I Can’t Believe ‘A Star is Born’
A nameplate abbreviating the moniker at the Venice Film Festival spawned one of many memes that made the press tour for A Star Is Born inescapable. It also raised the question of why the star chose to be credited as ‘Lady Gaga’ rather than her birth name. Press around Gaga’s first leading film role has promised her at her most vulnerable — live vocals, no makeup, tame wardrobe, raw emotion. If this Gaga is the real Gaga, shouldn’t we be calling her by her real name?
It’s a fair question. Walking into the theater, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to believe this film. It’s the fourth iteration of an archetypical story, wherein the biggest pop star of our generation plays a meek, unsure singer, and the guy from The Hangover plays her love interest, a rock star. Musical movies in general walk a tenuous line, too, with characters potentially bursting into song at any moment threatening to dilute the narrative with campy nonsense. More generally, a film with as much hype as A Star is Born seems destined to crumble beneath its own weight, and going to see it feels like watching the New York Times forecast on Election Night, 2016.
The film opens with a shaky camera panning to a massive festival audience, a sea of raised iPhones, intercut with close-ups of Bradley Cooper delivering his opening number. It feels like a documentary of a real musician’s life, and signals to the audience that we are watching the musician Jackson Maine, not the actor Bradley Cooper.
Immediately after, Jackson walks through a swarm of screaming fans into his car. He slams the door shut and is embraced by radio silence. I instantly snap out of the trance the film’s first few minutes had begun to induce. The sequence perfectly mirrors a scene from last year’s Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two. Bradley’s performance is convincing, but we’re only a few minutes into the film, and I’m still consciously aware of the fact that I purchased a ticket to watch a fictional story. The whole thing feels uncanny and distracting. I can’t see past how closely this very fictional character mirrors the life of his very real co-star.
Throughout the press tour for A Star Is Born, Gaga was routinely asked how closely her character’s life mirrored her own. She acknowledged parallels, but routinely denied that her and Ally are the same. She repeats the epithet that the audience finds Ally as someone who is approaching 30 and has given up on herself, whereas Gaga made a conscious decision at age 19 to be a singer, and, as we all know, proceeded to convince everyone else of her stardom by inducing its birth with her own hand.
Still, similarities between Ally’s story and Gaga’s own litter the film.
Her starting out as a waitress and songwriter who doesn’t sing her own songs after being told repeatedly that she had the talent, but not the look, hair, or nose to be a mainstream success (Gaga dons her natural brown hue in the film, and dyed her hair blonde for the release of her first album).
Her initial refuge in the safety of being viewed as a star by the LGBT community (Ally’s first on-screen performance is at a drag bar, Gaga is Gaga).
Her performance of La Vie en Rose (a staple in Gaga’s catalogue for the past two years; in real life director Bradley Cooper first met Gaga as she performed the song) donning eyebrows fashioned out of electrical tape (in her early days, Gaga wore sequined bras made of pieces of disco ball hand-glued on).
Her gratitude for her protective, Italian father carrying her piano up the stairs countless times (something Gaga alluded to her father doing in the music video for Marry the Night).
Her falling in love with a man on the back of his motorcycle (cc: the opening lyrics to John Wayne, a track off Gaga’s last album; Gaga was whisked off the set of the You and I music video on the motorcycle of then co-star and eventual fiancé Taylor Kinney).
It even gets more specific at times. The last song’s title I’ll Never Love Again lifts lyric from one of Gaga’s first ballads, Speechless. In the movie, Jackson’s manager is named Bobby; in real life, Gaga’s is. Interscope is interested in signing Ally. Gaga is signed to Interscope.
Beyond minute details, entire scenes are difficult to believe. On the night they meet, Ally angrily watches Jackson deal with drunk men ask for his picture and a cashier shove her iPhone in his face for a photo. When Ally asks Jackson how he deals with the constant objectification, it’s difficult for any lucid viewer not to see the irony in this question coming from the mouth of L. Gaga — someone who knows more on this topic than almost anyone alive.
By the fourth quarter of the film, cameos from Alec Baldwin on SNL and Halsey at the Grammys carelessly toy with us. I feel like the characters aren’t acting, but just staring, blankly, out of the screen, at and through me — Inception style projections in a very confusing, pseudo-realistic dream.
As the film continues to ground itself more in reality, the reactions of the audience grow increasingly unrealistic.
Most viewers agree with Ally, that objectifying Jackson is not right, and is sad to watch. It’s instinct to empathize with his lack of privacy, and want to cheer her on for punching the men who treated Jackson like a mannequin. Outside the cinema, viewers will continue to treat the mental unraveling of Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and Amanda Bynes as entertainment, years after the death of Amy Winehouse, and Princess Diana before her, and Kurt Cobain before her.
In the theater, the audience winced during Jackson’s Grammys debacle, feeling for a man succumbing to his addiction, and for the woman who can’t help but love him. If it were to happen in real life, though, Ally’s standing beside Jackson after his drunken collapse on stage could’ve spawned New York Times op-eds labeling her as an enabler and anti-feminist. The DailyMail would’ve laughed, TMZ would’ve hunted down photos of Jackson leaving the venue, one half of Twitter would’ve “cancelled” Ally for not leaving him while the other half made a meme out of her shocked face.
Watching the film, the audience empathizes with Jackson, and laments Ally’s waning authenticity with him. As a new version of her is manufactured by her manager, we miss the girl who wrote her own songs and sang them covering her face. In real life, Gaga’s vocal shape-shifting over the past few years (a jazz album with Tony Bennett, full studio album leaning toward country/folk) has led to her categorization as a ‘flop.’ Fans and critics have called for her to return to the more repetitive, electronic, dance music that made her famous. It seems we empathize with characters on-screen much more readily than we do with those that sit before it, next to us.
(For the record, Gaga’s first album was brilliantly written, subversive, provocative, pop lyric. But the public perception of a pop star is limited such that the difference between Fame era Gaga and SNL Ally is negligible).
It’s not that the film is entirely real. The story is unremarkable, and nothing new. Falling in love fast is the plot of every Taylor Swift song and Hillary Duff movie. A rise to stardom ending with the realization that the beast is much scarier once you’ve been eaten by it than it was when you stood before it is the titular story of Gaga’s discography. Addiction ending badly is the story of the music industry.
But clearly it’s not entirely fictional, either. It feels like Bradley’s writing and Gaga’s acting draw just enough on personal experience for them to convince themselves that they are Jackson and Ally, and by proxy convince us, too. More importantly, we’re convinced that even if it isn’t real, it could be. True realistic fiction — a space where the audience minds are ripe to subverted. This is why, though Ally may draw her life force — and narrative — from Gaga, it takes the audience just over two hours to appreciate the depth of Ally, but a full decade into Gaga’s career and it seems the public is only just now beginning to extend the actress the same courtesy.
“Introducing…Stefani Germanotta” would separate the avant-garde pop star from the Oscar-buzzworthy actress, letting viewers know that this is totally different from anything Gaga has ever done before. But that would undermine the fact that everything Lady Gaga does is completely different from everything she’s ever done before.