A Star is Born isn’t about a star being born. It’s about the implosion of a star.
It’s about the way female stories are framed in male agony. It’s about how women do and do and do, and are punished for loving, for caring, for being. It’s a film that, in its closing moments, tells us addiction is the fault of the addicted. It’s also a film that absolves emotional abuse because of an addiction, perpetuating the myth that deranged acts are generated by liquid — instead of coming from a deeper, uglier place.
In this film, the male lead is known primarily by his full name, gets a full backstory, and slithers through every frame even when he’s not there. In this film, our female lead — our star — has only a first name, zero agency, and no arc. Even her tear-stained coda, her star-making moment, isn’t about her. There’s no indication that she’s learned a thing about herself in the few hours we spend in her husband’s orbit.
Will she wander offscreen and into the arms of another man who wants only to own her and hurt her? A star is born to die.
There’s a lot to love in A Star Is Born. The story follows Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), an alcohol and pill-addicted musician, who stumbles on a woman named Ally (Lady Gaga) singing “La Vie En Rose” in a drag bar. He’s a world-famous rock star; she works in a restaurant and sings on the side, too burned by the shallow music industry to pursue her passions professionally. He’s had a bottle of gin and some change. She’s insecure in her traditional beauty. She sings to him in a grocery store parking lot after getting into a bar fight. He somehow remembers the two stanzas of lyrics she made up on the fly and turns it into a song they perfectly perform onstage the next night. It’s all very cute and silly in a movie way.
But then he blacks out in his hotel room. Despite lamenting to her father about Jackson being a drunk, Ally seems unbothered by his insidious addiction the next day. She sleeps with him that night and quickly falls under his spell. There’s nothing inauthentic about this; it’s traditional codependent behavior. All she’s ever wanted to hear is that she’s beautiful, and he tells her this. He tells her this so much that it’s just about the only thing he ever mutters in his sleazy, Buffalo Bill diction. Jackson’s addiction is suffocating, but it isn’t foreign to a single person who has either been in his shoes or been the victim of a person in his shoes.
Bradley Cooper is a recovering alcoholic in real life, and the precision with which he portrays Jackson’s downfall is heart-wrenching. But in his mission to highlight Jackson’s story, Cooper — who directed and co-wrote the film — never bothered to give Ally an ounce of agency. She is passed around among male figures. She has no female friends or family. Jackson dictates her career until the manager she hires does it for her instead. Her successful moments are then ridiculed or misunderstood by these men.
Every single shred of credibility she gains is only because of a man who told her what to do. This is never for a single second Ally’s story.
As her star ascends, we spend very little time with her outside of how her fame affects Jackson. He’s with her in the studio giving sage advice. Every single shred of credibility she gains is only because of a man who told her what to do.
This is never for a single second Ally’s story. Not even in the film’s final moments, after Jackson’s death, when she stands on a stage and sings about missing him. This is the story of a man wrestling with the demons of his past and using a female narrative to forgive his personal miseries and relationship with the bottle. It’s an ugly message that the film seems totally fine selling and never contends with.
I am not one to demonize addiction. It is something that runs through my veins, the veins of my family, the veins of many people’s families. Jackson’s heartbreaking descent nudged at me. What he experiences is real. It’s not funny, and it’s told meticulously.
But Jackson is also a destructive, cruel human outside of his addiction. He belittles Ally whenever she strays from his gaze. In a moment of vulnerability, after they foolishly marry because Dave Chapelle tells them to, she sits in the bath — naked in every sense of the word — and he insults her, calls her ugly, preys on her insecurities, lets his jealousy overshadow her accomplishments. This kind of nastiness isn’t brewed by spirited potions. It comes from a separate plane. This is the ugly part of Jackson that pushed his brother away. The hollowed core in the middle, the part of him that won’t deal, won’t try, won’t address.
This isn’t a love story. It’s a horror story about how men feed off of and manipulate women, and how that mistreatment is written off as disease instead of culpability.
I return frequently to a quote I once heard about mental illness: “It isn’t your fault, but it is your responsibility.” Jackson’s addiction isn’t his fault; he’s suffering from an annihilating disease borne out of torment, grief, and chemistry. But when you are actively hurting the people around you, addiction takes on a new identity. It isn’t yours anymore — it’s a shared additive. And it doesn’t forgive the other parts of you that are manipulative and questionable. We cannot and should not excuse the horrible things foisted on women by drunken men. And yet, A Star is Born asks us to forgive Jackson because he was just, you know, drunk.
That doesn’t mean I consider his final act — suicide — an inevitable deed. I was rooting for Jackson’s recovery. I wanted him to be okay. I felt a pang of empathy for myself and people I know when Ally told him, in rehab, that she wasn’t embarrassed by his behavior, that she knew it was a disease. But I desperately yearned for a film that would do more with the idea of addiction. A film that would let Ally comprehend the role she played in Jackson’s self-destruction, and what it did to her own life. I was yearning for a moment like this one, from the 1954 Judy Garland version, where the female lead has an opportunity to feel, think, and reflect:
Gaga is magnetic as Ally, but her supernova is swallowed by Jackson’s pain. The final scene of A Star is Born, where Ally sings a song Jackson wrote about their love, never hits the right notes. Because it still isn’t her. It’s not her song. It’s something he strung together in his final days: about their love, but still, ostensibly, from his point of view.
Titled “I’ll Never Love Again,” the song only elaborates Ally’s role in a relationship built on absolutely nothing other than a man’s validation of her power. She misses him — but why? If his addiction was an accessory in their otherwise healthy relationship, I could understand the film’s message. But it isn’t; their relationship was born at the height of his struggles, and existed only in the fantasies of his demons and her fragility.
This isn’t a love story. It’s a horror story about how men feed off of and manipulate women, and how that mistreatment is written off as disease instead of culpability. It isn’t romantic. It’s a diabolical message reverberating through current events.