Disney may have the rights to the phrase, but A Star is Born is Hollywood’s true “tale as old as time”.
The love story of the descendant veteran and the ascendant ingenue has endured since Tinseltown’s earliest days, with three iterations spanning three generations: the 1934 original starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; Judy Garland and James Mason’s acclaimed 1954 remake; and 1976’s maligned effort by Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. The eras and entertainment formats may change, and the gender politics may not be particularly sound, but the core of A Star is Born – love in the face of fame-driven self-destruction – has secured its place in the upper echelons of Hollywood’s favorite stories about itself.
Reviving this most indelible of cinematic fables for the Instagram age is four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, in his directorial debut. When he’s not behind the camera, or penning the script, or singing a hefty amount of the soundtrack, he’s Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking, pill-popping country-rock god teetering on the edge of oblivion with each strum of his guitar, which he struggles to hear because of progressive hearing loss. His descent to chaos is upended by a pit stop at a drag bar to find his next fix. There, he discovers Ally (Lady Gaga), performing the Edith Piaf standard “La vie en rose” with painted black hair and fake eyebrows. He is transfixed and, despite her incredulity, the two spend a transformative night together, exchanging stories, disappointments and incredible talent. That night quickly blossoms into a full-blown romantic and creative partnership; Jackson coaxes the dormant superstar out of Ally, and she re-ignites his passion for music. The first hour of A Star is Born is an exhilarating storm of love and music on the run; the eye is “Shallow”, which melds Ally’s insecurities and undeniable talent, Jackson’s naked admiration and support, and their mutually intense connection into a jaw-dropping spectacular surge. Cooper is in masterful command, moving deftly between electrifying concert performances and simmering private moments, while preserving the energy and intimacy throughout.
You don’t have to be well-versed in A Star is Born’s mythology to know that Ally and Jackson’s bliss can’t last, not with a supportive, yet combative elder brother (Sam Elliott), a nefarious manager and divergent career trajectories (hers up, his down) in the mix. The film shrinks a bit when it broadens its scope to offer unsatisfying commentary on the authenticity and artifice of pop music. Smartly, Cooper doesn’t dwell too much there, focusing instead on Jackson’s catastrophic downfall. Their love simply isn’t enough to quell the demons pushing him to self-annihilation, leading to painful, cringing, devastating consequences for them both. Cooper’s intimate shots up the ante further, ensuring that we’re achingly present in the embarrassment, frustration and shame of Jackson’s actions. He also isn’t afraid to tweak with some of the story beats, the most noticeable change is jealousy’s diminished role in Ally and Jackson’s relationship. He is served enough indignities that could’ve birthed hateful meltdowns aimed at Ally. And yet, their biggest fight isn’t about career envy, but about the idea of her selling her soul to the pop music machine. Even there, ugly words and all, his conviction in Ally is unshakeable, and his fear that he might ruin her renews the film’s momentum into its heartrending final act.
As the title suggests, A Star is Born lives and dies by the success of its two leads. In their own ways, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga are wildcards in this particular tradition: does Cooper have the voice to pull off the kind of rocker to turn Gaga’s head, and could Gaga strip away a decade’s worth of outrageous pop persona to portray an unassuming, disillusioned young woman? The answers are emphatically affirmative; both of them give excellent performances that shatter any pre-conceived notions about their abilities. After four tries, Cooper may have secured an Oscar with this career-best performance. Through gruff voice and intensely focused eyes, he communicates a lifetime of physical and emotional agony. And yet, he has never been more charismatic, conveying warmth and humor that makes his character’s cracks all the more devastating. Lady Gaga is a revelation, immersing herself in the character of Ally to the point of being unrecognizable. Her performance is startlingly natural, with an impressive range that her singing scenes showcase perfectly. The marque ballad at the film’s end is a Streisand-esque tour de force that could possibly win her the Best Actress Oscar. Gaga and Cooper’s chemistry is immediate and explosive, easily the highlight of the film. The rest of the cast is excellent, with particular notices deserved for Sam Elliott as Jackson’s brother Bobby and (surprisingly) Andrew Dice Clay’s touching portrayal of Ally’s father.
Frankly, it is astonishing that A Star is Born works so well. Remakes are in abundance these days, and rarely are they good enough to exceed the original. Cooper’s take on the Hollywood stalwart is a glorious exception. Even with a just-decent middle, it is still an emotional marvel of filmmaking. With all due respect to Gaynor, Garland and Streisand, but it is more than fair to declare Cooper and Gaga’s as the definitive version of this story.