A STAR IS BORN – MASTERFUL VARIATION ON AN INHERENTLY DISSONANT THEME

SPOILERS!

SHORT TAKE:

Artistic, excellent, and faithful (4th) version of a A Star is Born, a story with a destructive message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only, let me count the ways: language (I think there is only one adjective they knew and they used it with abandon), sex outside of marriage, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, nakedness, and a bar frequented by those with drastically alternative lifestyles.

SPOILERS!!!

LONG TAKE:

There is great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child."

A lot of movies seen in one’s teens and early twenties, seem like a good idea at the time, but do not stand up well under the scrutiny of age and experience.

One of those is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When it came out, it seemed like a sci fi fantasy of a man in search of his dream to confirm the existence of extra-terrestrials, who flies off, like Peter Pan, into the stars with them. In fact, the movie is about a man who abandons his wife and children to go off on a lark. Regardless of the circumstances, he is a cad of extra-ordinary proportions. Then Pretty Women (1990), which holds itself out as a modern Cinderella story, actually Disneyfies prostitution, making it look appealing with a prize at the end instead of a body and soul destroying meat grinder (pun intended). Ditto for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). It holds itself out as a musical comedy but really sets up a madam and a corrupt politician as the main protagonists. (Haven’t any of these people seen East of Eden? I suspect Kate’s cold, calculating and cruel flesh peddler is a more accurate version of a madam than Dolly Parton’s cutesy songstress Mona.) You get the idea.

The third manifestation of A Star is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson seemed, in the theater, to a 17 year old, a romantic, tear jerking, self sacrificing love story. I have seen all of versions 1937, 1976, and 2018 and enough of 1954 to realize that that one is just a badly done and unrelatable Judy Garland vehicle. The names change slightly with each movie. All the men have the surname of Maine, and in this one his given name is Jackson. Gaga's character's name this time around is Ally. In truth A Star is Born – all of them – is about of a man who destroys the person he loves … twice …. because he is a self-indulgent, self-pitying, weak and arrogant coward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I loved A Star is Born when I first saw it in theaters right out of high school. And before I launch into my criticisms of the story, let me say that, on one level, I thought this 2018 Bradley Cooper auteur production the best of the litter – a magnificent bit of cinema (the plaudits for which I will get to later) ………. but of an inherently bad story.

IF I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF CLEAR HERE YET, THERE ARE SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

The premise presents itself about a man who is a great star (either singer or actor depending upon which decade’s movie you are talking about) with VERY bad habits, on his way down, who gives "THE FIRST BIG" shot at stardom to a promising female artist. When he realizes he cannot (or will not) cease his destructive behaviors, he kills himself, allegedly, to protect his former protégé, now wife from being held back. What is really happening is that an addicted, boorish, self-indulgent loser, who has achieved his dreams, does indeed generously provide a boost to the extremely talented woman of his dreams. BUT instead of doing the TRULY heroic act of changing his own life FOR her, drags her down. When he decides he will not cease his addictions or his self-destructive behavior, this narcissistic, self-absorbed waste of space tries very hard to destroy her again by committing suicide. In all four cases, this second act of destruction almost succeeds. In all four cases, we are left at the end of the movie wondering when, not if, it will be her turn to follow in her husband's footsteps.

A very big deal is made in the movie about saying something with your art. I must wonder what it is that this movie is trying to say: "When you hit rock bottom you should grab a shovel and dig it deeper by killing yourself?"

BUT – having said my piece on this point —–

Putting this massive flaw aside, the movie is still a masterfully done piece of art. I cannot place blame on Mr. Cooper for the ending because that IS the way it has always played out. I suppose I could blame him for expending his efforts on a story with a terrible message, but once having chosen this project he does an excellent job with its composition. This IS the way A Star is Born was written 81 years ago. (The first version was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, both BARELY out of the silent film era.)

Kudos to Cooper’s commitment to the project. He mastered guitar playing for this role in an 18 month Blitzkrieg, including performing live at a festival, singing his own original songs, on the same stage with Kris Kristofferson, who previously played the same role for which Cooper was training – all while keeping the movie under wraps! AND Cooper is not just the star of the movie, but also was one of the adapting screenwriters, is the director, one of the producers, did all of his own playing and singing and wrote four of the movie’s songs. I admired the way Cooper approached the story. This Star’s incarnation hits all the high notes, the low notes, the musical arcs and has the same finale as all the others.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, I was shocked to discover, is quite a talented actress. Not a big fan before hand, I liked "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," but was not familiar with her videos. I was jaw dropped to see her name in the trailer credits. She, more than a little, resembles a young Barbra Streisand in her manner, looks and singing talent. (She even complains about her nose.) This fits, as Bab’s manager/boyfriend at the time of Streisand's Star was Jon Peters, whose production company made Cooper's Star.

