There are two great showbiz myths dating back to the earliest days of the talkies. The first is the 42nd Street myth, in which a humble understudy gets the chance of a lifetime, goes out there a youngster, and comes back a star. What’s interesting about 42nd Street, which was made in 1933, is that it’s not the upbeat peppy musical you think it is. Rather, it’s a saucy adult tale about the staging of a Broadway show in the middle of the Depression during which almost everything goes wrong.
The second great showbiz myth concerns the talented nobody who is taken under the wing of a famous performer and who ascends while the famous person declines and falls. That’s the story of A Star Is Born, first made under that name in 1937 (but preceded, five years earlier, by the very similar What Price Hollywood?). Hollywood has long since stopped making melodramas—and that is what A Star Is Born is, a classic melodrama with an overwrought ending. Unlike the 42nd Street myth, which allows you to jettison the ambiguous ending, the Star Is Born myth is solely a cautionary one about how fame imposes horrific costs in the form of jealousy and self-destruction. You get what you want and you lose it all too.
Taking bits and pieces from every one of its antecedents, the new version of A Star Is Born stitches together a story that is unbelievable on its face but entirely believable on its own terms. The aging country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) drunkenly stumbles into a transvestite bar called Bleu Bleu just as James Mason’s Norman Maine stumbled into a bar of the same name in the 1954 version. Mason found Judy Garland singing “The Man That Got Away.” Cooper finds Lady Gaga singing “La Vie en Rose.” Both performances are so staggering—Lady Gaga possesses a once-in-a-generation vocal talent just as Judy Garland did—that you understand why these men instantly fall hard for these women they do not know.
It’s difficult to capture just what a revelation Lady Gaga is in this movie. In 2008, the performer born Stefani Germanotta landed on pop music with the impact of a meteor crash as perhaps the most mannered female on earth. She wore dresses made of meat, garbed herself in outré wigs and wild costumes, and cavorted in such a stylized fashion that there seemed to be no there there. She was an art installation in human form.
What Bradley Cooper, who directed and cowrote A Star Is Born, has done is literally wash her clean of her affectations. Playing Ally, a limo driver’s daughter who works as a hotel waitress and writes songs she’s too afraid to sing, she looks vulnerable and ordinary and fetching all at the same time—adjectives no one would have thought to apply to Lady Gaga before. In the annals of surprising debuts, this one ranks with Diana Ross turning herself into Billie Holiday in 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues and Bette Midler becoming Janis Joplin (in all but name) in The Rose in 1979. What’s different here is that Ally was not based on a real-life person, so Lady Gaga had to build the character from the ground up. And it’s a character, moreover, who comes under jealous attack from her beloved for becoming a false representation of herself—in other words, for becoming like Lady Gaga.
The drama in A Star Is Born doesn’t emerge from Ally’s rise but from Jackson’s fall. In previous versions, at least viewed today, the male lead’s fall is almost risible because of how hysterically it is rendered. Cooper, an actor I’ve largely been indifferent to before but who gives an absolutely beautiful performance here, finds the tragedy in Jack’s collapse because from the beginning his Jack is a genuinely good guy whose demons are real and who drags his shame over his drinking and drugging along with him like Jacob Marley’s chains.
If Hollywood knows what’s good for it, and it doesn’t, it’ll start making melodramas again—because A Star Is Born isn’t only a knockout of a picture, it’s a template for how to bring people back into the theaters to see something other than a sequel or a cartoon or a superhero. Tell a story about adults. Set it in a recognizable world. Have them played by deglamorized glamorous people. Let them be decent but flawed. Give them a chance, and then show how their lives go off the rails and how they must struggle. Do it well. People will watch. It’s what we want.