By Madeline Lane-McKinley |
I: The Stories We Tell
What an incredible moment to revisit our cultural narratives. What a moment to lay bare the cruelties and vulnerabilities of white masculinity – to look at these stories which we continue to circle around, repeating through endless adaptations, and to actually listen. What a moment to ask how these stories, too, have hurt us, and must be destroyed… These were thoughts I had, the day after a sexual assaulter was sworn in as a Supreme Court justice, while I walked to the movie theater to see A Star is Born.
A lot has happened to feminism since Hollywood’s last production of A Star is Born, forty-two years ago in 1976. A lot has happened to feminism in the last two years. The last year. The last week. It struck me as an extraordinary challenge that actor Bradley Cooper had gotten himself into – not only starring in a project he was first-time directing, casting Lady Gaga in her acting debut, and singing for the first time on film, but returning us to this particular story of gendered power and exploitation in the culture industry. This isn’t a “delicate issue” he walked into, it’s a fiery hell.
Since 1937, there have been four versions of A Star is Born, and countless variations. The 1954 iteration, starring Judy Garland and James Mason, most hauntingly reconfigures elements of the Pygmalion story as an immanent critique of show business. Unlike the 1937 technicolor production, this remake by George Cukor could never be mistaken for a musical romance in earnest. Mason’s over-the-top performance as the alcoholic and self-annihilating Norman Maine is one of many cultural artifacts we might revisit in the moment of #MeToo. Like a vampire, Maine preys on the rising star Esther Blodgett, played so vibrantly by Garland. He uses her rise to keep himself afloat. In Blodgett’s singing, he hears a voice he can possess and control, a force that can revive him through acts of continual abuse. Positioning himself as her creator, he extends his self-destruction to her – destroying, rather than creating, whatever beauty he sought from her in the first place.
Inasmuch as it is one of creation and birth, the story of A Star is Born is that of a vanishing woman. And Garland’s portrait of this disappearing act is undeniably the most tragic, precisely because the film is about the film industry and women’s roles in it. When we watch Garland slowly degrade and cave into herself, it is like a sweetly stinging note to the future.
Notes to futures – it’s hard not to encounter these throughout what I understand to be Garland’s most impressive performance, at the age of 32. She would die fifteen years later. The pain at the pit of her voice tells a story that remains untellable throughout A Star is Born, amplified in the present moment: it cries, only to some of us, “me too.”
Cooper’s adaptation is more closely in dialogue with the 1976 version, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, which like the original version seeks to understand this relationship at the center of the story to be primarily if not exclusively romantic. Without foreclosing these themes of exploitation and possession brought so clearly into focus by Mason’s performance, these two later versions of the story take a much different trajectory in their conception of masculine power.
In fact, it’s as if time has frozen for only some elements of the recent adaptation’s aesthetic and narrative world. Cooper hardly strays from an impersonation of Kristofferson, preserving a form of seventies-infused white masculine authenticity. This authenticity is in direct conflict – masked all the while as love – with that of Lady Gaga’s persona, at an intertextual level. Perhaps no other contemporary pop star epitomizes the rejection of authenticity more than Gaga. Here, it would appear, Cooper offers up her unmasking.
This unmasking, at many points, feels painful to watch. The first time Jack sees Ally, she’s the only cis-woman performing at a local drag bar in Los Angeles. Her rendition of “La Vie en Rose” captivates him. Upon his arrival after the show, the shared dressing room is soon emptied. Jack hovers beside Ally, as she takes off her makeup. Ally, palpably uncomfortable, could here remind the viewer of so many stories we’ve heard over the last year: a powerful man, alone in a room, wanting something from a young woman with talent. For a moment, I thought the film would sit with this discomfort. It doesn’t. Jack asks to take off Ally’s false eyebrow, taped to her brow. Baffled, she reluctantly lets him strip this part of her mask, and quickly covers her face with her hand. He moves her hand away, pressuring her to show him her face, while telling her she’s beautiful.
Fresh-faced, her tattoos covered, Gaga re-masks herself – framed, all the while, by this longing for her to be authentic. Later during their first night together, Jack and Ally sit at a bar, where he’s convinced her to share a drink. “Can I touch your nose?” He asks. “My gosh!” She answers, once again flustered by his confidence. “Let me just touch it.” He says, and before hearing a reply, he reaches his finger toward her face to graze it across her nose. The scene, it would seem, is supposed to be sexy: not just because of how he touches her, but because his fascination with her non-normative (“authentic”) features somehow redeems him from the fact that he is still sexually objectifying her. Most disturbing in this sequence, as well as that in the dressing room, are these small gestures against her consent which start to pile up.
By the time Jack proposes marriage to Ally, whether she says “yes” clearly doesn’t matter. He doesn’t ask her, in fact. He puts a ring he’s crafted out of guitar string on her finger, while the characters around them begin to make plans. In the 1976 version which Cooper seems otherwise so enamored with, Streisand depicts a far more agential, consenting woman who not only agrees to marriage, but proposes to her lover herself. Here and elsewhere, Cooper’s revisions send a striking message – robbing the story of all its latent feminist possibilities.
What’s wrong with A Star is Born is not the story it tells, but how it tells it. Throughout, a pattern of gendered exploitation reveals itself only to be called “love” instead. Against its own impulses, the film narrates for the contemporary moment little else but white masculinity’s radical unseeing of itself.
II: Spoiler Alert: It’s All a Scam
How can one spoil the plot of a film in its fourth iteration? The plot, I have to insist, is not the point.
