By Karen Gordon
Bradley Cooper makes an impressive directing debut with A Star Is Born, turning one of Hollywood’s most remade movies into something fresh and soulful, even though it’s hampered by some of the story’s clichés.
Now, I’m going to state my bias here before I go on. It’s not clear to me why anyone would want to remake A Star is Born.
This is the fourth time it’s been made, always with Hollywood royalty. Dorothy Parker was one of the writers on the original 1937 movie. George Cukor directed the 1954 version, from a script by Moss Hart, that starred Judy Garland and James Mason. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson co-starred in a version written by John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion and Frank Pierson, who also directed.
Each version has been rewritten to reflect its era, but the essence is always the same: A superstar male actor or musician, burnt out by the demands of fame, meets a fresh, natural talent and they fall in love. His level of fame opens doors for her and soon she’s on the fast track to success.
In the meantime, he’s left to wrestle with his original problems, including alcoholism. Essentially A Star is Born is a melodrama, rife with show business clichés. And that poses a challenge for anyone attempting a remake, especially now in our more media savvy era.
What Cooper has done here, with the help of Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth (Forrest Gump), and Will Fetters, is defeat the clichés by going deep into the characters in a way that reflects the contemporary culture. And he has cast it exceptionally well, starting with one of the finest American actors working in film today: himself.
Cooper stars as husky-voiced, charismatic music superstar Jackson Maine. Fame has turned his life into a grind. Even with his brother (Sam Elliott) as his tour manager, Maine’s offstage life is empty. On the road for much of the year, too famous to enjoy much a normal life, he’s become isolated and a severe alcoholic, partly to stave off the incredible loneliness, and unresolved issues in his life.
Outwardly he’s polite, modest, reserved, a little shy. Inwardly, as Cooper plays him, he’s living with a lot of grief.
One night after a show, he wanders into a random bar looking for a drink, and hears Ally, played by Lady Gaga, sing a version of “La Vie En Rose.” Her obvious talent, and the purity of her connection to music touches something in him at a profound level, and he’s hooked.
Ally is more than a little taken aback by his attention. She’s a down-to-earth working-class woman, and she’s not easily given to magical thinking, and what Jackson seems to be offering is pretty magical.
Ally has also run into a lot of rejection in her attempts to get a music career started, mostly directed at her appearance. But Maine is persistent and soon he’s enticed her on tour and pushed her to perform on stage. And, as this is A Star Is Born, you know the rest.
Cooper, the actor, as always is meticulous in his interpretation of character, and brings a level of subtlety and depth that we have come to expect from his work.
He cast a formidable co-star with Lady Gaga as Ally. She’s de-glamourized, and yet Gaga has never looked so beautiful. Ally’s authentic. In a well calibrated performance, Gaga plays Ally as a loving and grounded person who’s lived a life and who knows what’s important to her.
Cooper, the director, keeps the movie modern in look and feel, going for a naturalistic, indie style and tone. The camera stays close in to the characters, evoking an intimacy, and warmth. Nothing is rushed. We watch the characters think and react. The relationship between Ally and Jackson is more contemporary. Jackson lets Ally be Ally. No manipulation or abuse.
Of course, music is a major part of this film, and as you’d imagine given the cast, it’s on point. But even better, the live performance sequences work. It’s incredibly difficult to make movies about the music industry and get the tone of live shows right. Too often they have the feel of an After-School Special. But Cooper who filmed the performances live at real venues, with no lip synching, got it right. The music sequences feel real and true, giving A Star is Born further authenticity.
For sure, all of this thoughtfulness, care and attention has breathed new life into this version. Cooper as director is every bit as impressive as he is as an actor. And as someone who went into it reluctantly, the film, overall, won me over.
But at the same time, there are some problems. The movie flounders as it nears its final act.
As Ally’s manager starts to steer her career, she ends up making some compromises that seemed wrong here. It’s not that people in her position don’t compromise, it just feels off.
As well, one wishes that the team that updated the movie had gone further. In the end, by sticking with the legacy of A Star Is Born, this version, so infused with emotion, comes to a less than emotionally satisfying end.
A Star Is Born. Directed and co-written by Bradley Cooper. Starring Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga and Sam Elliott. Opens wide Friday, Oct. 5.