Released 2018. Director: Bradley Cooper
THIS IS THE FOURTH VERSION OF A STAR IS BORN (or the fifth if you count What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor). What is it about this story that captivates Hollywood so much? Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut revisits a familiar story dating back to 1937 (or even 1932). For this latest version, the screenplay is based on that of 1954 (starring Judy Garland and James Mason) and 1976 (starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson).
It’s a simple story. Famous musician discovers ingenue and and helps her become a new sensation. They fall in love but it doesn’t end well. That’s the gist of it. The various versions explore the same theme taking slightly different routes but they all come to the same point. The hero dies.
Cooper not only directs but also stars as country-rock star extraordinaire Jackson Maine who commands stadium-sized audience to his concerts. One night he sees Ally perform in a small bar and quickly recognizes a raw talent. A lover-nurturer relationship blossoms, paving the rise of Ally to become a pop star whose fame and presence eclipses Jackson.
In playing Jackson Maine, Cooper also proves he can sing, and should probably record a solo album in his spare time. Looking like he’s neglected to use sunscreen for years, Cooper nevertheless exudes a raw magnetism as a romantic leading man. Much more than that, a sense of over-protectiveness shines through. Jackson is a man with a big heart and a self-destructive streak and Cooper gives perhaps his best performance to date. When he looks at Ally, the world fades away and nothing else matters. He sure can direct himself to act.
Lady Gaga in the role of Ally is, on the surface, not really a stretch. Here’s a superstar singer playing a superstar singer. Two hours later, I'm about to eat my words. The surprise is Gaga shows some real dramatic chops in her first major screen role. Gaga gets under the skin of her character and proves she has a flair for emotional shades and is certainly qualified to stand side by side with Garland and Streisand as far as this role is concerned.
Apart from Ally, there is a curious absence of women in the roster of main and supporting characters. We see Ally’s father and his limo-driving pals. Jackson has an older brother and is also motherless. The immediate circle is very much male-centric. Then there is their manager Rez, Ally’s best friend Ramon, and a circle of drag queens. Perhaps it doesn’t make any difference to the story but the conspicuous absence of women in Ally’s life is an interesting aspect in the telling of her story.
This omnipresence of the male gender also leads to another thought. As Jackson’s soiled reputation becomes a liability not only to his own brand but that of Ally, Jackson chooses to step away permanently. Whatever jealousy and insecurity he has felt when his protégé begins to overshadow him, Jackson makes sure he no longer stands in the way of his wife’s continued success. A star is born, and he’s the martyr to make it shine even brighter. In the end, a man’s suicide ensures a woman’s career lives on. Does a woman like Ally, a talented singer-songwriter, strong willed, independent spirited, not stand a chance if she stood by her problematic man? One would like to think the world has evolved beyond the point where women find themselves overshadowed by the need for a male saviour.
A possible explanation is Hollywood’s love to cast artists (actors and singers in all four versions) as tragic romantics. Flawed characters who must choose between love and stardom. One or the other, and death to follow. The artist as a casualty of fame and talent in the pursuit of love is a recurring theme even though it’s nearly a hundred years since this story was first told. This continued portrayal of victimhood has a whiff of narcissism and with this remake of A Star is Born, the self-flagellation continues.