‘A STAR is Born’ has been filmed three times before so you can say its story about a rising star eclipsing the career of her discoverer-mentor is a showbiz tale as old as time. The first one was in 1937 starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, which we never saw but we’re told it’s straight drama. But we saw the 1954 film starring Judy Garland as Esther and James Mason as Norman Maine who are both really great in the movie, gloriously directed by George Cuckor who turned it into a musical.
Judy was nominated in the Oscars but lost to Grace Kelly for “Country Girl”, when Time Magazine said Judy "gives what is just about the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history." The most memorable number there is Judy singing “Born in a Trunk” and her last line in the tribute to her late husband: “I am Mrs. Norman Maine”.
In 1976, Barbra Streisand played Esther and Kris Kristofferson was Norman Howard in the rock musical drama version by Frank Pierson which won best musical film, best actor, best actress and best theme song (“Evergreen”) awards in the Golden Globe, but not in the Oscars.
In the latest version, Lady Gaga is Ally while Bradley Cooper (who also co-wrote, co-produced and directed the movie, his debut) is named Jackson Maine. There are common core elements in all the films: their accidental meeting, the guy’s embarrassing behavior in an awards night, the manager who tells the girl that her husband is an obstacle in the progress of her career and the touching finale where the girl delivers her heartbreaking final song.
But the new version spruces things up by including family elements, like giving Ally a supportive dad (Andrew Dice Clay), a limousine driver who dreams of being a singer, and Jack, a caring brother (Sam Elliott) who tried his best to protect her from their abusive dad. Jack is a country rocker enjoying fame and fortune, but his life is an empty mess and he fills up the void with pills and booze.
After a show, he asks his driver to stop by a bar where drag queens are performing. But there’s one real female who they allow to perform with them and this is Ally, who gives a knockout rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” on stage. Jack is enthralled while watching her, by her talent and even by her pasted-on super arching eyebrows, and we know at once that a star is born. Ally’s friend, Ramon (Anthony Ramos), takes him backstage to meet her. He asks her to join him in another bar where she punches a man who’s being too fresh with Jack. Jack takes her out to apply ice on her injured knuckles.
She sings to him a song about a boy and he asks her: “Is that me?” The next night, she is forced by Jack to watch his next concert and she gets the surprise of her life when she hears Jack re-arranging and singing her own song. She has no choice but to join him onstage and sing with him, much to the delight of the crowd. From there, Ally’s career goes steadily up while that of Jack goes down.
Bradley took a risk when he decided to make a third remake of a film classic for his directorial debut, particularly with his decision to team up with a singer who has no previous acting experience on film. (On TV, she got good reviews for “American Horror Story”). In the case of Barbra, she has already won an Oscar for “Funny Girl” when she did her own version of “A Star is Born” where her star power is simply bursting all over. It’s good Bradley and Lady Gaga have a real connection on screen and you can really feel their sincere support for each other.
Their glowing musical performances are great highlights of the film. In all fairness to Lady Gaga, we know she’s a superstar pop singer with hits like “Poker Face”, “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance”, but she never impressed us with her great pipes until we heard her here singing such songs as “I’ll Never Love Again” and “Shallow”, which might be nominated as best theme songs. She’s really convincing as the girl who was previously told by producers: “You sound great but you don’t look so great”. We feel that this must have really happened to her before in real life.
Jack’s character is more well-defined here than in any of the previous versions. He has his own back story involving his older brother and an alcoholic father who left him with a scar on his forehead. He also has a good friend, Noodles (Dave Chappelle), who turned his back on showbiz to spend more time with his family. Noodles knows Ally can have a positive effect on Jack and even helps arrange their wedding.
Jack is also given a hearing impairment problem which is well incorporated into the film’s bittersweet narrative and even its sound design. As such, even if Lady Gaga is fairly impressive in her first lead role and they’re both possible award contenders, it’s Bradley who definitely shines brighter.
Bradley gives a melancholy spin to his emotionally traumatized character and is certainly more touching in his more complex role. This makes the familiar material feel fresh and full of heart and soul. We think he has better chances when it comes to next year’s acting derbies as he also does his own heartfelt singing and concert performing exceedingly well. He does better here than in “Silver Lining Playbook” for which he was previously nominated.
Also stealing his own scenes is Sam Elliott as the older brother. He’s memorable in that scene where he puts a drunk Jack to bed and tells Ally: “You think he drinks a bit much? Sweetie, you have no idea.” His last scene showing him misty-eyed after saying goodbye to Jack is also very poignant. Another great performer is the dog named Charlie (which is said to be really owned by Bradley) and that scene where he lies down looking so forlorn in front of a garage door, after something truly dark happened, will simply melt your heart.