Directed by: Bradley Cooper Written by: Eric Roth, Cooper, and Will Fetters
Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with this film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.
In my review of the 1937 film version of A Star is Born I commented on a trait that felt a tad too obvious: its datedness. Yet this quality seems like a perfect starting point for understanding how the film’s most recent remake came to be. In the original A Star is Born, protagonist Esther Blodgett dreams of being a Hollywood star, but despite her unmistakable determinedness, there seems to be no basis (ie acting experience) for that dream.
In its attempt to be modern, the latest of the version replaces Esther with Ally (Lady Gaga), who has no hopes of being famous but is very confident in her abilities as a singer and performer (she’s also a songwriter, though she’s less confident about that). While both Esther and Ally’s stars are born through their developing relationships with established stars Norman Maine and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) respectively, the detail with which the films lay out these paths are very different. Esther takes the more marketable stage name of Vicky Lester, meets and then gets to star in a movie with Norman Maine and somehow becomes Hollywood’s next darling. Ally and Jackson, by contrast have a long conversation in which it becomes clear to Jackson that Ally is his artistic equal. This, along with his feelings for her, inspires him to promote her talents.
Therefore, in its first act, A Star is Born seems like a brilliantly conceived remake. It takes an appealing but simple and dated story, and updates it with realist dialogue and better gender politics. The spirit of the original movie is undoubtedly present, yet Cooper’s version feels like an original tale in its own right.
Unfortunately, as A Star is Born progresses, its commitment to being a remake holds it back a bit. From the get-go it focuses its story around Jackson and Ally, trying to stick to the framework of the story of Esther and Norman. Due to the film’s extended runtime, and the simplicity of the source material, the script ultimately feels over-extended.
An undeniable theme of the original film is emasculation as Norman’s pre-existing problem of alcoholism is exacerbated as he watches Esther succeed while his star fades. The over-extension of the 2018 film seems the result of not knowing how to present such a story in 2018. At times, the film considers emphasizing the other elements of Maine’s depression, partially through the introduction of a hard to remember (though well portrayed) supporting character in Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot). A three dimensional portrayal of Maine’s sadness would require a script more like that of Manchester by the Sea, but unfortunately creating such a script would have undermined the degree to which it was indeed a remake of A Star is Born. Personally, I wish the writers had gone in that direction and done more to develop supporting characters and subplots (they had no lack of memorable personas with actors like Elliot and Dave Chapelle in the cast), but its easy to see why such a choice was avoided.
The film did take one interesting path to updating the emasculation subplot. In one scene Jackson and Ally get into a fight over her recording a moderately raunchy pop song. Maine’s anger here can both be said to be a sincere expression of concern that Ally is selling herself short, while also an example of unconscious sexism (modern pop singing being a woman-dominated genre). If this scene had come to define the movie before, the work could be said to have struck a nice balance between depicting a modern, egalitarian relationship while still employing the gendered motifs of the source material. Unfortunately, this scene was largely a standalone artefact, and in fairness to the writer, its hard to image how it could have been extended further.
As A Star is Born (2018) concludes, a version of the classic “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine” line is used. The line is undoubtedly a modernization of the original, but its not exactly feminist either. It also ends up being symptomatic of the ambitions and shortcomings of the whole movie. The 1937 version of A Star is Born is dated in a way that means it cannot compare to the best drama screenplays of this epoch, but it nonetheless holds up as a folk tale of sorts. The 2018 film, is a bit too subtle to be a charming fairy tale, but that unfortunately leaves it in a worst of both worlds camp: it’s too detailed to be a fable, and too simple to be a continually captivating script. On the other hand, Bradley Cooper does make a convincing singer-songwriter, while Lady Gaga is equally memorable in a role that clearly shows off her acting skills rather than simply allowing her to play a part. And both of course get to put in some solid vocal performances. A Star is Born has a lot of good pieces, it’s just a shame it didn’t have more songs, or more subplots, or more anything. I don’t mean to take a crack at Romeo and Juliet but sometimes tragic romance isn’t enough.