A Star Is Born is the Hollywood story that will not die. Filmed in 1932 (as What Price Hollywood), 1937, 1954 and 1976, the material has often served not to launch a new star but to showcase an already-huge one (Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand). The new version follows that pattern. Lady Gaga plays the fresh young talent who's plucked from obscurity by a boozing megastar on the wane (Bradley Cooper). And Cooper, who also directed, makes sure we know the movie is ultimately about her.
In two reaching-for-iconic shots, one toward the beginning and one at the end, Gaga faces the camera in extreme close-up. She seems to lock eyes with us, epitomizing the illusion of intimacy that silver-screen stars have been fostering for a century. And she nails it; if we had any doubts that this pop star could also be a movie star, we don't after this film.
As a launch pad for Gaga's movie career, A Star Is Born couldn't be any better. How is it as a movie, though? In her review of the Streisand version, Pauline Kael claimed there's a "trap built into" the material. Because the nascent star is so selfless in her romance with the doomed has-been, their story lacks conflict: "The vacuum in this movie is the purity of their relationship."
Cooper's version doesn't escape this built-in flaw, but the problem doesn't catch up to the movie until its tragic (or melodramatic, depending on your perspective) second half. For its first hour-plus, A Star Is Born captures the exhilaration of new love and new creation better than any movie in years.
When country-rock star Jackson Maine sees restaurant worker Ally singing Edith Piaf in a drag bar, he's smitten. She knows who he is, but she won't play the groupie game, and they quickly develop a teasing tension that carries them through to the movie's high point. When Jack invites Ally onstage to sing her own composition, she's terrified, but she's a born performer seizing her chance. Gaga shows us both the fear and the fierceness as she delivers a star-making rendition of a showstopping ballad.
From the performance scenes through to the bedroom drama, Cooper goes for a quasi-naturalistic style reminiscent of the '70s, albeit adorned by the sumptuous cinematography of Matthew Libatique (Black Swan). Scenes end quickly, emphasizing the contrasts between onstage glamour and off-stage bleakness as alcoholism takes Jack downhill. Dialogue tends to overlap; nonverbal moments, such as Jack's reaction when a producer (Rafi Gavron) starts courting Ally, pack the biggest punch.
While Cooper also gives a wrenching performance, he and the screenwriters never quite solve that whole lack-of-conflict problem. In a few scenes, Jack suggests that Ally's betraying her talent when she allows herself to be molded into a pop diva; she appears to disagree. But before they can really have it out, we're off on the familiar track to tragedy, with Gaga making the same showy displays of self-sacrifice that Garland and Streisand made before her.
In the old days, perhaps, it was radical enough for a woman to outshine her husband professionally; God forbid she also be less than 100 percent supportive of his falling star. In a contemporary setting, it's hard not to wish for a bit more grit and anger and less pie-eyed romanticism in the movie's second half. Ultimately, though, this is a Hollywood story. Nothing is allowed to taint the new star's sheen as she takes her place in the firmament and, boy, does she ever shine.