The Problem with ‘A Star Is Born’

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Warning: SPOILERS.

Screen Shot 2018-12-13 at 20.36.12Bradley Cooper and and Lady Gaga in a scene from A Star is Born, which Bradley Cooper also directed.

Hollywood loves a good makeover montage, and the story told within A Star Is Born—successful musician stumbles upon a talented but unknown singer, launching her into stardom as he self-destructs—is so compelling that it gets remade and remade, drawing talent such as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, and most recently, Lady Gaga, to the role of the unknown singer.

Despite the fact that A Star Is Born is often seen as a Pygmalion-type story, where the successful musician “cleans up” the dirty unknown singer, transforming her into a star of epic proportions and literally giving her a voice, it is, in fact, like a condensed version of Cinderella. As Hadley Freeman explains, the leading man (Bradley Cooper) plays “not just the fairy godmother who gives the woman a makeover, but the prince who marries her and finally the wicked stepmother who needs to be destroyed so the woman can live happily ever after.”

This parable is the key to my problem with A Star Is Born. Contrary to the film’s title, the film is not about a star being born, but rather, about the star who creates her. This film is not about Ally (Lady Gaga) but about Cooper and Cooper as Jackson Maine.

While earlier versions of the film focused (often heavily and to critical derision) on the female leads, Cooper’s version is all about Maine. It is his “disease” that is to blame for his poor behavior, it is his artistic integrity which is credited for his refusal to self care, his refusal to be compromised by either overbearing production or management. He is authentically “an artist,” and despite his difficulties hearing (literally, he is plagued by hearing loss), he is credited with an ability to see the truth, to recognize potential and authenticity, no matter how concealed from the rest of the world.

In contrast, Gaga’s Ally is so thinly sketched out that she does not even have a last name—until she takes his. And so the drama of the film’s moment—as she steps out on stage after his death to sing a song he wrote—is doubly significant. She has taken his name, she is singing his words; her success, her talent, and her identity are now fully defined by him. “Everyone has talent, but only some people have something to say,” Jackson reminds Ally throughout the film. Clearly, though, his words are all she has to say.

The 1976 version of the film, directed by Frank Pierson, also ends with the younger female star (played by Barbra Streisand) taking the stage at her own concert. However, she does so as Esther Hoffman, not as Esther Hoffman Howard. As Britt Hayes points out, Esther chooses to pay tribute to her dead husband by singing a somber ballad he wrote, but halfway through Esther changes it into an up-tempo rock song. By doing so, she claims her success as her own and controls the narrative of her life.” The film ends with her triumphant success; her voice, her recognition solidified.

However, this version of the story was attacked as being a “vanity project” for its star. The director himself described it as a “Barbra Streisand lollipop extravaganza,” while the New York Times review criticized Streisand for performing the role as “a solo turn” instead of a duet. “She’s a queen condescending to her own court cameraman,” wrote Vincent Canby, noting that “everybody else is a back-up musician” for Streisand. What does it say that the film focused on the female star is critiqued for doing precisely that, while the film focused on the male star receives critical and commercial success?

This is not to slight Gaga’s acting ability, which is unquestionably the highlight of the film. It is, rather, to point out how little material the script gives her. Instead, there is repeated emphasis on how she is possessed or managed or seen by the various men in her life: first her father, then by Maine, then by her manager who effortlessly strips her of whatever personality and talent made her extraordinary in the first place.

In contrast, the film revels in Maine’s backstory and present story, spending luxurious amounts of time allowing Cooper to emote about his dead mother, his alcoholic father, his hearing loss, his problematic relationship with his brother.

Cooper so thoroughly embraces his character’s drunkenness that it becomes impossible to tell when his character is sober. Despite drinking to such excess that he seems drunk literally 24-7, Cooper always looks fantastic. There is no alcoholic bloat, no rosacea, none of the common physical signs of alcoholism. Instead, we get close-ups and shirtless shots, looking hunky in virtually every scene, never aging, never bleary, and certainly never flushed. In earlier versions of the film, as his star plummets, Maine cannot find any work at all. He is un-hireable. In contrast, in this most recent adaptation, Maine’s declining career is exemplified to us by his demotion from singer in a Roy Orbison tribute to guitar player rather than. Heaven forbid things get too ugly!

Despite his pretty face, Maine is so troubled, and so broken, that the unanswered question driving the movie is: “What is Ally doing with him in the first place?” At one point, Ally tells her father that Jackson is “just a drunk,” something that her father “would know about.” However, that is as much of tease as we get, as there is no additional backstory or explanation offered. At 2 hours and 14 minutes, I guess there just wasn’t enough time to create two three-dimensional characters with their own backstories.

I shouldn’t be shocked. Hollywood, after all, was built on how men see women, with women repeatedly little more than attractive cardboard cutouts while the men get to strut and emote. But in 2018, in the throes of the #metoo movement, as more women are elected to American political office than ever before, surely we can do better. Not only can (and should) Cooper do better, but we should do better than to embrace the results of his labor.

As Britt Hayes writes, “A Star Is Born is a perfect reflection of institutionalized misogyny; it is a movie that is very much of our time, but we are living in a time that demands so much more — at the very least, criticism of a world in which the best a woman like Ally can hope for is marrying into fame with an alcoholic because he’s the only person who ever admired her nose.”

A Star Is Born reinforces the idea that a woman is validated only by a man’s recognition, as well as implying that a woman’s success directly emasculates her man. (Can it be pure coincidence that, as Ally’s star rises and Jackson’s declines, we see her putting makeup on him?) Contrary to the film’s title, this is not a story about a woman finding her voice (“being born”), but rather, yet another movie about the torturous path of a straight, white man struggling to maintain artistic integrity. I’m just not clear whether that man is Cooper or Maine, or both.