Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment

Opinion

'A Star Is Born': Critical Acclaim and Even More Critical Flaws

It's that time of year we all know and love—where we abandon our inner voice entirely and start lying about how much we love this year's Big Oscar Contender. And I imagine social media has only worsened the annual trend because the majority of people talking about how much they fucking love something makes you feel abnormal for not enjoying it, so you fake it. But once the artificial, collective high we all feel approaching the end of every year wears away, so does any semblance of most of the last few years' Oscar nominations’ plot lines. Let's be real: La La Land sucked. But remember how extreme the hype surrounding it was? So intense you probably saw it, and maybe enjoyed it. So extreme someone mistakenly announced it as the winner of Best Picture for 2017, stripping Moonlight of its rightful place in Oscar history for at least a moment in time.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following contains major A Star Is Born spoilers]

This year, my fellow sad, online people are in the throes of passion over a movie I can't stop thinking about, A Star Is Born. You may assume it’s on my mind because I liked it, but quite the contrary: I saw it due to the hype, and have been (sort of) pretending to like it. I’ve realized, however, that attempting to fit in sure wears on the soul. I can no longer ignore why we can't—in 2018—recognize an unmistakable Manic Pixie Dreamgirl trope when we see one. This is not to blame on Gaga. Full disclosure, I have been, and remain, a Gaga—or Stefani Germanotta, as she was ascribed in the credits of A Star Is Born—fan since day one. Her vocals in the film are haunting and could give even the most detached human being chills. What I'm not a fan of is Bradley Cooper using Gaga for what appears to be a vanity project where he's projects her into a reverie of his own.

No less, that big-screen fantasy is in an amalgam of several pre-existing movies. What many don’t know is that A Star Is Born has been duplicated multiple times, and the most recent is just a remake of various remakes. The first version debuted in 1954 with Judy Garland and the 1976 movie starring Barbra Streisand—both films share the same name. We've seen the same story play out over and over again: Man meets Woman. Woman loves and cares for Man, despite all flaws. Woman lifts Man up. Woman attempts to become her own person. Woman is scolded by man. Woman is almost unbearably loyal, yet Man falls down again, and again and again. Woman picks him up until Man falls and can't get up. Woman's life is ruined.

This story was being told even earlier, like in the 1932 film What Price Hollywood? And other, unrelated but similar movies have had nearly the same plot, like Walk The Line, where a “good woman” bends over backward to fix and save a “crumbling man” (also a colossal country musician—Johnny Cash) from his vices. Given the current political climate, this trope should be retired in 2018. It's tired. Why are we still so enthralled by movies where female characters are granted nothing? No background story, no conviction, no personality and no awe in anything, whether in themselves or their work, unless it's reverence surrounding their disbelief that a successful man could ever be interested in them.

If that's ugly, am I ugly? What the fuck is this? And what kind of message is that sending to women?

Regardless of today’s backwards plot, the women in 1954 and 1976 versions of A Star Is Bornare the focal points of the movies in a way the most recent version fails to do. In today's A Star Is Born, Gaga is solely a prop serving as validation for Cooper's vanity, just like Ally (played by Gaga) is a prop serving as validation for Jackson Maine (played by Cooper). Art imitates reality, after all.

For instance, Ally doesn't possess a surname until Maine gives her his own on their wedding day (where his proposal is in lieu of an apology). I'm wondering how many people noticed Ally was hardly referred to—if ever—by her first name until you see a big billboard of her promoting her new album as a breakout star in the last 30 minutes of the movie. When I saw it, I thought the name of her album was "ally" as in the verb, not "Ally." That's how little her character is spoken of. She has no agency outside of her husband. And while Maine laments to Ally about his quandaries non-stop throughout the film, yearning for sympathy for his apparently super misunderstood character, he never asks her about herself, her childhood or even her own experiences with addiction. She alludes to her own addiction in the first scenes of the movie, giving us a glimmer of hope that we'll learn what she's talking about later on, but we never do.

