I have several biases going into the viewing of this year's "A Star Is Born." Let me state those upfront. First, I've seen every version. The tepid Janet Gaynor-Frederic March one. The oh-so-campy Kris Kristofferson-Barbra Streisand one. And the landmark gold-standard Judy Garland-James Mason one. That cannot help but affect the viewing of this new one.
Second, I have a pet peeve about actors who decide to become directors. To say nothing of producers, writers, editors, songwriters, singers, craftservicepeople on the same movie. Drives me mad. Yes, Hollywood is collaborative, but give some OTHER people a damn job. To say nothing of the fact that someone who is a good/great actor may or may NOT be a good/great director. So, it really really really bugs me, these multi-hypenates who think they can do it all. I usually cut them NO Slack. Actors are rarely auteurs.
So, Mr. Bradley Cooper has a lot to prove to me going in. How dare he take on this classic film, and think he can do it better or do it at all? Not just acting, but directing, writing, singing, producing, sheesh. At least he didn't edit it.
But then... there's the movie.
Sure, we have the grizzled singer, too drunk on a massive stage, already telling us that this one's going to be the most like the Kristofferson one. At this point, let me tell you another bias of mine. I adored the TV show Alias. (Well, except for all that Rimbaldi crap, which made me want to throw the TV across the room...) But Alias was indeed something special. Between sexy Jennifer Garner kicking butt every week, and her dad, Victor Garber, and sexy Michael Vartan as the love interest, it was a wonderful show. And there was young Bradley Cooper as the journalist, cutting his teeth with all these great people. Forgive me for digressing... I was describing the opening scene of "A Star Is Born," as Bradley Cooper, megastar, is being driven around by... wait, who's that voice? Damned if that doesn't sound like Greg Grunberg.
In case you don't remember this, director J.J. Abrams had/has a trick where he constantly casts Greg Grunberg as various bit parts in all his movies/TV shows. He was the pilot of the doomed flight in Lost, for example. It's a fun little Easter egg to look for in all J.J.'s movies. And here now, as I go in with all this hubris, and "PROVE YOURSELF to me, you ACTOR!" stuff, here's Greg Grunberg, making me think of Alias and J.J. and making me smile.
"A Star Is Born" is like that, to me. There were so many ways in the watching of it, so many little gems sprinkled like stardust all through the movie, that made me smile and think, Damn! This Bradley Cooper is all right. So, yeah, overall, it was a fun watch. I went on this journey with him.
We see waitress/server Stefani/Lady Gaga as she slogs through her job, throwing the big stinky bag of garbage onto a heap and dancing down the alley. CREDITS roll: "A Star Is Born." Made me laugh, or at least really smile. And I do have to say, she is really unrecognizable as her character (thankfully, we've done away with the "Esther" nonsense, but not sure how we got her new name) Ally. At least Bradley's character is close to the same name: Jackson Maine.
Let me take you through a bit more of it. So drunk Bradley, whose voice is gruff and gravelly, as a good country singer would be, stumbles into a gay bar. It made me think of Judy and Barbra and how fitting an homage that is, that he stumbles into a drag queen bar. And we have, for the first time in this version, a character that needs to stay in all future versions: the gay best friend (who logs everything on YouTube).
And while we're waxing wistful about that, let me tell you something else. When you're face to face (in real life) with Bradley Cooper, what will stay with you the most about him is his eyes. He has the most stunning, gorgeous blue eyes, that sink deep into your soul. Fantastic and amazing eyes. Really incredible and unforgettable. And there aren't many movies that do his eyes justice.
Thank you, cinematographer Matthew Libatique, for FINALLY getting it right. In this movie, at least, you can finally see the incredibleness that is Bradley Cooper's eyes. Heck, I could spend a whole movie just looking at Bradley Cooper's eyes.
So there were many things about this movie I loved (and I haven't even gotten to the Ron Rifkin appearance yet)... but overall, as "A Star Is Born" lover, I was displeased with this version, and here's why. This is where the I'm an actor-no, I'm a director-no, I'm a writer thing got in the way. As gorgeous as Bradley Cooper is (and he sure is), as much fun as it is to watch him and Lady Gaga sing and cavort (and it sure is), the STORY lost its way. Also, actors tend to direct movies with too much of actors talking and not enough of big picture things. That was also true here.
But what bugged me the most was that it ("A Star Is Born") is Esther (now Ally)'s story. SHE is the STAR who is being born. The male character is famous and washed up, they fall in love, and then bad things happen in his story. But it's HER story. What was really lacking here, the engine driving the whole thing was supposed to be HER AMBITION. She dreams of hitting it big, she dreams of the Big Time her whole life, and then, when it happens to her, she gets swept up in it, at the expense of her relationship. That is essentially the story. That is not the story that was on this screen (unfortunately).
Instead, we have all these new characters added who do not serve the story. The gay best friend is a great addition. What was not a great addition was his brother. And the dad backstory. It's not supposed to be conflict about him. His only conflict is supposed to be that he's a drunk/addict/whatever and he can't get it together. And he doesn't feel good enough in the light of Ally's success. That all was kinda missing, IMHO.
Also, the reality in 2018 is that the recovery movement is so pervasive and strong that a person wouldn't have an excuse for being such a washed-up drunk mess as this character is.
