Famously, this film has been made at least three times, in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason; and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. But as Bradley Cooper has it, several actors have taken on the role, but Kristofferson is clearly his main muse. As one friend put it, he essentially channeled him: adopting the sexy '70s star's beard, his hat, and his all important swagger in playing aging rock star Jackson Maine, who finds a talented young singer by chance in a nightclub drag show one night, and whisks her away into fame, fortune, love and, eventually tragedy.
That singer is played by Lady Gaga, a talented musician in her own right, but whose acting is slightly more teetering. It's not that she's directly bad, or poorly cast -- in fact, her penchant for costumes, spectacle, and musical dexterity pays off handsomely -- but in asking her to carry huge sections of the film's emotional impact, first-time director Cooper puts so much on her shoulders, the film turns wobbly under the weight.
That's not the only reason, of course. The script, adapted by Cooper, Eric Roth and Will Fetters, also seems shaky, taking the original story -- essentially, an aging-out star transferring his fame and celebrity power to a young, beautiful protege -- and trying to update it with a more modern sensibility, eschewing some of the story's inherent condescension toward women, in favor of something resembling female empowerment. It's a necessary update, in order to make the film feel more current, but in that process, the writing team also makes it less coherent.
Take Jackson Maine himself: When we first see him, about to go on stage in front of a massive throng of concertgoers, he's playing straight '70s rock star, playing fiery licks on his ax, with a thumping bass line to keep the time. At other points, he's clearly more of a country guy, with the boots and hat and vintage Ford in his garage; still elsewhere, he's a singer/songwriter type of fellow, writing simple love songs on a piano. There's nothing wrong with being musically ambidextrous, of course, but as a means of defining his character, it just serves to keep his modus operandi fuzzy, as if you were watching him through a sheet of wax paper: he never quite makes sense.
What is abundantly clear are his addictions. He boozes indiscriminately, crushes pills with one of his boots in order to snort the powder, and passes out on floors, sidewalks and backyards, if only to be sweetly put to bed by his older brother (Sam Elliot), an old hand at keeping his brother protected from his excesses.
That is, until Jackson happens into that bar, and watches transfixed as Ally captivates the crowd. Meeting her backstage, he whisks her away on a private jet to his next gig, where he asks her to join him on stage for a song she had sung to him a cappella the night before, sitting in a supermarket parking lot. For reasons never quite made clear, Jackson is determined to perform wish-fulfillment fantasies for Ally, with virtually no strings attached, other than love.
The moment on stage, with the stricken Ally suddenly being offered everything she might have ever wanted in less than 24 hours, is one of the film's more winning moments. Singing shyly at first, Gaga, a consummate stage performer, builds in natural confidence until her voice is shimmering over the crowd, even as she's still covering her face with her hands as if wanting to avoid their attention. Later, as the song builds into a powerful duet, it plays like a kind of coronation -- she has successfully made the jump from drag-nightclub singer to burgeoning superstar in less time than it takes one to drive from Manhattan, Kan., to Manhattan.
From there, the film follows the same sort of trajectory, not just of previous Star films, but also nearly every addiction film ever made: Things go better for a while, then worse, then much worse. Along the way, the couple get married on the same day Jackson proposes to her; they move out to his comfortable California house; and they adopt a gorgeous, teddy bear of a dog named Charlie (Cooper's own dog, it turns out, who is honestly so captivating I would have happily watched a couple of hours of them playing with him in the front yard); and, naturally, her career explodes, as he gets worse and worse.
In this way, the film wobbles on until it comes to its emotional climax. Cooper does employ an assortment of filmmaking devices -- including intentionally cut-short scenes that mostly avoid emotional crescendos -- to comport the film as more than its broad material might suggest. The stage scenes capture the right amount of energy and buzz, and the music throughout provides a decent kick.
But watching Ally go from naive waif to raging pop star with orange hair, stage dancers, and billboards of her face staring out over the Hollywood Hills, robs the film of Cooper's stabs at verisimilitude. It becomes increasingly unlikely that a rock/country dinosaur, playing out the string and a young, up and coming comet burning through the cosmos would actually share anything terribly much in common, as much as the film desperately tries to suggest otherwise.
It also seems to play pretty fast and loose with its emotional registry, regularly offering up moments between the couple that don't sit quite right. The duo have decent chemistry together, it must be said, but it becomes less believable as the film progresses. You can imagine what Cooper was going for here, after all, the (highly patriarchal) point of the film is that this man is passing the mantle of fame to someone younger and better able to handle it. In that way, it makes a certain amount of sense that they might grow farther apart, stylistically, as well as in their emotional bond, but it never quite adds up, which saps the film of important poignancy it really needs at the end.
This may well be the result of a neophyte director learning how difficult it is to carry an emotional through-line that resonates from the first act to the third. But despite his directorial difficulties, Cooper's actual portrayal of Jackson offers some of the most raw and unbridled work of his career. In many scenes, he serves as the necessary anchor, adding a focal point for the scene to work off of, an important element dealing with a young actress like Gaga. The trouble often comes when he's not on screen to provide the touchstone.
Of course, some of the problem resides in the antiquated message the film is trying to convey in the first place. It's hard to say why this particular story has so transfixed Hollywood that it has been remade more than the Spiderman franchise over the years, though it likely has to do with both the studios' lingering fixation on young, burgeoning starlets, and its own obsession with waning male power and mortality. In the age of #metoo, however, that male decline seems less a tragedy and more a just comeuppance.
MovieStyle on 10/05/2018
A Star Is Born
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Dave Chappelle, Rebecca Field, Michael Harney, D.J. “Shangela” Pierce, William Belli, Anthony Ramos
Director: Bradley Cooper
Rating: R, for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Print Headline: A star is worn: Bradley Cooper’s talent, Lady Gaga’s novelty not enough to blaze new trails with the overly told tale