It would be foolish to expect much original or inventive about A Star Is Born, the sour show-business fairy tale so familiar that even the most sensitive of the no-spoilers brigade must know exactly what to expect.
The latest version, starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (with Cooper making his directorial debut), is the fourth film to carry the familiar title and plot of a celebrity couple whose careers are rapidly heading in opposite directions. (The earliest version, though not officially credited, was George Cukor's 1932 What Price Hollywood?, so clearly a precursor that Cukor originally declined to direct the 1954 version for fear of being sued for plagiarism.) Is the story really so timeless? Or is it just so simple that filmmakers can spruce it up with a few contemporary trappings — Hollywood glamour in one era, faux-hippie duds in another — hoping that its melodramatic spine will hold up all?
The latest telling takes most of its cues from the most immediate and arguably the worst of its predecessors. The 1976 version shifted the story from the movie business to the world of rock music (writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne originally conceived it as a vehicle for James Taylor and Carly Simon), but was hijacked by the ambitions of producer/star Barbra Streisand and her inamorato of the day, Jon Peters, to reflect their own considerable egos.
Cooper plays hard-drinking good old boy Jackson Maine (because no hard-drinking good old boy can be named Norman), riding the charts with the kind of generic country/rock that you only hear in films like this. Somewhere along the road he meets Ally (Lady Gaga), who, as the only non-lip-synching, non-drag performer in a lip-synching drag show, is performing an Edith Piaf song. He immediately determines that she is in fact a sensitive and introspective songwriter who's been denied her chance to shine and, within days, lures her on stage for a duet and — deus ex YouTube — instant stardom.
Earlier versions of A Star Is Born showed Hollywood being simultaneously self-critical and self-congratulatory, an industry where it takes a lot of collective energy to build up stars and knock them back down. The new film is less generous in its view of the entertainment world, suggesting it takes the works of the exceptional (Cooper's character seems to subscribe to a hazy Ayn-Rand-meets-American-Idol philosophy that celebrity comes only to those who deserve it) and forces them onto an assembly line of image manufacturing, packaged sexuality and marketing schemes.
As a narrative, this Star is almost nothing but loose ends and undeveloped plot points. As with the crazy-quilt '76 version, the writers seem to feel that as long as they hit all the familiar beats — the initial romantic collaboration, the public embarrassment at an awards show, the stint in rehab — everything else will fall into place. The result is often confusion, and the viewer may be taken aback to learn more than 30 minutes in that Maine's crusty manager (played by Sam Elliott) is actually his brother (that's even though Elliott is more than 30 years older than Cooper) or that a passerby (Dave Chappelle) who finds Maine passed out on a Memphis sidewalk is actually a long-time friend.
Previous versions of A Star Is Born have inevitably been seen as projections of the off-screen images of their female leads. Streisand's control over the '76 production is an obvious example, while Judy Garland's appearance in the '54 version (produced by her husband) was widely regarded as a comeback vehicle after four years of absence and bad publicity. It may be unfair to accuse director Cooper of playing favorites — Lady Gaga does an admirable job of creating a Streisand-like presence, and Cooper's only evident directorial touches are limited to a fondness for staging scenes in showers and bathtubs — but this is, curiously, the first telling of the story to show more sympathy for the declining alcoholic star than the wife and colleagues who endure his excesses.
In Cooper's version (he also shares a writing credit), stardom is a burden, the unfortunate baggage that comes with being an artist. As the title suggests, part of the continued appeal of this story comes from seeing Garland, Streisand or Gaga earn stardom while working their way up the musical ladder. Indifferent to that process, Cooper casts his sympathy with the character who takes a fall and declares that he never wanted to be on the ladder in the first place. It's an indulgent revision, taking pleasure mostly from its own messiness.