Lady Gaga shines in A Star is Born, but the script doesn’t care about her character

The template for Bradley Cooper’s musical film bestows all dramatic opportunities on to the male role.

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It would be wrong to say that no acting is required of Lady Gaga in the latest version of A Star is Born: she’s so good that in one scene she even makes you believe she has never seen the inside of a private jet. But it would be wrong also to argue that any of the four incarnations of this story feature a great female lead role, though they are often misremembered that way, and it is possible for women to bring greatness to them, as Judy Garland did in 1954.

The template bestows all dramatic opportunities on to the male role: a boozy, going-to-seed glory-boy (he’s a fading actor in the first two pictures, a rock star in the latter ones) who is briefly revived when he gives a helping hand to a new talent, only to be outgrown as she soars higher than he ever could. The same basic format has resurfaced in films as different as Educating Rita and The Artist, as well as in the other official interpretations: the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, and a terrible 1976 rawk version in which Barbra Streisand’s perm falls in love with Kris Kristofferson’s beard. (What a shame the title Hair was taken.)

Were the actor Bradley Cooper not so tender and hard-working in his performance as the jaded rocker Jackson Maine, it would be possible to regard the whole thing as a vanity project, since he co-wrote and directed it also. Jackson first sees Ally (Lady Gaga), lit aquamarine against a lurid red backdrop, performing “La Vie En Rose” in a drag bar. Cooper likes to mess with her familiar visage: in the dressing room, Jackson peels off one of her fake eyebrows and she performs the rest of the scene lopsided. Later, he rubs a cream cake over her face, which must count as a natural progression – dessert, even – for the woman who once wore a dress made of meat.

When Ally freshens up in Jackson’s hotel room by rubbing a towel under her arms, audiences will be reminded of Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, blasting her armpits with an upturned hand-dryer. At least in that film, the role was infused by the actor’s persona: there was method in her Madonna-ness. The only time Lady Gaga’s off-screen experience is invoked here is when Ally socks a drunk who is pestering Jackson for a selfie. (There’s real grievance in that punch.) But there’s an element of perversity in the casting, as though Cooper wanted to take all that was prickly about Lady Gaga and make it palatable and MOR-ish. The argument that this reflects what happens to Ally is a dangerous one to make given that her music becomes more Lady Gaga-ish, more pop, as the film goes on. Is the movie suggesting that the character loses her soul the further she gets from Jackson’s pub-rock dirges and the more she becomes like the woman who is playing her?

Would that it cared enough to insult her. Ally’s face is plastered on a billboard over Sunset Boulevard, but the script isn’t remotely curious about her. We learn that Jackson’s mother died in childbirth and that his father never loved him and that his sibling relationship mimics the paternal one. But why stop there? Why not include a flashback to his great-grandfather and the part he played in the Californian gold rush? All we learn about Ally, on the other hand, is that she lives with her slightly pathetic father (Andrew Dice Clay). Did her mother die in childbirth, too? Cooper has mapped out Jackson’s history fastidiously but in creating Ally’s back-story his research hasn’t extended far beyond watching Pretty in Pink.

Still, it would be churlish to deny the occasional impactful moment. When Ally belts out a song in a supermarket car park with frozen peas strapped to her hand (food on the body again) it is infinitely more powerful than the showbizzy, Whitney-esque number that supplies the climax. And the signature scene in every version of A Star is Born, when the veteran embarrasses his protégé at an awards ceremony, is handled better here than in any previous film, with Jackson walking with Ally down the aisle, rather than blundering in during her speech, before slumping at the edge of the stage while she continues blithely on. He’s left behind, in both senses. 

A Star is Born (15)
dir: Bradley Cooper

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 05 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The fury of the Far Right