The excitement of A Star Is Born is in the music. The songs are kicking, or, when needed, haunting. Of the seventeen original songs, Lady Gaga, who plays the up-and-coming singer/songwriter Ally, wrote or cowrote twelve. Bradley Cooper, who wrote and directed the film and plays the country music star Jackson Maine, collaborated on four. They also worked with other musicians, most notably Lukas Nelson—son of Willie Nelson—who appears as one of Jackson’s band members. No matter what goes on in the film dramatically, everything always comes together because the soundtrack is happening, it’s just happening, as I heard someone say in the Magic Johnson Harlem theater.
A Star Is Born has been around as a franchise since 1937, when innocent and strong-willed Esther Blodgett, played by Janet Gaynor, first set off from small-town wherever-she-was-from to conquer Hollywood. She makes it, with the help of Norman Maine (Fredric March), the drunken star on the skids whom she loves and cannot save from ruin. She’s willing to give up her career in order to be the wife/warden, but he beats her to the sacrificial punch and commits suicide in order to set her free. It is Hollywood telling itself a price-of-success story. Dorothy Parker was on the team that wrote the screenplay.
Each remake has the atmosphere of the time when it was made and the luck of the person who wrote the screenplay. Moss Hart wrote the 1954 A Star Is Born with Judy Garland and James Mason, the first musical version. Garland sings “The Man That Got Away,” “Born in a Trunk,” and the cringe-making “Swanee.” John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and the director Frank Pierson wrote the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (as the Norman Maine character, here renamed John Norman Howard). It is nastier than the others, a reflection of Seventies grit making its way even into a romantic film. Streisand emerged from it with “Evergreen,” but otherwise the soundtrack is forgettable.
Hollywood gives Esther Blodgett the stage name Vicki Lester in the 1937 and 1954 films. At the end, recovered but still open to grief, she says to her public, “Hello. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” At the end of the 1976 version, Barbra Streisand’s angry and mournful survivor, Esther Hoffman, is introduced, correctly, as Esther Hoffman Howard. Ally, like Esther Hoffman before her, doesn’t take a stage name, but we also never hear her maiden name. “Fucking men!” Ally exclaims early on in the film, in the restroom at her job after she has dumped a guy by phone. In Lady Gaga’s version, it might not cross one’s mind until the end that the film includes no other women characters of any importance.
Other women are minor presences in the earlier versions. In the 1937 A Star Is Born, Esther could rely on the encouragement of her wise grandmother back home, and in the 1954 version Esther’s husband has a past of prowling clubs in order to pick up girls, an expression of how dissolute he was. In the beginning of the film, Esther has a rival, or there is another woman who assumes she’s Norman Maine’s date, a sort of sobriety beard. John Norman’s bleak episode of infidelity frees Streisand’s Esther of her guilt at being a success.
In the new version, Jackson’s romantic past doesn’t figure; no groupies give Ally the eye. Instead, Jackson wrestles with memories of his musician father, who made him his drinking partner when he was only thirteen. Ally is his reason to try to be sober. He has to die, the tragic ending of the romance dictates, because she is singular, not like other women. That Ally is the only woman in the film to appear in close-up isolates her but also makes her appear to be storing up the strength she’ll need.
In the end, Lady Gaga’s Ally stands before her audience as Ally Maine, the boss of her material, singing “I’ll Never Love Again.” The tight and arresting music, which takes in country, pop, and dance, gives the film the impression of being through-composed. Even quiet moments seem part of a rhythm. Cooper and Lady Gaga are most alive when they are performing, together or apart. We see them at breakfast, in bed, at their wedding, but they never seem more connected than when showing each other lyrics. “How do you hear this?” he asks her early on. “I want to know how you hear this,” she says to him when she finds a song he’s written for her, maybe his last.
A Star Is Born opens onstage, their true home. Jackson finishes his arena concert and is plunged into the shadowy interior of one of those high-riding vehicles. In his search for a drink, he has his driver stop at what turns out to be a drag bar. Great wigs, the silliness of lip-synching, and he’s unfazed, even when he’s recognized as Jackson Maine. Then Ally, the only girl the drag queens allow in the show, wearing her homemade pencil eyebrows, walks the bar to a jazzy backtrack as “La vie en rose” soars out of her. She’s not camp. She’s for real in the song. It is a tightly choreographed scene, with a nod to Bob Fosse, and ignites the story between Jackson and Ally but also acknowledges queer culture as soil that has nourished many a diva.
While Ally is getting ready to go with him to have a drink after her show (“I have paint in my hair.” “I’ll wait.”), one of the drag queens hands Jackson her white, rhinestone-studded guitar and asks him to sing a song; it doesn’t matter which, so long as he looks at her as he sings. He launches into what the film will tell us is one of his best-known songs: Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die. Once again, as open queer fantasy, it’s not camp: neither the drag queen’s sweet expression as she listens, nor Ally’s terrified gaze when she comes out and hides from view at first. He is a superstar, even his speaking voice is alarmingly sexy, he has tsar-blue eyes, as they used to be called, and he’s a nice guy.
