We’re far from the backlash now
Editor-in-chief Terri White on why the A Star Is Born gender politics backlash misses the mark
THE STORY IS already the stuff of movie folklore. And it goes like this: Lady Gaga turns up for her screen test as Ally, the lead character in A Star Is Born. She has a face full of make-up. Director and eventual co-star Bradley Cooper produces a wipe and pulls it down her face, taking off every scrap of make-up. “No artifice,” he says (reportedly). As with all good folklore in the age of Twitter, it was immediately seized upon to support the backlash building behind the five-star reviews and the box-office cheer. A Star Is Born has a problem with gender politics, they said.
The complaints: that Bradley Cooper’s character, country star Jackson Maine, was given as much emphasis as Ally (the “star” of the films). That there was an undercurrent of sexism. That the booze-soaked, drug-rattling Jackson Maine could be a bit of a — well — dick.
That he was controlling, patronising, even sleazy. That Ally was presented as being “ugly” and crippled by insecurities. Why else would she be attracted to him? Why would she put up with it and him?
It’s worth noting that this — the third remake — sticks closely to the story in the 1937, 1954 and 1976 versions. That of a fading, broken man and the rising star of a brilliant woman.
It accurately reflects the (often gendered) problems at the heart of the entertainment industry — both then and now. It’s unflinching in its examination of toxic masculinity. Of how that masculinity is brewed in rock ’n’ roll and what happens to a man when he’s all used up.
Jackson Maine is, by his own admission, flawed. In the brutal bathroom scene, knowing Ally’s sore spot he says, “You’re just fucking ugly.”
And much has been made of Ally being written as “ugly”. About how unbelievable and offensive that is to women. But the point that the film, and Ally herself makes, is that she’s spent her career in rooms with men who like her talent but not the way she looks. The doubts this has created in her is met only by her clear frustration at this reality. And this is, without question, the reality of the entertainment industry.
The film doesn’t attempt to justify or excuse Jackson’s behaviour. It shows the true face of bad behaviour. And let’s remember that films are meant to show the whole spectrum of the human experience. Of human character and morality in all its murkiness. Jackson is a man with a deep fracture running through his middle. And while problematic storytelling is quite rightly called out in 2018, that doesn’t mean stories can’t be told of those with problems.
Male fragility is more under the microscope then ever, as are cinematic depictions of women. That doesn’t mean that female characters have to be perfectly drawn. That men have to be whole. Stories will dry up fast if all characters have to live up to gender ideals.
Finally: that ending. An ending which rankled for some, with Ally singing a song for her husband. It ends with him, they argue. However, she’s the one that’s survived. He’s been completely destroyed by old-school masculinity. And it’s old-school masculinity itself that lies dead at the end of the film. Which seems more significant than the use of a face wipe.
Top: Lady Gaga’s brilliant Ally. Above: With director-co-star Bradley Cooper as the complex, flawed Jackson Maine.