Existential Review: A Star is Born.
Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is internalized misogyny gussied up as artistic paean with pretty cinematography.
Well, here we are on the 91st Academy Awards homestretch. I knew, way back in October that I wanted nothing to do with Bradely Cooper’s vanity project remake of A Star is Born. Hell, for all it’s nominations, awards shows have seemed pretty consistent about not wanting anything to do with it beyond its soundtrack. Having sat through it, my opinion hasn’t changed. Despite some deft cinematography, the story and ethos of A Star is Born is rotten to its core. There is so much casual misogyny, cultural superiority, pretension and ego stroking packed into this movie, Redbox is pretty lucky to be getting their disk back in one piece.
A Star is Born (2018)
At the height of his career, country western star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles into a bar after a concert, only to be mesmerized by the young singer on stage. Ally (Lady Gaga) is working a dead-end job while struggling to get her singing/songwriting dream off the ground. Jackson takes her under his wing and introduces her talents to the world. As her star eclipses his, he spirals further into drugs and alcohol.
I Will Say Something Nice About this Movie.
First time director Bradley Cooper does understand the craft. His shots are well composed, especially the lighting. There are quite a few striking moments where a character’s emotions are echoed by a deft change in lighting. In the first sequence, Jackson is trolling for an open bar to sate his alcoholism, and as his mood swings the red and blue lights from the street highlight his turmoil. At times, it can be a bit on the nose, such as when he passes a sign on a billboard arrayed with nooses just as he asks his driver if there is another bottle of booze. Mostly, the film is pretty to look at, even with the context of the film being so ugly.
The performances rise above the script. Despite being relegated to mirrors that reflect Jackson’s greatness, Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott manage some great scenes. You can see Gaga in particular draw on experience to create depth where the story has deprived her character of it. The musical numbers are well done, blending the cast’s natural talents with the aforementioned eye for lighting and editing. So, that’s about as much positivity as I can muster for this film.
The ethos of A Star is Born is deeply entrenched in unexamined male privilege. Jackson Maine is the focus, always. Hell, Ally doesn’t even get a last name until she cathartically takes his last name after his “self-sacrifice”. He is the gatekeeper, the agent of action, and the subject with interior concerns. She is the recipient of his largess, the object of his passions, a blank slate to project his desires on. If she is ever out of agreement with his desires, she is wrong and in need of correction. When she is out of his shadow, she is being artificial. When she conforms to his vision, she is her “true” self. Any deviation from expectation is so egregious that it literally provokes our hero to relapse.
This toxic brew apparently extended even into the production of the film. Cooper physically removed Lady Gaga’s make-up, altering her appearance to fit his definition of authenticity. Never mind that he’s playing a character who explicitly steals his brother’s look and sound (and that Cooper is pretty much stealing Sam Elliott’s look and sound in reality as well.) His vision is authentic. Hers is inauthentic if it is out of sync with his.
The Artist’s Burden.
A Star is Born is desperate to impress on the audience just how difficult and worthy the (white, male) artist’s journey is. His voice and vision is goddamn important. Jackson is constantly talking about how he has something novel to say that the world needs to hear. Never mind that he’s a stylistic thief, singing fairly formulaic country western pap, and the star in a movie that is the fourth remake of a story as old as Hollywood.
The Unexamined Life.
A Star is Born is a problematic story, which has always implicitly traded in the cultural bias towards a man’s priority. When he is given his proper due, he is a hero who spreads opportunity and authenticity everywhere he goes. When his priority is eclipsed, he’s a tragic figure. Pretty much every version has traded in this coin. At least the other versions had the decency to make the female lead the main character. Yes, she is always judged by her conformity to male expectation. At least the camera is following her around. In Cooper’s version, she doesn’t even get that.
The most galling moment is the final scene, in which Ally is mourning Jackson in a tribute. Just as she approaches the final line, the camera cuts back to an earlier scene of Jackson singing the song to Ally. Even in fucking death, he is the font of agency. Thank goodness he was big enough to die and allow her to properly absorb how goddamn great he was. Fuck that sense of entitlement and fuck this movie.