By Andrea Thompson
Note to the other filmmakers behind the latest “A Star Is Born” remake: you probably shouldn’t let the actor playing the fading singer also direct the movie. And help write it. Otherwise, even a director like Bradley Cooper, who possesses a shocking amount of assurance and skill in his first time at the job, will make something that devolves into another forgettable Hollywood story.
This isn’t just a remake, it’s the fourth incarnation. This story was first told in 1937, then in 1954, again in 1976, and now in 2018. Each adaptation has been firmly grounded in the times it was made, and 2018’s is no different. It’s telling that in a world where privacy has become a precious commodity, this version is the most intimate, so much so that it devolves into insularity.
Bradley Cooper’s country singer-songwriter Jackson Maine is clearly already on the decline, mixing pills into his drink as he goes onstage at a concert as the camera lingers lovingly on his fingers as he works his guitar to amazing effect, already lamenting the tragedy we know is coming. We then cut to Lady Gaga’s Ally, who is breaking up with her boyfriend over the phone and working a crappy service industry job with a bad boss. When she walks out of the alley singing to herself, the movie title flashes across the screen. But the film fails to live up to its promise, with Cooper’s involvement almost stealing the show.
Things start out extremely promising, with Cooper’s desperate search for alcohol leading him to head into a gay bar on drag night, where Gaga is the only cis woman to perform. Cooper is immediately smitten, and his encouragement and insistence on Ally performing her own songs at his concert makes Ally become the star she was so clearly born to be. All of the performances are startingly intimate, with the audience portrayed as a great anonymous mass, but Ally’s debut contains some of the most beautifully intimate work in “A Star Is Born,” as the camera lovingly lingers on her face as the stage lights flash over it as she mesmerizes the masses, and us as well.
Indeed, part of Bradley Cooper’s impressive direction are at concert performances, where the loving camera work makes us feel as if we are on the stage with a jubilant audience. But once Ally moves from underdog to star, the film gets more problematic. Jackson’s star of course begins to fade, and more and more time and attention is devoted to his background and family than Ally’s history, and her struggles to stay true to herself and her talent. There’s a brief mention of how she wants to perform versus the vision her effeminate manager has, not to mention how her look plays a vastly different role in her career than Jackson’s.
Once Ally and Jackson marry, things devolve more, but they’re not allowed to become truly uncomfortable. Yes, Jackson humiliates himself at a ceremony where Ally receives an award for her achievements, but “A Star Is Born” can’t quite seem to make him a has-been. In other versions, the fading older man continued to succumb to his demons in a much darker, more realistic fashion, truly showing the toll that addiction could take. He showed up to the ceremony ranting and drunk, and ended up accidentally striking his wife. And he paid the price, with 1937 and 1954 version giving us a sense of what it was like to have the world and see it slip through your fingers, with no one to blame but yourself. 2018 can’t seem to go there, instead having a drunk Maine wet himself, never once at the risk of truly horrifying us or losing our sympathy. And while the other films mostly eschewed outright villains, this one has the evil manager telling Jackson about the damage he is inflicting on Ally’s career, setting the wheels of tragedy into motion.
Even in the final stretch during Ally’s performance honoring her husband, the film still can’t seem to allow her to take center stage. Cooper not only sings in the finale, he also sings during the end credits. Then we finally hear a song by Ally…about how much she adores Jackson. In 2018, it shouldn’t be so damned difficult to have a female character be more than the man she’s married to, but Ally is never allowed to be anything other than Jackson’s girlfriend, then wife. She and the audience deserves better.