Is A Star Is Born against artifice?
On the surface, Bradley Cooper's new remake of the classic Hollywood story, out Friday, seems to lament the inauthentic. We see his male protagonist, an aging alcoholic country rock star named Jackson Maine, discover Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag show where she belts out an electrifying rendition of "La Vie En Rose." She's not a professional musician but a waitress performing on the side, and as he helps her rise to stardom, we watch him quietly disapprove as she transforms into a polished pop star.
Some viewers have taken Jack's judgment to mean the movie itself frowns upon Ally's transformation — that somehow an "authentic" woman has been ruined by makeup and backup dancers and pop music. Writing for The Hollywood Reporter, critic David Rooney interpreted Ally's new hair and costumes as "paradoxically ... [making] the character less attractive." For The New York Times, Manohla Dargis calls the film an "unmasking of Lady Gaga," noting that the "stripped down" version of the pop star seems "genuine" and "authentic." During the carefully orchestrated promotional tour, Cooper even claimed, in an apparent homage to the to the 1954 A Star Is Born, that he removed Lady Gaga's makeup himself with a wipe when she showed up for his screen test, telling her: "No artifice."
Yet whatever Bradley's intention with that remark, the film itself is clearly a celebration of transformation.
One does not cast Lady Gaga — the patron saint of poptimism and queen of shapeshifting — in a film about stardom and celebrity artifice by accident. For a decade, we have gawked at her unabashed nudity, her aggressively unfashionable shoulder pads, her meat dress, and her fake suicide. And now, we are gawking at her again — only this time, at the spectacle of her un-made-up face. But the fact that this is Lady Gaga should be clue enough that the movie does not mistake artifice for insincerity.
What disguises this fact is the movie's perspective is not Ally's. It is Jack's. And the character seems positively obsessed with that familiar and sexist refrain: "You look better without make-up." In fact, like Cooper at the screen test, he literally enforces his criticism. After Jack watches Ally sing for the first time, he finds her backstage as she is removing her costume and helps her peel off a fake eyebrow. Over the next hour and a half, we see this act repeated in different ways: Jack itching to peel off Ally's character.
But Ally obviously feels differently. Even though the audience always stays close to Jack's point of view — in one particularly revealing scene, the camera keeps Jack in a close up as dancers practice in the overexposed background, like his own personal nightmare — Ally has her own agency. Her very first appearance to Jack was in character, as Édith Piaf, and later, when she's signed to Interscope Records, she gets to create a masterpiece all her own. When her manager tries to get her to dye her hair, she shoots back: "I don't want to be f--king blonde. I am who I am." Later she does dye her hair, but on her own terms — strawberry. And when she dismisses her backup dancers to gyrate alone on stage, we see her not as a product of an unartistic pop machine, but as her fans must, as a supernova of her own construction.
One of the most intense tests of Ally's authenticity, and Jack's mistaken perception of it, comes during a fight while she is taking a bubble bath. Drunk, he tries to cut her down by telling her, "you're embarrassing." Ally shoots back "you're embarrassing," refusing to be shamed for her persona, and we see it to be true — a drunk and desperate mess, Jack is embarrassing. When he escalates, telling her that her makeover is because "you need to get all this approval" and, finally, because "you're ugly," she kicks him out of the bathroom. She stands up to stare him down as he leaves, naked but, in this exposure, not vulnerable — proud.
There is even a meta-element at play in the exploration of artifice of A Star Is Born. Cooper himself has a complicated relationship with celebrity, as became frustratingly obvious in Taffy Brodesser-Akner's New York Times profile of the director. And while male celebrities tend to have a less-scrutinized relationship with their appearances, Cooper is no stranger to his own self-construction. As that profile reveals, he was reluctant to give away anything about himself beyond "the same set of facts about [A Star Is Born's] making," carefully curating the Cooper the public knows as separate from the Cooper that, with a little more probing, might be revealed. In A Star Is Born, he is clearly interested in following the transformation of Ally from her unknown beginning to her established and manicured end. Even his instruction of "no artifice" to Gaga during the screen test was just that: a direction for that "stripped down" version of Ally, before she self-creates a new dazzling persona.
The title, A Star Is Born, is not sneering; it is reverent. We do not see Ally weighed down by the burden of celebrity, overwhelmed by paparazzi, spiraling into her own drink-and-drug-fueled escape, or otherwise hurt by her new image. Instead, each step forward excites and fulfills her, whether it's a record deal, a tour, or the Grammy's.
Jack might not respect Ally's agency in her self-invention, but the film does. In creating her own version of stardom, Ally magnificently comes into her own.