooper as both actor and director doesn’t seem to see it either. The up-close and kinetic shooting of his performances make them compelling, but Jackson’s music, at least before Ally comes along, isn’t so potent. His sound is somewhere between the honky blues of The Black Keys and Ryan Adams’s sad boy alt-country; the fact he’s later shunted for real-life musician Marlon Williams is optimistic. It’s difficult to understand why he’s filling stadiums – in a way that wasn’t difficult to believe with Kristofferson, even when his version of the character was at his worst. Cooper reportedly spent months on the road with musicians like Lukas Nelson, son of Willy, but you never lose the sense that this is Bradley Cooper acting. Or, dare I say it, tipsy on his self-image as a triple threat. “He really can do everything,” Gaga later gushed in an interview with Stephen Colbert.

Cooper insists that the grizzled guitar-man signifies authenticity, in a way that Ally’s sequined outfits, anime-bright copper hair and back-up dancers clearly don’t. Her laughably terrible hit single begins, “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” It’s a bizarre way to position Lady Gaga, one of the most groundbreaking pop musicians of the era, whose high camp image is all artifice.

Charges of histrionics are redundant, though, for this story has always been a melodrama. At its best, the genre is capable of critiquing the heterosexual coupling it superficially purports to reinforce, as in the magnificent work of German film director Douglas Sirk or, indeed, the technicolour emotions of George Cukor’s 1954 version of this same film. It’s jarring to have its tropes deployed in the service of a self-proclaimed authenticity, in a way that paradoxically feels far more fake. Still, there are moments of truth (and for this sap, many tears) to be found here.

A Star Is Born is at its heart a cautionary tale, so too its take on the American Dream. Ascend too high and you’re Icarus, perilously close to the sun – the 1954 version would be the last great role for supernova Judy Garland. In that version the star hellbent on annihilation is remembered with a fitting line by T.S. Eliot: “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, with a whimper.” Cooper places the emphasis on the bang, but somehow the afterglow remains spectacular.

 

A Star Is Born opens nationally on October 18. 

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Rebecca Harkins-Cross is a writer and cultural critic. She has received several awards from the Australian Film Critics Association.

A Star Is Born

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