Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Redux redux

Films: A Star is Born (2018)
Format: DVD from Cortland Community Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

I still have other movies from the latest 1001 Movies book to watch and still have some movies from the last Oscars to watch, but none have been more dreaded by me than A Star is Born. It has nothing to do with the fact that this is easily classified as a musical, since it’s a non-traditional one at best. This is not a movie where people sing their feelings to each other, but one where the story is about musicians so a great deal takes place with them performing on stage. No, the reason is that I want to know how many times I have to watch this story.

I mean, I’ve seen the 1937 version of this story that was nominated for Best Picture. I’ve seen the 1954 version that somehow wasn’t. I haven’t seen the one from the 1970s since, aside from a few gushing fans, I haven’t heard anything good about it. And now there’s this version of the story that changes a few of the names and a few of the details but not a great deal else. If you’ve seen any previous version of this story, you know exactly what is going to happen here. You know all the beats and you know the ending. There’s nothing different here.

And that’s honestly my problem with it. A Star is Born is well-made and it features Lady Gaga in the ingĂ©nue role. She’s a great pick for the role because she is staggeringly talented. In that respect, she’s a great callback to both Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland who played the role before her. To make this story work at all, that role has to be filled by someone who could be believably discovered and turned into a star based entirely on her talent. That’s her, and while there are certainly others who could do this role (Beyonce comes to mind), she is magnificently cast.

It’s also a shock to realize that we now live in a world where I have to show some respect to Andrew Dice Clay. This is the second time (Blue Jasmine being the first) where he’s been given a dramatic role and been really good in it. He’s almost unrecognizable as Ally’s (Lady Gaga) father. And we get Sam Elliott, who always adds gravitas to everything he touches. Even Bradley Cooper, about whom I am relatively ambivalent, is fine in this in the role opposite Lady Gaga as troubled alcoholic singer Jackson Maine.

So with all of this, why am I so ambivalent about it?

The biggest reason for me is that for all of Bradley Cooper saying that with his directorial debut he wanted to explore new territory and for all of the fact that it has a powerhouse performer in Lady Gaga to use, A Star is Born has absolutely nothing new to say. As good as the performances are in general, there isn’t anything here that you can’t really get from the 1954 version with James Friggin’ Mason and Judy Goddam Garland. So much of this seems benign in that respect. We’re going to be given a story that is guaranteed to be compelling, and, given the right pieces in place, we’re guaranteed a film that is at least watchable.

And therein lies the problem. Lots of things are watchable. Being watchable shouldn’t be enough for entry into the 1001 Movie list. It feels safe, and while safe can certainly be entertaining, it’s not all that interesting. I don’t always want to be challenged in what I watch, but I damn well think I should be if it’s a movie I have to see before I die.

A bigger problem for me is just how little Lady Gaga has been given to do here. The entirety of her role comes down to singing a few songs and, more or less, standing by her man. Now admittedly, that’s the role traditionally, but certainly more could have been done here with her. The entire point of the film is that while her star rises, that of the man who discovers her falls into booze, drugs, and depression. But she’s so passive in this. It happens around her and she’s just kind of disappointed in him, even when he pisses himself at the Grammys.

Before someone else says it, I should say that I understand that there are a limited number of basic stories in the world. I know that there are plenty of movies that are just other movies with new paint and new disguises, so it can seem unfair that I’m bashing this one for being a remake of a remake of a remake. I loved both Drive and Outland and both are nothing more than reworkings of Shane or High Noon. So why express my vitriol for this remake?

Because it’s literally the same story. It’s not similar or based on or homage. It’s the same damn story with a new coat of paint exactly the same color as the previous. I’m not morally opposed to remakes, but at some point, I wonder how many we need of the same damn story.

Why to watch A Star is Born (2018): Hard to deny the talent.
Why not to watch: How many times do I have to watch this exact story?


  1. I haven't seen this and I'm unlikely to, but I want to whole-heartedly agree with you about this: She’s a great pick for the role because she is staggeringly talented.

    Yep. Damn, she's amazing.

    The trailers hit a sour note for me because someone says that she's not successful because she's not attractive enough. Now, I don't know if that's in the actual movie, but if it is, it's absurd. Gaga might not be as attractive as some pop stars, but on no planet is she unattractive. Sheesh.

