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90 Minutes On: "A Star is Born" (2018)

May Contain Spoilers

I write this having been properly chastened on social media for assuming that everyone knows the ending of the 2018 version of "A Star is Born," written, directed by and costarring Bradley Cooper. I assumed everyone knows the ending of Cooper's "A Star is Born" because it's the same ending, with a few details changed, as every version of "A Star is Born." Besides the 1937 original, which was about two actors and starred Fredric March and Janet Gaynor, there was a 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason as a singer and an actor, and a 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson as two singers. And if you widen the net a bit, you could pull in "What Price Hollywood?", about an actress and a film director, which has, shall we say, an interesting relationship with the rest. You could also include 1996's "Up Close and Personal," which technically wasn't a remake of "A Star is Born" but had the same screenwriters as the 1976 edition (Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne) and preserved the basic dynamic (mentor-pupil) between the leads. They're all the same movie, a statement that won't read as a slam to anyone who's seen a lots of movies. Most of Clint Eastwood's Westerns are the same movie, about a guy who emotionally or physically dies and then comes back to get revenge, learn how to live again, or both. 

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Anyway, suffice to say that if you've never seen any of the previous incarnations of "A Star is Born," you shouldn't be reading this piece, but that if you're a completist, or someone who doesn't get hung up on plot spoilers, you came to the right place.

The 2018 "A Star is Born" stars Cooper as Jackson Maine, a country-rock hybrid superstar who was big around the turn of the millennium but is coasting on fumes of his early success. Lady Gaga plays his great find and future soulmate, Ally (I don't think her last name is given in the film, but supposedly it's Campano, after Cooper's mother's maiden name). Ally is a brilliant singer and aspiring songwriter who's working as a waitress at the drag bar where Jackson meets her. The film sticks to the established template: the lovers are a spectacularly talented young female artist who's on her way up and an older male artist who's on his way down due to substance abuse, poor judgement, and an inability to keep up with the times. The man mentors the woman and marries her but ultimately is surpassed by her and self-destructs. 

In every film, but especially in the 1976 and 2018 versions, the man seems to intuitively recognize that his lover is the superior talent, even though he reflexively pushes against that knowledge for reasons of pride. The story darkens in its second half because the man is ultimately incapable of accepting the less exalted position of Supportive Spouse and starts unconsciously or intentionally undermining his wife. His subsequent tragic death is either an intentional suicide or a fatal act of recklessness/negligence. Either way, the film implies that he took himself out of the picture because he didn't want to be a lead weight around her neck any longer. 

How much the film seems to buy into the male lead's way of thinking depends on who made the film and when it was released. The 1954 version has Mason's character, the alcoholic middle-aged film star Norman Maine, overhearing his wife Vicki Lester stating that she plans to quit acting to take care of him, then deciding to swim out into the ocean and drown himself rather than permit her to throw away a brilliant career nursemaiding a has-been. The 1976 version kills off Kristofferson's character, rocker John Norman Howard, after he drunkenly interrupts the Grammy acceptance speech of his wife Esther Hoffman (Streisand) and subsequently sleeps with a reporter who's come to their house to score an interview with Esther; later, John wrecks his car in the desert while driving too fast, but we're left to surmise whether there was an element of intentionality.  

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I adore every version of this story for different reasons. But they mostly have to do with he artistry of the lead actors (or actor-singers, depending on the version) rather than the love story, which was always psychologically dicey for the way it romanticized suicide as something that one person could do as a favor, however misguided, for someone else. The first version not to treat the leading man's death as some kind of grand operatic gesture was the 1976 incarnation. Even that one allowed itself a bit of fuzziness, to the point of suddenly robbing the heroine—easily the most self-actualized of all the "A Star is Born" heroines up till then—of agency. To greater or lesser degrees, all of the films end with the woman nobly accepting her mantle as the surviving spouse of a famous, older male addict who killed himself (though the 1976 and 2018 versions at least cast lead actors who are close in age). Cooper's version does a creditable job of positioning Ally as a person strong enough to survive such misery. Gaga's otherworldly power as a singer and disarming naturalism as an actress assure us that the character will muddle through, and that Jackson's death will be a footnote in Ally's biography rather than the event that overshadows her art and defines her life.

In terms of raw talent, Cooper and Gaga are more equally matched and equally well-served than any duo in the history of this unofficial franchise, with the possible exception of Mason and Garland in the '54 movie. Even there I'd have to give Garland the edge, through no fault of Mason's, because that picture is conceived to showcase the superb acting and even more stunning musical performances of Garland, whereas Mason is restricted to acting only, because he's just not a musical comedy star and never pretended to be. Plus, we don't see as much of his character on the job as we do Garland (if you took out Garland's musical numbers, that film might be about the same length as the 1937 version). Gaga is given the Garland-Striesand treatment here, and deserves it. The movie is so intoxicated by her face and voice that if it were a person, we'd say it's blushing. Ally is portrayed as a once-in-a-generation star, somebody that even a man as accomplished as Jackson Maine should consider himself lucky to know. The film is a celebration verging on coronation of its leading lady. The adulation is richly deserved, given Gaga's mastery of every area of her art. Ally is a modified Gaga, even incorporating her pop sound, choreography, stage presence, and sense of costuming and production design. This is a rare film where you can say that the lead actress gets closest to playing herself when other characters' jaws are on the floor.

