2018: Directed by Bradley Cooper | Written by Eric Roth, Cooper, and Will Fetters, based on the story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson | 135 min
To prep for this remake opening this week, I took a look back at the predecessors, the three times stars were born in the past. Dialogue and scene structures are frequently repeated, so it’s interesting to observe what’s been retained and what’s been discarded.
The original from 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March, set the template of the fresh-faced but ambitious country girl who takes a bus to Hollywood, only to be told the odds of making it are tiny. She’s taken under the wing of a jaded talent who’s on his way down from a great height. It’s notable for Dorothy Parker’s contribution to the script—her barbed wit is easy to pick out.
The 1954 musical epic is probably the most critically acclaimed of these films, and it certainly impresses through its 154 minute running time, with a 178-minute version including restored scenes also available. Many critics have talked about the ways it parallels Judy Garland’s actual life and career in uncomfortably personal ways—this article is especially astute in making that point. Garland seems like she’s just on the verge of tears at all times, and that kind of tremulousness is perfectly suited to this role. It’s also a full-on musical with some amazing set-pieces, and James Mason is terrific as a man who shelves his pride for his love.
The 1976 version is better than I’d been led to believe. It convincingly captures the rock and roll excess of the era with wide-angle cinematography, an army of hirsute extras, and even brings a few good tunes, and in casting Kris Kristofferson we get both a songwriting legend, a scene veteran, and a capable actor. Rumour has it Elvis was offered the gig, which would’ve made a very different film. But from stem to stern, this is a Barbara Streisand vanity project. Her character feels like a fully realized star from the start, so there’s not much of a character arc.
Bradley Cooper’s taken the most from that 1976 version—with an added spiritual borrow from Mason in the 1954 edition—but he’s updated the pacing and rebalanced the storytelling. This really is a two-hander, where both Cooper’s Jack Maine and Lady Gaga’s Ally trade leads, depending on where we are in the story. He’s the grizzled, alcoholic, pill-popping road warrior—a mid-career, mid-level singer-songwriter with a little too much Nashville in him to be Ryan Adams but too many soulful, world-weary lyrics to be Brad Paisley. He stumbles on Ally singing Edith Piaf in a drag bar and is impressed with her presence, coaxing from her the songs she writes but won’t perform for people. It isn’t long before he’s invited her up on stage to play for thousands, and naturally, she’s a sensation.
The opening act here is powerfully, emotionally on point. It’s all killer and no filler, shaking off the memories of the previous films and bringing something entirely fresh. Cooper and Gaga are great together as they fall for one another, even as Gaga is a little tentative in places, but that feeling she’s holding back something works for the character. Without the outrageous shoes and make-up of her world-conquering pop performance art, her delicacy and awkward smile is a winning combo, and her enormous voice winds up being that much more a surprising show-stopper. Cooper gives us a character we’ve never seen from him before—channeling Kristofferson’s outlaw charisma, with a gravel in his throat like Eddie Vedder’s, who the actor shadowed to pick up some of that rock star swagger.
As a director he shoots his actors the way they love, all close-ups and medium shots, keeping it intimate and saving anything wide for the sake of establishing location and aesthetics. I was impressed with how well that worked, in places even risking claustrophobia, the camera up in the leads’ grill. The only other face who makes any real impression is Jack’s manager, played by the excellent Sam Elliot with his remarkable wire-brush ‘stash. Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chapelle, and Anthony Ramos are all fine, but are planets distant from the centre of this celestial event.
The 2018 take on A Star Is Born still manages to be faithful to the structural template that goes all the way back 81 years, but it savvily channels our current wish-fulfillment for celebrity, the Idol model, how we all secretly dream of stepping up on stage and blowing away the room with our purportedly raw talent.
If there’s a bum note here, it’s that the final act is weighed a little too heavily toward Jack, to the detriment of Ally. The cost of her transformation into a bubble-pop queen is seen only through the prism of his disappointment and jealousy, while her development as an artist goes from plot to subplot. She performs a song on TV and it’s objectively awful. Is this shallow world of pop what she really wanted? The movie indicates to us through her hair-colour how she goes off-track, but it feels like a scene is missing to express her heart in this journey. The filmmakers also front-load the best songs, leaving the weakest for the closing, though that’s partly saved from a cheesy string arrangement by an intimate piano rendition.
Still, this is quality work from all involved, with special props to Cooper’s achievement in front and behind the camera. He puts the pedal down on the pacing, giving us a restless film always asking us to keep up as it leaps forward. There are moments when it challenges Almost Famous for creating an authentic story of backstage and on-stage musical myth, and that’s no small feat.