Next they are in a cop bar, then a supermarket parking lot; he’s back on the road the following morning while she’s at home with her loving but emotionally clumsy father and his cronies. By her next restaurant shift she has quit and is off on a private jet, and getting out of one of those big, glossy black cars. She’s with Jackson’s people on the side of the stage, and then he’s telling her that he’s done a maybe-not-so-great arrangement of that song she wrote about him in the parking lot. All she has to do is trust him, he says. When she finally follows him out there, she experiences a homecoming, singing for the applauding thousands:
Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired trying to fill that void
Or do you need more
Ain’t it hard to keep it so hard core
In one brief scene in the beginning, Ally is throwing out the garbage at her job, in an alley that has the right acoustical brightness and bounce, and we hear her singing “is a hopeless jumble and the rain drops tumble all around” from “Over the Rainbow,” sounding every bit like Judy Garland. But it also brings to mind Lady Gaga’s own story of singing in the streets after her voice lessons. It sounds as though she has absorbed the entire American musical tradition, her voice so huge and clear. And Cooper can really rock. Jackson hides under a hat everywhere, except on stage, when he can open up in song, on his guitar, and let people see him. Ally puts on a cowboy hat in a tour bus scene that says she is going up while he is sliding.
In the parking lot where Jackson bandaged Ally’s knuckles after she’d socked an obnoxious off-duty cop, he told her a secret: he thinks she might be a songwriter. He says he won’t tell anyone, but adds that he’s not good at keeping secrets. Ally can give in to his dreams for her once she has proven that she doesn’t easily get swept away. (“I don’t feel this way about everybody.” “Well good. We’re on the same page. Come sing with me.”) What the film seeks to portray is how immediate their connection is, how firmly their understanding comes from a shared sensibility and mystical feeling about music (“Always Remember Us This Way”). She can learn from him because he is on her side and believes she has it all already. People want to hear what she has to say, he keeps telling her. He is utterly charming and she is appropriately watchful. It’s a man’s world of managers and musicians, no matter how large Ally’s face gets on the billboard.
A slick manager tells Ally that she is capable of doing so much more; she only has to admit that she’s ready. The film leaves pretty much unexamined her decision to record on her own, the rivalry between the husband who discovered her and the manager who changed her beat, her hair color, indeed her act, as well as what her shift from country-inflected ballads to urban dance songs might mean to her. A couple of times her husband mutters hurtful things at her that imply she’s in danger of selling out. More than once the musicians in the film remind one another that if you don’t have something to say, you’re screwed out there. People won’t be listening forever.
Jackson’s woes have been accumulating: the hard drinking, the tour-level consumption of pills, and increasing hearing loss due to loudspeakers and tinnitus. It’s never entirely clear if his career is fading because he is a mess or if he is a mess because his career is fading. Not every star can answer the question of what to do, how to live, or who to be between gigs, when not working.
Before they go out to his home state of Arizona on a classic Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Ally lets him know that she will never get on it with him when he’s been drinking. When she flies to Memphis to retrieve him after he’s been on a binge, she warns him that she will not come looking for him again. He will have to put himself back together on his own. When Jackson breaks down in rehab, Ally comforts him, telling him that it isn’t his fault, alcoholism is a disease. His brother will see matters differently and tell her in her grief that only Jackson is to blame. The earlier Esthers are temporarily broken in spirit. These are the ashes that Ally rises from.
Not every enabler is a victim. The earlier versions of A Star Is Born make the death of the leading man the kind that could be called an accident in the public record. Not the latest version. Though the film views Jackson’s suicide as a sacrifice he’s made for the sake of Ally’s career, not even their devotion to each other can eliminate entirely the feeling that a suicide is a desperate thing to do to someone you care about.
A Star Is Born moves very quickly, right along with the music. It is hard to say how much time passes between the night Jackson and Ally meet and the night he hangs himself. It’s not always possible to say where they are. The film telescopes, compresses, counting on the audience to fill in the gaps. Usually the picture frame is so tight there’s no room for anything other than their two heads. Sometimes we get just her eyes, and then the sudden contrast of scenes in the freedom of open-air concerts—the lights, the adrenaline, the power. The concert scenes are wonderfully composed.
The final shot of this A Star Is Born is of Ally Maine’s face in tight close-up while she’s standing on stage. It’s all in the eyes. She, singer and songwriter, is silent, looking through the camera and finding us in the dark. Then the screen blacks out. The end leaves her at a turning point. Is she staring down a flashback or her future? She may be somewhere in between that street where she grew up and the venerable old theater where she’s been singing when we get blanketed with her eyes; but she is also witness to the pain of Jackson Maine, singer and songwriter. Self-destructiveness commands attention, and Jackson’s decline upstages the rise of his spouse in most scenes of their marriage—except when they are onstage. As a tale about show business and the music industry, as a parable about fame, A Star Is Born offers the divafication of a woman artist. And what she has mostly survived is having to play a supporting role.
Don’t want to give my heart away to another stranger.
November 22, 2018
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