We’ve been hearing a lot about the crisis of masculinity in America in the past few years. Men are going to college in rapidly declining numbers, dropping out of work, and in some extreme cases just retreating to the basement to play video games and sulk. If you look at white men without college degrees in specific, they’re committing suicide in larger numbers. Something about day-to-day life in modern America just doesn’t appeal to certain men, so consciously or not, they’re just staying as far away from it as possible.
If you’re Jordan Peterson or somebody of his ilk, then the answer is clear: Feminism is blame! This is related to the finite-pie theory of life: There’s only so much pie to go around. So if the world gives a bigger slice to women and ethnic minorities, that leaves less pie for white men. That argument says generally that once society started recognizing women’s rights as equal citizens, it downgraded men’s traditional roles (bread-winner, etc.) and left men with nothing to do. (Apparently thinking about pursuing their life’s goals differently wasn’t an option. Because biology?)
The idea that a modern, pluralistic, technologically advanced society is intrinsically incompatible with the male psyche isn’t a new one. Especially not in the movies. Take Westerns, for many years the most popular and influential cinematic genre. The most common setting is the small isolated town somewhere in the West or Great Plains in the second half of the 19th century. These communities, with their slapped-up storefronts, dusty streets, raucous saloons, and sniffy bourgeois putting on airs serve as a bridge between the raw colonial frontier in the process of violent annexation from the native population and the modern Western state extending its tendrils of commerce, transport, and legal oversight into the hinterlands.
The quintessential Western town is also meant to stand in for a kind of hypocrisy. Its inhabitants, always depicted as soft and somewhat feminized, want their rough little settlements to be the equal of whatever towns they had left back East. No matter that the rickety pine structures have all the permanence of a Potemkin village and they are many empty miles away from courts or any kind of legal infrastructure. To keep the peace they must be definition rely on an always outnumbered, always outgunned sheriff or roaming paladin to keep the forces of lawless chaos at bay.
But the tension between the townsfolk’s desire for civilized normality and the needs required to achieve that peace lends an extra layer of conflict to Westerns beyond the struggle between the putative good and bad gunslingers. Think of High Noon. The fearful townies waiting for the big showdown don’t exactly line up to help Gary Cooper’s marshal. And they certainly don’t want a killer like him hanging around after the deed is done. Better to cast him aside while moving ahead. The cinematic West is forever in a state of transition, caught between a stifling notion of the locked-down modern urban anonymity of schedules and punching clocks regimentation and a fanciful notion of the free and wide-open horizon where a man could be free with his horse, six-gun, and his wits.
What do the men do, once America catches up with its newly conquered lands? In some Westerns they simply lash out in paroxysms of violence. When Clint Eastwood comes to town in High Plains Drifter, nobody is sure what to make of the laconic stranger they reluctantly hire for protection. But as garrison towns throughout history have discovered to their misery, idle gunmen make bad neighbors.
You can see a more blatant visualization of this civilization clash in The Wild Bunch, whose trigger-happy bank robbers and mercenaries aren’t exactly fitting in to the new early 20th century American West of telegraphs and automobiles. Answer? They head south of the border in order to ply their trade in a supposedly less civilized land. They all go down in a storm of bullets, of course, but Sam Peckinpah tries to invest their pointless deaths with a fin de siecle grandeur, as though the true spirit of the Old West was dying as well in bloody slow motion. Unlike today’s displaced-feeling men, they couldn’t rant about feminism or the government on YouTube.
The modern-day man hasn’t been faring too well in movies, either. Theaters flicker forever with stories of men who can’t quite hack it in the workaday world. Many of these are the lone warrior tropes of old, like the wandering gunmen of Sicario: Day of the Soldado, sent on a highly illegal mission (like The Wild Bunch, once again into Mexico where it’s imagined they can open fire with impunity) and then abandoned by the same stereotype of hypocritical un-masculine men who needed Gary Cooper’s marshal but wouldn’t invite him in for a friendly cup of tea. In the breakdown of civilization in The First Purge, only a gun-toting drug lord can keep the neighborhood safe once the police clear out. Then in Venom, Tom Hardy’s leather jacketed, motorcycle-riding reporter — he’s a writer, but a manly one — loses his way but gets back in the saddle once he’s infested with a hyperviolent alien presence who unleashes his uncivilized id.
