' ' Cinema Romantico: A Star Is Born

Monday, October 22, 2018

A Star Is Born

The title card of the 2018 version of “A Star Is Born” evokes the predecessors on which it is based with an opulent, Technicolor-ish red even as it offers something new, stretching across the whole screen, leaving a small space in the middle for the eponymous star, Ally, to fit right through, twirling, like all the world’s a stage and she was born to glide across it. That’s true of Ally but also of the woman playing her – iconic pop star Lady Gaga. If Gaga intended her 2017 Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two” as revelatory, she still felt guarded, covered up, even when she was literally topless onscreen. In Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, however, Gaga comes to life, playing Ally with an insecure exterior and a more forceful interior born of an Italian Catholic iron will. The latter is glimpsed in home scenes with her father (Andrew Dice Clay, moving, really) where she emotes with the loving exasperation of an entire upbringing, suggesting what has held her back and giving her strength to move forward. Even later in the film when Ally becomes a sensation and dons costumes and wigs, Gaga has so nimbly laid the groundwork in removing her character’s mask, that her real soul shines bright.

If Ally finds her way, Jackson Maine (Cooper), a country-western superstar, is losing his. Cooper’s croaked mumbles recall the Oscar-winning turn of Jeff Bridges as Bad Blake in “Crazy Heart”, yes, but his head-down, demurring attitude is just as evocative of Joaquin Phoenix’s more polite moments as Johnny Cash in “Walk the Line.” Indeed, even if Jackson pops pills, drinks too much, suffers from tinnitus, and feuds with his manger brother Bobby (Sam Elliot, who cocks his head with as much get off my lawn gusto as Gary Cooper wielded a six shooter), Cooper invests Jackson with enough haggard compassion to suggest he’s less trouble than flawed. But he’s spiritually underwater, which his physical sluggishness illustrates, and he needs a way up.

He finds one when, in search of a drink, he unwittingly enters a drag club and sees Ally perform. That the gaggle of kindly drag queens makes way for a straight woman is written off in one line, and may or may not be rooted to truth, but comes across like one of those Golden Age films where a boarding house have banded together to navigate a patriarchal word. And Ally slithering around the club singing “La Vie en Rose” feels born of the Golden Age too as Gaga channels the ghost of Rita Hayworth as much as Judy Garland, eventually splayed across the bar and looking right into Jackson’s eyes in an electric scene evoking how the right music show on the right night can see right through you.

When he approaches her afterward in the dressing room there is less an air of fantasy than anxious hesitation as Gaga plays the moment with with a convincing, halting suspicion about what he really wants, pulling away her hand when he takes hers, demonstrating an honesty within her character and about the whole world. No, he must prove his courtliness, and does in an extended sequence where he tends to her wound after a bar fight. It is familiar stuff played with a ring of truth, where her eyes betray an escalating enchantment and his eyes are not puppy-dog so much as dumbfounded. And while Jackson removing Ally’s false eyebrows might symbolically connote her character’s veneer crumbling, when she spontaneously breaks into a song in a parking lot she is not just signaling her immense talent but saying to him “I trust you.”

Visually the scene mirrors the whole movie, with big close-ups the preferred angle, not that Gaga frequently over-emotes in them. When Ally is about to surge onstage, Gaga’s choking back vomit is ephemeral rather than emphasized. And while the banter over Ally’s nose is properly playful, you sometimes wish Cooper more often just let that nose speak for itself. You also might wish for a few more master shots, whether to establish scene and situation or just let moments breathe, the few wide frames being less for our benefit than Ally and Jackson’s, giving them flickers of privacy. Still, the visual strategy correlates to the movie’s narrative intimacy, mimicking “Million Dollar Baby” in so much as a movie about someone going global deliberately refrains from showing us the masses.

Jackson functions less as Ally’s mentor than a conduit to the industry, which happens when she walks out on her job to attend one of his gigs. Gaga plays this moment not with devil-may-care defiance but giggling like she can’t believe it as she throws caution to the wind, with Cooper intelligently not ending the scene on Ally’s boss punctuating the scene with some dumb one-liner to ensure the moment is hers. And when, arriving at the show in a palpable moment of adrenalized delirium, Ally seeming to float, momentarily disappearing in the popping bright white of a spotlight, emblemizing the turn her life is about to take, the whole movie becomes hers. Jackson summons Ally to the stage, leading her in a duet of a song, “Shallow”, she’s written, the lyrics, a la “Once”, matching the moment, Ally having swum, so to speak, far out from the shallow end, a fear which Gaga’s eyes evince even as that full-throated sonic uppercut she eventually unleashes signifies a self-confidence that had been rumbling inside all along.

Swiftly, marking the nature of Our Times, she becomes a star, culminating in a shot onstage playing piano alongside Jackson where her face appears on the giant video board hanging above. Cooper sets the shot so that essentially she’s singing to herself, visually demarcating the moment when the apprentice surpasses the master, and when the narrative hands itself off from Ally & Jackson to Jackson and his tailspin. The latter stems from jealousy over his her sudden success, though that jealously is born more from his increasingly alcoholic fog and an emergent dissatisfaction with, to quote “Shallow” itself, the modern world. All this tracks along a predictable line and to a predictable conclusion, whether or not you have seen the previous versions, which is not so much the problem as how many story beats need to be hit at precise intervals to get us there, sadly letting so much atmospheric air out as it opts for more basic and expedient narrative filmmaking.

It also suffers from a lack of Gaga. But then, her character has found herself, and this back half is not about Jackson losing himself so much as realizing he is obstructing her ascendant superstardom. That point is conveyed by Cooper’s sheepish smiles throughout, as if he’s almost embarrassed to still be the camera’s point, a fascinating, vexing paradox wherein the leading man seems to know he’s in the way even as the director – who, of course, is the leading man – makes him the focus anyway. You admire it more than embrace it with arms outstretched, this backslide into tragedy, which, inadvertently or otherwise, makes a solid case for the rock star fantasy of burning out rather than fading away.

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