A Star Is Born: Meta-Critique or Repetition of a Tired Cycle?
Ahead of the Oscars Ben Rybeck Previews the Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees
Because all good movies basically come from books, Benjamin Rybeck will be looking at this year’s Oscar-nominated adapted screenplays. First up, A Star Is Born, which, ok, was adapted from the original 1937 screenplay (which included Dorothy Parker as a writer!).
Toward the end of Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star Is Born, a man named Bobby gives a grizzled, poetic speech to a woman named Ally. The narrative purpose of the speech is to push Ally, a recent widow who has given up her art (i.e., “Popular Singing”), back into the limelight; the actual purpose is to eulogize his brother, who also happens to be Ally’s deceased husband (and a musician in the competing artistic camp of “Heartfelt Singing”):
Jack talked about how music is essentially twelve notes between any octave. Twelve notes and the octave repeats. It’s the same story told over and over again, forever. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes. That’s it.
As a moment of metatext, this would shame even freshmen creative writing students if it found its way into their stories. Yet it’s also key to the film, a moment designed to undercut the complainers (like me): everybody knows that Cooper’s movie is the fourth iteration of a story that maybe never warranted a first. But it also seems key to the whole damn process of adaptation—of taking other people’s stories and repeating them across media. Put aside notions of incommensurability for a moment: if music uses twelve octaves, then a film may use ten, a play eight, a novel six, a short story four, but across all narrative arts the tune stays somehow the same—in some way, repeats. (Or I dunno—I probably just don’t know enough about music.)
Even writing this, I feel engaged with repetition. Many people have written about the similarities and differences between the four versions of A Star Is Born since the new one came out in October. The same article, told over and over again. Or, to quote another fictional character in a work of narrative art that has suddenly—weirdly—become relevant again as a monument to repetition: “Time is a flat circle.”
I watched all four versions of A Star Is Born with my girlfriend. Each one took us about two nights to watch. Half of this watching took place in Houston (where we lived in 2018), the other half in Brooklyn (where we live now). We ate a variety of foods: Indian, soup, bad bodega falafel, spring rolls, etc. These were all small variations on the same activity—watching A Star Is Born. After finishing the four movies, my girlfriend confessed to feeling abused by them, watching a woman getting emotionally battered by a man over and over again, then watching that man commit suicide. “Why do they keep making these?” she asked.
In A Star Is Born, a drunken, washed-up male star discovers a talented young woman and pushes her toward fame. Along the way, they fall in love, as her career rises and his career falls. Eventually, he becomes resentful of her fame, drinks more than ever, says cruel things to her—but lo, they still love each other, and she decides she needs to give up her career for him (basically so they can move to a quiet place and he can quit drinking). Realizing this, he decides to kill himself and free her—or something. Then, after a period of tidy movie grieving, she honors him by being really talented at the camera for a while.
“Why do they keep making these?”
The story was first told in 1937, starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor. It’s a glitzy Hollywood story (technicolor!), notable for being the only one of these films to devote substantial time to the female lead’s backstory—her life before the man, as a working class farmgirl. (It’s a cliché, but hey, better than nothing?) Beyond that, it’s sort of remarkable how quickly Hollywood lapsed into self-parody: just a couple decades into its lifespan, there were already enough conventions that satire could brutalize. But the film has not aged well—gender dynamics are fucked, the technicolor looks spotty, the acting smells of ham, the poor people are caricatures, on and on.
By 1954, A Star Is Born became bigger, bolder. James Mason is a world-class drunk, and Judy Garland is Judy Garland, which is its own thing. Singing becomes a factor, because of that voice, but that also leads to racial pantomimes (like Garland doing a riff on her Trinidadian character from “Minnie from Trinidad”) and aesthetically indulgent musical set pieces (a mere three years after An American in Paris, with the most indulgent set piece of all). Mason’s pride is more wounded here: he balks at being asked to take messages for his famous wife (after a scene in which, as an act of sweetness, he makes her a bizarrely large sandwich—romance!) and has too much dignity to take a supporting role in a movie—too much dignity to be a mere character actor (the trend of popular actors disappearing into supporting roles to beg acclaim hadn’t started yet). At the end, like March before him, he commits suicide by throwing himself into the sea. A helluva gesture—stars just ain’t like us, man.
