How Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’ Fails Its Star
The article below contains spoilers for A Star Is Born. If you have yet to see it (or any of the three versions that preceded it), turn back now because we’re about to go off the deep end.
A Star Is Born follows a long narrative tradition in Hollywood — one that extends beyond the original 1937 film of the same name. Troubled boy meets talented girl whose love offers a path to redemption that he cannot bring himself to take. In the 2018 version (and fourth iteration), directed by Bradley Cooper, alcoholic music superstar Jackson Maine (also Cooper) has built an entire career on his belief in “having something to say.” It’s too bad that A Star Is Born has virtually nothing to say — nor is it particularly concerned with the inner life of its real star, played by Lady Gaga.
The elements that make this Star Is Born a faithful remake are the same ones that make it such a disappointing experience. In almost every version, the song is essentially the same: An alcoholic male star on his way out meets a wildly talented young woman and uses his position to launch her career. As one star rises, the other continues to fall until — overcome by the idea that he will only bring her down — the guy takes his own life before he ruins hers. Thus, a star is born as another dies.
While some would criticize the 1976 version for focusing too much on Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman and short-changing Kris Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard, at least that film appreciated its female lead. The inverse is true of Cooper’s remake, which is barely about Gaga’s Ally — a character so thinly written that she doesn’t even have a last name until Jackson marries her and she takes his. That’s a fairly succinct way to describe the film’s treatment of Ally, who is defined entirely by how the men in her life view her, whether it’s the gin-soaked validation of a fading music star or misguided support from her father (Andrew Dice Clay), or a manager who thinks she’d be more successful if she just bleached her hair and performed with some back-up dancers.
And sure, that’s how the traditional A Star Is Born story goes, but in 2018, this narrative is exhaustingly antiquated — or at least it should be. In a world where men are still paid more than women, and where men are the gatekeepers to success, A Star Is Born merely reinforces the notion that a woman only matters when a man notices her.
After Jackson stumbles upon Ally performing in a drag club, the pair spend a whirlwind evening together — in which the most we learn about Ally is that she is painfully insecure about her looks (relatable) and feels like her nose is way too big. This is perhaps the only deep and meaningful thing we learn about Ally. At the end of that initial evening, Ally improvises the first verse of “Shallow,” the song that will come to define her relationship with Jackson both on-stage and off.
Whether or not Bradley Cooper realizes it, “Shallow” is the perfect description of his movie’s treatment of Ally. We know so much about Jackson and his past: His mother died during childbirth, his dad was a mean alcoholic, he and his brother (Sam Elliott, giving his all in a thankless role) raised each other, and he’s got some hearing problems that date back to a childhood incident. As for Ally, we know that she was raised by her father, but Jackson — and Cooper — never bother to interrogate her past and her interior life.
That’s because none of this is really about Ally. It’s about Jackson (and, in a sense, Cooper) and his journey as an alcoholic. As a movie about addiction, A Star Is Born is actually pretty effective, though Cooper should’ve retitled it to something more accurate, given that Ally is little more than a prop for Jackson’s disease — and Gaga little more than a prop for Cooper’s vanity. And this, along with the film’s view of Ally as an object pinging from one man to the next, would be fine if any of the three (!) men who wrote the film (including Cooper) had taken a thoughtful perspective of it.
Instead, A Star Is Born is a perfect reflection of institutionalized misogyny; it is a movie that is very much of our time, but we are living in a time that demands so much more — at the very least, criticism of a world in which the best a woman like Ally can hope for is marrying into fame with an alcoholic because he’s the only person who ever admired her nose.
While Ally’s attachment to Jackson may seem senseless, there is some fascinating psychology to be mined from their dynamic, like why she’s drawn to this self-destructive person on the verge of total collapse — if only Cooper were interested in giving Ally any semblance of a life outside of Jackson’s gin-soaked bubble. Early in the film, after that first night with Jackson, Ally tells her father that he’s just a drunk. “Something you would know about,” she says, implying some secret history we’ll never know.
Was Ally’s mother an alcoholic? Is that why she’s out of the picture? Or is her father in recovery? Is that why he’s particularly angry with Jackson later, when he gets wasted and urinates on stage while Ally is receiving a Grammy? The answer to any of these questions could illuminate why Ally chooses to be with someone so racked with addiction that his older brother has to put him to bed every night.
The film’s inability to honestly confront these and other issues relating to Ally’s place in this male-dominated world is particularly bizarre considering another scene that’s refreshingly blunt: Before consummating her sexual relationship with a drunken Jackson, Ally runs off to the bathroom. It’s the rare movie moment that depicts “freshening up” for what it really is, as Ally wipes her armpits and crotch with a facecloth. It’s such a realistic feminine moment, in fact, that I can’t help but suspect that it was Gaga’s idea — especially since the rest of the film, as it pertains to her, is lacking that kind of realism.
Anyone who’s coped with a loved one’s addiction (or who has seen any of the other versions of this story) knows the tragedy that inevitably awaits Jackson and Ally. And credit where credit’s due to Cooper, who himself is a recovering addict: Jackson’s addiction and the effect it has on his loved ones feels painfully real. While the impetus for his relapse (Ally’s producer makes a couple cruel comments) seems flimsy, the actual relapse and subsequent suicide are deeply upsetting — and borderline triggering for anyone who’s lost a loved one to addiction. It is an uncompromising disease, and the only one that can be described as selfish in nature. Unfortunately, I would use the same word to describe the worst moments in Cooper’s A Star Is Born. If Cooper's goal was to make that film, he succeeded.
That this part of A Star Is Born is so damn effective only underscores the fact that maybe Cooper should’ve stuck with what he knows instead of co-opting an iconic title and using Gaga as a Trojan horse for an exorcism of his personal demons.
Upon its release in 1976, many accused director Frank Pierson’s iteration of A Star Is Born of being little more than a vanity project for Barbra Streisand — including Pierson himself, who wrote an exhaustive exposé of the contentious production for New York Magazine, in which he described it as a “Barbra Streisand lollipop extravaganza.” The New York Times review similarly criticized Streisand, who had substantial say in the film’s direction and editing, for performing the role as “a solo turn” instead of a duet. “She’s a queen condescending to her own court cameraman,” wrote Vincent Canby in his review, noting that “everybody else is a back-up musician” for Streisand.
Whether or not Pierson’s film focuses too much on Streisand has long been up for debate, but at least in that version, the female lead is fully realized. The emphasis is rightfully on the star who is born, rather than the one who burns out. In the final scene of Cooper’s version, Ally takes the stage at a memorial for Jackson to sing a song he wrote for her. She’s introduced by the announcer as “Ally Maine.” It‘s the only time we ever hear her last name spoken, and it’s not even hers; she walks on stage to sing a song that she didn’t even write. She is a monument to Jackson. Even in death, her value is defined by him.
In contrast, Pierson’s version ends with Streisand taking the stage at her own concert as Esther Hoffman, not as Esther Hoffman Howard. She chooses to pay tribute to her dead husband by singing a somber ballad he wrote, but halfway through Esther changes it into an up-tempo rock song. By doing so, she claims her success as her own and controls the narrative of her life:
Maybe it’s no coincidence that the version of this story that actually treats its female lead like a real person with thoughts and feelings of her own was criticized for doing so. Curiously, when that same story is told by a man, centering entirely on his perspective while paying little mind to the Star of its title, it’s not a “vanity project” — it’s a triumph.