A Star is Born: Love as a Zero-Sum Game

November 30, 2018

 

 

Warning: this article contains major spoilers for the entirety of A Star is Born.

 

 

“Maybe she’s a way out. You know, it’s like… I don’t know. You float out, float out to sea and one day you find a port. Say, 'I’m gonna stay here for a few days.' A few days becomes a few years. And then you forgot where you was going in the first place. And you realize you don’t really give a shit about where you was going, because you like where you’re at.”

-George “Noodles” Stone (Dave Chapelle), A Star is Born (2018)

 

 

A Star is Born is Hollywood canon. The original film, starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, was released in 1937. It has subsequently been remade three times – once in 1954, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, once in 1976, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and now this year, starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (his directorial debut). It is such an established story in the Hollywood canon that I almost feel foolish providing a plot summary, but here goes, briefly: Ally (Gaga) is a waitress and a formerly aspiring singer-songwriter who has all but given up her show business dreams after being told repeatedly that she is not attractive enough to succeed as a musician. She scratches her musical itch by performing covers weekly at a drag bar, where one night Jackson “Jack” Maine (Cooper), a famous country singer who is privately battling alcoholism, blunders in looking for a nightcap and catches her act. After spending a magical evening together talking about music and life (she is drawn to him and his charm and his depth, and he is likewise completely captivated by her, and her immense talent) he takes her under his wing – and on tour – giving her an audience for her original music, and the mentorship that only a music business veteran like him could provide. And, of course, they fall in love. She begins to gain recognition as a musician and attain a measure of success. He falls further into his addiction, and his career begins to falter. His erratic behavior begins to reflect poorly on her, and realizing that he’s going to destroy her, he takes his own life. Ally, in her grief, finds strength in the memory of the deep love she shared with Jack and the influence he had on her, and we assume that she will continue to thrive in the industry despite this horrible tragedy.

 

That’s a summary of the most recent remake, but the three previous iterations of this story cover the exact same ground. The first two versions (where the lead characters are named Norman and Esther) set the story in the world of Hollywood movies, whereas the 1976 version (where the lead characters are named John and Esther) along with this current version, move the story from film to the music industry. Either way, when you go into the theater to watch Gaga and Cooper, if you have even a passing familiarity with the earlier versions, you know what is going to happen, beat by beat. The meet-cute. The mentorship. Her success. His addiction. His failure. His humiliation of her in a moment where she is about to receive an award for her work. Her willingness to put her career on hold to devote herself to his recovery. His epiphany that he’s holding her back. His suicide. Her triumph, in spite of losing the love of her life.

 

Going into a film knowing exactly how it is going to unfold and end makes for a peculiar watching experience, or at least it did for me. Was I going to watch it and mentally compare it to the three earlier versions? Or was I going to watch it with the intention of interpreting it as its own independent entity?

 

I ended up doing a little bit of both.

 

 

This newest version of the story succeeds immensely, first and foremost, because of the strong acting performances by its two leads. Cooper, subsuming his normal golden-haired endearingly intense (and to be frank, often goofy) screen presence into the role of a leathery, weathered, raspy-voiced, sexy-but-troubled bad boy with a heart of gold, is tremendous, and tremendously believable. Cooper inhabits the persona of a seen-it-all, knows-how-it-all-goes musician – and he does all of his own singing (and sounds amazing, by the way). And Gaga, incorporating her normal over-the-top theatricality and bigger-than-life stage persona into the role of a small-time, struggling, somewhat "Plain Jane" musician, is nothing short of astonishing. She has such a natural, down-to-earth presence on screen, and such an ease with holding her own against other, more established actors, that I found myself forgetting that in spite of her very successful turn as The Countess in 2015’s American Horror Story: Hotel – a performance that won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Limited Series or TV movie against some very stiff competition – Ally is her first major role in a feature film.

 

Hell, I found myself forgetting the time I saw her in concert at Madison Square Garden in 2011 wearing bondage gear, putting her paws up, and screaming that “[she’s] a free bitch, baby!”

 

 

Cooper also has a deft hand for a first-time director. His use of close-ups and lens flares (the latter of which usually irritate me) contribute to the intimate, heart-piercing nature of the intense love story between Jack and Ally. He also does a terrific job capturing all of the music sequences throughout the film in ways that further the emotional undercurrents of the story whether it’s the large wide shots showing the overwhelming surge and sound of the crowd in the arena rock sequences or the small quieter moments of Ally and Jack playing and singing music together at home. The way Jack sits next to her in the recording studio, as Ally records her first solo song, captures how we feel that the world around them has faded into just the two of them, even though behind a glass wall are all of the studio technicians and the record producer. He also shows us the weird, otherworldly quality (as compared to the indie-alt-country vibe of Jack’s concert tour) of Ally’s flashy-costumed, airbrushed-and-dyed, and hyper-choreographed synth-pop solo-artist musical phase.