The 1976 version, starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, moves from movies to rock and roll, which means there are motorcycles. (Kristofferson rides a motorcycle on stage during a show!) Both the 1937 and 1954 versions contain a scene where a studio press agent takes glee in the male star’s downfall, telling him what a piece of shit he’s always been; the 1976 version has, instead, lots of ex-hangers-on vaguely grumbling about Kristofferson’s downfall and a scene where he’s caught by wife Barbra Streisand in bed with another woman (she still loves him—duh). It comes after yet another scene in which the male character’s pride bleeds out after having to take a message for his wife (the nerve!). At one point, Streisand mistakes pepperoni for sausage on a pizza that she’s looking right at! (“Who doesn’t know what pepperoni looks like?” my girlfriend exclaimed.) At another point, Kristofferson issues a sick burn to his wife, who’s complaining about whatever wife characters usually complain about: “What do you know? You’ve only been on two planes.” After all this, he kills himself on his motorcycle, driving that sucker too fast down a desert road toward the glory of oblivion (see: rock and roll!).
In all of these movies, the man erases the woman. He behaves like a maniac, and the woman (who’s obviously more talented) has to endure abuse and tragedy for the sake of love. The erasure is ironic: the women are the more famous characters and, arguably, the more famous performers. Alcoholism—and its related depression—underpins this story but is not engaged with (the man’s dickish behavior seems less to do with addiction and more to do with his being, well, a dick). And by the end, the woman needs to go on stage to honor the man after his suicide. The fans want it. For Garland and Streisand, this scene acts as a showcase for uninterrupted singing. It’s good, of course, but undercut by the fact that, in 1976, Streisand sings a song that Kristofferson’s character wrote and, in 1954, Garland begins her performance by declaring, “This is Mrs. Norman Maine,” taking her dead husband’s name.
When Lady Gaga emerges at the end of the 2018 version and introduces herself as “Ally Maine,” it’s a slight improvement—at least she still gets to be Ally, the character’s name as both normal person and pop star. But she still has to sing a song that her dead rock star husband wrote for her—about her. It’s a good song, a real song. Bradley Cooper’s character was all about strong music, emotional music, about feeling things in a manly way. You know, real art. Not that Lady Gaga crap, with all its costumes and sex. When she goes on Saturday Night Live to sing a song with the lyrics “Why do you look so good in those jeans? / Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”, his shakes his gruff, manly head in a gruff and manly way. How disappointing, this pop music.
That he wets himself too adds pathos to the moment, but how much pathos does one need?
See, there’s something rotten in this entire frame that even infects a good movie. Because Cooper’s A Star Is Born is good in all the ways that most good movies are good, which is to say, the acting is good, the dialogue is good, the cinematography is good. Good, compared to the other ones, which are bad. I mean, very bad. I’m on safe critical ground here, I think, except for the 1954 one, which lots of people consider a beloved classic but which I found interminable. Nevertheless, nobody seems to really watch the 1937 one anymore (except for articles like this), and the 1976 one has zero defenders I can find. That one, in particular, is plainly bad. Again, there’s a moment where she doesn’t know what a pepperoni pizza looks like!
Am I making sense here? Let me try this another way: Cooper makes necessary changes to the story that seem, on their face, good. There are actual characters in this one. Lady Gaga gets to play a real woman—yes, she’s engaging with her public persona, just as Garland and Streisand were, but she also gets to have quiet scenes and a life outside of him including, like, family and friends.
