If there’s one thing we all know about alcoholics, it’s that they’re so honest. Full of hard-won insights and deeply sensitive, they also tend to have the bodies of Big Ten quarterbacks. They’re notable for being kind to gays and black people. It’s a pity they fall down once in a while, but overall they’re darn lovable. As for showbiz musicians? Generous and welcoming. But, for women who want to get ahead in the entertainment industry, a word of caution: Heavy compromises must be made. You might have to dye your hair and learn a few dance steps.
Such are the lessons of the amazingly shallow, trite, and soapy fourth movie version of A Star Is Born, which stars and is co-written and directed by Bradley Cooper with maximum care taken to make you love Bradley Cooper. The doomed romance of a falling man and a rising woman trying to make their relationship work in an unforgiving entertainment world is so hokey, however, that it begs to be updated. Moreover, we’re all much more wised-up about Hollywood’s methods than we once were, so any inside-baseball tale has to have considerably more grit than this version, which if anything is more sentimental and less cynical than the earlier takes.
Originally filmed in 1932 as What Price Hollywood? this story appeared under the title “A Star Is Born” in 1937, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, then again in 1954, with Judy Garland and James Mason. Yet it’s the widely disliked 1976 version, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, that Cooper’s film most closely resembles. Bradley Cooper tries to channel Kristofferson, but whereas the ’70s star had no problem convincing us he had demons — this being the man who wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” which says more about addiction in three minutes than this film does in 136 — Cooper’s performance as country-rock star Jackson Maine strays close to shtick. Doing the part in a low rumble modeled on Sam Elliott (who, despite being 30 years older, plays Jack’s brother), Cooper over-eggs the pudding from the start, with his character hitting the bottle twice in the first three minutes. Later he’ll careen drunkenly across a stage, peeing his pants on national television. Yet through it all he’s a sweet guy underneath who happens to get angry if you mention his dad (also a lush). Around him people indulge him with daytime-TV clichés: “It’s a disease, it’s not your fault!” Please. You can choose not to drink. You can’t choose not to get cancer.
Cooper never explores how horrifying alcoholics can be because, like most actors directing themselves, he doesn’t want to come off too repellent or abusive. He never comes across as the truly hollowed-out soul that March’s and Mason’s Norman Maine so memorably were. Cooper, who shot this film at the same age Elvis Presley was when he died, looks nothing like end-stage Elvis (who turned down the lead in the 1976 version): He looks cool. Ruggedly handsome. Athletic. Even when he lashes out at his lady, it’s only because she insulted his dad and is betraying her talents.
As Ally, whom Jackson first meets when he stumbles into a drag bar desperate for a drink, Gaga plays a character much like Streisand’s, and she shares with Streisand a generous nasal endowment. Her performance is stellar, particularly in the early going, when she seems fragile and uncertain and goes easy on the makeup and hair for a change. But Ally is also a thing of cliché: Innocent and eager and never sullied by the demands of the business, she also comes from one of those stereotypical working-class Italian families in which everyone talks about Frank Sinatra at all times. Her arc is simplistic as well; the main change that comes over her is cosmetic. As time goes on she looks more and more like . . . Lady Gaga. Jackson chides her for losing touch with her folky singer-songwriter roots, but that isn’t much of a conflict. It’s hard to fault Ally for abandoning a style that, these days, accounts for record sales in the tens when she can master the kind of meretricious gyrational dance-pop that makes you a global sensation. I doubt most viewers of this film will think “Nah, getting gigs on Saturday Night Live and the Grammys makes her a sellout.”
Near the end of The Rose, the (vastly more powerful) 1979 rock tragedy in which Bette Midler played a Janis Joplin–like singer, Rose comes off the glorious high of concert performance to get dragged into a party at which she is forced to schmooze with dozens of the industry’s mid-level execs and deejays. You can feel the alienation, the exhaustion, the loss of self, the need for drugs. “I was doing it and doing it and doing it,” John Lennon once said, “and there was no switching off. The elevator man wanted a little piece of you . . . the maid wanted a little piece of you. I don’t mean sexually, I mean a piece of your time and your energy.” At some point there are no pieces left. Jackson Maine, on the other hand, is just a sensitive soul who misses his dad. That motivation is facile, doesn’t go deep enough, doesn’t actually show us anything about the rarefied world he inhabits. A Star Is Born has little insight into where stars come from and even less into how they disappear.