(2018—Director: Bradley Cooper)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
A Star Is Born—the story of a crossroads romance between a fading and alcoholic male star and a woman whose stardom lies just around the corner. For Hollywood, these four words link the years 1937, 1954, and 1976. (Some would even include 1932 and 2011.) Now, thanks to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (also writing, producing, and making his directorial debut), 2018 joins that list with vulnerable and raw energy.
The life of grizzled country rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) has begun to unravel. Despite the care of his much older brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliot), Jackson’s tinnitus is now affecting his playing ability, further hampered by severe alcoholism. Thirsty after yet another sold-out concert, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar. There, he discovers Ally (Lady Gaga), a struggling daytime waitress who moonlights as a bar singer, and becomes enraptured by her voice. Jackson soon convinces Ally to join him on tour to sing as well as contribute her own songs. As their romantic and artistic partnership blossoms, others rush to thrust Ally into stardom.
For Ally, fame and fortune might have to cost her the love of her life and the toxic habits he cannot overcome.
One trend I have noticed in each proper A Star Is Born version is how the actress, despite playing the rising starlet, edges out her male co-star in terms of fame. Fredric March’s credits extend to three years before Janet Gaynor’s start and he had already won a Best Actor Oscar (and would go on to win a second); Gaynor had won her Best Actress award at the 1st Oscars, had reigned as a box office queen, and would effectively retire from acting soon after the 1937 iteration returned her to the top. James Mason was more popular in his native Great Britain and his role in the 1954 musical numbered among his early substantial Hollywood parts; Judy Garland was seeking to bounce back from the end of her lucrative tenure at MGM that included The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Easter Parade. Lastly, even the biggest Kris Kristofferson fan could not deny the mega-stardom of Barbra Streisand at the time of the 1976 rock musical’s release.
Lady Gaga and Bradley have seen steady success in pop music and film acting, respectively, yet Gaga’s medium has given her the higher profile. Thus, the two maintain the Star Is Born co-star trend of a more famous actress and a somewhat less famous actor. However, Gaga has since grown from the aggressive and radio-friendly The Fame, The Fame Monster, and Born This Way to the more polarizing and less radio-friendly Artpop, Joanne, and Cheek to Cheek, her throwback collaboration with Tony Bennett.
To counterbalance the diminishing top five hits as the 2010s continued, Gaga has ventured more into acting, including appearances in FX’s American Horror Story (seasons 5 and 6). Gaga’s artistic maturity, along with a slight focus on her unglamorous facial features, contribute to the naked and rebirth-like luminescence of her performance in A Star Is Born. Even as she evolves (or regresses) into someone similar to her real-life self from 2009, you believe and become inspired by Gaga as she takes the rough first steps to musical stardom, especially during the numbers “Shallow” and “Always Remember Us This Way”.
The summer of 2009 that, if not ruled by the sounds of the Black Eyed Peas, was ruled by Lady Gaga, saw the release of The Hangover. The Golden Globe-winning comedy, which arguably defined 2009 along with box office behemoth Avatar, propelled Cooper and his several of his co-stars to heights of fame yet unattained. (Cooper and Hangover producer-director Todd Phillips reunite here as two of A Star Is Born’s producers.) Cooper soon followed two disappointing Hangover sequels with appearances in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and American Sniper (also as producer), earning him four Oscar nominations in three consecutive years.
2015 through 2017 were comparatively quiet for Cooper, though one can attribute that to his four-fold duties for A Star Is Born. Cooper labors to achieve Jackson Maine’s rugged and tragic drunkenness without making it appear overwrought, though emphasizing the unpreventable tinnitus would have curbed the melodramatic touches of depicting alcoholism. Cooper diverts such potentially distracting passion into the kinetic direction of the musical performance scenes. The crosscutting between Jackson and his band playing “Out of Time” and “Alibi” and Ally and her friend Ramon (an underused Anthony Ramos) quitting their restaurant jobs and flying out to Jackson’s gig is a standout segment. Outside these and the central relationship, I would not rush to nominate Cooper in Best Director over other 2018 efforts, including Christopher McQuarrie for Mission: Impossible—Fallout, but A Star Is Born serves as a fantastic directorial debut nevertheless.
In all likelihood, the populist factor of 2018’s A Star Is Born might guarantee the movie a spot in the next Best Picture category. It continues the focus on musicians rather than actors that started with the 1976 rock musical, yet it scales back the excesses of post-Paramount Decision Old Hollywood in 1954 and of New Hollywood in 1976. The result is a grounded and updated reflection on the tug of war between fame, fortune, romance, and addiction. The story, though a fixture of Hollywood’s long-held resistance to originality, always manages to reach a new generation.
Who knows? Perhaps sometime in the next two decades, I too will sit before the silver screen to review once again the latest version of A Star Is Born.
(Parental Note: A Star Is Born has been rated R by the MPAA “for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity, and substance abuse”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong language” and “drug misuse”, and rated A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for containing “a suicide, implied premarital sexual activity, fleeting upper female nudity, occasional drug use, a couple of profanities, and frequent rough language.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.