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A Star is Born ••••1/2

Starring: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott
Director: Bradley Cooper
Screenplay: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper
Drama/Music/Romance, Rated: R
Running Time: 136 minutes
Release Date: October 5, 2018



(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

I’m puzzled, Greg. Astar is born but in this film we never learn who Astar is.

It’s the fourth version of a Hollywood classic. Since 1937 A Star Is Born has told the story of what it takes to be a star. Let’s recap:

We meet an aging country/rock star named Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) who has a terrible drug and alcohol addiction. In addition, he suffers from extreme tinnitus. One day, while drinking after one of his concert performances, he catches the singing performance of an obscure wannabe performer named Ally (Lady Gaga). Jack is smitten by her and learns that she is very self-conscious about her looks. He invites her to do a solo performance of one of her songs on stage at one of his big concerts.

And she’s a hit. She goes on tour with Jackson and before long is approached by a music industry agent (Rafi Gavron) who offers her a recording contract. Jackson is initially supportive, but soon is overcome by both booze and his advancing hearing problems. Ally’s star is rising as Jackson’s is falling. How can these star-crossed lovers survive?

Greg, A Star is Born is a movie that showcases two opposing heroic arcs, one ascending and one descending. The ascending story is a glorious instantiation of Joseph Campbell’s hero monomyth, bolstered by a surprisingly powerful performance by Lady Gaga. Ally’s rise to superstardom from the humblest of beginnings has all the telltale characteristics of the classic hero myth. Especially noteworthy is the timeless theme of the hero uncovering her “true” self, her heroic self that is a full expression of her greatest potential, a self that has always been there and merely awaits discovery.

A Star is Born is also gifted with an exemplary performance from Bradley Cooper as Jack, a man who struggles with emotional pain, auditory decline, and substance abuse. Jack serves as the catalyst for Ally’s transformation from ordinary to extraordinary. He plays the dual role of both co-hero to Ally as well mentor to her. In a tragic twist, Jack’s ability to mentor her declines in proportion to the decline of his mental and physical health; he even momentarily becomes a dark hero, zeroing in on her misguided insecurity about her looks.

If we wanted to, we could look deeper at this story’s subtle and perhaps not-so-subtle critique of gender roles and gender relations. First, a man helps a woman succeed, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily but may reinforce women’s dependence on men. Second, the man is destructive toward himself and sometimes toward others – this pretty much sums up problems associated with men in our society. Third, we get a painfully tragic ending, not the happily-ever-after one that we want. The lesson is clear — Men make a mess, create pain, and leave women to deal with the messy pain. There’s more than a kernel of sad truth to this pattern.

Scott, I went back (thanks to the time machine that is internet streaming) and watched all three previous incarnations of A Star is Born. The Lady Gaga treatment is the first to be as good at the original 1937 version. The Judy Garland 1954 version was a mishmash of story intermixed with unnecessary production numbers. Barbra Streisand’s incarnation was a thinly veiled concert film full of self promotion. In 2018 we’re witness to two great talents who pushed each other so that that their individual strengths enhanced the others’ weakness. Gaga insisted that she and Cooper do their own, live singing (not lip-synced). And Cooper drove Gaga to deliver a performance that was both authentic and heart-wrenching.

To a certain degree, I thought Cooper channeled his inner Kris Kristofferson for the role of Maine. He could have done a lot worse. He also included a brother-on-brother subplot that worked well in this story. There were a couple of misses, however. Dave Chappelle shows up in the middle of the film for no apparent reason. But while the first 75% of the movie runs at a breakneck pace setting up the story and driving us through both Jackson and Ally’s stories, the third act was painfully slow. However, Cooper makes up for it in the final scene where Ally sings a song that she wrote with Jackson as a tribute with well-timed flashbacks to their time together. Compared to earlier versions of A Star is Born this was the best ending yet. And it was capped off with Ally/Gaga looking straight into the our eyes silently proclaiming her place as the new-born star.

A Star is Born offers up dueling hero stories that follow opposite trajectories, one toward great heights and the other toward great depths. It’s an impressive story in its realism and in its defiance of the classic happily-ever-after ending that we’re usually treated to but which can obfuscate reality. We’ve had too many losses of male celebrities to ignore the pattern — John Belushi, Michael Jackson, Prince, River Phoenix, the list goes on and on. And let’s not forget Whitney Houston, a loss that reminds us it’s not always men who destroy themselves. This version of A Star is Born is wonderfully done and gives us a new film star in Lady Gaga. I believe the movie deserves the full 5 Reels out of 5.

Our two romantic heroes follow a captivating journey of love and heartache. We’re looking for redemption from our male hero Jack but don’t get it. But we do get Ally’s redemptive arc. With help from Jack, she overcomes her poor self-image and is able to blossom into the heroic entertainer that she was always meant to be. These two lovers follow the classic hero’s journey and I must give them both a high rating despite Jack’s tragic demise. After all, even Joseph Campbell said that the hero’s journey is not guaranteed to succeed; there is always the possibility of “fiasco”, as he put it. I give Jack and Ally the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

With regard to archetypes, there are a few prominent ones. We have the starving artist, the drug addict rock star, the tragic hero, the cold-hearted manager, and sibling rivalry. I give these archetypes 3 Arc points out of 5.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

A Star is Born is the best of the modern recreations of the film. It is its own genre, in fact. Lady Gaga is top-billed for good reason. She delivers as the star of this film, and in fact (as the title implies) this is her story. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is fantastic and is yet another in a series of accomplishments for his career. Sadly, I can’t agree with your rating, Scott. The film languishes in the third act and has questionable lapses with Sam Elliott’s brother character disappearing in the middle of the telling. I give a very high 4 out of 5 Reels for A Star is Born.

I differ with your assessment of this as a two-handed hero story. I think Ally is the hero on a true hero’s journey with Jack as her dark mentor – offering up a counter example. As we have discussed in the past, often after the hero travels his journey, he retires as the mentor. And I think this is where Jack is in this story. As I said earlier, this is the best version of this story since 1937 and I give Gaga’s Ally 4 out of 5 Heroes.

And for the archetypes, I also see the SIBLING RIVALRY, the EVIL AMBITIOUS AGENT  and the ADORING CROWDS. I give them all just 3 out of 5 Arcs.

Movie: Archetypes: Heroes:

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