She's the 'Star,' Yet It's All About Him
Like a periodic comet, “A Star Is Born” streaks across movie screens with surprising regularity. The latest version, directed by Bradley Cooper and starring him as the star-maker and Lady Gaga as the star, is, you guessed it, an evergreen. (Not for nothing did the story’s 1976 iteration introduce the Barbra Streisand ballad “Evergreen.”)
This is Hollywood’s creation myth, a little Cinderella, a lot Pygmalion and, guiding the narrative trajectory, Newton’s law of gravity. What goes up must come down and all that.
“A Star Is Born” originally took form in 1932 as “What Price Hollywood?,” the one where a gifted director (Lowell Sherman) transforms an ambitious waitress (Constance Bennett) into a celebrated actress. As she becomes more and more famous, he becomes less and less so, booze hastening the inevitable.
When the property was reframed as “A Star Is Born” in 1937, the aspiring actress (Janet Gaynor) first is the protégée, then the wife, of an established star (Fredric March). Screenwriter Dorothy Parker styled the leads after Barbara Stanwyck, onetime chorus girl, and Frank Fay, Broadway headliner. When the pair wed in the 1920s, her career soared as his plummeted. The three versions that followed, including Cooper’s, have more or less adhered to the 1937 iteration.
Each subsequent film has attracted the top stars or screenwriters of its era, sometimes both. Judy Garland and James Mason were in the 1954 version, written by Moss Hart. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson paired off and squared off in the 1976 version by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. In 2011, Clint Eastwood announced his intentions to direct a version with either Esperanza Spalding or Beyoncé opposite Bradley Cooper before passing the project along to his “American Sniper” lead. In the end, Cooper hired Lady Gaga and made the movie his directorial debut.
There isn’t another property with the provenance of “A Star Is Born.” So, why is this story such catnip for filmmakers and stars?
Let me begin by saying that Cooper’s version, electric in its first half, shorts out about the time its female lead, Ally (Lady Gaga), dyes her hair fuchsia. Is the character betraying her character’s authenticity, or is she demanding stardom on her own terms? Whichever applies, by this point the story has already sunk in its hooks and bit by bit reveals why it continues to engage directors, actors and audiences down the decades.
Earlier, I mentioned Cinderella and Pygmalion, transformation myths with primal resonance, one in part about the man who recognizes the worth of a degraded woman and makes this supposed nobody a somebody; the other about the man who falls in love with his creation. In Cooper’s dark fairy tale set in the present (although seeming to take place in the eternal 1980s), Ally is the overworked Cinderella of food and beverage service who by night toils in a Los Angeles restaurant, butt of the manager’s petulance. After hours, she is an Edith Piaf impersonator in a gay bar.
Enter Jackson Maine, a country-rock star of the first magnitude, who stumbles into the bar for a double shot of … anything. When Ally, in Piaf drag with paste-on eyebrows and black wig, sings “La Vie en Rose” he hears the freshness and truthfulness of her delivery. She reminds him of himself, when he was still feeling the music and the emotions and not on autopilot.
In all the movie versions of this story, I never fail to fall in love with how Pygmalion looks at his Galatea. As Jackson, the gifted sot in dire need of a shampoo, Cooper looks at Ally in a way that—dare I say it?—is better than sex. They are kindred spirits with broken hearts and broken wings, and the music they make together makes them soar.
Before Cooper’s movie, never had I noticed how “A Star Is Born” assumes that without Pygmalion, there would be no Galatea. His guidance and connections deliver her. Not only is it an assumption that denies the character played by Lady Gaga (and Streisand and Garland before her) her own singular powers of self-creation, it confirms the showbiz myth that only men have the power to create art and artists. Perhaps because I wrestled with these thoughts for much of the film’s second half, I left the film thinking that of all the versions of this story, Cooper had made his more about the creator than his so-called creation.
What Cooper gets about “A Star Is Born” is the degree to which it is about the physics of love and work. This may be the only mythic narrative about a two-career marriage. It’s a melodrama where every action has an equal and opposite reaction (there’s Newton again!), and the lovers struggle to achieve balance as the ground keeps shifting. In other words, it’s about two people who fail to find equilibrium in love and work, two people who can be equals only during the brief period when, in her rise, she is at the same rung on the ladder of success to which he’s fallen.
The tricky thing about “A Star Is Born” is how it sings out of both sides of its mouth, warming us with the transforming effects of love while warning us about the deforming effects of celebrity. Cooper’s movie reminded me of Shana Feste’s underrated Nashville saga from 2010, “Country Strong,” in which a hopeful male singer under the spell and tutelage of a female superstar comes to realize the underlying contradiction of his aspirations and concludes, “I don’t think that love and fame can live in the same place.”
Cinderella stories enjoy happy resolutions—Pygmalion not so much. George Bernard Shaw and his producers argued about whether the denouement of “Pygmalion,” the basis of “My Fair Lady,” should end with Eliza walking out on Higgins to embrace her liberation or with her marrying him. The mournful last act of “A Star Is Born” always comes down to whether Galatea should sacrifice her career to nurse her Pygmalion to health, or whether he should sacrifice his life in order that she have a career.
Let me end by saying that as both an actor and director, Cooper is heartfelt, that Lady Gaga is sublime, and that I wish a dramatist could find a way of modernizing this material so that being in a two-career couple wasn’t a zero-sum game in which the success of one means the failure of the other.