And Cooper’s character isn’t a one-dimensional asshole. In 1976, Kristofferson attacks a fan at a bar who wants him to play one of his songs; in 2018, the situation repeated, Cooper plays happily (instead, Gaga is the one who gets to fight in a bar). His problems are clearly an outgrowth of his addiction; he’s a sweet guy when sober, and it’s important that, unlike in the earlier films, there’s no scene here where somebody tells him that he’s a jerk.
There are more examples. Each version of A Star Is Born contains a scene in which the man interrupts the woman while she’s accepting an award, walking on stage and overtaking her speech. In 1937, 1954, and 1976, the man does this opportunistically, bitterly; in 2018, Cooper takes the stage because, drunk, he mishears his wife and thinks that she has called him up. (That he wets himself too adds pathos to the moment, but how much pathos does one need?) And as for his suicide: there’s no walking into the water, there’s no motorcycle shenanigans. Instead, he says goodbye to his dog and hangs himself quietly. Yes, it’s about sacrifice, yet it also seems just as much about depression over his addiction and his inability to shake it.
Essentially, he mansplains art to her.
Still though, watching this film, I feel like most of this corrective work is weighted toward the male side of the equation. We’re meant to believe that Bradley Cooper (the character) is a sensitive artist who believes in Lady Gaga (the character, again—am I muddying the waters?) and wants her to make great art; when she becomes popular, she abandons art for commerce and he berates her accordingly (hence, the Saturday Night Live scene). The problem here is that, even if Lady Gaga (either in character or in real life) is making pop music, it’s not just pop music; she has always been pretty thrilling as an artist. So A Star Is Born, in 2018, becomes a film that erases the woman yet again, but in a different kind of way; rather than being jealous of her, he’s angry at her for not conforming to his idea of what music should be. Essentially, he mansplains art to her.
All of this would be fine if the movie engaged with it—plenty of great movies, and even progressive movies, have been made about complicated people. But Cooper needs to march through the final steps, the final notes, of this story: he must kill himself, he must be honored by the woman. And when she honors him, Lady Gaga sings one of his songs and does so without makeup, without ostentatious costuming. She’s real again. And to make things even realer, the last scene cuts from her public performance at his memorial service to a scene of him singing the song to her, at home, unvarnished, accompanied by nothing but piano. He gets the last word on what art is.
One of the major characteristics of A Star Is Born that I’ve only touched on is how dated all the early versions seem. “But Ben,” you say, “aren’t all movies dated?” To which I can only ask you to go watch Barbra Streisand on a horse and tell me if you’ve ever seen anything more 70s in your life. The early movies are bizarre time capsules, perhaps the most emblematic films of their respective eras that I’ve ever seen. Does fame reveal extremity? Your guess is as good as mine.
Of course, the 2018 A Star Is Born does not seem dated, but how could it? We’re only in 2019! Yet there’s something going on here, and maybe it’s best revealed by the trailer. An unfair point of criticism for a movie? Perhaps. But the way it focuses on Bradley Cooper’s character, nobly going about his work and getting one last chance to make something of himself, it feels strangely akin to a pair of late aughts male redemption mope-fests, The Wrestler and Crazy Heart.
Watching A Star Is Born, every last goddamn one of them, I kept wondering why we skipped the 1990s—why there wasn’t a version of this story where everyone acted like, I don’t know, Justin Timberlake, or whatever the fuck the 90s felt like (joke would’ve been on us, in that case). But then I realized, we didn’t skip the 90s—we just had Boogie Nights instead. Boogie Nights was, of course, purposefully dated, taking a look at the 1970s in all its insanity, and painting a portrait of somebody’s rise and fall that was circular, ironic, self-referential—worlds better as metatext than the whole “same story told over and over again” speech from A Star Is Born. In a sense, Boogie Nights feels like adaptation, the direction this story could’ve developed if development was ever on A Star Is Born’s mind.
Instead, in 2018, we get a speech explaining that some stories just need to get told over and over again, the same twelve notes, whatever—even though, at this point, A Star Is Born probably needs some new notes. I’d hate to see another good version ruined because the other ones exist.