A Star Is Born ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

Bradley Cooper is out of gin. This is the urgent crisis that sets A Star is Born in motion: a terrible thirst. In the back of a limousine, facing a 90-minute commute from the rock concert he’s just performed to the next stop on the tour, alt-country star Jackson Maine finishes the last of the minibar bottles and decides he needs one for the road. He asks his driver to pull over beside a neon-lit dive. Over a double straight-up on the rocks he watches Ally, a luminous and theatrical Lady Gaga, gaily prance and croon around the room. He is awestricken. We are too. In a vivid shot-reverse shot in closeup the two share a wordless exchange so intensely romantic and extravagant one could almost burst into hysterical tears. The whole film is like this. It is maudlin, earnest, and unfashionably melodramatic. It is too long. It is self-serious. And it is really, truly great. 

This is the fourth film to bear the title. But it is in fact the fifth to tell the story: George Cukor, director of the 1954 remake starring James Mason and Judy Garland, first told it as a pre-code drama in 1932, under the name What Price Hollywood. Not much has changed in 86 years. There is the noted luminary imperiled by booze. There is the gifted ingenue he discovers, becomes enamored of, and in the end fatally abandons, by gunshot, car crash, or sea. In between there is the same maelstrom of turbulence and fame and passion — and, in the last three iterations, the same spectacular musical numbers, showily performed and elaborately staged. Why this story? Why are we so fascinated by the criss-crossing double-helix of one woman’s rise and one man’s fall? Perhaps it’s the symmetry of it. The poetic balance of something lost and something gained. 

Or perhaps it’s the way the story touches extremes. The earlier versions, Cukor’s ‘54 epic especially, emphasized the downfall. James Mason humiliates Garland and himself at the Academy Awards; he enters recovery, but relapses, and is arrested for driving drunk and thrown in jail. We weep for their suffering, so beautifully realized. But while Bradley Cooper, as both director and star, suffers prodigiously in his version too, he amplifies and savours the opposite emotional pole. The first act of Cooper’s rendition is ecstatic. The couple’s initial meet-cute is extraordinarily lovely; their conversations about life and music have the fizzy thrill of an authentic romance; in every moment they share the easy, blissful chemistry of two people destined to be together on screen. Cooper sustains this jubilant momentum for 45 minutes straight. It culminates in a rhapsodic live duet that is among the most exhilarating things I’ve seen in a movie in my life. 

The applause-loosing, hyperbole-inspiring delirium of this first-act climax has the unavoidable consequence of making everything that follows seem like a slump. Critics have — it seems to me — already adopted a tidy narrative that dismisses the movie’s second half as a failure to follow through on the stimulating promise of the first; most reviews praise the Gaga rise and dispraise Cooper’s subsequent fall. I understand the disappointment, but I detect no drop in quality after the 45-minute mark — only a marked waning of exuberance, essential to the overall design. After our elation grandly crests, it suddenly and disturbingly plummets; a euphoric movie becomes a tragic one, as the doomed Jackson Maine begins to career away from happiness toward his ultimate, inescapable fate. The infectious joy of the first half makes the steady decay of the second so painful. From ecstatic to excruciating. It could be no other way.  

There is a wonderful scene in this register soon after the change in tone. Cooper has persuaded Gaga to join him on the road and perform her original music on stage with him before his nightly audiences of many thousands. She follows him to the farm in Arizona where he was raised, which Cooper learns has been sold by his elder brother to a developer of wind farms. Furious, he confronts him — and the fight that erupts lays bare succinctly a turmoil that has been raging unspoken for years. Cooper’s brother is played by the great Sam Elliott, who brings to his few extended scenes a fathomless depth of grief and anguish. The performance is a testament to both the actor and Cooper’s facility directing them. He draws from those around him work of nuance and intensity, and is content to recede into the background when it’s time for others to command a scene. 

Indeed, for all the film’s immoderation as melodrama, the lead performances are characterized, remarkably, by restraint. As Ally, Lady Gaga feels more natural working in a hotel kitchen than she does lighting up the stage; when she takes the mic, she seems tentative and hesitant, more plausibly awkward than one would imagine a veteran celebrity capable of expressing. Cooper imagines her as an ordinary woman thrust into the spotlight, and she frictionlessly embodies the role. Cooper himself, meanwhile, acts the inveterate drunk without a shade of exaggeration — his lapses into blackout oblivion are never affected, and affecting for seeming so real. He moreover clinches the charisma necessary to sell his soused appeal. We can tell in an instant he’s headed for disaster. But we see too what Ally sees in him, and we believe she could fall for him, smitten, and despite it all stubbornly cling. 

This Star is Born, like the ‘54 and ‘76 versions, is a musical. Gaga is unsurprisingly excellent — witness for instance her dazzling stage debut mentioned above. Less obvious is how well Cooper acquits himself. It isn’t merely that he sings well — we are to take Jackson Maine as past his prime anyhow — but that Maine and his band are so convincingly a mainstream country-western group. Cooper performs with gleeful abandon and, rousingly, shoots the on-stage action with an energy and invention to match, the camera whipping and swirling around as if it were capturing a boxing bout. The sound is likewise the product of careful attention and committed interest. Cooper’s team made use of a cutting-edge technique known as impulse response that made it possible to replicate the sound of big stadium music with astonishing accuracy. The music was recorded live — very uncommon for movies of this kind — and the result, difficult to pull off, feels incredibly true to life.   

In the ‘37 and ‘54 editions, the female leads, both called Esther Blodgett, are plucked from obscurity and swiftly whisked into stardom. With success come attendant trappings: Esther is in both films rechristened “Vicki Lester,” in a flippant ceremony meant to skewer the fickle superficiality of the Hollywood fame machine. Ally is permitted to keep her name. But Cooper interprets the price of stardom a similar way. He pits Ally at the mercy of a guileful manager whose first order of business is to saddle his new signee with backup dancers. A dip into radio-friendly pop follows — her breakout hit is an insipid number about butts in jeans. Yet if her integrity has been compromised, Ally is not to blame. Maine preaches authenticity above all else — but even he is obliged to sink to charity gigs and gimmicky events for a paycheque. As Cooper sees it, the trick is to try to keep your voice as you do what you can to get by. 

Easier said than done. What Cooper’s film impresses upon us, more than any single other version, is the precious opportunity stardom affords a select few. It isn’t fame; it isn’t fortune. It is simply an audience willing to listen to what you have to say. They won’t listen forever, Maine tells Ally, at the height of her success. But they’re listening now. It’s the responsibility of a star with that power to make use of it, to say something true. It’s tempting to see Cooper himself harnessing the wisdom of the theme right there in front of us. He’s one of the most successful actors in Hollywood. And here he is, doing his best to take advantage of the audience he has while they’re listening, to say something honest and meaningful while he’s still able to try. 

In the end — it hardly seems a spoiler, given the history of the material — Jackson Maine takes his own life. In a sense he succumbs to his illness: alcoholism does defeat him. But unlike James Mason in the ‘54 film, Cooper isn’t tempted by guilt or shame away from his sobriety. His recovery sticks. Instead it’s an awareness of the damage he has inflicted on Ally and her reputation that drives him to his demise. Cooper, I think, understands that the tragic power of this ending comes not from a broken man’s sorrow, but from his love and final self-sacrifice. Death is the only recourse he can see once he perceives that his mistakes can’t be undone. Which is maybe the core of our attraction to this story after all. We are all of us still reckoning with what repentance looks like and what it means to change. The film doubts if it’s possible, and in that doubt finds beauty and pain.