 

It is this emotional aspect of the film’s plot that gets super interesting, and provides some welcome updates to some of the more dated aspects of the earlier versions of this story. The first three films show that the fading aging star character (Norman/John) descends further into his addiction because he is jealous of the success that his protégé/lover (Esther) begins to achieve independent of him. This leads him to act out in various dysfunctional ways: insulting her, and humiliating her on a national stage. In this most recent adaptation, Cooper complicates this conflict a bit; Jack struggles with Ally’s newfound fame, but not because he is jealous of her success (though he is certainly cognizant of his star fading). No, Jack struggles with Ally’s fame because he feels that she has sold out; after a particularly successful show during Jack’s tour, Ally is approached by a record producer named Rez, who signs her and then refocuses her away from country music and towards pop. She suddenly is headlining her own shows armed with a litany of backup dancers. Her lyrics move away from the poignant (“I’m falling / in all the good times I find myself longing / for change / and in the bad times I fear myself,”) to the insipid (“Why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”). After a by-all-accounts successful appearance on Saturday Night Live, Jack drunkenly confronts her while she is in the bathtub, saying that he doesn’t understand why she would make what he considers trash music when she’s capable of better. In the process, they have an excruciatingly uncomfortable fight, in which she calls him out for his alcoholism, and he tells her that she’s ugly – a very low blow, given that before Ally met Jack she had been told by industry professionals that her nose was too big for her to be successful and during their first night together Jack insisted that he thought she was beautiful, including her nose.

 

 

But that’s not the insult that cuts the deepest in this scene – what’s worse is that Jack tells her that this new pop music direction her career is taking makes her embarrassing. Jack, in spite of the tremendous fame he had achieved earlier in his life, sees himself as a pure artist, a modern, high-desert bard, and he thought that that was what Ally was too. Jack never cared about the economic value of music; he only cared about the emotional value. Now, seeing how easily Rez was able to transform Ally into a pop princess, all in the interest of the bottom line – increased records sales, flashy tours, television appearances – he feels betrayed. Who is this woman he loves? And Ally too is betrayed – who is this man she loves, who was once singularly supportive of her and now tells her she’s ugly and embarrassing?

 

The casting of Lady Gaga in the role of Ally provides some interesting meta-commentary on this idea of fame and the different types of fame one can achieve. Fame is a topic that Gaga has very obviously spent her whole music career grappling with. Recall that Gaga’s first album, a glittery electro-pop dance party ode to love, sex, money, and drugs, was entitled, The Fame (and was subsequently followed up by a deluxe edition entitled, The Fame Monster). Recall that her most recent album, Joanne, has her embracing a more stripped-down, soft rock, and country-flavored style. Gaga went from, “Beautiful, Dirty, Rich” to “Million Reasons.”

 

She’s basically Ally in reverse. It’s easy to see how Gaga is able to portray this character so indelibly – she has a rich array of life experience to mine in order to do so. Cooper knew what he was doing when he cast her. 

 

 

All I’ve wanted is for someone to believe in me and mentor me, but my fear is that the general perception of who I am is that I am mediocre and not worth the effort. I want to learn but no one wants to teach me. I’m sick of having to mentor myself. I’m sick of feeling like none of the authority figures in my life, or none of the people I admire in my life, think I have anything worth cultivating. It makes me believe that I really am truly mediocre, truly unnoteworthy, truly nothing. Just a blank space in the world. With blue hair.

 

That’s an excerpt from an email I sent my best friend Sarah earlier this year, concerning my own feelings of stagnation with regards to my musical creativity. But looking through my email archives, I see that I’ve sent her variations of this rant many times over the past decade, relating to my writing, my former corporate career ambitions, and my academic interests. This either means that I am indeed truly mediocre, or that I am indeed truly spectacular at self-pity. Regardless, I spent several months last year grumbling that I hadn’t written Lady Gaga’s song, “You and I.” That song is exactly the kind of arena rock-flavored big-voiced belty power ballad (which is my wheelhouse in a nutshell – and in my go-to key!) that I would have written if I knew how to write a song (which I don’t), and Gaga did it seven years ago. Life is hard. But this kind of irrational yet deep-seated imposter syndrome is what has me convinced that I am inherently a low-rent small-town musician, fated to be the "Cover Band Queen" of Beacon, NY for the rest of my life.

 

 

This is also what Ally fears in A Star is Born – when Jack encounters her at the drag club, she’s there to perform a cover of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” and in their ensuing conversation, she explains that she takes the opportunity to sing covers because she has been told the industry will have no interest in her original music because she’s not attractive enough to be successful. She is the much-feted "Cover Band Queen" of the neighborhood. And thus, the moment when Jack reveals that he has created an arrangement of a song that Ally wrote, and brings her on stage during one of his gigs to sing it with him, made my heart soar and sink at the same time. Soar because the song, “Shallow,” is a terrific song, featuring powerhouse vocals by both Cooper and Gaga (and truthfully, the whole soundtrack album to this film is full of legitimately good music, music that deserves – and is getting – radio play). But also sink because goddammit, I don’t have a Jack who’s going to believe in me and give me a platform like this. How many of us get to have a Jack? A mentor, a friend, a love, who literally makes us go viral, and skyrockets us to fame?

 

It’s worth considering: how does fame ever happen? This is a central question in the 2013 documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, which tracks the stories of several women who have worked as session background singers for their entire careers and, in the process, have contributed to some of the greatest hits in rock music. How is it that it took until this film for anyone to really take any notice of Darlene Love, who is most famous for her ubiquitous (seriously, wait till Thanksgiving is over and you’ll start hearing it everywhere) song, “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home”)? How is it that Merry Clayton, who provides the searing, guttural, heart-stopping vocals during the choruses of “Gimme Shelter” by the Rolling Stones, never became a humongous star? How is it that Lisa Fischer’s debut album didn’t explode all over the radio? Sting, who appears in 20 Feet from Stardom, is the only one who gives a clear answer to this question, an answer that is still maddening: no one really knows what it takes to become famous. There’s no formula. Sometimes the most talented performers in the world never make it, and to try to find some sort of logical rhyme or reason as to why it is a fool’s errand. It just happens. Or it doesn’t.

 

A Star is Born tackles this topic, albeit in a more oblique way, and with equally inconclusive answers. Did Ally become famous because Jack mentored her? Did she become famous because the video of her singing “Shallow” with him had hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube? Did she become famous because she really is a prodigious songwriter with a gorgeous voice? Or did she become famous because when Rez came into her life and told her what she had to do to achieve world domination, she complied? Would she have been happy with a life singing duets with Jack at his concerts as a member of his touring band? Would she have won a Grammy as Jack’s girlfriend/duet partner? Or was that only possible because of Rez’s influence on her career?

 

 

I like that A Star is Born doesn’t try to answer these questions concretely. We’re slightly manipulated to sympathize with Jack’s befuddlement at the synthetic nature of Ally’s solo career, but we are never asked to judge Ally too harshly for it, as she herself remains the same down-to-earth earnest young woman we met at the beginning of the film. And unlike the first three versions of this film, in the end, Ally is not willing to sacrifice her career entirely to devote herself to Jack’s recovery from addiction. She has the agency to decide for herself how best to honor, and take care of, her partner. And this strength of character is why, out of all four versions of this story that have been made, I actually truly believe that Ally (versus the three prior Esthers) will continue to succeed after this story is over, even having lost Jack to his addiction.

 

I’m capable of wallowing for days at a time, sometimes weeks. I look at videos of my own past performances and cringe at the sound of my voice and the sloppiness of my bass playing technique. I relive, over and over again, mistakes I’ve made on stage and difficulties I’ve had in rehearsals. I question everything I’ve ever done, every dollar I’ve spent on my instrument, and every dumb facial expression I’ve made while playing. I think about every time I have expressed enthusiasm for a song I have covered – no matter how much I love the song – because who’s going to respect me, ever, if all I can do is just retread what other, more talented people, have done before me? I get frustrated and embarrassed asking for help from anyone I think might be able to mentor me, because it feels purposeless and empty. I roll my eyes at anyone who tells me I’m being too hard on myself. I internally snarl at people around me who seem capable of being musical without a hefty dose of self-flagellation. And then, I feel ashamed for doing so.   

 

All that to say that as much as I relate to Ally, it didn’t take much for me to be able to relate to Jack as well. It’s easy to wallow when all you want to do is be an authentic creative and it’s not working. Blundering into fame like Ally does is next to impossible, but losing your way artistically like Jack does, is sadly far easier, and far more common. This adaptation of A Star is Born, more than any of the previous ones, captures in a really accurate and visceral way, the extreme pain that can accompany creative pursuits. None of the earlier versions made me cry the way this one did. And I’m not a crier.

 

 

“I’m off the deep end

Watch as I dive in

I’ll never meet the ground

Crash through the surface

Where they can’t hurt us

We’re far from the shallow now.”

