Born this way
Lady Gaga shines in well-worn rags-to-riches story
We’ve already had three movie versions of A Star Is Born (four if you’re one of those who includes 1932’s What Price Hollywood? in the line of succession). My personal favorite is William Wellman’s 1937 version, with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. George Cukor’s 1954 version, with Judy Garland and James Mason, was the first to make songs a major part of the action, and it’s probably the best known and most widely admired version, and the most impressive and accomplished as well.
The 1976 version, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, had its stars and musical attractions, but seemed to run its much-told tale, once and for all, into some very soggy ground. So it wasn’t exactly a happy surprise to learn that, after a four-decade hiatus, the old chestnut was getting dragged out for yet another run.
Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but wonder what a 21st century version of the old tale would look like, and can now report that there are multiple signs of life in the new Bradley Cooper-directed version, with Cooper and Lady Gaga in the key roles. The old story is still there (a turbulent show biz romance between a rising star and one who’s about to fall), but there’s very little about this A Star Is Born that feels seriously outdated.
This time, a gifted and very alcoholic country music star named Jackson Main (Cooper) takes an aspiring young singer (Gaga) under his wing professionally and into his days and nights romantically. Cooper, who is also making his directorial debut, gives a powerfully modulated performance, with reckless extremes and soulful reversals balanced in a kind of perilous harmony.
But Ally (Lady Gaga) is the star being born here—a singer getting her big break within the story, but also a movie star emerging, in the movie and with it. Lady Gaga is the stage name of Stefani Germanotta, and she plays a star singer whose greatest success and fulfillment comes by shedding the gaudy Gaga-like wigs, makeup and costumes and presenting herself and her talent in the relatively unadorned guise of Germanotta herself.
Sam Elliott plays Jackson’s older brother (who claims the younger man has “stolen my voice”—which may be true in more ways than one). Andrew Dice Clay is nicely effective as Ally’s father, a celebrity-worshipping limo driver, who insists on comparing himself with Frank Sinatra and Paul Anka). Dave Chappelle is very fine as an old music-biz friend of Jack’s and a rare source of calm and compassion in his life.
Those three characters, along with the Gaga/Germanotta transformations and Cooper’s deft mixtures of fury and reticence, are more than enough to make me glad for yet another Star Is Born among us.