Cooper, on the other hand, was never known as a musician until he made this movie, yet he's constructed a fictional musician who seems nearly as fleshed-out as the real life Lady Gaga -- a feat that's impressive in itself. Jackson Maine's electrified stadium-country/rock bonafides are very Kristofferson '76, with trace elements of Garth Brooks circa '91, and two of Cooper's key non-Gaga musical consultants and soundtrack artists, Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) and Jason Isbell (who contributed "Maybe It's Time," the soundtrack's second best song after the the Gaga-Cooper collaboration "Shallow"). The tan, the bloodshot eyes, the sleepy-boy grin, the hat, and the stubble are marvelous details. They sell the idea that Jack has been around the block a few times -- and not just because he's too drunk to remember where to tell the limo to pull over. You can believe in the two characters as an instant power couple with an undertone of Cinderella fantasy (on her end) and Svengali control-freak transformation (on his). He thinks she's amazing and can be more amazing if he can mold her. She wants to be molded, because although she has faith in her own vocal skill and songwriting promise, she hasn't created a distinctive vibe yet, and it's clear from one look at this guy that he knows how to do it. One definition of a star is someone who can charm you even when he doesn't smell good.

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All that having been said, Cooper's script doesn't kid itself that a character played by Bradley Cooper could give Lady Gaga a ton of musical career advice, even in fiction. It wisely establishes that, when Jack meets Ally, she's already at the level of needing little or no coaching, just a few pointers and a good sounding board. He provides the latter thoughtfully, without too much preening, and with a palpable core of humility, minus much of the arrogance we might expect from a man who was as great a prodigy as Ally but at a younger age, and retains a certain self-regard even though he knows he's making a mess of his life. 

There's been some disagreement among my critic colleagues about whether the film looks down its nose at Ally's self-willed transformation into, essentially, Lady Gaga. Some think the film sneers at female-centric, intricately choreographed glam-pop, and believes Jack's spiel about rawness equaling authenticity. To be fair, that notion is embodied both in his meta-country songwriting style and in his wiping makeup from Ally's face early in their courtship, a holdover from prior versions of "A Star is Born." But I don't think the movie itself buys into it any of Jack's spiel; only Jack does. I thought all of Jack's acts of resentment and sabotage (including his backstage pouting at "Saturday Night Live" and his pants-pissing interruption of Ally's Grammy acceptance speech) were ultimately more about his fear of no longer being needed, both romantically and personally.

I should say here that none of the above is meant as a defense of the character, only a set of observations, offered in the spirit of armchair psychoanalysis. I came away from the movie liking it because of my seemingly inextinguishable affection for this terminally screwed-up story, but also feeling that it needed less Jackson and more Ally -- or at least more glimpses of Ally's emotional interior, to match all the good, long looks that we get of her husband's. Among the latter: a carnival-grotesque backstory about Jack's famous entertainer dad, who killed himself after getting a maid pregnant and left his other son—played by Sam Elliott, who's old enough to be Cooper's father—to raise him. It's a testament to the acting teamwork of Cooper and Elliott, and Cooper's compelling screenwriting in dialogue about the Maine family, that we are able to believe any of this, and accept it as the kind of thing that happens in show business, as opposed to a Eugene O'Neill play that was never produced because the story was just too gross.

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There isn't as much to analyze with Ally, unfortunately. Despite her incandescent Gaga-esque star power, as well as the glimpses of her working class Italian-American home life (Andrew Dice Clay is believable as her blustering single dad), she never comes alive as a character in the way that her pickled boyfriend-turned-mentor-turned-husband does. She seems to stay with him more out of kindness and pity anything else. She endures him, and continues to endure him, seemingly because women are socialized to endure men like this—to act a human life preservers for self-destructive male artists even when they're artists themselves, with their own aesthetic desires and career goals; to defer, to sacrifice, to put things on hold, because their man is suffering, or has gotten himself in trouble. 

"A Star is Born" always had a vein of masochism that could be described as anti-feminist. But it's such a rich vein, and speaks so deeply to aspects of women's experience, that it seems to me that it's wiser to think about why it keeps being so incredibly profitable, and build on that, rather than write the whole thing off as outdated or "problematic" and hope for no further remakes. Entire forms of art and entertainment, including daytime soaps, telenovela, operas, ballads of lost love, romance novels, and melodramatic comic strips, operate on the same wavelength as these movies, and they aren't durable and popular because the people who enjoy them are stupid or insufficiently woke. They're about suffering and transcendence. The marrow of human experience. 

The problem is that, in an era of more evolved thinking about substance abuse, suicide, and the psychological dynamics of marriage, we could all do with less suffering and a lot more transcendence in "A Star is Born." I'd like to see a version that's more the woman's story, with the man as the challenge that she has to make sense of and ultimately overcome, even if it means cutting him loose earlier -- or threatening to, then having to cope with the fallout from making the choice to protect herself; or having a clearer moment of realization about why it's so hard to get out of a relationship like that, and why it's impossible to save people who can't or won't save themselves.

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More so than any previous version of "A Star is Born," this one feels like it ends just when it was getting warmed up. With the movie's global box office on track to exceed half a billion dollars, you can rest assured that this story is speaking to a new generation in a new musical and visual language, and that we'll see more versions of it, probably sooner than any of us can imagine. So let's imagine what that could look like. Consider a version of this story where the genders are flipped. What, if anything, would need to be changed? For that matter, imagine a sequel about Ally crawling out of the abyss of loss and recording a masterful album that makes sense of her experience and wins her another Grammy. This film could be titled "A Star is Made." Barbra Streisand could direct it.

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