It didn’t take much to make the latest iteration of A Star Is Born better than its immediate precedent, the Streisand-Kristofferson vehicle, which has become something of a camp classic while retaining its critical rep as a dog. Nevertheless, there are parallels worth exploring, the most obvious being the provenance of their four respective leads. In 1976, Kristofferson was probably better known to the general public as an actor than he was as the singer-songwriter that first brought him fame. Casting him as an arena rocker seemed predicated on his particular hirsute handsomeness, but his naturally gruff amateurism made the character, if not the performance, more sympathetic than it should have been. Streisand, on the other hand, was playing as furiously against type as her own immediate forebear, Judy Garland, had been in the 1954 remake: one of the hugest stars of the moment pretending to be an ingenue. This push-pull between her image and Kristofferson’s at the height of rock’s ascendance in pop culture was ridiculous to behold, despite a script by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne that turned the melodrama back on itself.
Lady Gaga is arguably on the same plane of career development that Streisand was at, but here she has the advantage of no acting experience. More to the point, her popular image as a chameleon whose appeal is at least partially credited to makeup and wardrobe and stage spectacle has been discarded for a disarming naturalism that makes her character, Ally, much more sympathetic than Streisand could ever be. Like Kristofferson, Bradley Cooper, as the country-rock star Jackson Maine, is going against his grain by singing and writing his own songs for the first time in a movie. In a sense, both Gaga and Cooper, who also directed, feel fresh, and that makes their romance on screen feel appropriate and believable.
But this sort of distinction only works for so long, especially in a movie whose story everyone knows pretty well. The differences are in the details—Maine first eyes Ally in a drag bar where he’s retired post-gig to nurse his alcohol jones, Ally is motherless but the apple of her limo driver dad’s eye (Andrew Dice Clay, being nice for once)—and the interesting addition of Maine’s older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), a failed musician who raised Jackson after their elderly father died and basically turned him into the musician he became. Though Bobby is the most blatant melodramatic device in the film, Cooper handles the dynamic with an eye on the development of the story as a tragedy that gives the overall contour of the plot more room to work its sad magic. Consequently, the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is much more convincing than it was between Streisand and Kristofferson or, for that matter, between Garland and James Mason. The songs are also a hell of a lot better than the schlock in the 1976 version.
So why is that the movie felt flat in the end? Whatever my reservations about the miscasting of Kristofferson and Mason in roles that were out of their wheelhouses, they transcended their respective cliches by not trying too hard. Their tragedies were that their love was strong but their characters weak, and both actors recognized that once you are resigned to that truth, there’s only one resolution. Despite Bobby’s sage blandishments, Jackson never seemed to get this part—he might as well have been despairing over the tinnitus that threatened to stop his career. And Cooper underplays so skillfully that when he does the terrible deed you almost feel you’ve missed it. Ally’s grief is poignant without being particularly deep, and the big musical finish feels as gratuitously corny as it did when Streisand did it, except that Streisand is expected to be brassy and obvious. Gaga can’t be faulted for doing what she’s told, but she seemed strangely diminished.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Marunouchi Picadilly (03-3201-2881), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Picadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Human Trust Cinema Shibuya (03-5468-5551), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
A Star Is Born home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment