If nothing else, A Star Is Born has given us the best meme of the year. The four-image sequence depicting Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (in character as Jackson Maine and Ally, respectively) exchanging meaningful glances and coy smiles, was ripped from the trailer months before its festival premiere. It has since become a ubiquitous presence in the pop-culture pockets of social media, remixed into variations and combined with other memeable images—Gaga transposed onto the nightmarish Philadelphia Flyers mascot Gritty is a favourite—creatively separating the images from their original context.
This seems a fitting legacy for a film that is itself a remix of a story that has been told thrice before (four times if you count George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? ). Cooper, in a dual role as star and director, configures his take on A Star Is Born by borrowing elements from William Wellman’s 1937 film and its subsequent iterations: here, a washed-up, alcoholic country superstar (Cooper) discovers a talented ingénue (Gaga) and guides her towards stardom. As in every version of this archetypal backstage romance, dramatic convention demands that if one star rises, the other must fall. Cooper’s take is structured like a musical as in Cukor’s 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason version, and is set in the contemporary music industry like the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson starrer. And some version of the much-memed scene—in which the leading man’s gaze leads our own—is present in all four.
As a piece of filmmaking, A Star Is Born is a perfectly fine work for a first-time director, albeit one that peaks early, during its exhilarating first-act climax—spoiled, sadly, in the trailer, when Cooper and Gaga perform Ally’s self-penned anthem “Shallow” to throngs of screaming fans—before stumbling through rote relationship drama in the back half. Yet somehow, A Star Is Born is at the circa-2018 epicentre of what has become typical of the life cycle of critical takes. Numerous articles and think pieces have litigated and relitigated its status as either an overrated melodrama or an impassioned, earnest film-of-the-year candidate; reviews celebrating the emotional rawness of Cooper and Gaga’s performances have been prone to hyperbole, as if being made to feel something and successfully describing that feeling is solid evidence for a movie’s overall effectiveness. In some ways the negative takes are worse, ponderously picking away at the film’s portrayal of a toxic relationship (shades of last year’s Phantom Thread wars) or taking issue with its shallow look at the music industry.
Let it be said that the film is neither exceptional nor problematic enough to justify the majority—or intensity—of these readings. But A Star Is Born’s apparent Oscar bona fides were heavily touted from the get-go, and only amplified when the first trailer dropped, so it seems we’re stuck with having to talk about it. By the time of its premiere it had become a film to see not so much out of interest, but simply for the purpose of being able to render an opinion on it. The effect of this on the critical discourse becomes less about actually responding to the movie than about responding to opinions that differ from one’s own (and this review is in no way exempt from that). What is even left to be said about a film that has been worked over from so many angles?
Even commenting on a film’s hot-take cycle has become something of a meta cliché in film criticism, though one that I believe productive in articulating why the glossy mediocrity of A Star Is Born will dominate the discourse until Oscar season is over (and frankly, this review will be quietly absorbed into Rotten Tomatoes where it will be digested by the masses via Tomatometer percentage, so why not directly address the only real audience for film reviews: film critics).
It’s no great revelation that a singular figure has loomed over all coverage of the film, be it rave, take-down, or press junket. Obviously A Star Is Born is Bradley Cooper’s bid to graduate into the pantheon of Serious American Artists alongside his pal (and the project’s original director) Clint Eastwood, but in a way that has been rigorously programmatic. The choice of material—a tried-and-true story with big, sweeping emotions about the downside to fame—is practically predestined to appeal, primarily because Hollywood (and the Academy) loves a movie tacitly about itself. And if you believe otherwise, then Argo-fuck yourself.
And yet Cooper’s particular reworking of A Star Is Born curiously effaces its titular star. Some reviewers have taken issue with Cooper’s vanity in making Jackson Maine the focal point of the film—this has been the key argument for those who take issue with the film’s portrayal of toxic masculinity. “Vanity” is not quite the right word to describe what Cooper is doing, however: it’s too glib and undescriptive to describe what is actually happening in the performance and the character. Rather, it’s a calculated career move. Cooper’s Maine performance is impressive but aggressively actorly. As much as Ally is a dressed-down Gaga, Maine is a transformed and (re)constructed Cooper: voice pitched down an octave, facial hair artfully scruffy, skin made to look unhealthily ruddy with the sheen of too much booze and too many pills. Maine is undoubtedly the focal point of Cooper’s A Star Is Born, even relocating the bleak tragedy of the classic line from prior versions, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine” (here “Ally Maine”), from its heroine’s loss and pain to Maine’s absence from the screen—emphasized here when he is made to reappear via flashback over Ally’s final song, Cooper’s onscreen presence literally eclipsing Gaga’s. Regardless of the character’s numerous sins, whether or not Maine actually deserves our sympathy is not as important as the clear indication that Cooper believes he does.
Gaga’s onscreen and offscreen personas serve another purpose for Cooper, one tied in to a central concern of A Star Is Born: artistic authenticity. In crafting Ally’s backstory, Cooper and Gaga cherry-picked details from Gaga’s own, notably her origins as a cabaret performer in drag clubs. In fact, A Star Is Born uses minority communities throughout as window dressing for its central couple’s authenticity. The drag club provides us with Ally’s LGBT street cred (she’s an Ally and an ally, get it?) before being left behind for more glamorous venues. Similarly, the inexplicable one-time appearance of Maine’s apparent “best friend” (played by Dave Chappelle) is deployed as shorthand for Jackson Maine’s status as a good guy for having a down-to-earth black friend, one who conveniently disappears after his purpose has been served.
Aside from the creative push-and-pull going on between Ally and Maine onscreen, the origin story Gaga and Cooper have crafted for their offscreen partnership also pays lip service to the importance of their own authentic artistry. Both have perfected complementary versions of their first meeting for the press, always sure to include key details about what they ate (Gaga warmed up some leftover pasta in a skillet on the stove, like a good Italian-American girl) and how they bonded over singing duets with Gaga on piano. Another well-practiced story of theirs has been collected in a compilation video making the rounds on social media, which features a supercut of Gaga relaying how important it was for Cooper to have chosen her for his film. Each clip features Gaga saying some version of the artfully clumsy line, “There can be 100 people in a room and 99 don’t believe in you, but you just need one to believe in you…” The kicker is that Cooper appears in about a quarter of these clips, giving a truly Oscar-worthy performance as someone hearing her say it for the first time. This evidence of the pair’s clear aptitude for navigating the awards-season publicity tour is a far more cynical take on the fame industry than Cooper could have ever hoped to capture onscreen. And already Cooper is counting his statues before they’re awarded: he’s been quoted saying he’s game to perform the presumed-to-be-nominated “Shallow” with Gaga at the Oscars, hinting that he’d like to try something “unorthodox.” I hope it involves Gritty. ■