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The complicated case of A Star Is Born and its Best Picture dreams

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Bradley Cooper’s remake of the old Hollywood story.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga star in A Star Is Born.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga star in A Star Is Born.
Warner Bros.

Each year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whichever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is discussing each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes each film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, we talk about A Star Is Born, Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and the third (or fourth, depending on how you look at it) remake of an archetypal Hollywood story. Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott star, and all are nominated for acting Oscars for their performances.

Joining the conversation are Vox culture reporters Aja Romano, Constance Grady, and Alissa Wilkinson, and deputy managing editor Eleanor Barkhorn.

What is it about A Star Is Born that makes it so appealing to Hollywood?

Alissa Wilkinson: A Star Is Born is probably the most “classic” of the Best Picture nominees at the 2019 Oscars. It’s got a lot going for it: box office success, big stars, a charming (if a bit generic) origin story in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, a lot of catchy music (with a Grammy-winning single in “Shallow”), and a time-tested story that has been nominated for Best Picture every time it’s been remade, though it’s yet to win the big prize.

It’s also a show business melodrama, and the Oscars love movies about show business.

Interestingly, the film premiered to festival raves and did well with audiences, but its Best Picture potential seems to have fizzled over the past few months. It was nominated for seven total Oscars, which is nothing to sneeze at. But Cooper didn’t nab a Best Director nomination, even though he and the film’s other two stars were all nominated in the acting categories, even though he’s nominated for co-writing the film, and even though the movie is up for Best Picture. It’s no longer the favorite it was earlier in the awards season, though.

So that brings me to my first question: Why do you think the film got nominated for Best Picture in the first place? What would it mean for it to win? And why do you think the buzz has cooled on it a bit?

Constance Grady: A Star Is Born went through a classic “peaked too early” scenario: It had tons of early festival buzz going for it, but it also had an early backlash — which meant that at the same time that audiences were hearing about how good it was, they were also hearing a lot of critiques. And while I enjoyed this movie, most of those critiques strike me as pretty reasonable.

I’ve already written for Vox about the film’s confusing treatment of its rock versus pop binary, and that confusion drove a lot of hot takes: People wrote extensively about how this movie was too rockist and stuck in the past, or about how it wasted the poptimistic potential of Lady Gaga.

The other big critique of this movie is that after a near-perfect first hour, it falls apart in the second half. I think there’s something to that. In the first half of the movie, it’s astonishing to watch Cooper watch Gaga sing, to watch him fall in love with her as we in the audience fall in love with her through him. When Gaga takes the stage to sing “Shallow,” it’s as perfect a cinematic moment as you could ask for.

But when everything starts to fall apart for Jackson and Ally in the second half, the movie starts to feel a little less assured, a little clumsier. It’s turning sour and bitter. It can no longer summon the emotional purity that made its first half so striking, and it struggles to figure out a new tonal register to replace the old one.

All told, I think that first hour of A Star Is Born is why the movie is up for Best Picture, and I think the second hour is why the awards fervor has cooled on it considerably.

Do you think the film’s first hour is good enough that Oscar voters should overlook what comes later? Or would you go against the tide and argue that the second hour of A Star Is Born is actually just as good as the first?

Should A Star Is Born be this appealing in the first place?

Aja Romano: I’d actually argue that neither the first hour nor the second hour of A Star Is Born is great, and we should all, perhaps, take a step back and rethink our continued valorization and canonization of this narrative that unfailingly seems to turn a woman’s success into a man’s tragedy. The titular star’s path to success is always inextricable from her husband’s decline, addiction, and inability to handle her success.

I agree that the success of this narrative largely depends on the inherent glamour of the first half, the fairy tale interaction and chemistry between the two leads and the charisma of its leading lady. But I also feel I watched a very different first half than everyone else did: one in which Gaga’s character was constantly having her agency overridden by the men around her. Crucially, her “perfect cinematic moment” came because she was pressured into singing by a man who told her he was going to sing her song no matter what, with or without her, without her permission — a man who then inevitably berated her later on when she tried to assert more autonomy over her career.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Warner Bros.

I’ve been baffled that this really obvious critique of the film hasn’t gotten more play, and I’ll admit to feeling a little gaslighted by the way fans of the narrative gloss over its sexism. I appreciated the complexity both Gaga and Cooper brought to their roles, and particularly the sensitivity with which Cooper overlaid his character’s struggle with addiction with his struggle to prove his manhood to himself. But I feel somewhat exasperated that I have to keep pointing out that the “sour and bitter” tone that emerges in its second half, and the sense that it’s stuck in the past, isn’t a fault of this movie per se. Cooper’s A Star Is Born is flawlessly made and acted, but these issues are embedded in the DNA of this narrative.

With the exception of the very first film in the Star Is Born line, the superb What Price Hollywood?, the “star is born” narrative contains the inherent assumption that the more the woman in the relationship asserts herself and carves out an independent career path for herself, the more her success will inevitably emasculate and humiliate her husband as he’s deprived of his traditional role as breadwinner and patriarch of his household. That his inability to cope with her rising fame always goes hand in hand with his escalating struggles with addiction further complicates questions of equality, because the narrative is always predicated on the idea that if he could just overcome this tragic flaw, he would be an amazing and understanding partner.

