Having never seen any of the previous incarnations of A Star is Born, a favorite Hollywood story about a female star on a meteoric rise to fame while her male lover experiences the opposite career trajectory, I was only familiar with the basic premise going in. And while I was also familiar with the fact that the male’s story is tragic, I was completely blindsided by just how bleak the last third of this movie is. The good news is that I think the movie more than earns the arc, meaning that it doesn’t feel manipulative in the way other tragic romances do–like, say Message in a Bottle or both the book and movie versions of The Fault in Our Stars. The performances are also so good that they could carry you anywhere and you wouldn’t mind.
The movie establishes in the opening scene of Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine performing at a concert that he has serious substance abuse problems and no one in his inner circle is really doing anything about it. He’s such an alcoholic that he can’t even handle a car ride when there’s no more booze in his vehicle, so he has the driver pull over at a random bar. That‘s how he meets Lady Gaga’s Ally. Their meet-cute (while she performs at a drag bar) is really a meet-holy-crap-this-guy-needs-help.
Where the movie really succeeds is that Ally calls him on his shit right from the start. This is not the stereotypical scenario where a woman is expected to be the savior figure for a troubled man. I can’t stand that storyline. She only agrees to see him again when she gets fed up with her job and decides to walk off. And while it’s still difficult to see just why she falls so hard in love with a man who is so blatantly suffering from a severe problem, she still manages to be her own person and continues to push him to try to be better without becoming codependent. As addiction stories go, this is actually very well told.
It’s also exceptionally well acted. I am not a fan of Bradley Cooper but I can’t deny that he’s incredible in this movie. He even makes himself look weathered and worn down–he knows that it would be both irresponsible and unrealistic to make addiction look pretty. He also does a great job showing us both the good heart and the heavy sadness buried within him. If he wins an Oscar for Best Actor this year (as many believe he may), I would wholeheartedly support that choice.
For her part, Lady Gaga is a remarkably naturalistic performer. Onstage and on American Horror Story (her only previous acting gig) she projects a larger-than-life persona, but here she shows that she’s just as at ease going small. She embodies Ally right down to expressions on her face and sly gestures–conveying anything from embarrassment to discomfort to joy. I’m not immediately convinced of her Oscar-worthiness compared to her costar but I will say that she absolutely deserves to be in contention.
Rounding out the cast is Sam Elliott, an actor I have long admired, as Jackson’s older brother and father figure. I admit I kept wanting more from this character in some ways–more backstory, more involvement, more screentime. Elliott, however, is heartbreakingly good. When he tears up you can’t help but get misty right alongside him. And even though I wanted him to be more involved in Jackson’s life, Elliott manages to convey the history of their relationship in subtle but clear ways. He loves his brother but can’t be responsible for him anymore. All he can do is stand back and watch the train go off the tracks, hoping there won’t be any collateral damage when it inevitably does.
I will say that you can see signs that Cooper is a first-time director here and there. For one thing, he relies heavily on awkward and unflattering closeups–not just on Jackson but everyone. Still, he shows a lot of promise and great skill as a storyteller. I have a new level of respect for him now.
Even though I would definitely describe A Star is Born as a bleak love story, I couldn’t help but really like it. I’m not sure I could make myself sit through it again, but I’m glad I saw it. I think you will be, too.