The Bradley Cooper-helmed remake of A Star is Born marks the fourth time that this story has been told through celluloid. Each film follows the same basic plot: a rocky romantic relationship between a talented man and woman. The woman rises to fame partially because of her connection to the man. And then the man kills himself, leaving his lover alone and hurt. But she is now free of a codependent relationship, granting her freedom to pursue stardom.
The ’76 version starring Kristofferson and Streisand technically doesn’t end in suicide, merely a death caused by intentional drunken recklessness. But basically, each version follows the same plot. And music has usually featured heavily.
The only version I have actually seen is Cooper’s. The story has simply never interested me before. I finally watched it because of conservative writer Ross Douthat’s recommendation on the NYT podcast “The Argument.” This was based mostly on the quality of the music. I was especially intrigued because Douthat explained that the film’s centerpiece song, “Shallow”, conveys a fundamentally conservative message.
Cooper sings the first part:
“Tell me somethin’ girl
Are you happy in this modern world?
Or do you need more?
Is there somethin’ else you’re searchin’ for?”
Then after the chorus Lady Gaga responds:
“Tell me something, boy
Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?
Or do you need more?
Ain’t it hard keeping it so hardcore?”
The musical dialogue between them is clearly based in a postmodern dissatisfaction with western culture. Contemporary society lacks meaning. This has been a central concern of conservatives for a long time. Conservatism isn’t fundamentally about a certain view of economics or public policy prescriptions. It’s about the eternal things. Life, death, and love. God, man, and sin. The virtuous life. Community. Family.
And the basic plot that keeps getting adapted as A Star is Born has always dealt with these themes. Not in the manner that most people would prefer, i.e. the positive vision of a good life, but in the more impactful manner: the manner conservative economist Thomas Sowell calls the tragic or constrained vision of humanity. The manner that says human nature is a thing, a real thing, and when it isn’t respected for the thing it is, there are dire consequences.
God has designed humanity to almost literally implode when our telos is disrespected, both individually and communally. Hamlet’s revenge quest is both of his own making and his family’s. Almost no one comes out of that play guiltless. Similar observations can be made of Walter White and his dysfunctional family in Breaking Bad. This is why the incisive media critic Paul Cantor has dubbed Mr. White the “Macbeth of Meth.” The postclassical (i.e. after the Greeks and Romans) tragedy is a defense of humanity’s dignity because it says that our lives are not predetermined. They are beautiful, terrible things, capable of great good and great evil. Sad stories communicate most powerfully that we do actually matter. Something cannot be sad unless it was able to be otherwise.
This is why we should not be knee jerk reactionaries to stories that deal with suicide. During the inaugural season of 13 Reasons Why, the reaction from left and right was markedly similar. Suicide is a “don’t go there” subject for many people. But contemporary western society has a serious suicide problem. Especially for the demographic that woke activists most often refer to as privileged: white males. This makes A Star is Born more relevant than it probably ever has been.
Because a suicide may be explained through very specific causes. A certain medication or particular mental illness. But suicides on this level cannot be explained through such specific means. When a segment of society is offing themselves in record numbers, the only explanation can be G.K. Chesterton’s:
“Not only is suicide a sin, it is the sin. It is the ultimate and absolute evil, the refusal to take an interest in existence; the refusal to take the oath of loyalty to life. The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world. His act is worse (symbolically considered) than any rape or dynamite outrage. For it destroys all buildings: it insults all women. The thief is satisfied with diamonds; but the suicide is not: that is his crime. He cannot be bribed, even by the blazing stones of the Celestial City. The thief compliments the things he steals, if not the owner of them. But the suicide insults everything on earth by not stealing it. He defiles every flower by refusing to live for its sake. There is not a tiny creature in the cosmos at whom his death is not a sneer… The man’s crime is different from other crimes – for it makes even crimes impossible.”
Society itself has been deemed unworthy by the suicide. And the reason men in particular are participating in this most heinous of crimes, and why men have always been the primary perpetrators of suicide, is that they perceive themselves to be utterly useless. Or worse, a burden. A society with no purpose or place for men will eventually be a society with no men. The cliché remains true: women are sex objects and men are success objects. When men believe they are fundamentally failures, they will seek out existential novacaine.
