Thursday, December 27, 2018

A Star is Boring

A friend recently told me he was shocked – shocked! – to find the ending of A Star is Born such a downer. Frankly, I was shocked that he was shocked. This is, after all, the fourth time that Hollywood has seen fit to film this particular story. Yes, the details have changed from version to version: the rising actress and the plummeting actor of the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Frederic March iteration had turned into pop singers by 1976, when Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson took on the iconic roles. But throughout the decades, the ending is always pretty much the same. As the female newcomer acquires fame and fortune, her mentor-turned-spouse enters a downward spiral that has tragic consequences.

The current version of A Star is Born is the brainchild of Bradley Cooper, who made this project his debut as a film director, while also co-writing and starring as fading country-rock superstar Jackson Maine. Cooper does a creditable job in all departments, though for me his efforts are not enough to save the film from seeming rather lugubrious and trite. Still, it gave me some matters to ponder, like the all-important role of image in Hollywood, a subject with which this version flirts but does not fully explore.

Cooper, who comes off in interviews as diligent and intelligent, has explained what he did to prepare for his role. There were the daily singing lessons, of course, but he also worked with a coach to lower the pitch of his speaking voice. His goal was to acquire something of a Sam Elliott whiskey baritone, and he ultimately persuaded Elliott himself to appear as his older brother in the film. I can remember back to the days when Cooper played not the leading man but the dorky rejected suitor (see Wedding Crashers from 2005, in which he looks tubby and awkward). Then eleven years later he was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, a sign that his image had changed considerably.

While transforming himself for his role in a Star is Born, Cooper also worked the magic of transforming pop icon Lady Gaga into an actress, one who has proved nuanced enough to attract major awards attention. It’s no accident that during the filming he addressed Gaga by her actual birth name, Stefani. This small gesture seemed to highlight the fact that he wanted her to get out from under her flashy pop princess persona and tap into the vulnerable young woman underneath. So instead of a rather garish platinum blonde, we first see a fragile brunette, one who comes alive when she sings but otherwise reveals herself to be a mass of uncertainties. Later, of course, once the world has heard her voice, her trajectory is so rapid that she metamorphoses before our eyes into a polished stage performer.

One agent of this change, of course, is Cooper’s character, the first to believe in her singing and songwriting skills. But she also quickly acquires a hot-shot manager, Rez (played by Rafi Gavron), who’s skillful at molding her into a superstar. So the young woman who values her own authenticity is suddenly acquiring back-up dancers and a glitzy wardrobe. Rez even suggests she go blonde. She bats aside that idea, but is soon sporting hair that is screaming red. Stardom changes her; but she also changes rather radically in order to achieve stardom. An interesting concept, but not what this movie is fundamentally about. Cooper’s Jackson Maine disintegrates not because she’s sold herself out but because he’s got problems of his own. Ho hum. Too bad we’ve seen it all before.  

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Roma: Women and Children First

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is a simple film in terms of its storytelling, but nonetheless it packs a wallop. This evocation of Cuarón’s own childhood in a section of Mexico City, circa 1971, centers on the woman who seems (to get literary about it) to represent what T.S. Eliot has called “the still point of the turning world.” Not that Cleo would ever have heard of the famous poet. A small, compact figure recruited from the Mexican countryside to serve the family of an affluent doctor, she is quiet, stoic, and possibly illiterate. (With the household cook, she casually alternates between Spanish and her native Mixtec tongue.) Without complaint, she tends to the  family’s four rambunctious young children, cleans up after the household pets, trudges to the rooftop to do laundry, and is a silent witness to the widening rift between husband and wife. She still, though, has time for a private life. In her free hours, she goes to the movies, and is courted by a young man who shows off (in the nude) his expertise in martial arts. As she watches him from a rumpled bed, her eyes glow with placid contentment.

But this is a film filled with premonitions of disaster: an earthquake, a near-collision, a mysterious fire, and a bloody riot (known to history as the Corpus Christi Massacre), in which the police mow down leftwing agitators on the streets and in the shops of Roma. So we quickly expect the worst for Cleo. When she confesses her pregnancy, her boyfriend quickly vanishes. Surprisingly, the mistress of the house accepts her situation with equanimity, and even kindness. Cleo is clearly too valuable to the family to be turned out on moral grounds.

This middle-class doctor’s wife seems a harsh figure at first, but it’s soon clear she has troubles of her own. In fact, I found her role quite a fascinating one. She too knows what it’s like to be betrayed by the man she loves. Her agitation is revealed in her disastrous driving (and parking) ineptitude, but she has a heroic side as well, stifling her personal grief in order to protect her children’s innocence. Life without father, she insists to them, will be an adventure! She makes this statement at a seaside resort where Cleo—in a suspenseful scene breathtaking in its power—will risk everything for those same children. Her love for them, we feel, is what allows her to keep on keeping on.

Servitude is for Cleo both a necessity and an ingrained sense of her place in the natural order. It is also, at the best of times, a labor of love. When, at rare intervals, she feels herself loved in return, all’s right with the world. The love she inspires shows up in the film’s on-screen dedication to a woman who was Cuarón’s real-life childhood nanny. She’s doubtless long gone now, but it’s touching that Cuarón remembers so vividly what she brought to his life. (As another real-life  story of a boy and a servant, Tony Kushner’s Broadway musical, Caroline, or Change makes a fascinating contrast.)

Cuarón puts his personal stamp on Roma in many artful ways.  Aside from directing a first-time lead actress, he wrote, produced, and co-edited this film, also serving as its director of cinematography. Part of the film’s beauty lies in its look: the austere black and white photography, the incisive editing, the sound design. I don’t remember ever seeing a film in which ambient noise played so large a role. Roma transports us to Mexico City in the 1970s, and deep into our own memory banks.  

Happy holidays to my readers. God bless us, every one.