Why ‘A Star Is Born’ Speaks to Our Time
“A Star Is Born,” Bradley Cooper’s justly celebrated remake of the venerable Hollywood romantic fable, starring Cooper as the bad-ol’-boy rock ‘n’ roller Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga as Ally, the ingenuous singer-songwriter he falls for and helps to elevate to pop stardom, is a movie that’s tingly and transporting in all the ways you want it to be.
In a year that’s already shaping up to be as competitive among lead actors as any I can recall, Cooper, as the rock legend who’s a secret wreck (drunk, half-deaf, a man for whom the thrill of climbing onto an arena stage has become a burnt-out survival ritual), digs deeper than any actor I’ve seen in any movie this year. He inhabits the role with a sunburnt, gin-soaked authenticity that’s uncanny, but his performance has layers — it keeps taking the measure of what makes Jackson tick. And Lady Gaga is a revelation. She’s at ease on screen in the way that a pop star should be (but so rarely is), and she brings Ally a quality of complex and beguiling innocence. Ally is no sucker, but the way Gaga plays her, she takes in the world with a wily adoration that’s large enough to match the scope of Cooper’s fallen-from-grace, past-his-prime melancholy.
Cooper has directed the film in a sprawling naturalistic style that goes back to the rhythm of the early ’70s, and in the process he winds up bringing off something remarkable. The new “Star Is Born” invites the audience to feel like we’re not just watching scenes but hanging out in them, right along with the characters, sharing their space and emotions. But, of course, we’re also sitting back and gawking at them. “A Star Is Born” has no galactic battles or vehicular explosions, but when I went to see the film at a late show on Friday, we were all staring up at that screen, drinking in the faces and personalities, the music and the drama that utterly filled it. Never doubt that a movie like this one is as much a spectacle as anything Marvel has ever come up with.
“A Star Is Born” is going to be an incredibly successful film, but it’s also clear that the movie is more than that. It’s not just the box-office numbers; it’s not just the likelihood of multiple Oscar nominations. The movie has already entered the cultural bloodstream, striking chords of must-see rapture. If you ask why, there need be no other answer than simply, “Yes, it’s that terrific.” A great Hollywood love story is a cathartic thing that requires no further justification. And the new “A Star Is Born” fills our craving for one like no movie since “La La Land” or “Carol” or “Silver Linings Playbook.”
In this case, though, there is indeed a seismically timely element to the way that the film connects with us. Considering that it’s been 42 years since the last remake of “A Star Is Born” (and given that the 1976 version, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, is a movie that some love but that many of us consider to be an all-time kitsch howler), the new version, fantastic as it it, raises a question: Why “A Star Is Born”? Why now?
Because really, it’s the the oddest of classics. Most Hollywood love stories have happy endings, and the ones that don’t leave you with a certain wistful, heartstruck quality. You’d have to place “A Star Is Born” (every version of it) in the latter category, but even so, it’s not exactly “Casablanca.” It’s the story of a man — a star — who discovers a woman, and they fall in love, and she becomes a star, and he descends, and descends further still, and even her love can’t save him. The end. The critic Pauline Kael thought it was a plot booby-trapped to resist full-scale audience empathy, and she may, in a way, have been right. Watching “A Star Is Born,” who are we identifying with: the man, the woman, or both? Surely both, but where does that leave us? Devastated? Regretful? Somehow uplifted?
And yet this plot has persisted, for close to 100 years, giving us a handful of fine movies (I’m partial to the voluptuous and masochistically moody 1954 Judy Garland-James Mason version, which far more than the Streisand version points the way to the new one). In the process, it has told a larger allegorical story, one that’s arguably the primal saga of the 20th century: the story of the rise of women.
That’s always been the subtext of “A Star Is Born.” Feminism, in the modern sense, is about 100 years old — roughly as old as the movies, which is no coincidence. Of all the forces that helped to give rise to the power of women during the 20th century (WWII, the pill, etc.), surely one was the prominence of motion pictures. The silver screen created an arena of stardom for women, and a template of equality in terms of how they were portrayed, and how they saw themselves. Just go back to screwball comedy (those love songs in the form of the wittiest of exquisitely matched verbal duels), or the presence of actresses from Lillian Gish to Bette Davis to Barbara Stanwyck to Elizabeth Taylor: Hollywood movies, for most of their existence, have glorified the power of women. “A Star Is Born” is the rare romantic saga that has the audacity to portray that power as disruptive and tempestuous, a challenge to the status quo. The male character comes with his own problems, but on some level he can’t believe he’s being surpassed.
Yet even though this story has been told five times, only now is there a social context for it that’s present tense and electrifying. For Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” is very much a movie of the #MeToo era, though not — I repeat, not — in any literal, dogmatic, or fully articulated way. (The film was being worked on well before the Harvey Weinstein scandal kicked off the reckoning.) It’s not a movie about the oppression or abuse of women. Rather, it’s a movie about the landscape that women have been working so hard to overthrow: the one in which men not only rule but think that’s the natural order of things, and that it’s never going to change, and that if it did change (which, of course, it now is) would strike them as the most threatening thing they could imagine. Because it would do more than take away their power. It would take away their identity as natural-born kings. And who, then, are they?
