Friday, October 12, 2018

“A Star is Born” — Again and Again and Again and Again

Magnificently manipulative and morally pliable Constance Bennett in “What Price Hollywood?”) 
by Denis Ferrara

“FAME has its compensations, it does.  But it has drawbacks too, and I’ve experienced both.  It’s like caviar.  It’s good to have caviar, but not every damn day.  Then it’s like ‘too much caviar!’”

Marilyn Monroe, one month before her death.
SUFFICE it to say, none of the protagonists of the five versions of “A Star is Born” thinks one can ever have too much caviar.  (I include George Cukor’s 1932 movie “What Price Hollywood?” as the first “ASIB” — it is basically the same story. Cukor would go on to direct Judy Garland in 1954’s first musical version of the well-worn tale.)

Now, after Constance Bennett and Lowell Sherman, Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, Garland and James Mason, Barbra and Kris Kristofferson, we have Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the story of man on his way down and a woman he discovers who eclipses him. (The man has variously been portrayed as a director, an actor and a singer.)

20 years from now, when “Star” is remade yet again — oh, yes, it will be — Justin Bieber will probably be beat-up enough to ably enact the troubled has-been.  But perhaps in this future production, Hollywood will for once stray from its formula of using a major name, a uniquely defined star/personality and cast an actual unknown to play the unknown.  The story within the story will be a genuine “star is born” scenario. 
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in the newest version of “A Star is Born." Courtesy of Warner Bros. 
And maybe, just maybe, in 2038 — see how optimistic I’m being! — we can get away from the tired victimization of both characters.  He is a victim of his addictions, fading youth and popularity.  She is a victim of him, unable to truly enjoy the success he has made possible.

Why can’t she be manipulative and, shall we say, morally pliable (much as Constance Bennett was in “What Price Hollywood?”)  Why can't he be a user as well as a drunk and/or drug addict?  Why must it always end in death?  Has Hollywood never heard of a wrenching divorce or a cynical marriage of convenience?  With the right script, both of these can be as affecting as a walk into the ocean, a car crash or — well, I won’t spoil Bradley’s demise. (But it’s the worst and cruelest of the lot.)
I might even suggest for this future remake that the star who is born doesn’t really have to be that talented!   What a new and interesting layer of melodramatic distress — the great fading star promotes somebody who is perhaps more a product of publicity, YouTube, social media, auto-tuning (if it is another musical version.)  He admires her stone-cold ambition more than her gifts.  She covets his influence more than his love and harbors little hope or interest in his redemption — a real Hollywood story. We’ll see.

But, I digress. Now, I’m all for suspending disbelief, but one of the things that casts a wacky vibe over the Garland, Streisand and now Gaga versions of “Star” is that their talents are so prodigious it’s absurd when the characters — Vicky Lester, Esther Hoffman, and now Ally — tell of their long struggle to the top. To this complaint my friend Scott Gorenstein said, “It’s a movie!  You get that, don’t you?” as we left the Hoboken Bow Tie Cinema. “After all,” he continued, “were we supposed to really believe Liza Minnelli was playing in a tacky Berlin bar in ‘Cabaret?’”
Point taken, but still. (I was also startled by how fast things moved in this one — chatting in  a parking lot one minute, onstage with Cooper, a half-rocker, half country type, the next, and presto — a star.)

Given my fondness for the open-wound over-intensity of the Garland version and the exquisite kitsch of Barbra’s 1976 effort, I was hoping to really love or really hate Gaga and Bradley.  To be honest, I was hoping for the latter, so I could say mean (and hopefully witty) things.   But I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it at all.  It was just there on screen, again, looking good, well-acted, well-sung, dressed up a bit for the 21st century but not enough to be truly memorable, for me, anyway.
I skipped reviews before I the saw the movie.  Now I’ve skimmed a few.  What strikes me is everybody’s astonishment that Gaga comes across as a normal, natural young woman. 

It seems like every reviewer jumps right from the infamous meat dress to this performance.  Over the decade of her fame, I’ve seen plenty of “regular” Gaga — dressed like a human being, playing piano, using that stunning vocal instrument. In fact, the last time I even thought of her was a recent Netflix documentary which seemed to deal a lot with physical issues and personal problems — she was very much Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta.  So her performance in “A Star is Born” is accessible but hardly a revelation. Her earthiness comes as no shock.   Is she worthy of an Oscar?  No.  Is she worthy of legitimate praise and does it show promise that Lady G. is indeed an actress of some range?  Yes.  (It is certainly head and shoulders above her “American Horror Story” work, which absurdly won her a Golden Globe.)
I do however take some considerable issue with the oft-expressed idea in this movie that Gaga/Ally is noticeably plain, “Everybody says they like my music but they don’t like the way I look” she tells Cooper early on.  This makes no sense at all.  Nor does — and this is a theme in the film — the attention paid to her nose. Her nose as very noticeable and something only a mother or a besotted lover could love.  Lady G. has a fine Italianate proboscis. Not delicate. Not overwhelming.  After a while I began to think this was a sort of bizarre homage/mocking to Barbra Streisand. Did somebody think Miss Streisand’s character should have made more of her famous nose back in ‘76?
Bradley Cooper produced and directed this, as well as co-starring.  He’s very good, has a terrific singing voice and photographs himself beautifully. He also gives himself a reason for his character’s alcoholism. He suffers terribly from tinnitus (constant ringing in his ears.)  He also has daddy and older brother issues (the wonderful Sam Elliott in the role of Bradley’s bro.)  I must say I preferred James Mason’s more or less elegant drinking ‘cause it’s fun approach. The only sounds he heard was the maitre d’ asking him to leave the Mocambo or Chasen’s.
Andrew Dice Clay is amusingly effective as Ally’s dad, and Ravi Gavron is more than appropriately sleazy as a record producer who builds Ally’s image and then turns into almost laughably unadulterated evil by the film’s end. (Gavron’s little chat with Cooper’s depressed character is the one scene that director Cooper really should have taken a second look at — and re-written. Ditto on the very 1995-ish drag-queen stuff — lazy and pandering.)

The music is fine because Lady Gaga’s voice is a miracle, but don’t ask me to hum any of the tunes. The only one that really stuck with me significantly was “I’ll Never Love Again,” the now inevitable “I’m-in-mourning-but-I’m-going to-make-this-about-me-and-sing-a-big-song!”  (God forbid we ever have the old “Hello, everybody, this is…Mrs. Norman Maine” simplicity.   To be fair Gaga’s farewell warbling for Cooper is not nearly as excessive as Streisand’s  so-long toodle-loo vocals to the dearly departed Kris K.)
Is this “A Star is Born” worth seeing?  You bet.  Does it have the deluxe, gripping, near-mania of the Garland/Mason version?  No.  Is it the sometimes hilarious guilty pleasure of the Streisand/Kristofferson epic?  No. 

But it is a pleasant, if almost instantly forgettable way to pass a couple of hours.  Gaga can act, Cooper can sing, and the soundtrack album is rocketing to the top of the charts. 

Oh, oh!  There’s a dog in the movie.  An adorable dog.  A charismatic grab-it-off-the-screen-and-take-it-home dog; a dog that conveys the movie’s most heartbreaking moment. 

Five stars for the dog!
Contact Denis here.