But instead of lashing out, sometimes the men just drop out. That’s the case in A Star is Born. On the face of it, this star vehicle doesn’t have anything to do with these stories of men marooned by modernity. The fourth iteration of William Wellman’s original 1937 tearjerker of a doomed celebrity romance double helix of fates, it has nary a firearm on offer and only the odd half-drunk bar fight in terms of violence. But in between all the melodrama about addiction, talent, and poisoned family trees, it’s hard to miss the lurking subtext about the place of men (well, straight men) in its world. In short: They just don’t seem to be hacking it.
When grubby rock star Jack (Bradley Cooper) stumbles into a drag bar one night, he’s just killed it at a concert. But it couldn’t matter less to him. He’s half-pickled already by the time Ally (Lady Gaga) tears up the stage with a rendition of “Ma Vie en Rose” that’s less sultry late night ballad than roadhouse roof-raiser. His interest is piqued, just like the audience’s, and so begins the arc of their part-heroic and part-tragic love story. (Her casting is one of the brightest points of Cooper’s work as director here. You can imagine somebody else in just about every other role, including his. But she owns this one as thoroughly as Judy or Barbara ever did.)
From the beginning, it’s clear that Jack is a grenade of pain with the pin three-quarters pulled. When he’s not drinking, it’s pills. When he’s not muttering darkly he’s taking a swing at the long-suffering road manager who also happens to be his brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott, whose low-end gravelly pitch Cooper does a decent job approximating). At first, he and Ally are one of those pairings that would set the culterati atwitter. Burnt out by the time they find each other, Jack is creatively reinvigorated after convincing Ally to not just sing covers in tiny bars while writing songs nobody will ever hear but perform them. Flying her across country on a private jet and giving her a full-on aw-shucks romancing routine doesn’t hurt.
There are really only two happy men in this movie. There’s the unfortunately named “Noodles” (Dave Chappelle), a buddy of Jack’s who conveniently appears in order for Jack to have somewhere to crash on his downward trajectory into self-immolating pity. Like many a man of color is still made to do in today’s Hollywood, he serves as a serene font of hard-bitten wisdom and then disappears. The only happy man in the movie is Ramon (the astoundingly charismatic Anthony Ramos), her gay bestie. As written, it’s a nothing role, as Ramon is essentially tasked with holding Ally’s arm as she nervously ascends the staircase to music goddess heaven. Somehow, the beaming power of Ramos’ unfiltered loyalty and joy lifts the character and makes him one of the movie’s brightest points. Nevertheless, both Noodles and Ramon are far from three-dimensional characters. Every man here with a story is cloaked in some kind of misery.
Even the best of them come wracked in pain. Ally’s father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), seemingly couldn’t be more supportive of his daughter. But at the same time, he picks at her self-confidence and continually evokes a likely invented legend of coulda-woulda stardom in which Paul Anka once told him he sung better than Sinatra. Although dead set on protecting Jack from his own demons, Bobby can’t quite get past the psychological ruin made of their spirits by an abusive and alcoholic father. He might be there for Jack, but it’s all he can do to keep himself afloat.
At first it looks like Ally may have bought Jack a second lease on life. They record and tour together, Bobby telling Ally that his brother hasn’t been this alive on stage in years. It’s an intoxicating and romantic vision of love paired with art, with a sugary layer of guilty pleasure rock star luxury drizzled on top, just for fun. But the toxicity that’s been eating away Jack’s insides for years can’t be muffled forever. Once she starts pulling away from him in popularity and in seriousness — having just ascended to the mountaintop after years of struggle, there’s no way she’s going to lose it via drugs and booze and bad behavior — Jack can’t help but lash out in fear, envy, and impotence.
His crowds are large, and he’s instantly recognized everywhere he goes. But she is just … bigger. Once Ally starts on the upward ascent, it’s beyond anything he appears used to. Barely five minutes after getting an album deal, she’s being introduced on Saturday Night Live by Alec Baldwin. There’s also a stylistic difference: As big as Jack’s singer-songwriter status might be, he’s not a celebrity like her. She’s got dancers, wardrobe, and a smarmy British producer choreographing every aspect of her life so that she can be filling arenas with screaming crowds. He’s got Bobby, a guitar, his band, and some roadies. Ally is Katy Perry, maybe even Taylor Swift. He’s Pearl Jam, at best. Once the spotlight is fully on her, the darkness takes him over completely.
There doesn’t seem to be room for a man like Jack in the world he’s just ushered her into. But of course that’s nonsense. Faced with either riding the range or settling down in town, the movie gunslingers of old inevitably returned to the range. Given the option of trying to move beyond his laconic pose and the acid-bath pain feeding his addictions, like so many men today, Jack sticks with what hasn’t been working for him in the past.
Offered love and life and art, he chooses the abyss.