There were a few amazing surprises among the actors, not the least of which was Lady Gaga herself, as already mentioned, who did an incredible job. There is one scene in particular where in she finds herself on stage with Jackson Maine and her subtle and delicate transformation from newbie, frightened singer to confident but still terrified performer whose potential is glimpsed and then blossoms and matures throughout movie is subtle, transformative and deserves recognition. Other stand out performances include Sam Elliott as the REAL hero of the movie who stands by Jackson as long as he can as his manager, confidante, keeper, and older brother.

Andrew Dice Clay made a perplexingly successful career as a stand-up comic by being blunt, vulgar and every –ist you can think of. When you are boycotted by Sinead O'Connor and a regular cast member, Nora Dunn, for a Saturday Night Live appearance, and then from MTV for 18 years for being too offensive, you should consider that perhaps there are some issues with your routine. In A Star is Born he is pleasantly unrecognizable as Ally's gentle and supportive father, who whimsically reminisces about how he could have been a crooner "like Frank Sinatra".

The songs are – in a word – excellent. Catchy and communicative with a readily accessible emotional core, they were all the more surprising in that four of them were written by Bradley Cooper, not heretofore known as a musician.

I was very impressed by some of Mr. Cooper’s directorial decisions. For one thing there is no soundtrack except for the songs being performed or played on the radio or jukebox. There is none of the emotional manipulation, which is almost ubiquitous in other movies’ accompanying score. Don't get me wrong, I love a good soundtrack which often enhances or forewarns the audience in a particular scene. I have often wished I personally had a soundtrack to my life so I would know in advance what was coming.

Mr. Cooper plays his scenes with no such safety net. Some of the movie even feels somewhat documentary. Not in the dry, dusty, awkward way in which we appear as unwanted guests into other people's lives, but as a welcome friend sitting across the table watching the interchange between these two friends, lovers, and musical partners who must inevitably part.

All in all, I enjoyed this incarnation of A Star is Born. I had looked forward to it with a lot of expectation and most were fulfilled. I was sorry they had cut out one particularly appealing scene from the trailer where Jackson tells Ally she is beautiful and her eyebrows rise precipitously in surprise. But in the end I was a little disappointed, but not really surprised. I had hoped against hope, knowing the story, that with this fourth variation on a theme Mr. Cooper would have found a way to make the story more uplifting. It is a faithful telling of the story, but it is unfortunate that the story itself is fatally flawed. So I do not fault Mr. Cooper for the ending.

Just as you are not likely to turn Anna Karenina into a musical comedy, it would be very difficult to alter a classic tragedy without making it unrecognizable. (Although Steve Martin did just that with Roxannecreatively found a way to forge a happy ending with Cyrano de Bergerac but still keeping the essence of the tale intact.)

I just can’t help musing that a truly noble heroic Mr. Maine would have manned up to his own weaknesses, sent his protege on her way, and done something meaningful with the rest of his life: mission work in Africa, volunteer for at-risk kids in inner cities, used his notoriety to become an example of what could happen in Scared Straight programs, done PSA's against drugs and drinking. But alas the Roxanne ending was not to be.

I'll give it this, it is not Singing in The Rain. There is no soft peddling, sanitizing or making light of the music profession. And I suspect this Star is an accurate account of the insides of the industry, where one is lucky to get a guest spot at a bar for drag queens while holding down a job as an unappreciated waiter at a local restaurant. That even if you are lucky enough to "make it," the experience is just as likely to make you an addicted, deaf, jaded wreck as it is to provide you with wealth and power and fame. Star does not paint a pretty picture. What it lacks in virtue it makes up for in honesty. If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I look forward to Mr. Cooper's next project. I hope it involves some singing because he is quite good. I also look forward to seeing Lady Gaga act again. The relationship between the two was electric and portrayed with a natural chemistry. All of the elements were beautifully crafted and fit like an intricately harmonious chord. I just hope Bradley Cooper finds a more noble project to lend his considerable talents to in the future.

3 Movies I Liked But You Should Not See

Some movies just should not be made —- or should have been made differently. Every now and again I plan to clue you in to movies which I actually liked and were very popular but I think have inherent flaws which make them unwatchable.

BE WARNED – FULL DISCLOSURE: I plan to spoil the living snot out of them for two reasons: given the nature of the evaluation it will usually be necessary to tell the ending – the outcome of the characters often strongly informs the value of the movie. If the bad guys do not get a comeuppance then the movies’ ethical and educational quality should be closely scrutinized. Second, frankly I want to tell you enough about the movie that it kills your curiosity and makes you not want to see it.

Three this time: Grease, Pretty Woman and Risky Business. I have seen and liked all three; all three are classics in a way, were extremely popular in their time,  and, in retrospect I realized they were just not very nice movies.

Risky Business: All that being said, there IS ONE scene that is pretty terrific which is fine to show anyone. If you have grown up seeing Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Live-Die-Repeat, or one of the Mission Impossible movies it is hard to resist watching one of the early scenes in Risky Business. He is just a puppy at this time and plays a high school senior who is tasked with watching the family home while his parents are on vacation. Being left completely alone for the first time he sliiiiiiiides into view with a faux microphone wearing nothing but socks, underwear and a long shirt lipsyncing to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”. It is SO darned cute…….. But then, during the course of the rest of the movie, he: hires a hooker, allows her to manipulate him into so much debt she convinces him to put his rich Ivy league friends together with her friends, effectively turns his family’s home into a bordello, bribes a college evaluator with a questionably aged prostitute, lies to his parents and…..GETS AWAY WITH IT! He is accepted to his dream college and keeps the hooker as a girlfriend. Charming example of how to get ahead.

