A dive into how Cooper made a talent leap, why the film is so emotional, and its commentary on masculinity.
A Star is Born was an enigma before it ever hit the big screen. As soon as the ASIB trailer was released in June earlier this year, it was immediately gobbled up by meme enthusiasts and movie critics alike.
Its contagiously charming, over-the-top, and immediately iconic bravado set itself up for internet and critical acclaim before anyone had even seen it. These memes were all made prior to the release of the movie.
The recognition of Lady Gaga as the films leading woman sent fans into frenzy and movie-goers sprinting to the theatres a few weeks ago to see if she could translate her singing skills into an acting role. Her time spent on American Horror Story and subsequent Golden Globe suggested that, yes it was possible, but this was obviously different as her first time being a lead. Combining ASIB's $41.25 million with Venom’s $80 million on their opening weekend broke the record for the biggest gross opening weekend in the month of October ever. This truly demonstrates the internet’s ability to permeate into our lives.
Cooper’s story is slightly different. Over the last few years, his super-stardom had begun to descend, but he continued to linger in our hearts and minds. His role as the cunning and blasphemous Rocket Raccoon in Guardians of the Galaxy and his subsequent inclusion in the MCU has kept Bradley teetering on the edge of dissipation. Movies like Burnt and Aloha didn’t serve his fame or his fortune well. Without a hit in years, it seemed as though he was receding into the maturity that is most actors’ careers. Little did we know, Cooper was about to make one of the greatest talent leaps the film industry had ever seen.
While we were sleeping on Bradley Cooper, he was hard at work crafting the story for the fourth installment of the ASIB remake saga alongside co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters. He was meticulously expanding his vocal range and tessitura to take on the role of fictional rock star Jackson Maine as a singer, but also as an Arizonian who grew up on a pecan farm with a deep southern drawl. He was preparing to take on his directorial debut in a major motion picture, starring himself; a task not for the light of heart. He was learning how to play piano and guitar at a level which would suggest he was an actual musician. He was becoming a star…again.
A variety of factors came together to make this burning fireball of a film come to life. In one of the Star is Born Featurettes, Lukas Nelson (Willie Nelson’s son, frontman for Promise of the Real, and composer/guitar player of Jackson Maine's songs performed throughout the film) said of Cooper, “I remember thinking you were always a musician. All I gotta do is tell you to practice!” Gaga reiterated a similar sentiment herself, stating that “He opened his mouth to sing and I was blown away by his voice, because he sings from his gut and he sings from his soul. I was overwhelmed by his ability to tell a story through his voice. That’s why I wanted to do this. Because I believed in him so much.” The aura between Cooper and Gaga is that of wonder. The fire is undeniable. I believe the chemistry between these two derives from a lack of self-awareness and commitment to their art. If you noticed parallels between Cooper and Gaga’s lives and their character’s roles, you’re not alone. Cooper and Gaga let their own personal experiences bleed into their characters, blurring the line between role and self.
Similar to his character, Jackson Maine, Cooper was himself a victim of addiction at one point in his life. During the darkest times of his alcohol and drug addiction, he was playing the supporting role of Will Tippin in ABC’s hit television show, Alias, starring Jennifer Garner. As the seasons went on, Cooper realized that he was losing his foothold on the show and the idea of failure overwhelmed him. In an interview on the situation, Cooper said “And then next thing you know, I was like, ‘I want to f—ing kill myself.”
The idea that Ally was too ugly to break into the music business because of her nose is a crucial component of the Lady Gaga lore. She was famously told to get a nose job before her first single was released by music executives. She obviously refused. Also similar to Ally, Gaga said that at one point she was playing three shows a night and performed at at least a thousand clubs before she got her big break.
This meta element of the film and their commitment to the bit is what makes it work. Self-awareness primarily serves two functions. It essentially acts as a mirror while providing you with a level-headed form of telepathy. You notice things about yourself you may not have otherwise known, while simultaneously understanding how you are perceived by those around you; therefore, impacting your behaviour. But it can also act as a veil, shielding you from your actual self, and leaving some unable to live in the moment as they are thinking about the moment. Gaga and Cooper didn’t consciously incorporate their lives into these roles. They adopted these roles because they resembled components of their lives. A part of themselves already lived within these characters. It’s that lack of self-awareness, that failure to acknowledge what we are all thinking, and that unabashed dive off the deep-end that makes everything work. It casts forth authenticity. It feels real.
But it wasn’t just the chemistry, the lack of self-awareness, or the quirky directorial moves Cooper made in his Gaga recruitment process ; it was instead the underlying tone and emotion that coincides within the film. A Star is Born does an exceptional job at digging into your skin with its lengthy nails and forcing you to feel something. We experience empathy for a situation we likely haven’t taken part in. Addiction isn’t that common in most of our lives, but at the essence of the emotion this dynamic creates lies a high degree of relatability in how relationships function. In any given partnership, no one is perfect. We all suffer through times of sorrow and anguish. We all fall on hard times eventually. It’s in these times that we’ve fallen where we ask those closest to us to help us back up. Sometimes, we don’t have anyone to ask at all, and instead stay down as penance. Although we all may not understand the feeling of suffering or having a loved one suffer from alcoholism and its process of recovery, we do understand uncertainty and the fear that rides along in the passenger seat. We understand the overwhelming feeling of not thinking you can get past something, regardless of its stakes. We understand the resiliency needed to be the one to continually help someone up, as they continue to fall, over and over again. It’s how Cooper builds this emotional relatibility that makes us feel for these characters so strongly.
Another component of said emotionality and how relatable it is comes from ASIB’s subtle commentary on hegemonic masculinity and how men often express their feelings. This is a film, in my discussions with friends, that has come to emotionally affect as many men as it has women, which isn’t always very common in film. Jackson Maine thematically represents traditionalism throughout the film. He lives an old fashioned life, rid of technology, new forms of music, and proper communication. He lives and breathes traditionalism from the greased back hair, to his stoic persona, all the way down to the dirt-trodden denim he wears. Jackson thematically also represents men who struggle with their transition into the modern world. Jackson is man of few words, communicating primarily through gesticulation and the songs he pens. Many modern men face this same problem today. They’ve been told to be a man and to be tough. They’ve been told that being emotional doesn’t fit inside the notion of who they are meant to be. It’s something they’ve never done, nor feel comfortable embracing. Repression is the only way to deal with things. This idea is shown in how Jackson comes to deal with his former trauma as a child, his relationship with his brother, and ultimately, his final moments. The scene in which Jackson reveals to his older brother that he looked up to him instead of his father is the perfect encapsulation of rough-and-tough male communication. Jackson quickly throws out his feelings clumsily like someone trying to put down a hot pot and his brother, recognizing the vulnerability in the situation, immediately takes off while holding back tears. That scene impacted me the most, as it reminded me how I often felt when sharing my emotions: overwhelmed. This sentiment will likely strike a note with many men, as their experiences will likely have been similar. Like Jackson sings throughout the film, maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.
There is no doubt that this movie has flaws. From its oddly paced second half to its confusing message about pop music and the strange development of Ally’s character, there are definitely parts of this movie I would have changed, but it achieves something that other films don’t. A Star is Born comes from the heart, for the heart. It grabs you by the shoulders and shakes you. It makes you feel something. And maybe, after all, that’s what we actually need.