Is a Star Born?

By Pip, The Circle Line

A Star is Born, 2018, Directed by Bradley Cooper

A rise to stardom? Image still from A Star is Born, copyright: Warner Bros.

Is there a real star of this film? Gaga is certainly the surprise. That voice. Emanating from a genuine humble girl, Ally, portrayed with honesty and subtlety. But it’s sadly hard to see any star, until the very end. For it’s only in the final closing scene, as Ally stands alone on stage, that we see a giant — we look directly into her eyes, and see the formidable strength of the human will.

Ally, the only woman in the entire film, lives with her dad. We don’t find out why, or what happened to her mum, we’re not told much about her really, at all. Ally looks after her dad, their ordinary house, her dad’s gaggle of male limo driver colleagues. We see her come home after her first night out with famous rock star Jackson and start clearing the kitchen, telling the men off for leaving out the butter, playing mum. You get the feeling this is how she grew up — her dad’s friends know her, they all sit around eating drinking laughing in the kitchen that she cleans; later they look on stunned as she goes viral on social media. There’s a familiar jovial — and very “male-centric” — feel to it all. Ally seems deeply used to looking after men.

But this is a film about Jackson. About a falling star, a dying star.

There are ruptured scenes of the emotional strife between Jackson and his brother, desperate scenes of Jackson blacking out, Jackson reeling, Jackson swaggering, Jackson being jealous of Ally, his wife. We hear all about Jackson’s troubled childhood, how his mother died giving birth to him, his abusive alcoholic father, his troubled relationship with his brother. And it does explain his behaviour. We understand him. We pity him. The fact that Ally also seems to be motherless is, in contrast, glossed over.

And what of our perception of Ally? Who’s Ally? Ally we don’t really know. More protostar than star, beyond her musical moments of luminosity we can’t see her, she’s so engulfed by Jackson’s dust. Even when the story is (sort of) about Ally’s rise to stardom, the live moments on stage are nuclear, lifting us to heights of emotion and fantasy, this plays bit part to her looking after Jackson. Jackson is there as the frontman in every way — watching, advising, swooning, disapproving, abusing, pissing.

Ally and her journey to stardom is malleable, pliant, and dependent on Jackson. She wants to sing and write music, but she lacks the confidence — until Jackson comes along and gives her the reason and the boost she hasn’t yet found from her core. Later, after her first public performance (with and instigated by him) she’s approached by a (male) talent agent who asks what she wants to do with her gargantuan talent. On hearing what he’s offering her — a recording contract, fame, wealth, success — she has no reply but “Oh oh, I need to speak to Jackson’. She passively looks to Jackson for her answers.

On one level, the film is a metaphor for the patriarchy, and perhaps the fall of it — especially poignant in our emerging post-#metoo world — a young talented woman found, rescued and projected to stardom because of, and then dependent on, a man. An older, more powerful man. At least she is until she — we hope — finds her own wings.

But on another level, the film is really about the power struggle going on in a relationship where neither party recognises their own personal power and responsibility. Jackson dominates. Jackson’s troubles dominate. Degeneration becomes the state of equilibrium. He emotionally abuses her and blames the booze. He rubs cake in her face. The bath scene where he calls her ugly made me physically wince. His particular cloud of nebulae is a never-endingly negative one. And yet Ally doesn’t walk away. She jumps on board the rocket as Jackson shoots her into the starfield she so wants to be part of; she takes the opportunity, then doesn’t notice when he takes her.

He interrupts her first recording session (why is he there anyway?) to be the solution to her nerves, sitting almost on top of her as she sings in the sound booth. And Ally doesn’t seem to notice, or least she doesn’t seem to mind; there’s nothing that signals objection or independence. She seems oblivious. I’m surprised he doesn’t press the piano keys for her. On a more disturbing level, Ally resigns herself to Jackson’s addiction itself. She lies by his inert side in bed, untouched, when he once more keels over from too much of the hard stuff. “He always does this” she says (Ally, why are you still there? What about you?). Until of course he regains consciousness and wakes her for love on his terms.

At one point we see a glimmer of her strength. She flies to Memphis to find him when he disappears into a chemical black hole. Once there she says she’s not going to come and get him again. A first spark of awareness, a declaration that she is not going to keep playing the rescue party. He understands what she means — and it propels his proposal. A small breakthrough of respect on both their parts.

But words come cheap. It’s only the start of happy never after. Although we see her confidence seem to grow with her success (there’s something natural in that after all; who isn’t bolstered by discovering their talents, celebrating their achievements, even though we’re not just the sum of our accomplishments), later, as her pop image is created for her and her renown spreads around her, Jackson continues his descent into a cloud of oblivion. And in doing so he just keeps on failing, with his rock’n’roll swagger, to offer her anything near a fulfilling relationship. But yet she stays. Yes, at moments she asserts herself and confronts his cruelty — “You hurt me” — but still she stays. Her “selfless” love (for can healthy love be a one-way flow?) that in the early days at least serves to prop her up and propel her own trajectory — starts to look more like martyrdom. She cancels her European tour to be with him. Finally he, quite literally, pisses all over her parade — and she, quite literally, washes it away.

So he keeps on falling and she keeps on washing until the sad piss parade implodes and spurs Jackson to take himself to rehab — a phenomenally brave step, at last. His eventual heart-wrenching sobs are laced with realisation and guilt — a theme that runs throughout the film. We see guilt in the regret of Ally’s father after Jackson’s public collapse (perhaps triggered because he encouraged her to go out with Jackson in the first place, despite Ally’s protest “He’s a drunk, Dad!” — begging the question why she did go out with him in the first place) to which Ally knowingly responds “It’s not your fault Dad, you don’t have that much power”. No, it was her that chose an alcoholic for a husband. Then we see guilt exert its crushing force again in the closing scenes of the film, with the reassurance of Jackson’s brother that his suicide was not Ally’s fault — “It was all Jackson”.

And it’s this line that grabs me. Is this where the film really shows its depth? If this is the film in its moment of candescent self-awareness, it is genius.

Because it really was all Jackson. The film is about him, and his rehabilitation ultimately down to him. In rehab Ally visits him and says of his alcoholism “It’s a disease” but despite this medicalised, biologist justification, alcoholism is not a condemnation. The tragedy of this film is that Jackson can’t ultimately wash away his own demons and habits of a lifetime. He courageously puts his hands up and says “Yes, I’ve messed up love, I’ve messed up myself. I pissed myself in front of millions of people. I hurt people. I’m ashamed.” But he can’t then hang on to the truth — “You know what, that’s not all I am. I can act differently. I’m not going to do that anymore. My past is not worth dying for”. He cannot hang on to the possibility of something different for himself. Ally’s manager chides Jackson in a cruel moment stolen alone with him, before Jackson is ready to face it, for being an embarrassment, a black hole to his wife’s rise, saying he knows it’s only a matter of time before he hits the bottle again. And Jackson believes him.

One tragedy of this film is that it doesn’t go deeper — into our female lead character, into both halves of this complex, painful inner equation. Another tragedy is that this half fairy-tale half torture chamber is portrayed as a kind of pure love and romance. But the real tragedy of this film is that neither Ally nor Jackson truly believe in themselves.

And yet a star does finally emerge from the black dust. It’s not so much a character but a universal possibility singing out in that final closing shot: Courage.