A Star is Born is now on its 5th iteration when you count George Cukor’s 1932 version What Price Hollywood? The others have all taken the name of the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Frederic March film, directed by William Wellman. The setting of the story has changed, from straight Hollywood drama for the first two, to Cinemascope Hollywood musical for the 1954 version, again directed by Cukor, that served as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland. Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version moved it to a straight music world story, which suited her well. For the new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version, nods are paid in the screenplay credits to the middle three films, including to William Wellman and Moss Hart (who wrote the Garland version), even though they’ve been dead for 43 and 57 years respectively. Jon Peters, who produced Streisand’s version, also gets producer’s credit here (he’s happily still alive at 73 to enjoy it). However, even with its long pedigree, Cooper, along with his writing partner Will Fetters and the estimable Eric Roth (Forest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have managed to blend the past into a beautiful, compelling, and fresh version of the story.
Cooper demonstrates his Renaissance man skills by acting, directing, co-screenwriting, producing, composing many of the songs, and then singing them with a skill that could make him a recording star in his own right. His embodiment of country-rocker Jackson Maine has a deep whiskey rasp and a self-destructive relationship with booze and pills, partially motivated by progressing deafness. (His name is a nod to the Frederic March and James Mason versions of the character, Norman Maine.) Yet he’s also open and vulnerable, making you root for him.
While Lady Gaga’s stage shows are cinematic in design, she’s been honing a straight acting cred as part of Ryan Murphy’s stable of players for “American Horror Story.” (Her very first acting credit on IMDb was as “Girl in Pool” on a 2001 episode of “The Sopranos.”) She strips away the glamor of the Gaga persona, including dying her hair back to her original medium brown color, and in the role of Ally gives a bare, beautiful performance.
One weakness of the ’76 version was that the music scenes felt small, with extras filling up confined venues for the concert scenes. Bradley captures the feel of an actual concert by filming at major festivals in between acts. In a perfect bit of symmetry, one of the acts who gave them time was Kris Kristofferson, who starred with Streisand in the ’76 version. It helps, too, that Cooper’s backup band in the movie is a real band: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson’s son. Lukas co-wrote much of the music (with Cooper and Gaga) and it has a gravitas to its sound that you don’t normally get in a film.
Cooper has assembled a strong supporting cast. Chief among them is Sam Elliott as Bobby, Maine’s older brother, a performer in his own right who never broke through like his sibling. There’s also a surprising turn by Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s loving and supportive father, Lorenzo. In a nod to his first major role on the series “Alias,” Cooper has Greg Grunberg and Ron Rifkin in small but meaningful roles.
This is a star-making turn for Gaga, but it’s also a major coming out for Cooper as a force behind the camera. It’s clear that he used his time working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood as master classes in filmmaking. One example is at the end of the movie, when you expect a big emotional cathartic moment, he instead makes it intimate and devastating. It’s a bold choice you wouldn’t expect from a first-time director, but Cooper pulls it off.
I’ll be surprised if A Star Is Born doesn’t pull in a slew of nominations during the upcoming awards season. Best of all, it deserves them.