But the narrative also never really acknowledges — the 1976 Streisand-Kristofferson version comes closest — that their relationship contains inherent power imbalances from the very beginning that all serve to benefit him rather than her, and that his psychological decline is largely due to his inability to stop seeing her as an extension of himself.

I want to say that the heel-cooling on this film prior to Oscar night is about voters seeing and critiquing these elements of the film with clear sight, rather than responding to the weak aspects of the film’s back half alone. But I’m not sure that’s the case.

Am I being too hard on A Star Is Born? Should I just be kicking back and enjoying all the memes?

Constance: I think you’re right, Aja, that the gender roles baked into the Star Is Born story are … not great, to say the least. One of the oddest things to watch during Bradley Cooper’s press tour for this movie has been his continued insistence that in this version of A Star Is Born, unlike previous versions, the man is not jealous of the woman’s success but rather protective of the purity of her soul and her music.

That’s a baffling contention for multiple reasons, beginning with the fact that Jackson is clearly jealous of Ally (we all saw the scene where Ally racked up some professional success without him and then he smeared a bagel on her face and she said, “You jealous fuck,” right?), but also because the alternative narrative that Cooper is suggesting is really not that much better.

Cooper’s narrative is the best-case scenario narrative, the most flattering possible interpretation you can give Jackson — and it still posits Jackson as the guardian of Ally’s identity, the one who understands who she is and who she should be on a level that she herself never grasps. It suggests that Jackson should make all of Ally’s choices for her because she can’t be trusted to make them on her own. That’s gross! It’s not a good narrative!

And I agree with you, Aja, that all these problems are baked into the story from the beginning. But I do think it’s important to not overlook the aesthetic and emotional drive of this movie. That is clear and focused in the first half of the film in a way that it’s not in the second half, and I think it’s because the heart of this movie is essentially rooted in the audience watching Bradley Cooper watch Lady Gaga perform. His gaze on her is what the movie is interested in — which, again: not great! — and once that gaze becomes less than awestruck, once he goes from crying as he watches her perform “La Vie on Rose” to wincing and slugging shots of whiskey as she performs “Why Did You Do That” … well, that’s when the movie starts to lose its power.

The emotional power of A Star Is Born

Eleanor Barkhorn: As the person on this roundtable who’s most removed from the ins and outs of the Oscar race, it’s interesting to hear the “it was a frontrunner and now it’s not” narrative about A Star Is Born. I have no insight or expertise on the question of why the movie’s prospects have dimmed over time. I’m still pretty much in the mindset of those early festival viewers — I loved this movie. I really fell for it.

I actually found the first half of the movie a little hard to get into initially because I was tripped up by all the ways the details felt implausible to me. Specifically — don’t you need training to learn how to sing in front of a huge crowd like the one Jackson drags Ally in front of that first time? And sure, the movie shows Ally becoming a YouTube sensation after one of her early performances with Jackson, but wouldn’t she also be the subject of fascination on Twitter and in gossip mags — who is this nobody showing up on stage with Jackson Maine?!

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born
Warner Bros.

But when I let myself see the movie as a fairy tale, as something going for emotional realism rather than the showbiz-today literalism I was looking for at first, I relaxed and just enjoyed the spectacle.

And what spectacle! The songs are so good. “Shallow,” of course, but I also love the bittersweet sensuality of “Always Remember Us This Way.” Constance, I know you draw a line between the Gaga-forward songs and the ones that Bradley Cooper anchors, but I actually like a few of the Jackson songs. “Maybe It’s Time” is a solid folky rock song and a good presentation of Jackson as a character. (“Music to My Eyes,” however, is just bad.) The Ally-Jackson chemistry is mesmerizing. And I always love intergenerational drama — I’m a sucker for the “Ally’s dad was a singer who never made it” backstory.

And maybe I’m just justifying my enjoyment of the movie, but I am not fully convinced by some of the critiques we’ve discussed here, especially on a gender front. One important caveat is that I have not seen any of the other Star Is Born movies. I come to the 2018 version with no understanding or opinion of the way the formula has played out in the past. But Jackson was very clearly in rough shape before he met Ally, and she was very clearly remarkably talented — I don’t see the movie as showing her success as causing, or even blossoming from, his downfall.

Meanwhile, I appreciate that the movie doesn’t cast her as his savior — he continues to drink and be destructive despite the fact that he has “a good woman’s love.” It also doesn’t cast her as naive about his ability to overcome his demons. She sets a boundary with him early on: She won’t get on his motorcycle if he’s been drinking. And when she visits him in rehab, she acknowledges that him coming back home to live with her might not work. There are a lot of ways her character could have been a passive enabler of his addiction, or a Pollyanna hoping to help him overcome his problems, and she was neither of those.

