As a movie fan I’m often surprised to learn how long it takes to bring a film project to the screen. What seems like an of-the-moment performance may take years to find its way to a theater near you. That’s certainly true of the newest version of A Star is Born starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Like its earlier versions, this is the story of an older star who discovers a young talent, falls in love with her, but is ultimately destroyed by alcohol and jealousy as his protege’s star brightens while his own grows dimmer.
The Star is Born franchise was launched in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March featured in a non-musical telling of the story. It was retold as a musical in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason in the leading roles and again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson—all of them “star” vehicles, but none, to my mind, as touching or artistically polished as the current Bradley Cooper version.
This newest iteration, in theaters now, had its origins in 2011 when Clint Eastwood began developing an updated remake with Beyoncé in the leading role. Frustrated by casting problems and other production delays, Eastwood let his project die until Cooper picked it up in 2016 agreeing to take over as star and first-time director with an updated story line.
If you haven’t seen it you’re missing a Master Class in acting, film making, song writing and storytelling. I’ve seen it twice, along with viewings of its antecedents and purchase of the soundtrack.
In this version, Cooper plays Jackson Maine a country rocker who still draws stadium-sized crowds but is propped up by alcohol and hard drugs. When he discovers Ally, a young woman singing in a drag bar, he recognizes her talent and is smitten. He encourages her songwriting and brings her on stage at one of his shows (Coachella) to sing an arrangement of the song she wrote and previewed for him in a supermarket parking lot. Suddenly, her career is launched, and she’s on a rocket ride toward stardom.
As he was casting the film, Mr. Cooper remembered seeing Lady Gaga sing a few years earlier. Then, fortuitously, he heard her again, this time singing La Vie en Rose, the Edith Piaf classic, at a benefit concert in Los Angeles. The following morning, he called to ask her if he could stop by to talk. She agreed and shortly after arriving he asked if they could sing together (Midnight Special). She was surprised by the timing and urgency of his request, but they sat down at her white piano and that was it. She was in – and so was La Vie en Rose.
The updated story beautifully and believably crafted by Cooper is a dark one, but unlike the Streisand and Garland versions this one is not overplayed. Lady Gaga reveals herself to be an accomplished actress as well as a superb singer-songwriter. She, Cooper, and Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) wrote most of the music, and to make it real performed all of the songs live at Coachella, Glastonbury, and in small clubs.
To add even more authenticity to his portrayal of Jackson, he studied guitar with Lukas Nelson for 18 months and met with Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam as his on-stage performer model. He also felt that Jackson’s voice needed to be lower than his own, so he hired a voice coach to help him model the new voice on Sam Elliott’s (who was later hired to play Jackson’s brother).
I’ve been a longtime admirer of Cooper’s work, including American Sniper and Silver Linings Playbook, but it was an interview with James Lipton on Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio that gave me a true appreciation for his professionalism as an actor. He comes from a middle-class home where his stockbroker father and housewife mother engaged their children in serious conversation over dinner every night. He had their full support and there was never any question when he told them he wanted to be an actor and attend the Actors Studio. I remember liking him even more when he invited his mother to be his date for the Oscars in 2013 and announced that he had stopped drinking because it was affecting his work as an actor. Today, he shares his LA home with his supermodel girlfriend, Irina Shayk, and their new baby.
I came late to the Lady Gaga party, because I was put off by her early stunts – the dramatic meat dress, emerging from an egg at the Grammy’s and other episodes early in her career. But, her album of duets with Tony Bennett made a fan of me, and my appreciation has grown steadily since. If you haven’t seen their rendition of The Lady is a Tramp you’ve missed a classic.
In A Star is Born, Lady Gaga aka Stephanie Germonatta, is Ally, the aspiring singer-songwriter, not Gaga. Her character is a plain Jane restaurant server with mousey brown hair, a big nose and no makeup, and her only escape from this mundane life is singing in a drag bar where the drag queens and clientele love her.
In post-release interviews journalists have been quick to ask if this character is the real Lady Gaga aka Stephanie, and she has been equally quick to assert that she is not. The girl with the mousey brown hair, she says, is Ally her character in the film. She is certainly a stripped down, un-ornamented version of the woman we know as Lady Gaga, but an actress able to create a memorable and authentic character no matter whether it is Ally the rising star or the real Stephanie Germanotta.
I could write more but I encourage you to see the film for yourself. I may have turned my appreciation into a political escape strategy, but in the process I’ve had a fascinating time reading film reviews, the New York Times Magazine cover feature on Gaga (October 7, 2018), watching the Stephen Colbert-Gaga interview, re-watching Cooper’s interview on Inside the Actors Studio, and seeing the documentary Lady Gaga: Five-Foot-Two.
These two actor/singer/songwriter/musicians are demanding professionals who deserve all the raves they’re getting for A Star is Born. For me, the film is Oscar-worthy and I look forward to seeing both actors take the stage when Oscar comes around in 2019.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me. It’s time to get back to the nightmare and the fight for our democracy. Today’s news was all about the mid-term election – or it was until the President fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions and installed a stooge to run the DOJ and oversee the Mueller investigation. The nightmare continues. Why does every day have to be an exercise in constitutional survival?