It doesn’t take long for the star to get herself born in this latest— now the fourth -- version of a story that first hit the movies in 1937. There also isn’t much struggle to get to that stardom. Ally (Lady Gaga) has a couple of slightly annoying moments with the boss at her restaurant job, and, bingo, she’s onstage with country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) in front of thousands of cheering fans. It would be nice if Ally had to work for her celebrity for at least a few minutes. You might call the film A Star Is Born lite.
The first script for the 1937 film was written by Dorothy Parker, who was capable of sarcasm and irony. The film came out during the Great Depression, and it’s about an actress (Janet Gaynor), not a singer. She works plenty hard to escape her small-town upbringing, make it in Hollywood, and survive the alcoholic husband. Luckily, she has a feisty grandmother to pull her out of her down times. She also feels significant grief over her husband’s death. For the 1954 version, a postwar movie, Judy Garland radiates a depth of personal angst that brought a level of worry and anxiety to every film she made, and her co-star James Mason is no ray of golden sun either.
I’ve always thought of the 1976 film with Barbra Streisand as a joke. It reeks of Streisand’s onscreen vanity, and she so dominates the screen’s sweet spot that poor Kris Kristofferson looks like an orphan left out in the rain. That film was produced by Jon Peters, Streisand’s hairdresser who changed careers to do the film. He also gets his name all alone on screen as producer for this movie.
The latest A Star Is Born isn’t a bad film – it’s pleasant, which is not really a compliment, and it has good singing along with Bradley Cooper’s blue eyes and comfortably predictable direction. But the picture is sterile. As the fourth go-round of the story, it could use irony and wit instead of bland sincerity. When Jack earnestly tells Ally to maintain her integrity as stardom advances, he says she must keep singing her truth. But Ally’s songs are really piles of empty adolescent clichés about gushy love. There’s no great truth to defend.
It makes sense now to have a film about celebrity, especially when it happens fast. That describes our world well, and so does the film’s level of intoxication. The world is drugged and “drunked-up,” and we are full up on people of little note or talent getting famous fast and disappearing just as quickly as they rise.
But if someone really wants to make that film, it probably shouldn’t go down so easily as this telling of A Star Is Born. There’s not much cost to pay here, and when Jack Maine finally decides to end his life, the movie turns away, as it does at every possibly tough moment. The first two films show Maine’s life progressively falling apart. The two men are out of control alcoholics, but it still takes a lot to push them to despair. Bradley Cooper’s Jack Maine rolls over on cue.
It seems to me there’s another question about every version of A Star Is Born. All four pictures showcase established movie stars – performers at the top of their game. Maybe the women characters are nobodies when they enter the film, but the audience knows long before the theater lights go down that the actors who play them are the biggest stars in the business. There’s a disconnect when characters played by Lady Gaga or Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland are elevated to stardom. It’s no surprise that these protégées are great singers, but when times are upsetting, confirming the obvious can be reassuring.