'A Star Is Born' Gives Rise To A New Era Of Lady Gaga
You know Lady Gaga, of course you do. She’s been a major figure of the music industry for a decade.
In that time, Gaga has evolved and transformed from The Fame, through her Artpop and past Joanne. She’s had phases of pop, country and retirement home jazz, but now she steps into her latest era: the ingénue.
If you haven’t heard, Gaga stars alongside Bradley Cooper in the newest adaptation of the film A Star Is Born, which Cooper also co-wrote, directed and produced. It’s not Gaga’s first acting role, but it’s definitely her most significant.
Gaga’s former acting credits range from cameos and appearances in Muppets Most Wanted, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Machete Kills to her Golden Globe-winning role in American Horror Story: Hotel. But this is different. With A Star Is Born, Gaga has marketed herself as an emerging starlet who can’t believe her luck.
The film stars Gaga as Ally, a young woman with bucket loads of potential to make it in the fickle music industry but -- as she claims -- they focus too much on her physical appearance. She meets Jackson Maine, played by Cooper, a musician at the height of both his career and his battle with addiction. Jackson sees the potential in Ally and pushes her into the limelight, but as her career surpasses his, he’s forced to grapple with the consequences of his actions.
It’s a film that’s been made four times so far and may continue to be remade. The core story always follows the same pattern: a famous man struggling with alcoholism meets a young woman by chance, and, finding her alluring, convinces her to allow him to catapult her to stardom. Ultimately -- and this isn’t a spoiler, considering the first film was made in 1937 -- her fame eclipses his, and his addiction and self-destruction lead to a grim end. Unlike other films that tackle Hollywood, A Star Is Born is less about Hollywood’s obsession with itself, and more an investigation into the industry at the time of its making.
READ MORE: A Star Is Born: Can We Talk About Ally's Ex
For Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in the original film, it was the lure of the screen; Hollywood was still a new beast and the film probed this emerging space and the studio system.
The 1954 version replicated many of the threads of the 1937 original, but with the added layer of the Golden Age of the movie musical. James Mason and Judy Garland wade into the mechanics of the movie musical while perfectly adhering to them, and the two-way friction of the rise of a star juxtaposed with her husband’s catastrophic fall acts as both a love letter and a warning as to what fame can be. With Garland, that couldn’t be starker -- during the production of the film, she was grappling with her own addictions to pills and alcohol.
When the film was once again remade in 1976 starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, it shifted the focus from the screen to the stage. Here, it was more about the nature of celebrity -- namely Streisand -- in creating a more versatile star from the Funny Girl audiences had known, while also looking at the way in which rock aesthetics are created.
Cooper’s Star builds on what was established in the ’76 version. His character is an established singer-songwriter, and Gaga’s character Ally flows from country-rock to a hardcore pop aesthetic, examining how Hollywood builds women, creating them to be musical projections of what they believe audiences want to see.
Ally changes her hair colour, her fashion and most notably her sound. She moves away from the heartfelt and the raw lyrics that so naturally pour out of her to instead ask, “Why'd you come around me with an ass like that?”
Like Garland and Streisand, Gaga’s greatest strength is that she’s performing a role she knows intimately -- after all, 10 years ago she had a lightning bolt painted on her face and was releasing earworms about her disco stick.
In the lead-up to the film’s release, Gaga has been on the front foot, creating a new mythology around her role in the film that feels so natural to the themes. As she tells it, Cooper was at an event where she sang “La Vie en Rose”. The next day, he arrived at her house to convince her to be in the film. They sang together and she cooked for him, events the film reproduces. Did Cooper realise Gaga would be a good Ally? Or Did he realise Ally was the perfect vehicle for Gaga?
Ally is a strong character, but that strength wavers under the pressure to make it. Years of trying to crack the music industry have left her vulnerable to self-doubt when it comes to her talent. During the press rounds, Gaga has recalled that when she wasn’t sure she could perform to the standard Cooper needed, he’d tell her, “All you gotta do is trust me,” the same words Jackson uses to soothe Ally.
A Star Is Born has always been an echo of the industry, a self-reflexive look at what stardom means, but it’s also been a self-aware mirror for the lead actors.
Like Garland’s own struggle with addiction mirrored in her husband’s downfall in her version of the film, so too is Gaga’s own journey reflected not just in the character-building of Ally and her journey to superstardom, but the way that she has framed herself.
The film casually, perhaps unintentionally, nods to the way in which we demand more from women performers than we do men. Changes in hair colour, extensive choreography, atoning for the sins of the men in their lives. Throughout her entire career, Gaga has never been defined by the men in her life, until now.
“There can be 100 people in a room and 99 don’t believe in you,” Gaga has said over the course of the publicity trail, “but all it takes is one,” she says gesturing to Cooper.
A Star Is Born is a great film, with some amazing original music created for it, and both Gaga and Cooper deliver performances that are strikingly good. There’s a constant hum of Oscar buzz when the film is mentioned, for acting, directing… it’s got a lot going for it.
One notable shift from the previous films is that Cooper’s character is fleshed out more thoroughly. It’s possibly the film’s biggest risk, with critics finding that the movie is weighted unevenly, lagging in the second half as it focuses on Jackson’s addiction and attempted repentance. In fact, in Cooper’s version, Ally is never given a last name. It’s an interesting choice considering the name is a powerful device tied to the history of the Star is Born films. In the early versions, the Ally character (then named Esther) refer to themselves in the final moments of the film as “Mrs Norman Maine”.
They not only take their husband’s last name, but they pay homage to him in the most traditional naming sense, replacing their entire self with their husband as a tribute. Streisand’s Esther, heavily influenced by the women’s lib movement, had more agency -- she adds her husband’s name and becomes Esther Hoffman Howard.
Ally, however, is just Ally, until the end of the film where she becomes Ally Maine. Cooper’s choice to remove her last name doesn’t give anything to Jackson, but it does change the moment from the previous versions of the film. Where it was once about the tribute to her husband, now it’s almost as if Ally -- in taking Jackson’s name -- is finally complete.
It’s a shame, because in inhabiting Ally’s journey to stardom and her intoxicating romance with her leading man, Gaga delivers a gorgeous performance that’s on par with her vocal excellence, and while Gaga would have you believe she relied on Cooper to get there, the truth is she’s been smashing it in the industry on her own for the last decade.
A Star is Born opens in cinemas across Australia on October 18. The official soundtrack is out now.
Featured image: Warner Bros. Pictures.