But, ok. Let's say he was. Let's get back for a moment to the parts I liked. The first song they create together...
Ugh. Sorry. I just thought of another part I didn't like. There is an altercation and Ally takes a swing at a guy in a bar (out of character), which does lead to a nice scene in a parking lot of a store. Ally is our STAR. She wouldn't be swinging her fist at guys in bars. She never shows anything before or after that she is prone to fighting with people. Ugh.
Anyway, when they are sitting there, in the parking lot (which is reminiscent of many classic movie scenes), she blurts out a song she had written, which, of course, is amazing.
So let me go off on a Lady Gaga tangent now. She won't be winning any Academy Awards (although she might win the Golden Globe, cause they love stars like her) anytime soon, and here's why. She is essentially one-note. Let me rephrase. I love Stefani. Gaga shows us her real, true, vulnerable self, which is amazing. But there should be more hesitation, more reticence, in her early days, before she really becomes a star. And even when she's sitting there in that parking lot, she belts it out like the star she is. I think it's been eons since little Stefani actually was sitting somewhere, dreaming of stardom. And all that training, and all of those shows she's done, just come out, they can't help it. (Which is good for us, the audience members, but not so good for showing the actual arc of the character.)
So yeah, I can buy her being vulnerable and just starting out. It's impossible to see anything but perfection every time she sings, however. And there really is NOTHING in the early days which shows that she's dreaming of stardom, that she really wants that record deal. She's just sort of dragged along.
She has a chance to be flown to a fancy concert, and she just says, Nah, I'd rather go to work. What person in 2018 would do that? Seriously? Even one who's NOT dreaming of stardom?
So, lots of things in the script didn't hold true for me. The script, btw, is credited to Eric Roth (mostly) and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters. There were many wonderful callbacks to the previous films: the "I just want to look at you one more time" double callback, and Gaga makes a gesture-reference to her nose, which I think is a Streisand callback. (I dunno, did Gaga have issues with her nose, too?)
In the big awards-show sequence (in the first two films, it was the Oscars; in the latter two, it's the Grammys), they do something they've never done. First, let me say that Gaga is resplendent with this golden gown, with lots of little gold sequins. And the drunk husband bellows onto the stage, and pisses himself. And it's funny how the piss makes the bubbles of gold on her dress suddenly look different. I like that theme throughout the movie, about how close absolute despair and absolute success are.
But even in that scene, That scene most of all, should be about: this is MY moment, I've waited for this moment all my life, and you're not going to take it from me, and it becomes just her attending to him. Had we had HER raw ambition sprinkled more throughout, this would've been a much better movie.
We also have the new character of the manager, who appears when convenient. There is no pushback from the husband about this guy suddenly taking over his wife's career. As she careens from a country star into a pop star (inexplicably), there is no discussion. There is a pointless discussion between manager and Ally where she tells him she cut her dancers on one occasion (which is meant to play like some big achievement, but then she goes right back in the next scene to adding the dancers back in).
It's like Cooper the director/screenwriter didn't really know what to do with the Ally character. Let's put her in yoga pants and give her dancers. Manager dude says at one point she should have platinum hair (which Gaga has now), but Ally only shows up with red hair (not that much different from what it was earlier in the movie). So her "STAR" isn't that much different from Ally in the beginning of the movie, except now she has billboards and is on SNL. And, for gosh sakes, if anyone can show the excesses of stardom it's frikkin' Lady Gaga. C'mon!
It would've been nice, ESPECIALLY FROM Bradley Cooper, big mega star, to see a progression of how a star is groomed in 2018. The magazine covers, the stylists, all the craziness that surrounds celebrity today. We really didn't see much of that at all, not in the washed up Jackson Maine character, and not in Ally at any point. WHICH IS WHY PEOPLE WOULD GO TO SEE THIS MOVIE: to see the STAR part of "A Star Is Born." Maybe in Gaga's desperate attempt to play that down in this movie, she didn't wanna share that star persona with us?
Instead, we get some contrived nonsense about Jackson Maine and his brother not getting along, and how their dad factored in... YAWN.
We didn't care what James Mason or Frederic March's backstory was. The point was: they were washed up. Wash him away, as her star rises. That's what makes it tragic and poignant.
But now they have a dog (Charlie), and a nice house, and he has recovery, so all of this shouldn't have happened. He should've called his sponsor when the man was bad to him, and everything would've been fine.
(My friend says that Bradley cried too much in this movie, and shielded his eyes too much.) I personally liked to see his emotion.
I do also love the fact that Ron Rifkin (also from Alias) was the recovery counselor. And I swear... there was a scene in Alias where Bradley Cooper was sitting on a park bench, and Ron Rifkin was talking to him, but the positions they were in were reversed from what they appear in this movie. Following Alias Easter eggs was quite fun. Trying to fit this "Star Is Born" into the previous pantheon, sadly, was less than satisfying.
I love Bradley Cooper the person. I love Bradley Cooper the actor. Bradley Cooper the director has some work to do, but he certainly shows signs of being able to create some fun, enjoyable movies. Most directors don't so obviously wear their heart on their sleeve and add in little cameos and touches of things that meant something to them in their career. I loved seeing those things, too bad it was all in a movie that was supposed to be about the chick.