Full disclosure, I haven’t seen the first three iterations of A Star Is Born (1937, 1954, 1976), but I’m familiar with their basic plot lines, in part because this is a story that has been told time and time again in many different forms. The successful, genius, older man who takes a young woman, green behind the ears but bursting with talent, under his wing and shepherds her into fame and success is not exactly something new. Usually there’s a love story at the center. And normally, unfortunately, the young woman is hopelessly devoted to the man, despite all his flaws and how poorly he might treat her. Ultimately, her own strength and talent serves only to support his tragic shortcomings and/or downfall. In the year 2018, in the age of #metoo and a strong feminist resurgence in the face of Trumpism, I had high hopes that the progressive talents of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga would break the tired trope of this story and offer something new, some fresh insight about how love and artistic collaboration might interweave between man and woman in the modern era. Particularly in an industry historically dominated by men, but currently putting women on the highest pedestal; think Beyonce, Taylor Swift and yes, Lady Gaga. Sadly, A Star Is Born 4.0 falls into the same traps as many similar iterations of this same, tired story, reinforcing traditional gender stereotypes that give credence to an underlying toxic masculinity which demeans what female success looks like.
First, let me admit that this new film looks and sounds great. It feels like a dream, from beginning to end (and probably should have been just a dream). It’s a marvelous pop movie vehicle for one of the world’s biggest pop stars and Lady Gaga, though not yet a perfect actor, shows promise in her first feature film. She’s at her best doing what she does best, singing big pop numbers, but it’s in the close-ups, which require subtle nuance, where she often surprises, conveying much with little more than a simple glance. Bradley Cooper is believable as a country-rock version of Chris Cornell with addiction issues and, particularly in the way he portrays his addiction, which feels surprisingly believable if not a totally fresh take on such a played-out subject.
I think many viewers will be swept up in the spectacle that is this film and fall for its emotional tug-a-warring via a bright, showy display of big themes: love, stardom, and addiction. And I don’t blame them for that. But I’ve seen it all before. Many times. And I want something fresher, something with more nuance and a greater social message, one that feels more aligned with the time in which it was made. I don’t think it’s asking too much to want the film to practice what it preaches; artists have limited time and limited scope to say something meaningful, and they should use that time and reach to do it. Bradley Cooper’s aging rock musician, Jackson Maine scolds his brother (Sam Elliott) for not having anything to say with his talent and encourages his young protégé, Ally (Lady Gaga) to not squander hers. Yes, the movie fails to take advantage of a huge opportunity to do that very thing. The feminist/gender politics aside for the moment, this could have been a interesting exploration of the limits and dangers of fame and excess, drawing parallels with recent and past tragic losses, from Janis Joplin to Kurt Cobain, Chris Cornell and Amy Winehouse. But, simply put, the film says little on this issue, aside from maybe the simplistic view that some people are built for fame and some are not, or worse, that once that stardom begins to slip away, there is nothing worth living for.
The movie parallels the fall of Jackson Maine’s career with the rise of Ally’s. Almost simultaneously, as he uses his fame to open a door that her raw talent alone cannot, his begins to diminish. As she finds her own unique voice as an artist, he seems to lose his. This sounds like an interesting premise on its own, but the films offers judgment in the process, not an objective point of view of two contrasting artists who share in common little more than their love of music and love of each other. Jackson’s artistry is viewed as more pure, more honest. We see him judge Ally as she expands her repertoire from singer-songwriter to full on pop star in the lineage of Lady Gaga herself. Instead of appreciating his lover’s growth as an artist, Jackson looks down upon it and so too does the audience, because he is cast as the tragic, genius character without whom, she would never have made it. He engineers her fame, not her talent and when her talent begins to have a voice of its own, he doesn’t respect it.
What’s more, in addition to being the protégé that strays too far from her maker, Ally is encouraged by another man, a hot shot promoter who comes off as a profiteer, caring only about Ally’s success, not her artistry, integrity or personal happiness. And (no surprise) she blindly follows his lead, despite objection from her lover, and without any real push back or a unique thought of her own. Now these are all story tropes, and particularly Hollywood movie tropes that have been around forever. And the film had a great opportunity—remaking a film that has been made not once, but three times before—to dissect these tropes and reinvent them for the modern age. But it doesn’t. Even in the film’s closing moments, which are really quite touching and deftly filmed and edited, the movie makes the film about male power, male artistry over woman’s, she serving only the purpose of making his story more sentimental, her purpose being to love a man no matter how badly he has treated her, no matter the personal loss to herself and her career.
Why, in 2018, so many films still offer women (particularly a woman as successful and talented as Lady Gaga) roles that serve only as a fodder for a typical male-centric story that reinforces traditional gender stereotypes, I have no idea. This is Hollywood, supposedly the progressive bastion of the world, and still it falls trap to obvious shortcomings such as these. I know this is a big, starry love story whose primary purpose is escapism, to entertain, not to educate, but would it have been so difficult to also offer a message not so tired with cliché, one that does not reinforce traditional pillars of the patriarchy? After all, our young women and perhaps more importantly, our young men are watching. We can all do better, for their sake.