It’s been a year where many actors have turned to directing. Joel Edgerton’s second feature, Boy Erased, is one. Jonah Hill’s Mid-90s is another. Paul Dano’s Wildlife is yet another. And now this is Bradley Cooper’s turn to manifest his own vision of what a movie should look like with A Star Is Born. Actors-turned-directors are often really good at delivering a showcase — a story that focuses on actors mostly, giving them plenty of time to explore the arcs of their characters. Where they sometimes fail is if they try to do too much, to impress with visuals. Very few directors CAN impress with visuals, as very few have that kind of mastery of the form. For his part, Cooper has thankfully not done that and focuses instead on bringing an earthy, sensual, at times moving portrait of an American myth.
The driving narrative in the myth of A Star Is Born is that a “wallflower” is noticed by a famous man. With his encouragement and direction, her full potential is at last realized — and after the flower blooms, she outgrows her maker. The three most recent women put into this role were women who did not need any man to shape them, encourage them, or pluck them out of obscurity. They were women who succeeded despite an industry that rejected them. I’m leaving out Janet Gaynor because I don’t know enough about her position in the industry when she made the first incarnation of the story to comment on it. But the next three were women whose voices alone made them icons: Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and now, Lady Gaga.
In some respects, this A Star is Born is not unlike the movies that would enlist famous athletes to act in them, like Esther Williams or Sonja Henie. The idea was to shape a drama around these wunderkinds so people could live out a fantasy with them and watch them do what they did best. The narratives that revolve around them were overshadowed by the scenes in the film where they are given screen time to show us their multitudes of talent. If there is one reason to see A Star is Born, that is it.
The first half of A Star is Born builds to the point where we finally get to hear Lady Gaga sing. Before that, it’s Bradley Cooper playing an alcoholic rock star whose career and life, while still legendary, is crumbling. Most of their meet-cute is about how he’s apparently the only man in the movie business who finds her beautiful. That she’s supposedly “ugly” is the reason why she’s never made it, or even wanted to try. That he picks her out of a crowd and decides she’s talented to overcome her “ugliness” is what is supposed to bring them together. All she needs, it turns out, is a little encouragement and the rest will be golden. Well, the only problem with this scenario is that she’s not ugly. Nowhere near ugly. Her nose, which they keep saying is big, isn’t big. As someone with an actual big nose who really could never have made it in showbiz because of it, I can tell you there is nothing wrong with Lady Gaga’s nose. Judy Garland was told she was too ugly to be the romantic lead, god knows what people said to Barbra Streisand, but did people really tell Lady Gaga her nose was too big and that she’d never make it because of that? If they did, the joke is on them.
Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is a movie that seemed to want the characters to at last break the pattern set before. Does he really have to self-destruct in order for her to thrive? Can’t they just go on and live happy lives? But alas, their fate is predetermined before the movie even starts. It has to go the way it has to go and somehow the story has to shape around it, come what may.
Outside the realm of what will be, will be, there is much to enjoy in A Star is Born, including and especially the first half of the film when we meet the friends of Gaga’s Ally. The singers in drag at the club where she sings, her best friend who works at the restaurant with her. We so badly want things to go well for her that when at last she’s plucked from obscurity and thrust on stage by Bradley Cooper, it is nothing short of miraculous. Even knowing it’s Lady Gaga doesn’t take away from the excitement of not knowing whether or not she will nail the song. But, of course, she does.
No actress has ever won the Oscar for A Star is Born, and I don’t know if Lady Gaga will break the trend or not. Often the same forces that that prevent certain stars from winning Oscars are the same forces against them at the outsets of their careers: their worth as defined by how beautiful they are. Some have broken through regardless, but not many.
This idea that Hollywood would be willing to confront the idea that only beautiful people are ever shown on screen as leading ladies is probably my favorite thing about A Star is Born, even if I don’t agree with the assessment that Lady Gaga is not beautiful. She looks like a real person and there are far too few major motion pictures that feature real-looking people. And I loved that about this movie.
It’s hard to find anything new to say about the myth that is A Star is Born. It is what it is and it remains unchanged, even with Bradley Cooper’s update. It is still about the voice — that voice — that miraculous singing voice that is well worth the price of admission. I’ve been a fan of all of the versions of the myth — yes, even the Barbra Streisand one. My sister and I used to listen to the record album of the movie, and when Barbara Streisand sings the finale — there was nothing more devastating than that. Even if the whole movie was a giant mess, there was still that song. For me, as a young girl, I felt that song so deeply. I got the melancholy of love, of loss. It is just phenomenal. Even now. Her whole vast emotional landscape is present in one incredible moment.
That version, like the Cooper version, reshapes the star into something she shouldn’t be. Whatever the sacrifices to become “more commercial” don’t appear to be worth it, which is why Cooper shows Ally by the end without any of the artifices applied to her and just gives us a pure voice coming out of a real woman.
Any time Lady Gaga sings, even trussed up like a pop star, it takes your breath away. Cooper gives one of his best performances as the crumbling rock star and has said he believes his interpretation of the role was that it was about an addict, someone whose addiction to drinking and drug use was something he could not give up, not to mention having wrecked his ears with loud music. He was a character we were rooting for, and that is the tragedy of this version of A Star is Born. Her life never seemed better off without him.
Cooper chose right when he chose Lady Gaga to make this movie. His admiration for her shines in every scene. He’s done right by her, and right by the eternal myth that has captivated Hollywood for decades.