The 91st Annual Academy Awards are just 5 days away and celebrate I am taking a look at all eight of the year’s selections for Best Picture nominees. Are they any good? Let’s take a look:
I have to admit that my expectations ran hot and cold with the prospect of a fourth – FOURTH!! – film version of A Star is Born. It is hard not to be cynical but I admit that I am a sucker for this premise: a once beloved show business superstar whose career is on the way down meets an ingenue with untapped talent whose career is on the way up. That’s the oldest show business story in the world and that’s the reason that it has been retold every 30 or 40 years since 1937.
Yet, there is something wonderfully enticing about this idea. In the first place, it is universal enough that it can be retooled for a new generation and still feel new. In the second place, it’s an unapologetically sentimental old love story that is really hard to screw up. And yet, going into Bradley Cooper’s modern remake, I had a few reservations. I like Cooper, he’s a wonderful actor, but the prospect of having him serve as director, producer, co-writer (with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) as well as the star just screamed vanity project. And, yes . . . it is! But the movie is made with a lot of passion and heart and it shows.
The best thing about this version of A Star is Born is that Cooper places the relationship between the lovers first. Since we know the story so well, he is smart enough to offset our expectations by building characters rather than lining up plot points. Oh, the plot points are there, but they never seem to overshadow the humanity. He also pulls off the neat trick of balancing the equality of the performances of the two leads. He gives Lady Gaga enough time to let her character breathe, to grow, to make us understand how and why she rose to the top. Yet, the trickier part is that he has given himself a plum role without making it seem like vanity.
Cooper has managed to direct himself to his best single performance. In doing so, he reminded me just a bit of Paul Newman, who could say volumes without ever saying a word (Cooper’s final scene chillingly good). Jackson Maine is a character that could have become a bore, a paper trope whose actions you could mentally drive through without a map. Yet, we feel a real person there, an alt-Country superstar who has all-too-quickly moved from star to legend. He still plays to sold out shows, singing the same hit songs that have become so popular that the audience sings them back to him. But the passion for the music seems to have dried up long ago.
Into that hemisphere comes a young ingenue whose talent is unbound. What is amazing is that she’s played by Lady Gaga in a way that convinces us that she is a kid on the way up. Judy Garland and especially Barbra Streisand had to struggle to convince us that they were at the beginning of their careers (Janet Gaynor really never did). Yet, Lady Gaga, bereft of her usual crazy costumes and theatrics gives us a convincing portrait of a wide-eyed youth whose talent is unbound but whose age is clearly pushing to the point at which it is threatening to slip away.
The connection between these two is real because Cooper allows the story to let them get to build a relationship bred from their connection with their music. You can feel what is between them and you and feel how he inspires her. That’s the crux of this story, much more than the careers that they build. This version of the story works because it believes in the romance that is blooming so that devastation of how it falls apart is all the more real.