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.

THE GLASS CASTLE: A TRAGIC LOVE STORY BETWEEN A FATHER AND DAUGHTER

Every daughter, some day, has to face the fact that her father – her hero, her protector, her guide through life, her knight in shining armor, her story teller and provider – is human. The Glass Castle is an incredibly beautiful parable of a child’s arc from hero worship through reality check to genuine appreciation of the good man and father he has been their whole life. Jeanette Walls lived this parable – albeit an extreme version – and tells about it in her autobiographical novel turned film.

Her father, Rex Walls is very intelligent, fiercely loyal and protective, devoted husband and father. Doting, creative, skilled, anxious to spend and share every moment of his life with his children. Unfortunately he is also an irresponsible alcoholic whose drinking loses him job after job, forcing his family to live a nomadic life in a series of decreasingly appropriate homes. Rex is a class tragic hero – a noble man with one serious flaw which brings down himself and everyone around him. His wife has either personality or mental issues as she blithely spends all her free time and attention painting while her children go without food for days. The four children, as a result, essentially raise each other.

The movie is seen through the eyes of the second oldest daughter, Jeannette. When we first meet her, she is a successful and wealthy journalist who finds that circumstances, and her parents decision to follow her to New York, forces reminiscences of her childhood and teenaged years to the surface. Her and her siblings’ life experiences growing up ranged from magical to tragical as Rex spun yarns of plans we know he will never fulfill but which his children believe in wholeheartedly — for a while. The tragedy emerges with the slow realization by Jeannette, his favorite child, that Rex lives his entire life as a could’ve-been. The title Glass Castle comes from the enduring myth Rex creates of building a home made of glass through which they can always see the outdoors and, most importantly, the stars at night. He talks of and draws working blueprints on and off for decades but never actually completes any significant steps towards accomplishing this goal. Sadly, Rex was gifted, trained, creative and intelligent enough to probably really build it had he been able to stop drinking. But, despite one several month period of abstinence, drinks himself towards death – the death of himself as well as his dreams.

The Glass Castle has brilliant visual as well as interpersonal metaphors. For example, the site of their planned "castle" home is, piece by piece, eventually neglected, forgotten and finally made into the family garbage dump. The image of a glass castle itself is a brilliant analogy for the preposterousness of Rex’ lifetime plans, the transparency with which Jeanette bares her honest and self aware soul and family warts and all to her audience, the concept – unspoken – of the emperor’s new clothes which are nothing more than fabrications made of spun words which a trusted child will eventually expose, and finally the fantastic dream which Rex had for his children of a magical childhood which he would never provide.

Harrelson is positively amazing in this role which could have gone wrong so many ways: too much and he would have been a jester to be ridiculed. Too little and he would have just been pathetic and contemptuous. But Harrelson at once conjures a character who is adorable, somewhat frightening, occasionally cruel, the ideal father, and a parental nightmare – all together and sometimes all in the same moment. Harrelson’s performance would have deserved an Oscar – if the Oscars were the legitimate award they once were and not the politically correct token they have become.

Brie Larson does a heartbreaking job of portraying the grown Jeanette Walls – forced to put up emotional walls (Jeanette’s last name a GIFT of verbal analogy with which she was born) and Naomi Watts is solid as the selfish self-indulgent facilitator mother who has mental and emotional issues of her own.

But serious kudos also belong to Ella Anderson who plays the young Jeanette who travels from adoring believer in all of Rex’ plans and the last to lose faith in him to the disillusioned angry young woman who unites her siblings in a contract to escape from the deteriorating reality of their parents’ lives. While there’s nothing more zealous than a convert, as MY father used to say, there’s nothing more vengeful than a betrayed devotee. And the young Ella lays the groundwork for the character of Jeannette with which Brie Larson follows through and the baton passing from Ella to Brie is a masterful and convincing accomplishment.

But for all of the depressing moments in this sometimes difficult to watch film, there is an underlying foundation of optimism and a deep abiding love between Jeanette and Rex which can not help but break through like sunlight dappling through fall colored leaves. Rex’ betrayals of her trust is the source of Jeannette’s biggest disappointments but his unconditional uncompromising love and belief in her is the wellspring of her strength. Go see The Glass Castle – a tragic love story between a father and daughter ………….. then go hug your Dad.