Pretty Woman: Edward (Richard Gere) hires a hooker (a lot of that going on) named Vivian, played by Julia Roberts, as eye candy for an important negotiation. To make her a convincingly appropriate escort he styles her up. The scenes that follow deliberately echo My Fair Lady, including a posh scene at a racetrack. But the analogy becomes offensive to me for a number of reasons. For one thing, in My Fair Lady, Eliza is virtuous. Instead of the easy cash she could make as a comely lady of the night she scrapes out an honest living selling flowers, then seeks to better herself with elocution and social lessons. Henry’s interest in Eliza ranges from that of a scientist analyzing an interesting form of fungus to paternalistic/fraternalistic protector. In Pretty Woman Edward takes full advantage to use Vivian for that which he has paid her. As for the supporting cast, instead of a Freddie who becomes infatuated with Eliza, there is Philip, a loathsome colleague of Edward’s, who beats and tries to rape Vivian. Now, just before credits, Edward does propose marriage, but it’s a band aid on a gun shot wound. Sadly, I could have accepted pretty (if you’ll excuse the pun) much almost all the rest of the movie if Edward had simply not had sex with her. Duh. If he had rebuffed her attempts to “fulfill” her part of the bargain, if he had done the Higgins’ thing and held her at arm’s length, if Edward had simply been a VIRTUOUS EXAMPLE, there could have even been some rather funny moments from this scenario. Instead Edward is a cad. It is unfortunate, because there ARE some nice moments in this movie, and it had potential. There’s even a very cute scene (which IS watchable but in the middle of the movie) where Edward takes Vivian  to a VERY elegant clothing shop. Edward pulls the manager aside and tells him, referring to Vivian, that Edward wants the manager to do some “serious sucking up,” intending to bolster Vivian’s self-ego. The manager misunderstands and immediately goes into this oozing complimentary patter to Edward. Edward stops him in mid sentence: “Not ME! Her!” It is quite funny. Also Hector Elizondo’s portrayal of Barney, the hotel manager/Pickering-type character is stand-out charming because HE treats Vivian as a LADY. Barney would have been a far better Higgins to Vivian’s Eliza. Had that latter pairing been made it might have been a really good story. As it is, it is a preposterously unrealistic portrait of a (definitely NOT) lady.

Grease: Wow, the archetype story of corruption. Olivia Newton-John plays Sandy, a clean cut virgin girl from Australia who had met Danny, (John Travolta), the high school BMOC, the previous summer in an exchange program for high school students. Thrown back together in an American high school, Danny at first doesn’t want to admit he likes her and in true ’50’s fashion they sing and dance their way through boy loses girl, boy eventually gets girl humor trials and tribulations. For those who have grown up first seeing Travolta play tough guys and psychos in movies like Broken Arrow, Face Off, and Pulp Fiction it must be a bit of an amusing shock to see him in a goofy good guy roll and discover the boy can both sing and dance! However, during the course of the movie, some obviously over-aged supposed teenaged girls smoke, sleep and drink their way around Sandy, eventually convincing her that the way to win Danny back is to act like them. (“Good-bye Sandra Dee”) So, to make a long story short, at the end of the movie, Danny admits he loves Sandy and even agrees to go to college, which is fine. But Sandy, as her part of the bargain, becomes a stiletto wearing, Cat Woman leather-outfitted, drinking, smoking party girl. WHAT!? Where’s the cute girl who should have been the good example for the rest of the movie’s layabouts, slackers, and promiscuously behaved degenerates? Danny falls in love with Maria from Sound of Music but takes home Fergie to meet his mom??!! Somehow I think they got that one backwards. Also keep in mind that Danny does not marry the girl but drives off with her. Had they saved the “Better Shape Up” song – costume and everything – for a post-wedding – on the way to the honeymoon scene – where they maybe show Sandy as now ready to let her hair down for her husband, I could have accepted the routine. But as it is – it was hollow and depraved. I remember seeing a Mad Magazine spoof on this movie which pointed out this exact perversity: So to win your guy, you should become a slut?? Even Mad Magazine saw the ludicrous fallacy in that argument. It’s certainly not a good example to set for your children.

Of the three I found  Grease the most offensive. Risky Business pushed a questionably ethiced young man over the brink. Pretty Woman lionized prostitution, making it appear a path to success and happiness with your dream man. But Grease encouraged the deliberate corruption of a nice young woman.

Similarly to the point I made about being careful to screen what you encourage others to watch and not rely on the reputation or past history of the filmmakers, just because a movie is considered a “classic” does not make it wholesome.

6-13-15