Greetings again from the darkness. This is the 4th iteration I’ve seen of A STAR IS BORN. First there was writer/director William Wellman’s original version in 1937 which won the Oscar for Best Original Story, had 6 other Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), and starred Janet Gaynor and Frederic March (he playing a veteran actor and she a starlet). Next came the 1954 remake with James Mason and the fabulous Judy Garland (he playing a veteran actor, she an upcoming singer/actress). Both were nominated for Oscars, and the film was directed by George Cukor (10 years later would win an Oscar for MY FAIR LADY). 1976 brought the second remake (third version), this one starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It won a Best Song Oscar for Paul Williams, and was directed by Frank Pierson, known best for writing the oft quoted line “What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate” from COOL HAND LUKE (he also won a Best Screenplay Oscar for DOG DAY AFTERNOON). So perhaps it’s understandable that 81 years after the original, Bradley Cooper chooses this familiar story for a generational update and his directorial debut.
When it’s announced that a new version of this story is being made, the obvious first question anyone asks is ‘Who did they cast?” Many were surprised when it was learned that Bradley Cooper had cast himself, and that Lady Gaga would take on the female lead. Sure, we all know Bradley Cooper as an Oscar nominated actor from SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013), and AMERICAN SNIPER (2014) … but can he SING? And yes, many had seen Lady Gaga in TV’s “American Horror Story”, but could she possibly carry a major film – sans heavy make-up and gimmicky stage gadgetry?
The audience reactions are in. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga blow away the 1976 version, and where they rank versus the other two versions, comes down to personal preference. Mr. Cooper delivers an odd, yet effective, performance as the boozy, aimless rocker Jackson Maine. Not only does he mimic Sam Elliott’s speaking voice and cadence, his performance seems purposefully close to that of Kristofferson from 42 years ago. The great Sam Elliott does play Cooper’s (much) older brother, so the oratory choice makes some sense … it’s just a bit off-putting at first. Cooper is believable as the rocker thanks to his stage presence and charm. We never doubt Jackson Maine is a rock star.
The most stunning and pleasant surprise here is Lady Gaga as Ally. For anyone who still thinks of her in terms of raw meat fashion at industry events, prepare yourself for astonishment. Her beautiful and powerful voice is on full display throughout the film. In fact, her songs and singing are the highlights of what is a terrific film that should have wide appeal. The first song she sings, “La Vie en Rose” (made famous by Edit Piaf) is quite simply jaw-dropping in its beauty.
Ally is a pretty grounded woman from humble means. She works as a waitress and sings whenever she can … having been held back from pursuing her dreams by a well-meaning father (Andrew Dice Clay) who says she doesn’t have the looks to be a star. Ally has a Carole King “Tapestry” poster on her bedroom wall, and we soon learn she could probably sing most any song from that classic album and make it her own. When Jackson and Ally meet, a complex romance and professional partnership forms. We know those rarely end well. As Jackson shuns his protective brother, battles an ever-worsening hearing issue and a self-destructive drinking problem, Ally tries to remain loyal to the man she loves … even as her own career explodes down a path Jackson barely recognizes.
In addition to the aforementioned Dice Clay (surprisingly subtle here), there is a musical duet with Marlon Williams (in the Roy Orbison tribute) and Presley Cash, and surprising supporting characters played by Dave Chappelle and Eddie Griffin. Probably not as surprising, Jon Peters is listed as a Producer on the film. If you are unfamiliar with Mr. Peters, he was once a hairstylist to celebrities and in the early 1970’s fell in love with Barbra Streisand. His first credit as Producer was for her film … you got it … A STAR IS BORN (1976).
Mr. Cooper does a nice job tackling such a large scale and familiar project for his first directing gig, and we are certainly appreciative of his avoiding inclusion of Streisand’s “Evergreen”, and instead showcasing the talents of Lady Gaga. It’s likely Lady Gaga will receive a bit more credit for her acting than is probably deserved (an Oscar nom is possible), but her impact on the movie cannot be understated. Bradley Cooper’s next project as actor/director has been announced as BERNSTEIN, where he will play the great composer Leonard Bernstein. Kudos to Cooper for dreaming big!