A Star Is Born a film di­rected by Bradley Cooper

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Dar­ryl Pinck­ney

A Star Is Born a film di­rected by Bradley Cooper

The ex­cite­ment of A Star Is Born is in the mu­sic. The songs are kick­ing, or, when needed, haunting. Of the sev­en­teen orig­i­nal songs, Lady Gaga, who plays the up-and-com­ing singer/ song­writer Ally, wrote or cowrote twelve. Bradley Cooper, who wrote and di­rected the film and plays the coun­try mu­sic star Jack­son Maine, col­lab­o­rated on four. They also worked with other mu­si­cians, most no­tably Lukas Nel­son—son of Willie Nel­son—who ap­pears as one of Jack­son’s band mem­bers. No mat­ter what goes on in the film dra­mat­i­cally, ev­ery­thing al­ways comes to­gether be­cause the sound­track is hap­pen­ing, it’s just hap­pen­ing, as I heard some­one say in the Magic John­son Har­lem theater. A Star Is Born has been around as a fran­chise since 1937, when in­no­cent and strong-willed Es­ther Blod­gett, played by Janet Gaynor, first set off from small-town wher­ever-she-was-from to con­quer Hollywood. She makes it, with the help of Nor­man Maine (Fredric March), the drunken star on the skids whom she loves and can­not save from ruin. She’s will­ing to give up her ca­reer in or­der to be the wife/war­den, but he beats her to the sac­ri­fi­cial punch and com­mits sui­cide in or­der to set her free. It is Hollywood telling it­self a price-of-suc­cess story. Dorothy Parker was on the team that wrote the screen­play.

Each re­make has the at­mos­phere of the time when it was made and the luck of the per­son who wrote the screen­play. Moss Hart wrote the 1954 A Star Is Born with Judy Gar­land and James Ma­son, the first mu­si­cal ver­sion. Gar­land sings “The Man That Got Away,” “Born in a Trunk,” and the cringe-mak­ing “Swa­nee.” John Gre­gory Dunne, Joan Did­ion, and the di­rec­tor Frank Pier­son wrote the 1976 ver­sion with Bar­bra Streisand and Kris Kristof­fer­son (as the Nor­man Maine char­ac­ter, here re­named John Nor­man Howard). It is nas­tier than the oth­ers, a re­flec­tion of Sev­en­ties grit mak­ing its way even into a ro­man­tic film. Streisand emerged from it with “Ev­er­green,” but oth­er­wise the sound­track is for­get­table. Hollywood gives Es­ther Blod­gett the stage name Vicki Lester in the 1937 and 1954 films. At the end, re­cov­ered but still open to grief, she says to her pub­lic, “Hello. This is Mrs. Nor­man Maine.” At the end of the 1976 ver­sion, Bar­bra Streisand’s an­gry and mourn­ful sur­vivor, Es­ther Hoff­man, is in­tro­duced, cor­rectly, as Es­ther Hoff­man Howard. Ally, like Es­ther Hoff­man be­fore her, doesn’t take a stage name, but we also never hear her maiden name. “Fuck­ing men!” Ally ex­claims early on in the film, in the re­stroom at her job af­ter she has dumped a guy by phone. In Lady Gaga’s ver­sion, it might not cross one’s mind un­til the end that the film in­cludes no other women char­ac­ters of any im­por­tance.

Other women are mi­nor pres­ences in the ear­lier ver­sions. In the 1937 A Star Is Born, Es­ther could rely on the en­cour­age­ment of her wise grand­mother back home, and in the 1954 ver­sion Es­ther’s hus­band has a past of prowl­ing clubs in or­der to pick up girls, an ex­pres­sion of how dis­so­lute he was. In the be­gin­ning of the film, Es­ther has a ri­val, or there is an­other woman who as­sumes she’s Nor­man Maine’s date, a sort of so­bri­ety beard. John Nor­man’s bleak episode of in­fi­delity frees Streisand’s Es­ther of her guilt at be­ing a suc­cess.

