A Star Was Born, and I Can’t Stop Thinking About It
‘A Star is Born’ continues to affect me. This is my attempt to give words to why.
Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, the fading star from A Star is Born, is hunkered, slurry, and hard to know. He’s a drunk — his speech is floundering, round-about bullshit that rarely, if ever, brightens with the truthful and artistic clarity he thinks it does. Cooper’s character’s weirdly mentor-ish relationship with his wife, Lady Gaga’s Ally, is tinged with these vacuous sentiments that purport to be sweet: Sing from your heart. You’ve got something to say. Nobody says it like you. Cooper’s Maine feigns truth, influence, power — but he’s weak, manipulative, abusive. Ally does have something to say, but he doesn’t.
Something caught me, though, the second time I saw it, and I think I need to name it, wrestle with it, figure it out.
I keep thinking about Cooper’s face in the climactic scene, with Ally cuddled next to him in bed.
Roles have been reversed: Ally offers to send a car to drive Jack to her show; once so seemingly self-assured, Jack is fragile as Ally comforts him. When Jack is sober, Cooper plays him with the loose, open-shirted brightness of the newly redeemed — the smile sweeter, the eyes brighter, even as all other faculties remain a step behind. The charm, the menacing rock star glow, is gone — what’s left is a flimsy, hopeful thing. Jack has been medicating his whole life, we learn — he’s never dealt with disappointment, despair, shame. And so, after a, well, sobering conversation with Ally’s manager, Jack feels, perhaps for the very first time, what deep shame feels like. He experiences the fullness of himself, the fullness of being human, the clarifying hope of sobriety and the plunging despair of shame, the feeling itself made possible by Jack’s soberness.
That look is what I can’t stop thinking about. And, I think, one of the things that makes this film so affecting. We get to watch someone experience themselves for the very first time. Perhaps it’s weirdly gratifying to watch proud men feel it — their that-thing-we-all-feel, their humanness. Maybe it’s empathy that drags our hearts to that scene, and we see Cooper’s character as the child he never got to be, feeling things he never was given the instruments with which to deal. Or maybe Cooper just nailed it — slamming all the shame and self-loathing and sadness of our own lives starkly onto that bed, that dead-eyed stare towards the ceiling.
Watching someone experience this feeling — and seeing them know the choice they’ve already made — is a devastating thing, and one I won’t soon forget.
The daguerreotype in my brain from this movie includes two faces, and Gaga’s Ally is imprinted just as brightly. It was her face, initially, I couldn’t get out of my head. Her face, the reddened eyes, the lipstick-bled lips, looking up at and then directly into the camera in the film’s final shot.
Gaga gives Ally an earnest ferocity, a hard-won joy, a gait heavied by love and too-long years of rousing drunk men and cleaning their messes. Each step of Ally’s journey is played like Gaga is climbing narrow stairs piggybacking some gangly, unasked-for man: her boss, her father and his friends, her manager, her husband. Ally is endlessly told what to do, where to go, how to play and sing and do her hair — if she ever yields, it’s to her own husband, and barely, allowing, at least, Jack’s gargled artistic musings. Gaga bends to it all with a grace, a resolve, and a gigantic joy that seems inextricable from her voice — even the final love song lilts, still, with a joy.
Buoyancy comes in with Ally’s friendships from back home — her friend from the restaurant, the girls from the bar. A particular scene of the bunch FaceTiming in a bathtub feels like a saving note of the film, Gaga imbuing Ally with a deep-rooted placed-ness. Cooper’s direction magnifies this, too, in one scene plastering Ally’s smiling visage on a huge onstage screen as she sings: her on-screen musical moments are steadied, resolved, bubbling with contentment.
Our lasting image of Gaga as Ally bears all that made this film beautiful, a well of love and heartbreak in her eyes, a steely remembrance and lightness on her face, lips worn from bringing all that was inside her up and out through them.