As a classic film aficionado, I’m not generally a fan of remakes. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but generally I avoid them. This is why I had no plans to watch the latest reincarnation of A Star Is Born. I’ve seen three of the previous films, including the Constance Bennett vehicle What Price Hollywood?, and excluding the version featuring Barbara Streisand. I had no desire to see yet another interpretation. But then the reviews started rolling in from fellow classic film lovers and they were all positive. So, I decided I had to watch it to decide for myself.
Each version of this film revolves around the same story. An established and famous male star, discovers a new talent. He then acts as mentor and eventually lover to this woman while guiding her through the process and pitfalls of fame. However, as her star rises, his declines thanks to his increasingly bad public behavior while battling his demons in the form of toxic addictions. There are differences among all five versions of this film. However, they are not significant as to change the main story line and character arcs. In the latest version of A Star is Born the names of the main characters are changed from Esther Blodgett and Norman Maine to Ally and Jackson Maine. Also, unlike the first three films, Ally and Jackson are singers and not actors.
Sometimes it is good to be wrong. I’ve never particularly loved A Star is Born, although the 1937 release starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is my favorite. However, I’m willing to say that this may just be the best of all of them.
Even with the positive reviews from people whose opinions I trust, I admit, I still went in a bit skeptical. But I was blown away by the portrayal of this familiar story and its’ main characters Ally and Jackson Maine.
One of the problems for me with the other films is that the Norman/Jackson character isn’t overly sympathetic. Even with his generosity in mentoring Esther/Ally, I’ve never quite been able to believe she would see him as a love interest. Particularly when his addiction(s) are a big red flashing warning symbol in my mind. Not to mention, the two never really seem like equals to me. One is always on a different level from the other. At first Norman/Jackson is above Esther/Ally as her mentor, the one with more experience. Then their positions switch as her talent and hard work take her quickly to the top of her field.
Dare I say it? Bradley Cooper gives by far my favorite portrayal of the Maine character. From the start, he displays real vulnerability with Ally, so much so that I had no trouble believing a man that famous would seek out an unknown like Ally. This is a man who is still slightly uncomfortable with the harsh glare of fame invading his life. For all his money and popularity, he is a lonely man searching for true connection. The glimpses into his background give subtle explanations as to his addiction and the behavior that results. I found myself feeling disgust and compassion at the same time as he wrestled with his demons.
Of course, it is no surprise that Lady Gaga can sing, so it wasn’t a total surprise that she was cast as Ally. But who knew she could ACT? Certainly, not me. She more than holds her own as the co-star of this character vehicle. Her growth as an artist and also in her self-worth is inspiring to watch. I loved seeing her more au natural with low key makeup, hair and styling at the beginning of the movie. While Jackson’s trajectory is more of downward spiral, hers is an like a rocket, quickly ascending. I appreciate how she remains loyal to Jackson even as he becomes a liability to her career. But it is Lady Gaga’s performance that makes this loyalty completely credible. Though Ally boldly challenges Jackson about his addictions, she never castigates him for his weakness. She understands him without judging him.
Thanks to the performances by these two leads, for the first time this feels less like a mentor-mentee partnership and more like a love story. From the start, Jackson and Ally are true partners despite the disparity in their levels of fame. Cooper and Gaga display great chemistry, particularly in the more quiet moments between their characters. While in many ways, theirs is a dependent dysfunctional relationship, it never really feels truly toxic. It is more that each of them accepts and loves each other for who they are right now. This connection is what sets it apart from previous films.
Another difference I really love is the presentation of A Star is Born. This one is raw and gritty. Past versions felt a bit too polished, leaving me feeling a bit removed from the story. With the vulnerable performances given by Cooper and Gaga it feels less like a Hollywood production and more like a glimpse into the lives of real people, flaws and all. It is an extremely personal and emotional experience. Having seen the prior films in no way detracted from my enjoyment. In fact, in many ways this feels like a completely different film from the others even though the story remains the same.
One of the drawbacks for me in this updated movie is its’ R rating. It certainly earns it. In particular, the prolific use of profanity became a bit much for me. At times it seemed as if every third word was a swear word. Being sensitive to words in general, I’ve always felt that one should be able to express one’s self clearly without relying on this type of language. But that’s just my opinion. There are also a couple of brief scenes of female nudity that I didn’t think were necessary to the story.
With rich, vulnerable characterizations, and a new presentation style of the story, this A Star is Born has definitely earned its’ place as my new favorite. I’m glad that I gave this remake a chance.