By John H. Foote
There have been three versions of A Star is Born dating back to 1937, the first with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The concept is essentially the same, the man is a star on his way down, he discovers a young lady with extraordinary talent and helps her, in the process of her rise, becoming a drag on her career.
The second, a superb film, same title, with Judy Garland in peak form opposite James Mason has been for years considered the best of the bunch. Garland was nominated for the Academy Award and deserved to win, but did not to the eternal shame of the Academy. This was her greatest work, directed by her the great director of women George Cukor, and remains among the finest films of the fifties. Never before had her astounding talents been so showcased.
The third incarnation, a troubled production (to be kind), has its moments but turned into an ego-driven fest for star and producer Barbra Streisand and boyfriend, hairdresser Jon Peters, who had the gall to push director Frank Pierson out of the way and call most of the shots. Really, the film has some great moments but is so filled with Streisand indulgence it becomes, clearly a vanity project to showcase the talents of Babs. No one doubts her gifts, nobody ever has. But she must have insecurities to burn because she turned this into a vanity production from her first scene to that last extended close-up. How else can we justify the constant close-ups, not on just her face, but long lingering shots on her body, her butt, most of all? Her performance suffered from the meddling offscreen, but Kris Kristofferson is superb as burned out rocker John Norman Howard. They had wanted Elvis for the part, but clearly they made the right choice with Kristofferson, who sets the tone for his performance within the first two minutes we see him, being dressed, talked up, taking a pill, a snort of cocaine, his guitar strapped on to him before taking the stage, his eyes tired and worn out. Sadly the film never really takes off, though Kristofferson gives you a reason to watch. The songs are great, one of the finest song soundtracks you might ever hear, and Streisand shared an Oscar for Best Song for her lovely love ballad Evergreen, written with diminutive Paul Williams.
Using that version of A Star is Born (1976) as a template, more or less, director Bradley Cooper co-wrote a new screenplay, sticking to the world of music, and in a stroke of absolute genius cast Lady Gaga as the ingenue, he will help take to the top of the industry. Cooper has more than proven himself as an actor, three Academy Award nominations since 2012, the first for Best Actor in Silver Linings Playbook, followed by a supporting actor nomination for American Hustle (2013) and for Best Actor Actor again in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), up to now his best work.
He blows that away, completely, with his superb performance as burned out, lonely, bone tired rocker Jackson Maine. You can feel it in his eyes, his movements, his slurred speech just how exhausted he is. Nothing Cooper has done, ever will prepare you for his seminal work in this film. Both haunting and haunted, he has sung too many songs, drank too much, taken too many pills, lines of coke, moves from town to town without even knowing where he is half the time, relying far too heavily on his older brother, portrayed with sad-eyed, been to too many rodeos charm by Sam Elliott. These are major performances folks, Oscar major, the kind they hand Best Actor awards too. And I have not even gotten to the best parts yet.
One night while driving back to the hotel after a so-so performance he goes looking for booze in a small bar in the middle of a city. He walks into a trans bar and listens to Alley (Gaga) who stops the show, alters the course of his life and stuns him with her God-given gifts. He cannot believe what he hears or sees. Thrilled with the attention, they begin spending time together, though she is guarded, waiting for the fall. Early in their relationship, it does not come, he treats her like a queen, shows belief in her gifts as a singer by pulling her onstage to sing with him to the delight of the crowd and the youtube crowd. She becomes a sensation, as gifted a songwriter as she is a singer, it all happens very fast. Signed by a label, she begins working on an album, but they want to change her, so she heeds the advice of Maine, “just be you.” As she climbs to the top of the charts, he begins the low slow descent, though because she does truly love him, she agrees to marry him.
The two are truly in love, we believe that and we see that and the actors do a perfect job creating that magic for us. If any single aspect was ever lacking in the previous incarnations of the film, it was this, I dod not believe the characters as lovers. I did with Cooper and Gaga, they are intensely sexual together but genuinely good to each other. So many love stories lack this crucial element because if we do not believe there is heat between them, the love story will become moot. Every longing gaze, every gentle touch, every kiss, every moment of them making love, we believe it.
