For two full minutes toward the end of A Star is Born, we watch Jackson Maine, played by Bradley Cooper, as he exits his car, still running in his driveway, and silently breaks our hearts. Walking slowly into his garage, holding a belt, he locates a cabinet to stand on and walks back to the open garage door. We see his face, full of emotion, and know he intends to end his life. Down comes the garage door and the camera cuts to a concert where Ally, his wife, played by Lady Gaga, is singing, “Why did you do that?” Viewers are spared the death itself, but those two minutes are an exceptionally graphic depiction of the suicidal decision.
Right away, in tweets and reviews, fans and critics of Cooper’s version of this classic story praised its cinematic power, but cautioned potential viewers about the trigger for suicide. Professionals worried about that belt in his hand even as they were moved by the film. “It thoughtfully shows what leads someone to this, and I cried at the end,” said Kita S. Curry of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, to USA Today. “I just wish the method hadn’t been so clearly conveyed to people. And it’s a method that’s on the rise.”
This 2018 A Star Is Born is the fourth film to bear the name, and every iteration ends with a suicide. In all of them, a jaded star, always a man, discovers and falls in love with a talented ingenue, always a woman, Every time, he struggles with her success, and eventually kills himself. Cooper’s version gives the jaded male star some backstory, describing a barren childhood with an alcoholic father. But this version also plays into the fantasy that Jackson’s suicide releases his wife into stardom.
The depiction of suicide in art versus media
The suicide rate in the US has been rising for almost two decades, so when one of the movies up for Best Picture features a dramatic example of such a death, we need to take a close look. Studies have shown that how we discuss suicide in the media affects the real suicide rate. Celebrity suicides have an outsize influence and are often followed by a rise in suicides for those of the same gender and similar age. There is ample evidence of the fatal influence a suicide can have on vulnerable people who feel linked to the death, perhaps through profession, school, or family. This suicide contagion can intensify with sensationalist news coverage.
Art is different, of course. Studies show that compared to news written without due care, exposure to fictional suicides has a smaller influence on actual deaths. Perhaps it’s partly because fiction often depicts the devastation a suicide can have on family and friends. Studies show that television programs that center on the suffering of survivors are less likely to give rise to a surge in such deaths. And we can’t forget that art also saves lives. Tragic art can be good company in hard times, and any art can inspire the creativity and curiosity that makes life worth living.
Part of what makes this version of A Star Is Born so compelling is that it nakedly portrays dark realities of misery, addiction, and love. When Jackson falls down drunk at a party, Alley waves off concerned looks; this is normal. Another time, drunk and hot for a fight, he tells his sweet, self-conscious wife that she’s ugly. To anyone who has struggled with addiction in themselves or someone close, there is solace and communion in witnessing these raw secrets unfold in open view. And to the extent that a film gets the public talking about this subject, it enacts the most lifesaving work of culture.
Still, there are dangers that must be addressed. A Star Is Born can be seen to support Jackson’s fantasy that his death is a gift to Ally’s career, and that plays into dangerous myths.
Jackson’s suicide is shown as “good” for Ally
The Star Is Born model is sublimely simple: He’s in decline; she’s full of hope; as they fall in love and marry, she gets famous and he gets drunker, culminating in a televised awards show where she wins and he ruins it spectacularly. (In Cooper’s version, the broken man joins his wife onstage to accept her award and is so inebriated that he obliviously begins to urinate.) In each film, the wife gives up big career breaks to stay home by his side, but he decides that she is better off without him, and for her sake, he takes himself out through suicide. There is a lovely balance to this form, even without a causal relationship, as a simultaneous look at celebrity in two of its normal phases.
The awards show incident sends Jackson into rehab, and he returns sober and hopeful, until things quickly go south. Ally’s agent lays into him, saying he’s hurting her career just by association; then Ally tells him her tour has been canceled, and he knows she’s given it up to support his recovery. Later that night, Jackson finds a pill bottle stashed in the glove compartment, and its rattle is the sound of the end. When we next see Jackson, he’s staggering from his car. Senses diminished, he is won over by the fantasy that he can take the burden of himself out of the world by suicide.
The glitch in Jackson’s suicidal logic is realistic. The decision is triggered when he is reminded of a primal humiliation. It is a common misperception that suicide is fundamentally a result of long-term, treatment-resistant depression. Researchers working with “psychological autopsies” — interviews with those who knew the person — have found impulse to be a major factor in suicides, and often within a few months of a notable humiliation or loss. Studies also show that the vast majority of people who seriously attempt suicide and are thwarted never go on to kill themselves. One study checked in on survivors of suicide attempts from the Golden Gate Bridge over several decades, and found more than 90 percent alive, or dead by other causes. For many, if you can make it through your worst night, you can make it.
The terrible fallacy of Jackson Maine’s suicide is that by killing himself, he’s helping Ally. The film itself plays into the myth of the “generous” suicide by ending with Ally’s apotheosis, showing her performing for a full, elegant hall, now a grande dame of stardom. This is not the mood at the end of some previous versions of the film: in the 1954 edition, when Judy Garland’s Esther is led away from her husband’s funeral, fans mob and grab at her, snatching off her veil; the look on her face suggests she’ll never be a happy star again.
This story keeps getting made because of our fascination with fame and addiction. I don’t know if we have to keep making this movie, but we ought to be aware of how the story plays into dangerous myths. Cooper’s film does show the harm done from suicide, in the tears of Jackson’s widow and brother. But it also stokes the fallacies and fantasies about what suicide can do for you. In A Star Is Born, Jackson comes back to grace through death. It may sound good, but he’s not there to experience it, and his loved ones are not made glad. Dead is dead is dead.
Count this essay as a small voice in the wind reminding us all that the film makes suicide seductive, and it does so because of our skewed cultural ideas about fame, success, and failure. I admire the film for what it is, but am ultimately more engaged when works of art find a way for us to survive, to use our pain to help others with similar struggles, and to muscle through the difficult realities of modern love, art, and stardom.
Jennifer Michael Hecht is the author of Stay: A History of Suicide and the Arguments Against It, along with several other books of history and poetry. She holds a PhD in the history of science and culture from Columbia University.