The story is old and always violent, and in a favourite modern version acquires a dark particular twist. The king must die but he also has to collude with, even create his assassin. Early on in Bradley Cooper’s first film as a director, a new rendering of A Star Is Born, Cooper himself, playing a crumbling rock/country legend, sings a weary, winsome number about changing styles, whose refrain is ‘Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die’. He doesn’t mean it, though. It’s just an idea for a song. And it’s not the way the plot plays out in any of the four movies with the same title. No one goes gentle into that good night, and the night isn’t that good.
All four films – William Wellman’s in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, George Cukor’s in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, Frank Pierson’s in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and Cooper’s now with himself and Lady Gaga, alias Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta – are remarkably faithful to their initial premise and themes. They are about fame, addiction, ambition and gender. The slayer of the king is the woman he has turned into a star, and she doesn’t want to slay him. She loves him and she wants to save him, but she also drives him to a heroic, crazy death, a sort of joint sacrifice to his vanity and her career. The first two kings drown, the third crashes his car in a Technicolor desert and the most recent hangs himself in his garage. None of this harms the new star’s career.
There are interesting differences among the versions, though. In the first one both main characters are actors, in the second the doomed mentor is an actor and the new figure is a singer, in the last two both are singers. Times change too, of course. The first version seems a little flat and abstract, the second piles up emotions as if the 1950s would never end, and the third isn’t really a movie, just a series of pictures of people waiting to sing. The new film can’t seriously unsubscribe from the myth of fame in the way it occasionally tries to. But all of them do struggle with the contradiction between the lure of celebrity and the sense that the cost may be too high even for people who like to pay steep prices. And those aren’t the only contradictions.
The story of the discovery of a star has to have something of the fake about it when the actress playing the part is famous and long past being discovered. But the films know this, and ‘discovery’ takes on a new meaning. When James Mason in 1954 tracks Judy Garland to a bar and hears her sing ‘The Man That Got Away’, he knows he’s nowhere near The Wizard of Oz, but musical phrases from that film hang in the air, turning the story into a double one. He’s notionally finding an unknown talent but really finding a known talent that is always on the verge of getting lost. The Mason character is arrogant, vain, malicious, more than a bit of a bully, and the only person in any of the four films to look truly addicted to anything (booze in his case). But he sees and loves Garland’s vulnerability, and he has things to teach her about success. ‘You just needed someone to tell you,’ he says, when he’s getting her to shift her ambitions from desperately modest to grandiose. This is the someone she is remembering at the end of the movie when he is dead and she doesn’t want to go on with the show. She is persuaded to return to the stage by the argument that she owes it to Mason himself to continue to be the star he made, and the film ends with a magnificent touch of tact on the director’s part. We watch Garland from the back as she steps forward to face a theatre audience, a small figure outlined against darkness. Then we see her from the front as she pronounces not her professional name, Vicky Lester, but the formal marker of her love and gratitude as well as her civil status: ‘Hello, everybody, this is Mrs Norman Maine.’ The film ends before she starts to sing. It’s true that Gaynor says the same thing in the 1937 version, but she’s not a singer and the film cuts to and ends on a typed transcript of the occasion, her arrival at the Oscars ceremony.
We may not get a full sense of Cukor’s tact here until we have seen the later films. The king dies, the star grieves, but there is never any doubt that she will keep her singing engagement. Or that we will see and hear her sing, that her extravagant solo will take over the whole of the film’s ending, effectively wiping out even the memory of the dead man. The star keeps getting born, and that’s the story, the cost is forgotten, and the sporadic critique of fame is dispersed. The songs are good – Streisand can sing even if she can’t act, and Lady Gaga has been getting better and better as the film goes on, and she thoroughly deserves this long final moment – but they leave us in a place very different from the one created by the earlier film’s silence.
There is a similar effect in the eloquent but also silent shots of Mason as he overhears Garland and a friend talking about what a burden he is to her. He is lying on his side in bed. He looks dead, although his eyes are open – as if he were a corpse in a famous, beautifully lit painting. What we are seeing, rather as he saw the invisible fame in the already famous person, is a man visibly doing nothing while deciding to die. By contrast Bradley Cooper, in a parallel moment, is weeping and playing up his own guilt.
The new film can’t match the curious delicacy of the Cukor version, which somehow remains subtle in spite of all its many overstatements, but it does have its own powerful portrait of the fake discovery. The equivalent of the Wizard of Oz effect here – as we are invited to imagine Lady Gaga as a plain working girl who sings a bit and writes the odd song or two and is about to become galactically famous – lies in our failed attempt to forget she used to be Lady Gaga, all stunts and ribbons and feathers, a personality not an artist. And also in our attempt, which meets with an agreeably easy success, actually to listen to her singing. There is a moment, lateish in the film, where the publicity machine wants to turn her into a disco-dancing avatar of her old out-of-film self, but she gets over that. And the songs she sings in her own voice – that is, the voice the plain girl might have been discovered to have – are old-fashioned ballads (‘When the sun goes down/And the band won’t play’;‘Don’t wanna give my heart away/To another stranger’). But there is an antecedent instance in the film, a tribute to her sense of style and to Cooper’s touch as a director, where the fakery element is addressed head on.
Cooper, like Mason, finds his star in a bar late at night. But this is a drag queen locale, where Lady Gaga is the only woman allowed to perform. Among the extravagant wigs, false breasts, violent lipsticks and genuinely funny and friendly faces, she belts out a rendering of ‘La Vie en rose’ in French. Does she sound like Edith Piaf? No, she sounds like a person who could sing anything, and we remember this act when Cooper, later in the film, occupying what is supposed to be his mentoring role, tells her she will be lost if she doesn’t ‘dig deep into her fucking soul’. He couldn’t be more wrong, no wonder he’s on the way out. What she has is not sincerity or authenticity but a gift for making every surface seem deep.
The gift is splendid but it tends to unravel the emotional effect the film keeps seeking, as if we were in the weepy 1950s after all. We believe she is devoted to the addicted and bewildered Cooper, that she is grateful to him and would like to help him. But she is not about to abandon anything for his sake, and she is too funny and independent to ratchet up the pathos, just as he is too sorry for himself to allow us to feel sorry for him. Mason by contrast is heroic in his nastiness, and Garland is almost wobbly enough to ruin the movie for love. Only almost, though. The queen isn’t going to die just yet.