“A Star is Born” is one of those classic stories that comes around every generation or so with a slightly different twist. The premise is the same – drunken, over-the-hill male singer discovers fresh, young female talent whose career takes off just as his fades away – but the actors, scripts, and music update with each re-working of the framework. Although the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Fredric March version was the first, most consider the 1954 Judy Garland/James Mason version the standard against which all subsequent adaptations shall be judged. It was a classic studio-era Hollywood musical, which featured the hit song, “The Man That Got Away,” and Garland was at her absolute best.
Barbra Streisand’s 1976 interpretation suffered under the weight of her own self-importance to both the music and film industries, and is often considered the weakest rendition – save for an excellent performance by Kris Kristofferson as the down-on-his-luck declining former-star. Here’s my problem with Streisand’s rendering: Remember the scene in Neil Diamond’s “The Jazz Singer” where he sits down in a recording studio and shows the young British punk rocker how “Love on the Rocks” is supposed to sound? Diamond’s character was presented as a young, nervous songwriter with no real sense of stage presence – yet he performs the song like a seasoned pro. In other words, he’s too good (at least in that early scene). And that’s Streisand’s problem in her “A Star is Born.” She skips over the innocent ingenue portion of her character’s career, and hits a home run the very first time she takes the stage. That ruins the premise of the story – and only served as another rung on the ladder of Streisand’s career.
Now Bradley Cooper has taken his turn as actor and director, reprising the March/Mason/Kristofferson role, and presenting singer Lady Gaga as the greenhorn newcomer. And the answer to the two most obvious questions presented by this pairing, “Can Cooper direct?” and “Can Lady Gaga act?”, is a resounding “Yes!”
Let’s start with Gaga. Considering the fact that she is one of the biggest recording industry stars of the past decade, and considering that her stage shows are modern-day Busby Berkeley productions, Gaga takes everything Streisand did wrong and does it correctly. Appearing (at least at first) without make-up or dyed hair, Gaga’s Ally comes across as the struggling singer-songwriter the character is supposed to represent.
Working two jobs to make ends meet, Cooper’s rock star Jackson Maine is mesmerized by Ally’s performance in a gay nightclub, and asks her for a date. The two hit it off, and next thing we know, Maine invites Ally to one of his concert-tour stops in her hometown. When he invites her on stage to perform one of her original songs with him, she is appropriately hesitant. When she finally joins him, her voice is stellar but her body language suggests she is ill-at-ease with her moment in the sun. Once the performance goes viral, a music producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) offers to make her a star. And the rest, as they say, is history.
As Ally’s career takes off, Maine’s declines into a sad state of drunken nights and public embarrassments. His stage-stumbling scene at the Grammys (when Ally wins Best New Artist) is pathetic and somewhat difficult to watch, but we feel empathy because the characters created by Cooper and Gaga are so instantly relatable. Cooper’s Maine is not a bad guy. He has a warm heart, and a genuine love for Ally. And while her stardom is exactly what she’s wanted all along, it pains her to see her lover, husband, and the man who discovered her talent hit all the wrong notes as his career freefalls. It’s a chilling scene, and one which could have been laughably bad had Cooper and Gaga not played it perfectly.
Unlike that of Kristofferson and Streisand, their on-screen chemistry clicks from the first time they meet one another. And Cooper wisely presents both himself and Gaga in closeups whenever we need to feel their unspoken emotions. Sam Elliott turns in another strong supporting performance as Jackson Maine’s brother, manager, and all-around conscience, and former comedian Andrew Dice Clay is almost unrecognizable as Ally’s father – a once-promising crooner in the Sinatra/Bennett vain, who wants nothing more than to see his daughter’s career succeed.
But “A Star is Born” will always flourish or fail based on the two lead performances, and I’m happy to say that Cooper and Gaga are dynamite when they are on screen together. As far as the music is concerned, Cooper does an excellent job embodying the once-great rockstar persona, and Gaga is obviously an accomplished pianist and singer. Although there is no one song as strong as Paul Williams’ “Evergreen” from the Streisand version, this adaptation is easily the best since Garland’s.
Look for “A Star is Born” come Oscar time. For a star as accomplished as Lady Gaga to pull off the innocence and awkwardness necessary for this role leads me to believe she could easily enjoy a second career as a dramatic actress. And while Cooper turns in another outstanding performance, he could embark on a simultaneous career as a director, the way Robert Redford has.
“A Star is Born” has taken its place as one of this year’s finest films, and it is my hope that its two stars reap the appropriate rewards in the very near future.