“Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag.”
A glassy-eyed Jackson Maine (played by Bradley Cooper, also in his directorial debut) proclaims this throughout the stunning 2018 remake of A Star is Born, and despite this film being the third remake, this story has not run out of things to say.
After a chance night out, Jackson takes struggling waitress and drag club singer Ally (Lady Gaga) under his wing, on tour, and soon sees her career skyrocket as his own falters in the face of drinking and disillusionment.
While the 1954 A Star is Born is a brassy musical epic featuring the iconic Judy Garland in a performance that should’ve won her the Oscar, and while the 1977 Barbra Streisand vehicle falls flat in comparison, this 2018 incarnation doesn’t shy away from the darkest aspects of not just fame, but addiction and abuse and general brokenness. In this first version of the story in a post-Youtube era, with lyrics like Tell me something, girl / Aren’t you tired of this modern world?, the psychological aspect of instant fame adds a whole new pressure that roots the film firm and fresh in this generation.
And then there’s Gaga.
There’s a moment from her legendary performance at the 87th annual Academy Awards. The same audience that produced audible gasps at her introduction to sing a Sound of Music medley was on its feet in ovation minutes later. The camera pans to Bradley Cooper, standing and applauding as well, with a look of confirmation behind a knowing smirk.
For the longest time, people couldn’t see the woman obscured by eggs or Kermit dolls or slabs of meat. The fearlessness of her fashion and persona led many to dismiss the outfits and antics as gimmicks to supplement a hollow artistry.
For this reason, the pitting of pop music (embodied by Ally) against “real” music (embodied by Maine) in A Star is Born could be an allegory for Gaga’s career. The film doesn’t take the easy route of dismissing pop as a general wash of superficial earworms, but asks important, answerless questions about the potential validity of pop and spectacle--something Lady Gaga has done for over a decade.
Taking the reins from icons like Garland and Streisand for a first leading film role was surely no easy feat, but if Gaga wasn’t the foremost queer icon of this generation before, her stunning performance as Ally--one part Cher in Moonstruck, one part Patti Smith, and two parts Stefani Germanotta performing at dive bars in the early 2000’s before captivating a nation--has catapulted her into inconhood. Whether she bursts into spontaneous laughter or slowly succumbs to tears, the inner life she’s cultivated for Ally earns each and every one of the camera’s many close-ups.
There’s a reason the Esther/Ally characters in these films are portrayed by the queer icons of each generation, but I haven’t been able to pin it down. Some have mentioned that it’s the “ugly duckling” story that queer people relate to. On the lot at MGM in the 30’s, Louis B. Mayer frequently referred to Judy Garland as his “little hunchback.” Streisand was frequently decried for the size of her nose and initially turned away from auditions. Deeper than appearances, these women have embraced what others saw as flaws, becoming stars not in spite of these but with them. I imagine some LGBTQ people relate to their queerness in the same way.
What most queer people have told me about why this story grips so many of us is that it’s a kind of coming out: She starts in darkness, then the fear of stepping out of it, but once she finally does--even though it doesn’t spare from heartbreak or failure--she can finally taste the hope of a self acceptance that transcends stardom.
If there were any doubts about Lady Gaga’s talent or depth, I don’t see how A Star is Born can’t extinguish them. Gaga proves what many queer people have long known. She’s far from the shallow now.
Evan Brechtel is a queer writer living in New York. You can find his body of work at www.evanbrechtel.net. @EvanBrechtel.