All that being said, I really appreciate the concerns that Aja and Constance raise — it is so important to interrogate pop culture on these issues, especially pop culture that is as spectacle-heavy as A Star Is Born.

Could future versions see the story differently?

Alissa: It’s interesting to me that this is such a well-trodden story in Hollywood, and yet it’s sparking robust conversations like this one. I have been thinking a lot about how this version of the story concerns two Hollywood archetypes — the tragic artist on the one hand, the ingenue on the other — while the film itself is also a Hollywood archetype: the long-simmering passion project, in this case for Bradley Cooper. That’s one way you win an Oscar: get people to think of your film as being in the mold of other great Hollywood archetypes.

That said, I’m curious whether you think this is the natural end of the Star Is Born story, or whether there’s space for other iterations. And if there was another one — say, in 2039 — what would you hope to see it explore?

Constance: I would love to see a version of A Star Is Born that decouples the professional mentorship from a straightforward romance. It could still be a love story — mentorship requires a kind of love, right? But without the romantic elements, the power dynamics of the relationship would shift in compelling ways. It might stop feeling so gendered and become a generational story instead: What does the ascendent generation owe to the past, and vice versa? How do you navigate that fraught balance of gratitude and resentment and hope and fear without it turning toxic? I think that version of the story could be just as sweeping as the 2018 version, and it has the potential to have a clearer emotional throughline, to boot.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born.
Warner Bros.

Eleanor: Constance, I love that idea. Funnily enough, I saw My Fair Lady on Broadway a day or two after I watched A Star Is Born, which in a very broad sense follows the contours of what you’re describing here. And it shows us the ways that a professional mentorship story can have really messed-up gender dynamics too! Which is all the more reason that a story like you’re describing could be fascinating — especially one that deals with #MeToo. It would also be interesting if the two stars were of the same gender, to remove some of the “will they or won’t they” positioning that might feel inevitable if they were opposite gender.

Aja: This is really ironic because there is a version of A Star Is Born that does exactly what you’re talking about — the very first one I mentioned before, What Price Hollywood? And that’s precisely what makes the film (from 1934) so interesting compared to every version that comes after it: The relationship between the two stars is purely professional and completely platonic, and she supports him through his decline and addiction as a loyal and grateful friend and mentee.

While the movie is unabashedly terrible when it comes to handling her romantic life, its resistance to pairing them romantically makes the tragedy of their friendship much starker: She gets to have her independence recognized without being seen as an extension of him, because of the weight the later narratives place on their romance. What Price Hollywood? explicitly deals with this “fraught balance of gratitude and resentment and hope and fear” by forcing its female lead (played by Constance Bennett) to grapple with the question of whether she should set her own life on fire to keep her friend warm. And it is a generational story to a degree, in that he’s from the older generation of filmmakers who are seeing their artistic vision replaced by younger up-and-comers.

It’s worth noting that What Price Hollywood? — as well as the most famous and weepiest version of A Star Is Born, the 1954 Judy Garland version — are both directed by George Cukor, who’s a master at threading the needle on complicated gender dynamics. To me, that’s another indicator that the things that hinder this narrative are things that can be jettisoned without losing the main idea, because they’ve been added into the plot over time.

One thing that would be a ridiculously easy fix: having a woman write the screenplay. In fact, after What Price Hollywood?, only two women have worked on the Star Is Born story: Dorothy Parker and Joan Didion, who contributed to the 1937 and 1976 versions, respectively. And I feel strongly that the points we’ve raised about how much the film revolves around the male lead’s gaze on the star could be so easily mollified, complicated, and even erased, if we’d just let a woman tell this story on her own terms.

The weird musical genre complications of the 2018 film could be even more thoroughly teased out and dealt with, without assigning an inherently superior status to the rock-folk-country lineage over the urban-hip-hop-pop-industrial lineage that is part of what makes the second half of the film frustrating. And of course, as Eleanor said, you could — gasp! — make this a queer story, a messier and more romantic Devil Wears Prada for the times. The Devil Sings Gaga.

Finally, I just want to emphasize that we don’t have to wait to write this story, and we shouldn’t. We should have had it in 2018, and that’s why I don’t think A Star Is Born should win Best Picture. This story needs a serious update before it will deserve that trophy.

And a note on the consent issue, if I may: The thing about consent is that when we teach men, in circumstances that don’t involve romance, that a “no” means “just pester me until I say yes anyway,” then they behave as though that’s what “no” means in circumstances that do involve romance. That’s what rape culture is. So it would be amazing to see this story acknowledge all the ways that undermining a woman’s autonomy impacts her both in her career and in her personal life, even if it’s done with the best of intentions.

Alissa: I’m actually pretty sure we’ll get another Star Is Born in our lifetimes, so I’m hoping whoever makes it considers these responses. As I said when I reviewed the film in September, it’s different from its predecessors in that it’s more interested in the stars’ relationships than in the star-making machine, and that seems like a good catapult into another version of the story in the future. There’s clearly something compelling enough about the core narrative that we keep revisiting this story. Maybe, eventually, one will win Best Picture.

Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice

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