By John H. Foote
Having seen them all, loving the Judy Garland version, loathing the Streisand version (except the songs) and being indifferent to the first version in 1937, I was at least curious to see this new one at TIFF last September. Sean Penn had hailed it a masterpiece long before critics had screened it which, given his surly attitude to everything, only peaked my interest.
Watching it unfold during TIFF I was mesmerized by Lady Gaga, who was enchanting as the nobody discovered by a rock star at the end of his career, portrayed by the film’s director, Bradley Cooper. No love story can work on film without we the audience believing the spark between the characters. They must have heat. Without it we can never believe their love, lust or longing.
You could feel the admiration, the trust, the love between the two of them shortly after they locked eyes. By the end of the film, indeed a star had been born.
Long story short, he gives her the break she needs to become a superstar, they marry and as she ascends, he plummets into a world of booze, drugs and despair. Through the ups and downs their fierce love burns bright, but is it enough to keep them together?
Lowering his voice to a thunderstorm rumble, Cooper does the finest work of his career as Jackson, who we first encounter seeing the world through a booze hazed gaze. He sings, very well I might add, and is completely believable as a rockabilly star. There is something terribly sad about Jackson, haunting and yet haunted by a past he has not come to terms with. He and his brother have unfinished business, his brother having dedicated his life to managing Jack. Something in Jack ignites when he sees Allie (Lady Gaga) and he moves towards her.
Gaga is sensational as Allie, a singer born to be a superstar, blessed with a voice so powerful we may not believe it is coming out of that tiny body. Her confidence is remarkable in the film, and the actress seems incapable of a false moment in the picture. With an obvious trust for and with Cooper, the singer becomes an actress of astounding power and realism. The title of the film is apt for Gaga, but also for Cooper, who proves to be an excellent director.
Sam Elliott is quietly outstanding as Cooper’s longtime manager and loyal older brother who sees that Allie has given his sibling peace, at least for a time. The pull of the drugs is too much for Jackson and he slowly realizes she would be better off without him.
Where Streisand failed was in thinking she was the only character we were interested in, and her massive ego saw close up after close up and constant shots of her toned butt. As producer she hired Oscar winning writer Frank Pierson to direct the film, knowing she could bully and control him, which is exactly what she and then boyfriend Jon Peters did. By all accounts from those who were on set, Streisand called the shots, Pierson was tucked safely in a corner. Streisand’s final scene and song in the film, a tribute to her late husband, contains a long close up, nine minutes of her face filling the screen. Cooper went a different route, filling the screen with Gaga, but cutting away often, showing the spread of the grief, the stunned reaction to her song, a beautiful tribute to him. The concert scenes have the powerful energy rock concerts have, while the love story has a lovely intimacy that presents the connection as real, honest and truthful. They feel connected, they feel like lovers, and with a love story that is essential. Yet it is more, deeper than a mere love story.
Have you ever, and I hope you have, fallen so deeply in love with another that the world seems to stop spinning? Somehow, Cooper has captured that and it has rarely been brought to the screen with as much authenticity and care as it has here. From something as simple as the couple walking, arms around one another, to their delicate first sexual encounter, to his breakdown of shame after humiliating himself, and her, at the Grammy Awards, Cooper and Gaga capture all that is beautiful and painful, and beautifully painful with love. As artists they deal with life through their song and that first magical number, “Shallow”, gently displays the depth of their love, just as her last song displays her love and grief for him.
Gaga is utterly luminous as Allie, a club singer-songwriter needing a break. With the advent of American Idol and America’s Got Talent, we now know how many extraordinary voices there are out there living in obscurity, so suddenly it is not such a reach in suggesting her success. When she steps to the microphone in front of thousands she is terrified, but we quickly see she is also at home. Her performance suggests she is truly a great actress, though in fairness this role was very close to her. Guided by Copper’s direction, she made the part her own, and together they made great performance art.
Cooper is every bit as extraordinary as Jackson Maine, easily the best performance of an already impressive career. Lowering his voice an octave or two, it has the feeling of an eruption deep within him, like a volcano erupting out of him. There is simply not a false note to his work, the spiral downward is ugly, especially when we realize he cannot get off the dope, and there is pure self destruction within him. What I admired about the performance and film are that there are no easy answers, nothing is pat. While Gaga has earned the lion’s share of great reviews, Cooper too deserves high praise.
Character actor Sam Elliott does brilliant work in his very few scenes, the last with Jackson being heartbreaking, and Andrew Dice Clay is quietly outstanding as Allie’s proud father.
I barely remember the first version made in 1937, and the second was clearly a showcase for Garland, though James Mason was very good. Kris Kristofferson was superb as the burnt out singer in the Streisand version, the best performance in the film, which was filled with great songs.
But this version is by far the finest, mining greater depths of emotion in its depiction of a truly magnificent, ultimately tragic love story.
Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Film, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Song, yes, Cooper was robbed of a Best Director nomination that he richly deserved. His is among the most confident and forceful directing debuts I have ever encountered. Both artists soar.
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.