As for Cooper’s character, we know Maine is an addict in the first frame when he shakes painkillers out of a bottle to play a show. His addiction—perhaps the only thing adequately executed in this movie because of Cooper’s own admitted struggles with substance abuse—is shown to us in great visual detail over and over. Ally's history and feelings are pretty much erased—and did you walk into your local theater to see Cooper? I, personally, attended for Gaga. Maybe this is what you get with three male writers (Cooper, Eric Roth, Will Fetters)? Cooper seemingly offers Gaga very little agency off-stage, too, continuously praising her in an infantilizing way: “I’m just so glad God gave her the talent that she has and he chose her, because that’s quite a vessel to go through." Well, this implies it's "God" that makes her talented because she's merely His vessel for greatness (and Cooper's), she's not a hardworking, talented woman. Yes, God must explain it.

Another unforgivable problem with the film, at least for me, is that all the music industry characters are too focused on her nose to believe in her music. While it's sweet (I guess?) to listen to a woman in a movie talk about how others consider her appearance "not good enough," which is something most all women feel, it introduces two super weird elements: The first is that Gaga, the performer, succeeded with the same voice and appearance as Ally without a man’s platform. Gaga's natural nose (or is it natural?) is what I modeled my rhinoplasty on, and she's objectively beautiful, whether she's had work done or not. The second, is Maine’s fixation with her apparent ugliness—he grows so jealous of Interscope Records’ interest in Ally as her own person that he drunkenly smears cake in her face, as if to rub it in—literally—and never apologizes or even speaks with her about it.

When a girl calls Ally pretty she responds, "You think I'M pretty!?" Yes, Ally, you're pretty. I'm sorry, y'all, it's 2018. "Naturalizing" Gaga's typically platinum, rouge-lipped, 6-inch-heel appearance does not make her even remotely average looking. And yet, her ugliness was such a pervasive storyline that Maine drunkenly tells her she's ugly (yes, really) because he realizes he's failed to groom her into the songstress he envisioned. If that's ugly, am I ugly? What the fuck is this? And what kind of message is that sending to women? That Gaga's natural appearance—one that is very a la Stefani before Gaga—is just kind of "meh," bordering on straight-up fucking ugly? Her character is so convinced that she can't even perform as herself in the beginning, opting instead to paint her hair, white out her face, and tape on fake eyebrows to disguise herself completely. And the reveal of what she looks like when she freshens up is for some reason supposed to shock us, like it's a big reveal: WOW, Jackson Maine is attracted to HER?! Is this relatable? I can't.

While this movie paints a brutal—and often truthful—depiction of addiction, it often feels forced. If anything, pointing out that Maine’s last tour was in 2004—implying he does not understand the modern music industry, women or touring—is one of the most truthful things said to Maine throughout the film. And we witness his suicide ruin Ally's life, but we never get to see Ally reclaim herself afterward. Instead, the movie ends in her agony, performing a song she didn’t write (guess who did?). Way back in 1976, the Streisand version had the social competences to begin the same scene with her late husband's song only to switch up and belts out a song she wrote—an upbeat song. In 1976, audiences were left with a character taking back both herself and her agency, and proving that through it all, a star was born, and would continue living.

A Star Is Born is four stories in one (an addiction tale, a redemption tale, a music industry tale and a love story), but none center around Ally. While Gaga is a knock-out on all fronts, I wish the men who wrote her character took the time to recognize how necessary it is to write realistic roles for women; to imbue Ally with a personality, a pinch of agency outside of a man and, more importantly, the strength to reclaim herself despite losing everything. Please give me that story. Because A Star Is Born feels like a redemption story for Cooper specifically, in an attempt to make amends with himself and his addiction. But it probably should have remained just that, and not prop-ified Gaga.

If the entire point of the movie—to reintroduce old school gender norm ideals in the era of Trump—then they nailed it. Then again, I’d much rather attribute it to the three male writers—the ones who are still, despite the films evident flaws, getting critical acclaim and Oscar buzz. But when are we going to break this painstaking trend where mediocre films get trophies?

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