After sitting in critic row for a little over seven years now, it’s a rare occurrence to find this collective group of cinema loving curmudgeons stunned as the credits end. How is it possible that the latest remake of A Star Is Born managed to exceed the enormous expectations placed upon it? Well, in the words of James Lipton, ” Let us begin at the beginning.”
Lady Gaga’s portrayal of Ally is anchored in such authenticity that one has to wonder if being insecure in her talent is something Gaga grapples with daily. Cooper’s character Jackson Maine is the perfect foil for Ally. Maine’s path to superstardom has been littered with inner torment which he seeks to self-medicate either through drinking himself into a stupor or taking numerous painkillers. What he lacks in inner peace he overcompensates with a brashness that borders on being cocky. Who better to spot talent than someone who thinks he’s the most talented person in every room? But how does Jackson discover Ally?
After one of Maine’s gigs, he has his driver (played by J.J Abrams best buddy Greg Grunberg) drive around looking for a place to get a drink (as yet again his bottle of Jack has run dry). Cooper’s character manages to spot a bar from his vehicle and has the driver stop. He gets out of the car and enters what we quickly realize is a dive bar on drag-queen karaoke night. Maine is more focused on keeping his buzz rather than where he happens to be getting his drink on. The only thing which manages to grab his attention is a dolled up performer singing “La Vie en Rose” (Ally). Jackson is immediately smitten by her talent and jumps at the chance to meet her backstage. He wastes no time asking her to get a drink with him and waits to do so until after the bar closes. Ally emerges from backstage and the moment these two make eye contact the sparks begin to fly.
Cooper co-wrote the narrative for A Star Is Born along with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, and they managed to avoid the campiness which weighed down the 1976 version of this film starring Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand. While Maine’s addictions are an essential element of this tale, the focus remains Ally’s emergence from obscurity. What sold me on Gaga’s performance wasn’t anything she said but more what wasn’t. Her mannerisms and expressive face weren’t that of someone who has won multiple Grammys and millions of dollars touring the world. While Cooper is undoubtedly stellar (as usual) in A Star Is Born, make no mistake that the best performance in the film belongs to Lady Gaga.
The most pleasant surprise was Cooper’s skillful direction. Nothing about the film seemed to drag as the narrative was paced exceptionally well. His staging of the numerous musical numbers in A Star Is Born demonstrated a deep understanding of what this film indeed is. Yes, the film is a love story, but it’s a transformation akin to a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. Cooper and Cinematographer Matthew Libatique especially capture this during the initial concert performance of “Shallow.” Ally is whisked to the side stage of Maine’s concert when during an encore performance he springs on her that they are going to sing that song she wrote that he loves (Shallow). Immediately Libatique moves the camera in close to capture her reaction (which is of course astonishment) and quickly shifts to a shot of both Maine and Ally going back and forth about whether she would go on stage. He then pulls the camera shot back when Maine says “okay, but I’m going to sing it with or without ya”. Not only does this cement the dichotomy between the two main characters of this tale but it also conclusively shows the enormous leap of faith Ally must take to enter this world that Jackson has been in most of his life. It’s as if Ally in this instance is Alice and going on that stage with Jackson would be like jumping into Wonderland.
The shot is on Cooper’s character as he begins singing her song with quick cuts of a flabergasted Ally. She wants to go on stage but is torn over what to do. As he gets further into it (which isn’t that long), her courage grows until she takes a deep breath and goes for it. Not only is the shot of her walking on the stage fantastic, but it also defines the entire film. It’s the first time in Ally’s life that she embraces the moment rather than give into her insecurities. Once Gaga’s character takes that leap, there’s no turning back.
Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, and Sam Elliot round out a strong supporting cast. While Elliot’s screen time is minimal, it wouldn’t shock me if we saw him receive serious consideration in the Best Supporting Actor category at the Oscars. Overall, the film is a triumph for Cooper and the rest of the cast. Expect serious consideration for Cooper in both acting and directorial categories. Lady Gaga will be nominated for many awards for this performance. This film is four out of five stars and one of the ten best movies of the year. Can’t get much better than that!