These issues, right now, are fraught with anger and social-political urgency, and I don’t mean to suggest that “A Star Is Born” is a political drama in romantic clothing. What I mean is that the film, precisely by not being that, is able to touch the nerve of what’s going on now, socially and emotionally, between the genders. The movie is an elegy for the patriarchy, told from a rock ‘n’ roll patriarch’s point of view. As exquisite as Lady Gaga is as Ally, “A Star Is Born” is Jackson Maine’s story. It’s the tale of his tragedy, the story of the end of one man’s pop dynasty that also suggests the end of a way of being.
That’s the driving, churning power of the film’s second half — so if you’re one of those people, like The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane, who think that “A Star Is Born” is only captivating for its first hour, when Jackson and Ally are all tender and lovey-dovey, and you think it gets draggy after that, I’d argue you’re missing out on what’s great about it.
I love the incandescence of that first hour, too. Who doesn’t, on some level, want to see these two go on singing “Shallow” forever? But the beauty of the second half, which struck me even more the second time I saw it, is the drama of watching things fall apart. And what’s falling apart in “A Star Is Born” is the whole psychology of male dominion.
For when you come down to it, what — really — is Jackson Maine’s problem? He’s a serious lush, so obviously that’s at the center of his troubles. The character has been given a deftly detailed and convincing backstory (dad was a drunk, raised by his brother, etc.) that basically explains how he got that way. But great movies often work in a mythological sphere. The real story of Jackson Maine isn’t simply that he drinks too much. The real story is told to us, through Bradley Cooper’s extraordinary direction, from the moment Jackson gets on stage in that opening scene, popping stimulants just before he grinds out the same old guitar licks that bring his fans to a frenzy but have begun to leave Jackson numb. He’s been doing this for too long, and when he meets Ally, he sees her as a kindred spirit — a continuation of his rock ‘n’ roll fantasy. That’s part of what’s magical about their onstage performance of “Shallow.” For one brief, blissed-out moment, we hear two souls chiming together in a dream.
But as Ally gets drawn into the star machinery of the new era, Jackson has to confront something much larger than the fact that his romantic partner will now have the limelight. Despite one ambiguous harsh moment (the drunken cake in the face), “A Star Is Born” is not, fundamentally, a drama of jealousy. What’s so threatening to Jackson about Ally’s ascent, into the stratosphere of corporately marketed and synchronized dance pop, is that it represents the death of the place that Jackson comes from: the arena of “authentic” rock. And that was always a male bastion. In fact, from the dawn of Elvis Presley onward, it was the male bastion, the place where men showed up to writhe and be worshipped like Dionysian gods. The caterwauling electric-guitar solo, the kind that’s Jackson’s trademark…well, we all know what the electric-guitar solo was. Every lick wasn’t just played, it was spewed.
That’s what’s so great about the scene at the Grammys where Jackson is part of the band doing a tribute to Roy Orbison. He was supposed to sing lead, but got brushed aside at the last moment for a younger, hipper singer with the right demo. So that’s an age thing. But it’s also a gender thing. At the performance, there are two singers, one of them female. And what this does is to update and civilize the song they’re singing, which is “Pretty Woman,” by stripping it of its 20th-century male-gaze wolfishness. Jackson still gets to play the guitar riff (doo-doo-doo-doo doo-doo-doo-doo), and, drunk as a skunk, he lets it rip with too much feedback, too much pause, too much…male prerogative. The way he plays it, it sounds incredible, but it’s a swan song. The pretty woman is no longer going to be an object — she is now rising up to grab the power. And Jackson was the last one to get the memo.
The conflict between Jackson and Ally is played out in the arena of alcoholism, and his “performance” up at the podium of the Grammys is a last embarrassing gasp of privilege — not exactly the kind of spew you want to do on national TV. But what the conflict is really about is Jackson’s sloshed, passive-aggressive rejection of the dance-pop world that Ally is the new queen of. It’s not real to him, not like his s—kicking Southern-fried rock. But what he really means is: It’s not male. The pre-eminence of dance pop in our time, which had its roots, of course, in the disco revolution (also rejected by a great many men, including the kind of indie-rock hipsters who sneer about it to this day), was kicked off in a major way by the rise of Lady Gaga. She defined the new era, in which the aesthetics of electro-beats would begin to replace what was left of rock ‘n’ roll. In re-enacting a version of her rise in “A Star Is Born,” she layers the movie’s mythology.
Of course, this is finally a story of two human beings who love each other, through all the fights and drinking and public shambling, and that’s what’s so moving about it. Ally, despite everything Jackson puts her through, stands by her man, and does it out of feminist strength. She knows, of course, that there’s room for men and women in the new world. But the place Jackson comes from is a hierarchy, propped up by his boozy entitlement. On some level, he doesn’t want a life without either of those things: the booze or the entitlement. “A Star Is Born” is a great love story, but it’s also the story of a fall: Jackson’s fall, which is really the world’s fall from the garden of male reign.
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