And this is exactly why Bradley Cooper’s Jack takes his own life. Ally’s (Lady Gaga) agent has a particularly vicious side conversation with Jack about how he’s holding her back. And there is truth in these words. Jack is a severe alcoholic and drug addict. His relationships are never healthy. He’s become a public embarrassment. But the agent doesn’t care about Ally. He just wants to maximize his client’s earning potential. But his words sting a little too deep and Jack takes them to heart. So he removes himself from Ally’s life calculations. He frees her of the burden of loving him.
As a married man who struggles with infertility, I have had this conversation with myself over and over. And through therapy, meds, and making better choices, I’ve come to see that grandiosity is what drives these insidious feelings. Grandiosity is a psychological term that means something similar to narcissism. The main difference is that the narcissist believes the world should revolve around them, while the grandiose person believes the world actually does revolve around them. And every bad thing becomes their fault.
And so Jack’s suicide becomes an act of grandiosity. He believes that his suicide will save Ally. But it doesn’t. It only causes more pain and confusion.
The medium of film is not well equipped to deal with all this nuance. And to many Jack’s tragic decision will probably not feel earned. But given the logic of the film, and the underpinning psychological truths, it does make sense. Thankfully, though, it feels very hollow. It doesn’t feel rational. His death seems pointless, because it is. It doesn’t seem romantic or heroic. It is an act of cowardice. He gave up. He doesn’t sacrifice himself for Ally, he ends his own grandiose suffering.
Cooper’s performance as a tortured washed up rock star is breathtaking and gut-wrenching. His self-inflicted suffering imbues the film with weighty pathos. And the chemistry between him and Gaga is palpable throughout. Their relationship probably was incapable of completely escaping toxicity. They were addicted to each other on some level. And unless they were both willing to create healthy boundaries for themselves, disaster of some kind was always on the horizon. But Jack’s death isn’t a solution. It is the problem between them. His choices were always suicidal. He was always on the highway to hell.
From start to finish, this version of A Star is Born is truly excellent. It is a great film that arrived during a year of great films. But its subject matter pushes it beyond the boundaries of regular drama. Without these weighty themes, it’s really just a romance with some great music. But because it deals with codependency, addiction, and suicide, the actors are given a lot to work with emotionally.
The performances all around are superb. This material is meaty. Not in the same way that a play like Hamlet or films like The Godfather provide an actor with sustenance, but the emotions are complex and raw across the board. Gaga and Cooper obviously bear most of this burden. Gaga is excellent. She’s been in other films, but this is her first chance to really act. She was probably brought on because of her singing ability, but she rose to the occasion with a performance that is tender and vulnerable, but also strong and powerful throughout. But the role was written to do that. It almost feels written with her in mind.
Even the relatively small supporting role of Jack’s older brother Bobby, given to the great Sam Elliott, is loaded with rich pathos. And Elliot does what he has always done: make a lot with a little, justly earning him his first Academy Award nomination.
Matthew Libatique, well known as Darren Aronofsky’s DP, isn’t given much to do. The subject matter mostly skews toward the intimate and emotionally volatile, which is similar to his last collaboration with Aronofsky (2017’s Mother!), except that here the camerawork needed to be more traditional. Libatique is almost an actor in Mother! because the camera is so violently intrusive, but under Cooper’s direction the viewer is mostly treated to documentary style footage, giving the actors space to work. Libatique may be underutilized, but that is clearly for the best.
Is it a classic? Maybe. It has the kind of vulnerability and power that drives similar films like Walk the Line or The Doors. But unlike most dark rock star tales, this one isn’t based in history. That is a double edged sword. Biopics often don’t age well because their depictions are debunked or their subject matter simply falls out of favor. At the same time, nothing grounds A Star is Born in the cinematic landscape outside of the film itself, so if it manages to make a lasting impact, it will be mostly due to the film’s merits. Even its place in a long line of remakes won’t do the film many favors. The others have largely been forgotten, except by fans of Judy Garland or Kris Kristofferson.
Similarly to both Walk the Line and The Doors, the singing performances are entirely the product of the film’s leads. This makes Cooper’s performance and direction more impressive. His career trajectory, which has been headed upward for years, may drag this movie into legendary status some day. It could become an essential part of a powerhouse actor/director’s canon. Likewise if Gaga goes on to become a major force in Hollywood. Only time will tell.