Throughout A Star is Born, Ally is telling Jack “no.” She builds boundaries, and he breaks them down. When she tells him she has to go to work and can’t go to a show, early into the first act, he asks his personal driver to follow her until she changes her mind. In another world this would be called stalking. When she makes it to the concert, standing backstage, Jack announces to a huge crowd that Ally will be singing her own song, which he’s prepared with the band without her permission. “No” she tells him, pushing him away. He laughs and tells her, with a sideways smile, that he’ll perform it whether she joins him or not. In another world this would be called stealing.
In these moments, the film wants us to see an opportunity for Ally to overcome something: her fear, not Jack’s coercion. Consistently, his coercion remains seemingly undetectable. When Ally brings herself to walk onto the stage, her voice mutes these discomforts and ambiguities. And in hindsight, we are to understand the ways her consent has been numerously breached to culminate as her opportunity. What could be a story of a woman putting up walls while a man tears them down is rather dreamily imagined as a story of a man opening doors in an industry saturated by gendered exploitation and sexual violence as acts of ostensible self-sacrifice.
Jack de-centers himself by bringing Ally to the center instead – yet this is a center he encircles, a narrative he controls until he performs, it would seem, the ultimate sacrifice. Her birth, as this version of the story explores most literally, obligates him to suicide.
Suicide, for Jack, begins with his career. As a songwriter, Jack released some big hits to which he’s spending the rest of his life chained in creative purgatory – that is, until he meets Ally. While idealized by the film as a “star” for her voice and her talent, Ally takes the structural position of Jack’s muse, characteristically de-voiced. The muse’s agency is limited to the capacity to inspire, not create. As the film establishes throughout, the extent that Ally is a star is marked by Jack’s positionality as her presumed creator.
By the end of the film, this illusion remains intact when Ally’s producer alleges that Jack’s ongoing public self-destruction is a liability to her career. “She’ll never tell you any of this because she loves you too much,” the producer tells Jack, in another moment of Ally’s voice being stolen from her by men who tell her she’s beautiful. For the sake of her stardom, he chooses to end his life. Uncompromised in this decision is his self-image as creator, with totalizing authority over her life, career, and everything else.
Out of all the film versions of A Star is Born, Cooper’s is by far most insistent on the male lead’s innocence and redemption, while portraying the character’s death as a rational decision. In the moments before his suicide, Jack appears more sober than anywhere else in the film – a clear contrast with the hysterical subject conjured by Mason in 1954, or the selfish drunk driver portrayed by Kristofferson in 1976. Consistently in its last act, the film asserts that Jack, not Ally, is the real victim. His abusive behaviors are stripped of their gendered content. If the detail of his alcoholism isn’t convincing enough, the film further cultivates his victimhood in its scant depictions of his suffering from tinnitus. The tragic pathos of a musician losing his hearing actively buries the real metaphor of white masculinity’s failure to listen outside its own deafening interiority.
“It’s ok, it’s not your fault,” Ally assures Jack soon before his death, “it’s a disease.”
At least the film got part of it right. Masculinity is diseased — contaminating everything, including the stories we tell ourselves.
The auteur is the ultimate white masculine archetype: the actor, singer, writer, director, producer, who has crafted for himself the most convoluted situations of self-congratulation and totalizing authority. At the levels of both narrative and production, Cooper’s A Star is Born articulates an incredible act of aggression toward the possibilities of this story retold for the present. The film upholds a delusion of our current situation: a drive toward visions of a persecuted masculinity which case-by-case threatens to unravel the political possibilities of #MeToo.
While many celebrate their willingness to “believe survivors,” it will take a whole other set of struggles to learn to not believe white masculinity’s authority over our conditions of survival. Many want to believe – not just in each other, but in themselves – only to lose themselves in the violent reservoir of Cooper’s tender blue eyes. His eyes prod us, coercing us to let him buy us a drink, to let him give us a ride, to let him touch our noses.
“Oh come on,” his eyes say to us. “Not even for me?”
While Cooper devotes so much of the film’s energies towards this costuming of abuse as romantic tragedy, he does this always in the service of an implicitly masculine vision of authentic self-expression. Once Jack has created Ally’s stardom, he bludgeons her with sage advice: “If you don’t tell the truth, then you’re fucked,” he explains to her, over and over again.
Much of the conflict between the two different ‘stars’ in A Star is Born comes from Ally’s inability to inherit this vision of authentic artistry. Yet the film has no way of understanding this. It has no room to consider how Ally does not have access to this authenticity, precisely because it has no theory of gender at its basis. It tells us that it’s thinking about gender, aesthetically drawing from drag culture and establishing, in some initial scenes, that Ally deals with mundane forms of gender discrimination. Ceaselessly, stardom is posed as the solution to gender. All Ally needs is a glass ceiling to break – and a man to build her a ladder.
What the film doesn’t understand about itself is how white masculinity is at stake in this authenticity. Jack scoffs at how the producers makeover Ally, changing her hair color and covering her with makeup. She looks at images of herself from a photo shoot and says, happily, “doesn’t even look like me!” It is here that Jack’s abusiveness accelerates, as he calls her “embarrassing.”
As she becomes more like a pop star – more like Gaga, that is – we see what happens to women in the industry, not men. The embarrassment that Jack experiences primarily comes from his non-recognition of himself as an abuser. He holds against Ally that she can’t attain the kind of masculine authenticity available exclusively to him, and only once she exceeds his sense of control does he revoke the sense of acceptance and appreciation that maintain his power over her. “You’re not beautiful,” he yells at her, in another empty room, soon after discovering she’s been nominated for three Grammy awards.
Despite casting one of most compelling pop artists of the moment, A Star is Born fails to bring to the surface how gender mediates these different concepts of stardom and artistry. With her eyes (and false eyebrows), like Garland before her, Gaga tells us a different, not-yet-audible story. If only her eyes could sing. These days, there are just too many missed opportunities.
Much thanks to Max Fox for his curiosity and generous feedback, and for everything else.