As a love story, ‘A Star is Born’ nails it. It is a film that makes you feel the connection between the two leading characters, Ally and Jackson. The two get close through a mutual compassion for each other’s inner wounds, which makes the narrative more compelling. Nonetheless, a deeper analysis of the representation of gender and self-harm in the movie brings to some reflections.
‘A Star is Born’ is a love story between an ordinary girl and a famous star who ‘discovers’ her and makes her famous. This, in itself, is nothing new. Plots around a nobody noticed and loved by someone important are common to hundreds of stories, from Cinderella to Fifty Shades. These plots often share common elements, such as:
- A contrast between the ordinary girl who represents simplicity and purity, and the dark side of the famous guy.
- Love rivals and fans of the star: everyone wants him, but he has eyes only for her.
- Excitement for the new social status and fame: she suddenly gets to have and do fancy things she never dreamed of, including having people at her service.
- Audience: the public is watching and is amazed.
- Reactions from her inner circle as well as enemies: pride from the former, envy from the latter.
‘A Star is Born’ has all these elements, particularly in the first part of the movie. When Jackson and Ally meet, they are constantly interrupted by fans – including Ally’s friends – who recognize him and demand attention. Nonetheless, their interaction is natural, just like two old friends who share a common passion: music. Unlike the fans, Ally sees the human being in him, and he sees the celebrity in her. They talk about their past and dreams for the future in an empty street at night, and we sense mutual empathy, respect, admiration, and attraction. Then, through her connection with him, Ally gets a taste of fame, and we get all the usual stuff: a chauffeur waiting at her door, quitting a boring job and annoying boss, flying in a personal jet with her best friend, VIP treatment, thousands of fans, dad and his friends proudly watching her and discussing her glory. The duo performance on stage is a glorious as well as an emotional moment. Despite the crowds, when the two start singing, music flows like a genuine and powerful expression of their emotions.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in ‘A Star is Born’. Warner Bros.
The representation of gender: her body, his inner journey.
The title ‘A Star is Born’ indicates that the story is about Ally and her career in music. Thus, from a gender perspective, this movie might be read as the story of a woman whose career ends up outshining that of her partner. The movie present a critique of the music industry with its beauty standards and appropriation of the woman’s body and image. However, in the narrative, this critique does not really lead anywhere except to paving the path to Jackson’s death. While the story explores Jackson’s inner development and contradictions, despite a spectacular rise to stardom, we know little of how Ally is growing inside. What changes is her looks that changes, and this matters for how the narrative unfolds.
Right from the moment Jackson meets Ally, the camera frequently pauses on her face or facial details. Through these close-ups we are shown how Jackson sees her: through his eyes, she is simple, pure, and beautiful. Her looks features prominently in the dialogues between them – unlike his. His body is never an object of discussion, while remarks about hers are quite an important theme. The first exchanges between them are about her eyebrows. Then, they discuss how her appearance was judged an obstacle to her musical career, despite her talent. Her nose, in particular, was a problem. Jack points out that he loves her nose, and he tells her frequently that she is beautiful. She is vulnerable because of her body, but he makes her beautiful through the way he looks at her. Her purity represents a ray of light in his dark messy inner struggles. She is portrayed as a caring character: she takes care of his father, and then of him.
When her career starts taking off independently from him, Ally’s looks is again an issue. The manager wants to change her, and her change causes a fracture between Ally and Jackson. Their biggest conflict peaks with him telling her that she is ‘ugly’. Is Ally’s character changed, or grown? Not really. What changes is how he looks at her. He is the agent. He discovers, he makes her beautiful, he makes her famous. When her career takes her far from him, when she is no longer purely his, at that point, he makes her ugly.
Is Ally portrayed as an independent woman who takes her own decisions, and whose decisions matter for the unfolding of events? Initially, she is represented as an independent woman. The way she responds to her boss is a statement of that. Some of her key decisions include accepting the manager’s offer to launch her independent career, and then her decision to cancel the tour to be with Jackson. Nonetheless, as a blog post on Vox points out, Ally’s decisions are constantly ignored:
‘Throughout the film, Lady Gaga’s character, Ally, says no, and her “no” is always converted into a “yes” by men. This happens again and again, from every man around her: her father and his friends; Jackson Maine (Cooper), the has-been performer who discovers her; and her manager, a manipulative British starmaker.’
This analysis raises important issues about how the disregard for a woman’s consent can be taken as a romantic move. Ally’s agency is frequently taken from her, and it is represented as an act of love.
Violent means for greater ends?
We do not see much physical violence in the film, except for a couple of punches which are still the leading way of responding to disagreement. The main form of violence in ‘A Star is Born’ is self-harm. Through Jackson’s addictions, we see that he is suffering from wounds that are not healed. That pain is something that brings Jackson and Ally close, as she clearly feels empathy for him. She does not judge him, and stands by him compassionately even when it gets worse, and despite warning him that he would have to clean up his own mess. There are no attempts for Jackson to get better until it is already too late. At the end, he kills himself for the sake of her career, the same career that broke him so badly because he felt that she was not being true to herself (or was he just being possessive?) He leaves with a goodbye song that she sings at his funeral. It is beautiful, powerful, ripe with emotion. Sacrificing his life is his ultimate act of love.
Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in ‘A Star is Born’. Warner Bros.
The beauty of this ending, however, is problematic. If someone you love kills himself/ herself, it is not glorious. It is a tragedy. And yes, it is a tragedy in the movie, too, but a bittersweet one. Was suicide truly the only way out? Was it the only way he could love her? In the end, we get the message that Jackson made Ally a star through his death: this is how ‘a star is born’. But from another perspective, through his death Jackson takes away Ally’s agency in the most dramatic way. He decides for her again, once for all, against the choice she made about what mattered the most in her life.