As Ally in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, the pop icon makes a compelling crossover to become an actor of the highest calibre
This month, Patrik Sandberg is at Toronto International Film Festival reporting for Dazed on the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.
Let the skepticism be over. In Bradley Cooper’s strong feature directorial debut A Star Is Born – a remake of the three namesake films that came before, touchstones of their generations as much as this one will be – Lady Gaga makes her indelible mark as a true blue movie star of the highest calibre, a designation earned only by her undertaking considerable risk that has paid off against odds more stacked than one might readily admit.
Not so much a franchise or series as an unofficial tradition, each generational shift since the dawn of cinema has experienced a version of this same fable: a successful male artist (actor in the early films, musician in the latter two) discovers a talented young woman whose career he helps to launch, only to see her eclipse him in the fading twilight of his own celebrity. What starts as a love affair blossoms and decays into jealousy, anguish, and substance abuse. We know that it’ll all end in tears, but dive in anyway for the sheer romance of it all. It’s a story about the way people treat each other, both out of love and envy, when the spotlight encroaches and threatens to tear them apart. Glamorous, amorous, and ultimately calamitous, it’s no wonder it’s a narrative that has attracted some of cinema’s most legendary drama queens, most famously Judy Garland (in 1954) and Barbra Streisand (1976).
Cooper’s vision updates this story to the present, set against the backdrops of music festivals, Saturday Night Live, drag bars, the Chateau Marmont, and craftsman style houses in Beachwood Canyon. Ally is a New York City restaurant worker, breaking up with a persistent boyfriend over the phone in a bathroom stall, when we first encounter her. Later, when Cooper’s hard-drinking, big-time rock star Jackson Maine stumbles into a gay bar in desperate need of gin, he catches Ally performing “La Vie En Rose” in the midst of a drag showcase and is automatically smitten. He hangs out backstage, takes her out for a drink, and pretty soon the daylight has broken up the party. Ally’s nosy Italian father (a winning Andrew Dice Clay) is pushing her to go for it, and soon she’s on a private plane, following Maine around on tour. It’s a headfirst type of love, the sort where certain red flags get pushed aside because emotions are taking over. We’ve all been in relationships that impulsive, or if not, have dreamt of them. It’s easy to get carried away with Ally through the eyes of Gaga’s wide-eyed, deeply convincing performance. Hard as it may be to believe, you actually forget that she’s Lady Gaga without a second of hesitation.
As Maine falls in love with Ally, so do we. Much more than a counterpart, Cooper’s Maine is playful, emotionally stunted, and almost childlike in his antics. It’s a richly layered and deeply felt performance that ranks as the best of his career, which is nothing to say of the fact that he spends half the movie singing and playing guitar in front of thousands of extras. In terms of craft, Cooper has assembled a strong crew led by cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Black Swan) who gives the action a sense of unsteady intimacy, spontaneity, and vibrant color. With brilliant edits that draw big laughs, the direction aims for broad yet elevated, which is exactly what the film achieves. It’s a strong debut for Cooper, even if it’s not the type of auteur innovation that tends to be most rewarded come Oscar season.
“Vacillating between country and glittery pop, A Star Is Born is the rare movie that could attract Bible Belt viewers as fervently as the gays”
Then again, that same quality is what works in its favour. This is not an arthouse film. This is a blockbuster by design. With the scale of emotion and star power involved, there’s no reason this movie should not become a massive hit, and even a modern classic. There is room in the culture for big-budget, big-emotion dramas, the sorts of movies like Beaches or The Bodyguard that manage a universal appeal without pandering to gimmicks or social issues. Vacillating between country and glittery pop, A Star Is Born is the rare movie that could attract Bible Belt viewers as fervently as the gays. In fact, if I have one gripe about the movie it is that central tension, between what is seen as authentic versus what is considered artifice. There is a scene in which a belligerent Maine interrupts Ally’s bath to tell her that her lyrics are stupid, implying that she has sold out her soul for the sake of pop stardom. Ally insults him back, but never once defends her artistic choices to make dance music over the type of maudlin country that Maine considers more pure. It would have been nice to see pop music get a better deal in this exchange, especially considering who it is really sitting in that tub.
“To watch Lady Gaga conquer the cinema format with such a big swing the first time out is an emotional experience in and of itself”
Overall, this movie is a testament to the talent of Cooper, but the glory belongs to Gaga. There is a long list of musical icons who’ve gone on to wield incredible movie careers, from Judy Garland to Dolly Parton, Bette Midler, Madonna, and Courtney Love. It’s been a while since the culture has been treated to a major league crossover on that level. We’ve all known that Lady Gaga is a megastar, but as her musical popularity has weathered the ebbs and flows of the culture, it certainly wasn’t a given that she would be able to pull this off. Making this movie – with that title, with an untested director – was a massive gamble and could have gone horribly wrong. To watch Lady Gaga conquer the cinema format with such a big swing the first time out is an emotional experience in and of itself. I would even go as far as to say that we haven’t seen anything like it since Cher. So it’s official: Lady Gaga’s not going anywhere. With A Star Is Born, she cements her status as the real deal and the only question (besides whether or not she will be nominated for Best Actress) is what types of movies she will make next. While she weighs up her options, I already have some ideas.