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.  

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