By Noel Vera
A Star is Born
Directed by Bradley Cooper
THERE ARE as of this writing five, count em, five, different versions of the story, of an ambitious young artist in love with a declining old star: George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) where film director Max Carey (Lowell Sherman) takes an interest in aspiring actress Mary Evans (Constance Bennett), based on a story by Adela Rogers St. John and Louis Stevens; William Wellman’s A Star is Born (1937) where film star Norman Maine (Fredric March) spots aspiring actress Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor); Cukor’s 1954 A Star is Born — for many the definitive version — where James Mason as Maine hooks up with Judy Garland as Blodgett; Frank Pierson’s 1976 A Star is Born where Kris Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard jump-starts the career of Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman; and, of course, Bradley Cooper’s spanking new version, with Cooper’s Jackson Maine discovering Lady Gaga’s Ally in a drag bar.
So which one’s best? Well lemme tell you:
Cooper’s version is not nothing; if anything it’s cannier version than Pierson’s, attuned to our more ethically diverse, politically correct (yet — without once admitting it — romantically nostalgic) times. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (a.k.a. Lady Gaga) turns out to be a good if rather safe choice. She can sing — she belts out “La Vie en Rose” in an initially campy then casually sensuous manner — and in her unaffected way can act: when her Machiavellian manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) suggests she change her hair color, the ultimate pop chameleon (who once wore a costume that look like a cross between a Christmas tree ornament and a sea urchin) stares at him in horror, as if he’d suggested changing underwear onstage.
Bradley Cooper directing himself makes a few equally canny moves: if you’re going to play a soft-spoken charmer, who has a softer, more gravelly charming voice than Sam Elliott? And to defuse any accusations of pilfering — plus weave a not unfunny running gag into the narrative thread — casts Elliott himself as Bobby, Jackson’s older brother, who acts as manager and surrogate father to the volatile-ish celebrity.
So far so cute. But Cooper’s camera spends too much time gazing at our high-voltage couple in loving close-up and doesn’t surround them with much background. What Price had was the bleakest milieu: countless girls coming to the dream city with stars in their eyes, ending up as waitresses or prostitutes. Wellman’s and Cukor’s Star softened that depiction but still managed to deliver their share of satirical jabs, aimed not just at the Hollywood establishment but at the too-comfy press helping promote (and on occasion sanitize and salvage) their stars and product. Ally’s trajectory in 2018 has the arc and speed of a solid-fueled rocket; she doesn’t pay much of a price careerwise along the way — well, she does change her hair color.*
Cooper’s Jackson Maine has his good points. His pained yet poignant scenes with Bobby are the best-performed, most finely understated — not to mention honestly funny — passages in the movie — and his eventual breakdown is authentically and sensitively portrayed. But his Maine lacks stature; it doesn’t have the intellectual heft of Fredric March’s, the godlike arrogance of James Mason’s. Mason especially introduced an intriguing frisson of effortless charm and boundless ego, where you understand why people around him adore and abhor him, often at the same time. Cooper’s Maine is just too undangerous; his extra helping of sugar without much added spice makes the already treacly material cloying.
My favorite? Cukor’s What Price is the least sentimental; Wellman’s Star had the most adorable Blodgett. Can’t say much good about Pierson’s version, save it reformatted the story in a rock-n-roll setting, which was smart in several ways: we don’t deal with the long gestation period of film production, and we can see the audience directly adoring their stars — the instantaneous feedback adds energy to an often overlong picture (every version from 1954 onwards is overextended by a half hour). The 2018 keeps the pop music and to its credit features Gaga and Elliott — not much else.
Cukor’s ’54 Star towers over them all. It isn’t just that it has the noblest Maine (his fall feels almost Shakespearean) but Judy Garland’s Blodgett is a performance for the ages. Garland feels miscast — at 31 and visibly aged by alcohol and prescription meds she is barely credible as an aspiring singer in her 20s — but I submit Garland in her best roles has always seemed miscast. She was 15 when she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz (the studio, to mute criticism, insisted she was 14) and this awkward gawky quality to her performances made you feel for her.
That’s the power of onscreen Garland — she never seems all that confident, never seems guarded; her every emotion is thrillingly open to you (it’s the quality that makes her so much fun in comedies, devastating in dramas). And when the music swells and her divine voice fills the screen — when, for example, Maine listens to her sing “The Man that Got Away” to a simple piano in an after-hours club, you can’t help but look around, wondering where the hell all that grace and power comes from. Who wouldn’t fall for a woman like that?
Cukor’s Star is great but isn’t my favorite. Mario O’Hara’s Kastilyong Buhangin** (Castle of Sand, 1980) arguably constitutes a sixth version (far as I know there’s two more, both Indian musicals) is arguably the oddest of the lot: singer-actress Aunor wanted to act with stunt-man-turned-actor Lito Lapid and the result has both (rather cheesy) musical numbers and (excellently staged) fight scenes — think A Star is Born crossed with Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire. Aunor’s Laura is the most muted of all the Blodgetts — guarded, levelheaded, almost constantly inward-looking. Her finest moment comes midway through, when Lapid’s Oscar finally makes a pass at her. She resists, thinks about it — you can see her regard (all without uttering a word) her withered cautious life, regard her relationship with this troubled troubling man-child she has supported and defended for years. Finally you see her say (to herself): “Fuck it.” The wine has to be decanted eventually — why not now?
Aunor gives the film its dramatic arc then generously cedes center stage to Lapid: his Oscar is arguably the most self-destructive of the Maines, a man so steeped in violence he can only express himself by striking back, so unsure of himself he can only find comfort in a penitentiary. In one beer session, egged on by his drinking buddies, he dances till he laughs, laughs till he cries, cries till he collapses; the scene shouldn’t work only Lapid throws body and soul into the dance with such intensity you aren’t allowed room for doubt. Oscar is obviously struggling with demons but whose? Lapid has never shown this much intensity in his acting before or since; screenwriter Mely Tagasa is a master at women’s melodramas (she also wrote O’Hara’s Uhaw sa Pagibig*** [Thirst for Love] and reportedly the original radio script which served as basis for Lino Brocka’s Insiang) but this alcohol-fueled sense of rage and despair seems out of her range (I’m guessing; I don’t know for sure). Is it the director’s?
Oscar’s end (skip this paragraph if you haven’t seen the movies!) is, I submit, the most ignominious: no spectacular sunset, just a prison shower room, with a piano tinkling sadly in the background. Cukor ends his with one of the most famous last lines in all of Hollywood, delivered with simple force by Garland; Cooper flubs his by tacking on a final song number that takes the moment past its point. If we’re going to have a final number I much prefer Aunor singing her picture’s title song — where Gaga pays tribute to everlasting love (“I was stupid to think that any love can compare to the love that you gave to me”), Aunor’s has this mono, no aware, sense of the transience of love (“flawless, yet crumbles at a breath of wind”) without once denying that love’s fragile beauty. Between lasting love and sand castles, I suppose I believe in the castle.
* Actually the movie suggests midway that Ally has unknowingly surrendered control of her career to Rez, or at least fails to indicate otherwise — it lacks a scene where Ally confronts her manager, ultimately diminishing the character.