-Ally (Lady Gaga), A Star is Born (2018)

 

It has always aggravated me that baked into the premise of the A Star is Born canon is that in order for the young up-and-coming star to succeed, the aging star that loves her has to fail. Her rise is mirrored by his fall. It’s a zero-sum game. There’s no room for grey. And to me, it feels so passé at this point. Life is not a zero-sum game. Love is not a zero-sum game. People are human and complicated, and the idea that Jack flounders because Ally becomes a pop star is kind of stupid.

 

The real masterpiece of Cooper’s adaptation is the first hour of the film, comprising the meet-cute between Ally and Jack. Over the course of one crazy impromptu night – which includes an excursion from the drag bar to a cop bar where Ally picks a fight with a jerk who tries to accost Jack, a pit stop at a grocery store for frozen peas to ice her hand, and a long, long conversation sitting in the grocery store parking lot, bonding over music, over songwriting, over the more wretched aspects of their life stories. She is young, talented, cool, and full of potential. He is tragic, soulful, and full of a deep well of pain.

 

The power of this sequence is in witnessing how intoxicating it is to feel seen. The way Ally, who has been told all of her life that she’s funny looking, suddenly realizes that someone thinks she’s beautiful. Sexy. The way Jack, who’s been told all of his life that he’s a fuck-up, suddenly realizes that someone understands his sadness and doesn’t recoil. The way the woman who’s been convinced that she is only destined to sing other people’s songs finds someone who thinks she has something of her own to say. The way the man who’s been convinced that he knows all there is to know about being a musician finds someone to bring him new inspiration.

 

They see each other. And so, they fall.

 

Love is scary. Look at the rhetoric we use to describe it – they “fall” in love. No matter the height, falling can go very, very, wrong. And falling fast can be even more treacherous. Ally and Jack fall in love in this scene. They fall fast – maybe too fast? But who cares? Cooper and Gaga have great chemistry with each other, and so this scene is beautiful to watch. They capture that heady feeling of falling so well – the romance of sitting outside, the absurdity of the frozen peas bandaged to her hand, the way her singing the song she’s been writing to him starts to feel like a confession of love. You get the idea that this is fate. That maybe people come into each other’s lives for a reason. Maybe there’s a reason they found each other. Maybe there’s a reason why they never felt seen till now.

 

 

Can we ever really see ourselves clearly? Or do we need someone else’s eyes? I began this piece with a quote from Jack’s friend Noodles (a wonderfully warm cameo by Dave Chapelle) that I believe hints at this: maybe some people come into your lives to show you that you don’t have to keep running, or being mired in the dark. And when you find someone who makes you feel like you don’t have to keep trying to escape, would it really be so bad to allow yourself to be happy?

 

Cooper’s adaptation of A Star is Born does such a good job of modernizing the more dated aspects of its famous story that I find myself wishing that he’d gone totally rogue. I wish this had been a total upending of the canon. I wish I could have seen the version of this story where the question of Ally and Jack’s success – as a couple, as partners, as musicians – is not a zero-sum game. The one where he recovers, not because of some tired old notion that it’s her job to be his salvation, but because he cares about music and he cares about her and so he tries a little harder to be better. Because would it really be so bad to allow himself to be happy? And maybe she goes back to her alt-country roots and they go on tour together again and thrive. Or maybe she finds a way to work his songs into her pop queen persona, all earnest and ironic at the same time (this is something Lady Gaga is masterful at in her real life), and they go on tour together again and thrive.

 

Because sometimes people come into your life for a reason. Because maybe your soulmate is the person who forces your soul to grow the most. And yes, some growth is painful. But as Noodles says, with growth you can finally see that maybe you can accept, and even like, where you are. Because, and I don’t know when I stopped being pragmatic and scornful of romance, maybe Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding rewired my brain or maybe I’m just getting soft in my old age or, more likely, it’s because this past summer has completely upended my life in an overwhelming way – because I want to believe, I need to believe, that sometimes love, no matter how scary, is transcendent.

 

Yes, we’d complicate the A Star is Born canon this way. But in 2018, the canon is problematic, reductive, and tired. Cooper, along with Gaga, has refreshed the story so much with this adaptation. Maybe in 2038, or whenever Hollywood tries this again, they can let us see a version of this oft-told tale that isn’t a zero sum game.

 

In the meantime, we’re pretty far from the shallow now with this film, so maybe I shouldn’t complain too much.

 

 

 

 

Reeya Banerjee

 

Reeya is the Operations Manager at Beacon Music Factory, an out-of-the-box music school in Beacon, NY. She has a tuxedo cat named Eliot, the Stig of Berkelac, and a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use. She usually can be seen singing and playing bass at BMF shows or drinking IPAs at Dogwood while reading pop culture news on her phone.

 

 

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