But then the booze, the living with an addict, or her growing success begins to eat away at Jackson and he humiliates her the night she receives a Grammy. Drunk, incoherent, he wanders on stage before collapsing and is carted off to rehab. There he begins to come to terms with what he has done to his career, and the damage he has done to hers. Yet she stands by him, true love, she forgives him and wants him to get better. He has no clue the damage he has done to her until her manager tells him.
A tough right between the eyes conversation with her manager sets Jackson straight about the huge amount of rebuilding they had to do for her after the Grammy incident while he was recovering in rehab. Realizing she cannot get to where she needs to be with him, he makes what he thinks is the ultimate sacrifice for her, but in doing so, destroys her heart, perhaps her ability to love.
Lady Gaga is a revelation, there are not enough words of praise for what she accomplishes as Ally, she is utterly magnificent. Every word, gesture, movement, and song is honest and true. She brings an authenticity to the character that is as fresh as any of the best work of the greatest actors working today. She and Cooper are locked in synch, perfectly matched, but more, they understand their characters and the relationship that have with each other to extraordinary lengths. The trust this young lady placed in her director and co-star was paramount, and he rewarded her by never allowing her to be false, or anything less than perfect. Yes, she is that good. It is not just a great performance, it might be this year’s best performance, it might be a performance for the ages. Her final song, a tragic ballad about never loving again is utterly heartbreaking because listening to the words we see what she is thinking, flashbacks to the life she had with Maine, a life she is singing about never having with another ever again. She creates an immensely likable character, we root for Ally, but just as much we root for them as a couple, we want them to survive the hell that is the music industry, we want for them to persevere. Prepare to fall head over heels in love with Gaga…I did.
Her portrayal of Ally during the downfall of Jackson is heartbreaking because she knows better than anyone his enormous gifts, she has witnessed his ability to create alongside her and remains in awe of what he can accomplish. But she is not so naive to understand the enemy is fame, and booze and the pills he pops, given to him like candy by his minions. It must be a terrible thing to reach a point a fame when no one will dare say no to you, fearing they will be fired and are no longer part of the inner circle. Only Ally and his brother have the courage to tell him like it is, whether he likes it or not.
There is little doubt both Cooper and Gaga are headed for Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress, respectively, and though far too early to call a winner, each could do just that. With a singing voice corrupted by whiskey, cigarettes, and fatigue, Cooper is superb, going further than he has ever dared to go as an actor. Gaga? SImply luminous, a light just by her sheer presence.
In strong support, Sam Elliott gets the finest role of his career and gives the best performance he has ever given as Jackson’s trusted brother and manager, a man the younger brother secretly idolizes but lacks the courage to tell him that. Elliott is brilliantly conveying the sense of a protective older sibling who has done all that he could do to keep his brother safe in the dangerous world they inhabit, knowing that the best thing that has happened to him is Ally. Elliott has a heartbreaking last exchange with Cooper that will no doubt draw more than a few tears. Though brief, Elliott has enough screen time to make a very powerful impression and he does just that. His first Oscar nomination is likely.
And Andrew Dice Clay. Remember him? Bombastic ass of a comic from the nineties? He was outstanding a few years ago in the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine (2013), really terrific, but he is even stronger here as Ally’s proud father. They have a lovely, real chemistry together without going over the top into cliche. Who would have thought?
As director, Bradley Cooper displays both artistry and confidence. He has worked with some of the best in the business so lessons rubbed off, but more than that is pure extinct and he has it in spades. Like Warren Beatty and Clint Eastwood, he has a knack with actors and a gift for directing himself, no small feat. He took over this film when Eastwood finally walked away after toying with the idea for years, and frankly, Cooper has knocked it out of the park. If nominated for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenplay, he will join Orson Welles and Warren Beatty as the only two men to ever accomplish that feat, pretty fine company. He brings a delicate, honest intimacy to the scenes between he and Gaga, but the concert scenes feel equally real, energetic, bathed in a sense of realism that cannot be faked.
The audience I saw this with at TIFF was largely press, from around the globe, but though cynical and jaded, they were with the film ever step of the way. And when it was over, the music stopped, the tears had dried, the ovation started and continued to build until they stood. To say the press went gaga for Gaga is an understatement.
Indeed, a couple of stars were born, an actress, and a director. Oscar-bound, one of the years very best films.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.