The Strawberry Criterion: A Star is Born

The genealogy of A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, traces an indirect lineage back to the dawn of American cinema, with three remakes and nine decades separating this most recent version from its oldest spiritual predecessor, 1932’s What Price Hollywood? Directed by George Cuckor, who would later repackage the loose story into 1954’s A Star is BornWhat Price Hollywood? establishes what has proven to be a conspicuously enduring narrative template. In each film, with minimal variation, an older, established man in the arts discovers the overlooked talents of a younger woman, elevates her to stardom, and marries her. The female artist–Judy Garland, Barbara Streisand, Lady Gaga–eventually comes to outshine her husband–James Mason, Kris Kristofferson, Bradley Cooper–intensifying the same existential crises and substance abuse their union seem intended to alleviate. What Price Hollywood? ends with Mason’s character committing suicide by shooting himself in the chest. In the 1976 version of A Star is Born, Kristofferson’s simply marches into the sea to drown. And while there are mitigating tensions in the story (private and public life, industry and artistry), the dominant message until Cooper’s film has remained largely the same, a tragic love story masking a retelling of Frankenstein: The death of the creator will be his creation.

Regardless of the specific film’s title or period, this shared formulation carries with it an inherent misogyny, an implicit impulse to attribute the downfall of the male artist to the rise of his female counterpart, and the success of Cooper’s film thus depends on his ability to undermine and complicate this dynamic, to resist both the glorification of masculine suffering and the sanctification of feminine caregiving. This would mean a radical reimagining of the narrative implications, and yet Cooper begins his A Star is Born by changing next to nothing about the general setup. He plays Jackson Maine, an aging heartland rockstar in the vein of a Gen-X Neil Young, his artistic prime well in the rearview but not yet out of sight. Insufficiently plastered after a concert, Maine has his driver drop him off at a random bar in New York City, where the night’s drag show is already underway. It is within this atmosphere of confused gender roles and performances that Maine meets Ally (Lady Gaga), an American waitress dressed as a man singing a song by a French woman, Édith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose.” Maine is impressed by Ally’s rendition, and when her coworker insists that he talk to Ally, Maine follows him backstage, where the fourth remake of A Star is Born begins to veer away from its predecessors.

rev-1-ASIB-03888r_High_Res_JPEG.jpgFilms centered on love stories tend to live and die by the onscreen chemistry between their two leads, and one of the most ingenious aspects of A Star is Born–as well as the potential key to its formula’s replicability–derives from how the musical performances lessen the importance of romantic chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. As the rest of the movie will illustrate, Maine is a music critic as much as he is a performer or a songwriter, and while music industry suits in the fiction of the film may be able to overlook Ally’s abilities, the awesome reality of Lady Gaga’s talent is instantly recognizable to Maine and the audience, his and our attraction to her made special by virtue of it being shared by none of the other characters. Behind the camera, Cooper easily could have coasted on his costar’s voice and musicianship alone, the interchangeable love story acting as pretext for a handful of memorable songs and set pieces, but from the instant Maine meets Ally in the dressing room after the drag show, their relationship is distinctly strange, their first night together beginning with Maine peeling off Ally’s fake eyebrows and ending with him attaching a bag of frozen peas to her bruised knuckles with duct tape. There are at least a dozen other indelible moments like these, romantic and tragic, as their relationship waxes and wanes, the relative lack of chemistry between Cooper and Gaga a non-factor compared to the believable bond between Maine and Ally.

This indelibility extends itself to Maine’s drug use and alcoholism, the major point of conflict in the latter half of A Star is Born, and if this remake distinguishes itself as a standalone film anywhere, it’s in the brutally honest handling of Maine’s addiction and Ally’s response to it. Though Ally’s rising profile and commercialization play an undeniable part in Maine’s feelings of inadequacy, the motivations behind his drinking are a shifting constellation of deep traumas and minor slights, with anguishes moving from the periphery to the center with a randomness so maddening the only sane response is total self-obliteration. Bound up in this pain is the musical success that Maine’s brother and father never found, his genetic disposition to alcoholism, a profound inability to communicate offstage that finds Cooper spending majority of the film speaking in a sloshed mumble. Ally isn’t merely more talented than Maine, she is more emotionally intelligent than him despite being ten years his junior. Before Cooper signed on to the project, A Star is Born was slated to be directed by Clint Eastwood, another director whose artistic intentions, conservative on their face, tend to backfire and espouse a weird horseshoe progressivism. And so Maine’s professorial lectures to Ally about “having something to say” convey less an admirable set of aesthetic principles than an unfortunate and sneakily heartbreaking expression of Maine’s own dated concepts of what constitutes great art. For reasons far more complicated than his wife’s success, Maine is left to dissemble adult experience with a child’s tools.

A-Star-Is-Born-Kris-Kristofferson-Barbra-Streisand-1976 (2).jpgThe ultimate power of A Star is Born may lie in the fact that it is neither a musical nor love story, but a work of science fiction in the tradition of Solaris or Annihilation, a film about a husband and wife forced apart by superhuman forces and horrible monsters. It is set in an alternate 2018 where folksy guitar rock can still sell out stadiums, and the unbridgeable existential gaps between its leads widen even when they’re physically and emotionally closest. The purest expression of this alienation comes near the end of the film, when Ally visits Maine in rehab and asks him if he remembers any part of their relationship, or if his love for her is contingent on him being drunk. These are the serious emotional and ethical grey areas traversed by what should be another forgettable remake, those of a film whose director and lead actress will be in awards consideration next year. The man tells his wife that she was the one source of light on the lonely planet of his addiction, and then we are flung cruelly back into an infinite universe where, despite massive evidence to the contrary, there isn’t room enough for two stars.

Final Strawberry Verdict: 4.5 Strawberries out of 5