In the new ver­sion, Jack­son’s ro­man­tic past doesn’t fig­ure; no groupies give Ally the eye. In­stead, Jack­son wres­tles with mem­o­ries of his mu­si­cian fa­ther, who made him his drink­ing part­ner when he was only thir­teen. Ally is his rea­son to try to be sober. He has to die, the tragic end­ing of the ro­mance dic­tates, be­cause she is sin­gu­lar, not like other women. That Ally is the only woman in the film to ap­pear in close-up iso­lates her but also makes her ap­pear to be stor­ing up the strength she’ll need. In the end, Lady Gaga’s Ally stands be­fore her au­di­ence as Ally Maine, the boss of her ma­te­rial, singing “I’ll Never Love Again.” The tight and ar­rest­ing mu­sic, which takes in coun­try, pop, and dance, gives the film the im­pres­sion of be­ing through-com­posed. Even quiet mo­ments seem part of a rhythm. Cooper and Lady Gaga are most alive when they are per­form­ing, to­gether or apart. We see them at break­fast, in bed, at their wed­ding, but they never seem more con­nected than when show­ing each other lyrics. “How do you hear this?” he asks her early on. “I want to know how you hear this,” she says to him when she finds a song he’s writ­ten for her, maybe his last.


Star Is Born opens on­stage, their true home. Jack­son fin­ishes his arena con­cert and is plunged into the shad­owy in­te­rior of one of those high-rid­ing ve­hi­cles. In his search for a drink, he has his driver stop at what turns out to be a drag bar. Great wigs, the silli­ness of lip-synch­ing, and he’s un­fazed, even when he’s rec­og­nized as Jack­son Maine. Then Ally, the only girl the drag queens al­low in the show, wear­ing her home­made pen­cil eye­brows, walks the bar to a jazzy back­track as “La vie en rose” soars out of her. She’s not camp. She’s for real in the song. It is a tightly chore­ographed scene, with a nod to Bob Fosse, and ig­nites the story be­tween Jack­son and Ally but also ac­knowl­edges queer cul­ture as soil that has nour­ished many a diva.

While Ally is get­ting ready to go with him to have a drink af­ter her show (“I

have paint in my hair.” “I’ll wait.”), one of the drag queens hands Jack­son her white, rhine­stone-stud­ded gui­tar and asks him to sing a song; it doesn’t mat­ter which, so long as he looks at her as he sings. He launches into what the film will tell us is one of his best-known songs: Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. Once again, as open queer fan­tasy, it’s not camp: nei­ther the drag queen’s sweet ex­pres­sion as she lis­tens, nor Ally’s ter­ri­fied gaze when she comes out and hides from view at first. He is a su­per­star, even his speak­ing voice is alarm­ingly sexy, he has tsar-blue eyes, as they used to be called, and he’s a nice guy.

Next they are in a cop bar, then a su­per­mar­ket park­ing lot; he’s back on the road the fol­low­ing morn­ing while she’s at home with her lov­ing but emo­tion­ally clumsy fa­ther and his cronies. By her next restau­rant shift she has quit and is off on a pri­vate jet, and get­ting out of one of those big, glossy black cars. She’s with Jack­son’s peo­ple on the side of the stage, and then he’s telling her that he’s done a maybe-notso-great ar­range­ment of that song she wrote about him in the park­ing lot. All she has to do is trust him, he says. When she fi­nally fol­lows him out there, she ex­pe­ri­ences a home­com­ing, singing for the ap­plaud­ing thou­sands:

Tell me some­thing, boy

Aren’t you tired try­ing to fill that void

Or do you need more

Ain’t it hard to keep it so hard core In one brief scene in the be­gin­ning, Ally is throw­ing out the garbage at her job, in an al­ley that has the right acous­ti­cal bright­ness and bounce, and we hear her singing “is a hope­less jum­ble and the rain drops tum­ble all around” from “Over the Rain­bow,” sound­ing ev­ery bit like Judy Gar­land. But it also brings to mind Lady Gaga’s own story of singing in the streets af­ter her voice lessons. It sounds as though she has ab­sorbed the en­tire Amer­i­can mu­si­cal tra­di­tion, her voice so huge and clear. And Cooper can re­ally rock. Jack­son hides un­der a hat ev­ery­where, ex­cept on stage, when he can open up in song, on his gui­tar, and let peo­ple see him. Ally puts on a cow­boy hat in a tour bus scene that says she is go­ing up while he is slid­ing.

In the park­ing lot where Jack­son ban­daged Ally’s knuck­les af­ter she’d socked an ob­nox­ious off­duty cop, he told her a se­cret: he thinks she might be a song­writer. He says he won’t tell any­one, but adds that he’s not good at keep­ing se­crets. Ally can give in to his dreams for her once she has proven that she doesn’t eas­ily get swept away. (“I don’t feel this way about ev­ery­body.” “Well good. We’re on the same page. Come sing with me.”) What the film seeks to por­tray is how im­me­di­ate their con­nec­tion is, how firmly their un­der­stand­ing comes from a shared sen­si­bil­ity and mys­ti­cal feel­ing about mu­sic (“Al­ways Re­mem­ber Us This Way”). She can learn from him be­cause he is on her side and be­lieves she has it all al­ready. Peo­ple want to hear what she has to say, he keeps telling her. He is ut­terly charm­ing and she is ap­pro­pri­ately watch­ful. It’s a man’s world of man­agers and mu­si­cians, no mat­ter how large Ally’s face gets on the bill­board.

