A Star is Born and the Dilemma of Success

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Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga walked the red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September for the North American premiere of their movie “A Star is Born”, a Gala presentation at TIFF. Now the movie reaches the general public as it is released in theatres worldwide.

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Bradley Cooper as Jack and Lady Gaga as Ally in “A Star is Born”. Photo courtesy of TIFF.

This is a bold and spectacular debut for both of them, Cooper as first time director, and the superstar singer her first leading movie role. The two manifest great chemistry on screen, casual and heartfelt. Cooper plays a famous singer Jackson Maine discovering the sensational voice and talent of a struggling singer/songwriter, restaurant worker Ally, a stripped-down, no (or minimal?) make-up Lady Gaga. It’s also a sad story as one star rises just as fast as the other falls like a meteor, self-destruct by alcoholism.

The love story begins with Maine searches for a drink after a performance one night as he has emptied the bottle in his car. His driver roams the streets for any bar that’s still open. They find one and Maine stumbles in just in time to hear Ally begin her gig. The song that she performs hooks and wows him. It’s “La Vie en Rose“, the iconic number by the legendary French singer Edith Piaf. That’s the inciting incident of the movie.

After the song he goes backstage, needing no introduction; he is Jackson Maine. He sits beside her and watches her take off her make-up, then with her permission, helps her peel off the Edith Piaf thin-lined eye brow. It’s just pasted on, not real. But what’s authentic is her voice, which Jack already knows, but he’ll soon discover, her heart as well.

That night, the two sit in the parking lot outside a grocery mart and chat into the night. Why doesn’t she write songs and sing her own work? People like her songs alright, but not her looks, she tells him. She’s self-conscious about her nose. He traces her facial features tenderly with his finger and tells her she’s beautiful. When his driver drops her off, as she’s walking up to her front door, he calls out from the car window: “Hey”. She looks back, he says: “I just wanted to take another look at you.” This line will later become the ominous turn into a heartbreaking end.

It’s Cooper’s directorial debut, and from this feature, we can see he’s a meticulous, sensitive and conscientious helmer. He catches and releases the right amount of tension and emotion with expert timing. His love lines are nuanced, casual yet touching. His singing is seasoned, a bit raspy and therefore quite moving. A Star is Born is remarkable achievement considering he’s the director, co-writer, actor, singer, and co-songwriter, with Lady Gaga, of the 17 original songs in the production.

Kudos to Lady Gaga, other than a mesmerizing voice, her acting looks to be another talent that’s authentic; indeed, a star is born with this movie debut. But maybe that shouldn’t be surprising. She’s been a bold and versatile performer for a long while. It’s the unplugged looks and demeanour in the movie that’s a pleasant surprise. In reality, she’s already a supernova, so where will this further catapult her career? How will movie success affect other aspects of her life?

In the film, the change of Ally from a plain-looking, struggling artist to a performing star with dyed hair, showy costumes and vibrant dance steps stir Jack to remind her to go deep into her soul. Nothing’s perfect. Success comes with a price. Ally handles it relatively well. What is authentic? Surely not the appearance, the stage persona. At least, she still knows her heart. It looks like Jack has a harder time dealing with Ally’s success than the crumbling of his own. That still may be the easier part when compared to conquering the demon of alcoholism.

The very story of A Star is Born is itself a cautionary tale. Interestingly, Hollywood loves this story. The Cooper and Gaga version is the fourth time the tale is told. The very first A Star is Born back in 1937, its screenplay by Dorothy Parker, was based on a 1932 movie What Price Hollywood? directed by George Cukor. Imagine someone back in 1932 was already mulling on this question.

Cukor later directed Judy Garland and James Mason in the 1954 remake. Fast forward to 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson starred in another version, this time Joan Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunn co-wrote the screenplay, turning the limelight to the musical stage from the movie industry. The 2018 Cooper-Gaga reprise gives credit to Didion and Dunn’s script.

In a perfect world, artistic success can find an ideal integration and balance with popularism and consumerism, while addictions are absent, superficiality and shallowness all but banished. A perfect scenario, but not in the real world. In the real world, we have stories, some repeated and same old but in different versions. No matter how many times they’ve been told, we still embrace them. All because they are real.

 

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