    Apologies for commenting on a movie I haven't seen, but thanks for confirming my desire not to see it. :-)

    1. I'm not going to push you to watch this. I'm pretty sure I'm correct when I say that you're a bigger fan of musicals than I am. That being the case, you might find something here that I didn't.

      If you've seen the 1954 version, though, you've seen the movie.

      In defense of your objection, the "she's not attractive" enough thing comes at the start of the movie where she is saying that that's why she never made it. No one is saying that to her; she's saying that's what other people have said about her.

  2. So far, I've only seen the 1937 version as I will watch the next 2 versions in January when they will appear on TCM. Then hopefully I'll watch this version as I do like Lady Gaga as she is one of the few current singers that I like and my mom likes her as well.

    1. Of the three I've seen, the 1954 version is my favorite, but I'm a sucker for James Mason, and it would be an easy argument to pick Judy Garland for the Oscar that year for this performance.

      To be honest, I didn't hate this (I rated it 3 out of 5 on Letterboxd), but I just wanted it to do something different.

  3. I felt very much the same way when this was announced ages before it ever went before the camera and various stars were attached and then departed the film. I had hoped it would die on the vine but alas it did not.

    I waited until it came out on DVD to see it and at the end I gave an indifferent shrug. I admired the Janet Gaynor/Fredric March original and the root Constance Bennett film What Price Hollywood? as well and am a huge fan of the Judy/James Mason version, even in its mangled and repatched form. In my opinion they should have stopped there. The first was good but adding music supplied by the World's Greatest Entertainer was really all that ever needed to happen to the material.

    To be fair to this film I didn't hate it, though I did hate parts, but it was unnecessary. Gaga is a talented woman, the Best Actress nomination however was a gift since she isn't a particularly strong actress, but they drained a great deal of Esther's spunk from the renamed Ally. Speaking of which the thing that really bothered me the most was allowing the character to be bulldozed into changing who she was. In the first two while Esther's name was changed to Vicki Lester it was made clear that she rose to fame because of the intrinsic uniqueness of who she was. In this Ally gives lip service to being fine how she presents herself and in practically the next scene she looks like an Olivia Newton-John knockoff. It's a subversion of the whole idea of a key point of the story. In the other versions the story was always a two hander, here Cooper makes Jackson the focal point and Ally is sidelined. It's called A Star is Born for heaven's sake the rising star shouldn't recede.

    By the way the you have missed nothing by skipping the Babs version. I am an enormous Streisand fan but that film is a vanity production gone very, very wrong. It takes everything that was touching, gentle and lovely about the first two and turns it into a grating, obnoxious bore....excepting when Barbra sings.

    1. You make some legitimate points, although I'm not sure I agree entirely with one of them. Yes, Ally is completely remade the minute she becomes a thing, but I don't see that as being a problem with the film. That's a function of the way the star machine works today--if you consider this to be a "real" story, it's what would happen today. A young, fresh talent is going to be packaged as whatever, and a great deal of what made that talent interesting and unique is going to be lost in attempting to package him/her/it for a mass audience.

      Your point about making Cooper the focus here, though, is dead-on.

    2. I see your point about packaging but that was always a component of the story. In both the earlier films the makeup department attempted to transform Esther into a standard vision of what the studio expected before her screen test only to have Norman see her beforehand and peel all the gunk off her because he saw that she was unique. It lead to one of the important bonding moments in their relationship which is lost in this version. It's not a movie killer but it weakens the film.

    3. That's a fair observation, but we live in a world now where not matter how much our drunk, fading star might think he could do that, he'd be completely outvoted and overwhelmed.

  4. I'm with you on this one. The 2018 version is well made, but wholly unnecessary and extraordinarily familiar. And it's most similar to the 1976 edition (without the rampant ego trip), so I can only imagine how you would have felt had you also suffered through the 1976 version before seeing this!

    1. What I find funny is that everyone I know who is a movie nerd warns me away from the 1976 version, but I know tons of people who love that version of the movie.

    2. Fans of Streisand love it. For everyone else, it's probably one of the most egregious examples of self-absorption put on the screen. It's a poor film, but I would recommend seeing it as an example of what happens when a star/producer power couple are allowed to run amok.

    3. Not ALL fans love it. I'm an ardent fan of hers but the film is just too awful too embrace.