(This has all the spoilers if you want to watch the movie that Bradley Cooper made.)
Basically all of my feelings about “A Star is Born” (2018) can be summed up by this now much-repeated piece of lore about the two stars’ first meeting, here rehearsed in the LA Times:
She walked downstairs and there he was, staring at her. He stepped toward her, examined her face: concealer, mascara, rouge.
“Take it off,” Bradley Cooper told Lady Gaga.
She noticed something in his hand. It was a makeup wipe. With it, he erased the colors from her forehead down to her chin.
This is the woman Cooper wanted in his film, “A Star Is Born.” Not the pop star masked with face paint and headdresses and hairpieces. Just Stefani Germanotta. “Completely open,” he said. “No artifice.”
It’s impossible for me to stop obsessively imagining this scene and trying to understand how anyone could have kept a straight face during such an encounter. But if you do imagine them both stony, it becomes unbearably creepy. Really imagine it. She comes down this giant white stair case and he takes her exquisitely made-up face into his hand and then pulls a makeup wipe out of nowhere like an illusionist and wipes her down with deep, purposeful strokes. He is still holding her face when he says, aloud, staring directly into her eyes, “no artifice.” If I even witnessed that, live, I think I’d probably have enough of a nervous system response to be able to use my bare hands to tunnel through the floor to safety.
Now that you know how I feel, I can tell you about a far better version of “A Star is Born,” which I was richly imagining as the actual version of “A Star is Born” was reminding me at every turn of the Pygmalion of convenience beauty products at its helm. As many critics noted, Bradley Cooper’s version is great for Bradley Cooper, but that version turns the fabulously talented Lady Gaga into a canvas for his vision, when what the people of America and maybe even The Academy but most certainly I needed far more this year was a female-authored anti-capitalist rock fable about two artists in a healthy relationship who inspire one another’s work in a sustainable way — with more Sam Elliott and more dogs.
I think everything was pretty much fine right up until Jackson peed himself onstage, outside of the fact that in my version he never, ever calls her ugly and is approximately 25% less of a drunk. Like, a deeply problematic drunk but not a pass-out drunk or a bad-in-bed drunk or a mean drunk and certainly not a pee-yourself drunk.
So, instead of his drunkenness landing him in rehab, the central conflict is a rift that grows between them after her Saturday Night Live performance because he’s no longer on board with the aesthetic quality of her music. (It does seem for a fleeting moment that this is where the film, itself, actually wants to go.) Jackson sees Ally as a beautiful singer-songwriter who’s been swallowed by the pop machine. His career starts tanking because of his drinking and lack of inspiration from the genius of his partner/colleague, who stops writing her own music, focusing on new perfume and clothing lines. They drift further and further apart but never cheat on one another, merely dwell in this place of mutual loneliness and dissatisfaction that can still gratify Director Cooper’s taste for moody close-ups.
Then there’s some time spent with the Jackson-and-his-big-brother/ manager plot instead of quick allusions to their fragile masculinity; let’s dwell there. This has the considerable advantage of more Sam Elliott. In my “A Star is Born,” Sam Elliott’s character is the one whose substance abuse problem is really out of control. He confesses to Jackson that he’s mismanaged his career by making terrible, jealous decisions and now feels responsible for its death. The brothers spend a week at a remote ranch to try to reconnect, and Jackson thinks it’s going well. (Maybe there’s some romantic landscape stuff where they see a herd of buffalo stampeding from a ridge where they’ve stopped with the dogs to admire the sunset.) The next morning, Sam Elliott shoots himself. HE dies.
Ally goes to Jackson’s side to be there for him after closing a few big deals like a boss despite her deep distaste for such work. They spend some time with his remaining family: his older half-sister, played by Maya Rudolph or Laura Dern, her wise-child punky teenage daughter with whom Allie deeply bonds, and her nine-year-old son, who is like a miniature Sam Elliott with no mustache. Or maybe he does have a mustache. Also more adorable dogs. One night, they sit around the campfire trading memories and Ally and Jackson get out their guitars and jam until sunrise, then rekindle their romance in another companion landscape shot after the family has been long in bed. After that, they go out to a local bar and play a surprise show there, just the two of them, all new songs, all acoustic.
[Montage of them going from bar to bar, playing like this and staying in motels. There’s a pillow fight and skinny-dipping and jamming with local session musicians and buskers in different locations across rural America. Simultaneously, and this is a very important part of this version, Ally gains a lot of weight throughout the course of the montage. She still looks great, maybe even better, and the weight gain is never commented on in any direct way nor does it have any bearing on the plot. That’s just how the passage of time is marked instead of the new-hair-do trick they usually use.]
At the end of the montage, they’re in their house in LA and she’s answering all the calls from her team, who are freaking out about her prolonged absence. She’s increasingly frustrated and picks a fight with Jackson that ends with him saying “I fell in love with a woman who left everything she had on the stage. Who sang every note that came out of her mouth straight from her heart. That’s just not you anymore.” Then he drives away, an early track of hers blaring from his truck radio. He takes the dogs.
Now she’s on tour singing all the horrible songs her Adam-Levine-looking crew are forcing down her throat, half-naked dancers constantly swarming around her, uncomfortable in bejeweled spandex cat suits, business meetings all day with chain stores, etc., etc. One desperate night, she calls him and asks him to come to her show the next night. He looks down at the sculpture of an eagle he’s carving from some beautifully burled wood (new hobby, his music career is all dried up again without her) and then gazes out to the backyard where he imagines her frolicking with the dogs, who are mopey in her absence. He decides to go. Then, she does the thing to him that he did to her in the beginning of the actual movie, where she has her people take him to just right off stage then she pulls two acoustic guitars out of nowhere and coaxes him to sing their road-trip songs together on stage.
Ally’s team starts freaking out. Lots of angry late millennials on headsets. What is this? This stadium crowd paid for Ally TM. They’ll never go for Ally & Jackson Unplugged! BUT THEY DO. The crowd goes wild and everyone starts crying and holding one another and Bernie is there and so is Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. The song they’re playing is so good you can’t believe it’s really Bradley Cooper singing then you realize it’s only her: Stefani Germonotta, completely open, no artifice – on her own terms. He’s on backup guitar mostly with some light vocal accompaniment.
The last twenty minutes of this version is just them blowing it up on the road with their dogs as an acoustic duo who write their own songs and she falls in love with music again and they get more dogs. She’s still fat and sexy through it all and he’s fine now, too: more sober, less orange in skin tone. Baby Sam Elliott comes to see them play and he’s all grown up and played by Sam Elliott. Lastly, in this version, the song “Shallow” doesn’t have that part where it goes “sha la la la laaa low;” that is all.
Arielle Zibrak: Will probably never see Green Book.