A slick man­ager tells Ally that she is ca­pa­ble of do­ing so much more; she only has to ad­mit that she’s ready. The film leaves pretty much un­ex­am­ined her de­ci­sion to record on her own, the ri­valry be­tween the hus­band who dis­cov­ered her and the man­ager who changed her beat, her hair color, in­deed her act, as well as what her shift from coun­try­in­flected bal­lads to ur­ban dance songs might mean to her. A cou­ple of times her hus­band mut­ters hurt­ful things at her that im­ply she’s in dan­ger of sell­ing out. More than once the mu­si­cians in the film re­mind one an­other that if you don’t have some­thing to say, you’re screwed out there. Peo­ple won’t be lis­ten­ing for­ever.

Jack­son’s woes have been ac­cu­mu­lat­ing: the hard drink­ing, the tour-level con­sump­tion of pills, and in­creas­ing hear­ing loss due to loud­speak­ers and tin­ni­tus. It’s never en­tirely clear if his ca­reer is fad­ing be­cause he is a mess or if he is a mess be­cause his ca­reer is fad­ing. Not ev­ery star can an­swer the ques­tion of what to do, how to live,

or who to be be­tween gigs, when not work­ing.

Be­fore they go out to his home state of Ari­zona on a clas­sic Har­ley-David­son mo­tor­cy­cle, Ally lets him know that she will never get on it with him when he’s been drink­ing. When she flies to Mem­phis to re­trieve him af­ter he’s been on a binge, she warns him that she will not come look­ing for him again. He will have to put him­self back to­gether on his own. When Jack­son breaks down in re­hab, Ally comforts him, telling him that it isn’t his fault, al­co­holism is a dis­ease. His brother will see mat­ters dif­fer­ently and tell her in her grief that only Jack­son is to blame. The ear­lier Es­thers are tem­po­rar­ily bro­ken in spirit. These are the ashes that Ally rises from. Not ev­ery en­abler is a vic­tim. The ear­lier ver­sions of A Star Is Born make the death of the lead­ing man the kind that could be called an ac­ci­dent in the pub­lic record. Not the lat­est ver­sion. Though the film views Jack­son’s sui­cide as a sac­ri­fice he’s made for the sake of Ally’s ca­reer, not even their devo­tion to each other can elim­i­nate en­tirely the feel­ing that a sui­cide is a des­per­ate thing to do to some­one you care about. A Star Is Born moves very quickly, right along with the mu­sic. It is hard to say how much time passes be­tween the night Jack­son and Ally meet and the night he hangs him­self. It’s not al­ways pos­si­ble to say where they are. The film tele­scopes, com­presses, count­ing on the au­di­ence to fill in the gaps. Usu­ally the pic­ture frame is so tight there’s no room for any­thing other than their two heads. Some­times we get just her eyes, and then the sud­den con­trast of scenes in the free­dom of open-air con­certs— the lights, the adren­a­line, the power. The con­cert scenes are won­der­fully com­posed.

The fi­nal shot of this A Star Is Born is of Ally Maine’s face in tight close-up while she’s stand­ing on stage. It’s all in the eyes. She, singer and song­writer, is silent, look­ing through the cam­era and find­ing us in the dark. Then the screen blacks out. The end leaves her at a turn­ing point. Is she star­ing down a flash­back or her fu­ture? She may be some­where in be­tween that street where she grew up and the ven­er­a­ble old theater where she’s been singing when we get blan­keted with her eyes; but she is also wit­ness to the pain of Jack­son Maine, singer and song­writer. Self-de­struc­tive­ness com­mands at­ten­tion, and Jack­son’s de­cline up­stages the rise of his spouse in most scenes of their mar­riage—ex­cept when they are on­stage. As a tale about show busi­ness and the mu­sic in­dus­try, as a para­ble about fame, A Star Is Born of­fers the di­vafi­ca­tion of a woman artist. And what she has mostly sur­vived is hav­ing to play a sup­port­ing role.

Don’t want to give my heart away to an­other stranger.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born

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