No matter what you think of Lady Gaga (née Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta), it should be a relief to hear that Bradley Cooper’s rousing remake of A Star Is Born is not Gaga Land. The lady is very much down to earth, compos mentis. Discovered by country-western star Jackson Maine (Cooper) after he inadvertently stumbles, blotto, into a drag bar in search of more booze and watches her transform “La Vie en Rose” into the sultriest of ballads, Gaga’s Ally accepts his attention with an affecting mix of infatuation and wariness. He’s a drunk, you see, like her dad (Andrew Dice Clay!), and also incredibly famous, which her dad has always pushed her to be despite agents and managers telling her that her nose is too big. Yes, you read that right. Lady Gaga triumphs as a young woman averse to artifice and fame-hounding. The movie is a hell of a magic act.
I have zero doubts about the first half of A Star Is Born — it couldn’t be more charming. It leaves all three previous versions in the dust in the meet-cute department, largely because Gaga manages to be fresher and more believably real than Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland (who looked dissipated), and — God help us — Barbra Streisand. And Cooper is delightful. Everything but his teeth are hidden behind a beard, long hair, and a squint, but his Texas purr is enough to make women and men swoon. That purr is borrowed from Sam Elliott, of course, and I was wondering how Cooper thought he could get away with it when Elliott showed up in the movie as Jackson’s much older brother and, in the course of a blowout fight, accused Jackson of stealing his voice. That’s meta, though not as meta as Gaga walking out of a hotel garage singing “Over the Rainbow” or the profile shots of her that evoke Streisand’s glorious schnoz.
Do you anticipate groaning when Jackson pulls Ally onstage before a packed arena to sing a song of hers that he heard once but can reproduce from memory and she swallows hard and comes onstage and wows the crowd while the other musicians onstage are suddenly nodding as if to say, “Hey, this is a great song,” and joining in? You won’t groan. The reason, I think, is that Cooper’s direction is so tight and intimate — his camera generally hand-held and level with the characters — that you’ll be rooting for the sequence to work. Another thing: You want the world to bow before Ally’s talent because Gaga just doesn’t seem right living in a small apartment with Andrew Dice Clay.
There are stories — maybe apocryphal — that writer-director William Wellman and co-screenwriter Robert Carson of the original, 1937 A Star Is Born were inspired by the relationship of Barbara Stanwyck (one of Wellman’s favorites) and Ted Healy*, who descended into alcoholism and obscurity (and beat Stanwyck up) as her star rose and his fell. (Who was Ted Healy, you ask? He came to Hollywood with his Three Stooges, who ended up leaving him behind, too. So now you know how many degrees it takes to get from Moe Howard to Lady Gaga.) The point is that Norman (originally) Maine has always been the story’s heel, which made his later departure from his wife’s life not entirely unwelcome. Cooper and co-screenwriters Eric Roth and Will Fetters want to even the balance. This is A Star Is Born for an era in which alcoholism is a “disease” rather than a willed evil, and on the ten-point pathetic-reprehensible scale, Maine is maybe a 2. No, probably a 1. His jealousy is fleeting, his love eternal. The villain is a Brit manager called Rez (Rafi Gavron), who’s probably meant to evoke Simon Cowell. He lures Ally with a recording deal, fixes her up with tacky dancers, and sells her so hard that the Grammys can’t possibly ignore her. It’s too bad the film didn’t go all the way and actually put Ally on American Idol. That would be the true A Star Is Born for our time.
Cooper goes fuzzy in the film’s second half, maybe not by choice. Face it, Lady Gaga is not going to make herself look foolish in a musical number, even if it serves the plot. So when Maine reminds Ally that great art is about “digging into your fucking soul,” it’s not clear that she has sold that soul or ever will. Instead, she becomes rather passive. She does tell Jackson that she won’t stand by him when he drinks, and Gaga and Cooper have a scorching scene in which he’s drunk in the bathtub and calls her ugly. But it’s not until the end that Ally is supposed to merge her artistic soul and her stardom, and by that point she’s remote and tear-stained. (The last song has great moments, but Gaga’s upper range is iffy. She’s not really a soprano.) The songs are otherwise beautifully sung, and maybe because Lady Gaga knows the process of recording so intimately, the small details in the studio feel right. And Cooper kills in the later scenes, when he’s struggling with sobriety and escalating tinnitus. He’s so beautifully restrained that he doesn’t jerk your tears — he eases them out until you suddenly realize you’re a mess.
Despite its fuzziness, A Star Is Born will be a monster hit when it’s released — partly because of what it is, partly because of the nature of Lady Gaga’s celebrity. Since the dawn of cinema, ordinary people have dreamed of becoming stars overnight, but this movie comes at a time when the longing for fame is even more universal — and, in some ways, attainable — than in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’70s. The prospect of watching the not-family-friendly showbiz creation known as Lady Gaga as a working-class underdog swept into stardom (while retaining her purity) and then battered by loss is just about irresistible. People want to see the quivering soul under the meat dress. It makes loving her stardom even easier.
*A reader has called to say that the central relationship of A Star is Born was probably based on Stanwyck’s marriage to Frank Fay and not her relationship with Ted Healey. Sounds like Stanwyck survived a lot of crap from men. No wonder she became such a badass rancher in The Big Valley.