why the complex masculinity of a star is born matters
How can what is essentially a fairly conservative story about a young woman pushed towards by stardom by an older, more successful man, be culturally relevant now?
A Star Is Born
Each generation has its own version of A Star Is Born. The enduring tale of love, fame and loss first starred Janet Gaynor in 1938 as an unknown actress who fell in love with an alcoholic actor whose star was on the decline. Sixteen years later, Judy Garland and James Mason brought music into the 1954 remake, a template that was followed by Barbara Streisand in Frank Pierson’s 1976 version.
When it was announced that Lady Gaga, wearer of the meat dress, and queen of catchy pop hooks & iconic looks, would be joining forces with Bradley Cooper in his directorial debut, expectations for the 2018 remake were even higher than the heels Ms Germanotta wore during her Super Bowl halftime performance in 2016. Hitting our screens two years after a glitter-clad Gaga famously dived into the NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, A Star is Born sees her talents displayed in a less familiar arena.
As with her Super Bowl show, performed two weeks after Donald Trump took the oath of office, Gaga’s first leading film role provides brief respite from the climate of political and cultural division that has become the norm. But in a year when the complex conversations surrounding gender inequality and abuses of power have been advanced so significantly by the #MeToo movement, can what is essentially a fairly conservative story about a young woman being plucked from obscurity and catapulted into stardom by an older, more successful man, be culturally relevant?
The short answer is: yes, but not in the most obvious ways. Gaga is undoubtedly the “star” of A Star is Born. Her character, Ally, updated for the 21st century, is a grafter who, while being given lucky breaks, works for every opportunity as she navigates her way through a male-dominated industry. Gaga’s voice, on the soundtrack she co-wrote, is sublime. Her performance even exceeds the high expectations generated by the near-universal five star reviews from prominent critics. 2019’s Academy Awards will probably feel more like the “Gagas” than the Oscars -- and I for one can’t wait for the spectacle.
But Gaga-mania aside, Cooper’s directorial debut is most impressive in its sensitive and nuanced approach to masculinity. With the exception of Ally, nearly all other characters are men. Their relationships and conflicts with each other and within themselves shape the narrative of the film just as much as Ally’s meteoric rise to fame. She is often suffocated by their attempts to nurture and control her while also demanding her validation -- perhaps an accurate representation of being a woman in the entertainment business.
Cooper plays Jackson “Jack” Maine, a Kings of Leon-esque rock star who becomes infatuated with Ally, a waitress and struggling musician. Jack nurtures and encourages her talent as the pair become romantically involved. From the outset, it is clear that deodorant-shy, liquor chugging Jack is not the typical hyper-masculine musician we’ve become used to seeing in big Hollywood productions. His first meeting with Ally occurs when he accidentally stumbles into a drag bar in search of alcohol. In previous eras, the default reaction would likely have been for Jack to seem uncomfortable in these surroundings, but instead he is completely at ease. He watches the performances and talks to drag queens including RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Willam and Shangela. He even expresses a fascination with the art of drag, asking about the various make-up techniques.
Jack’s struggles with addiction and mental health issues dominate the story. As Ally’s career rises, he feels inadequate and emasculated as his hearing begins to fail. His untameable nature, which was once an attraction, soon becomes a liability. Unable to ask for help, he turns to alcohol and drugs as the two loves of his life -- Ally and music -- seem increasingly distant. He soon becomes conflicted and shameful as feelings of jealousy towards Ally clash with his love and admiration of her. He knows his jealousy is wrong, but he can’t stop those feelings, so he continues to punish himself, falling deeper into substance dependency.
Jack’s relationship with his late father, who suffered from similar addictions, is ever-present, causing him to sabotage his only remaining familial relationship with his brother. Both men struggle to express themselves after growing up in a time and place where anger was the only acceptable male emotion.
"The handling of masculinity in Cooper’s A Star is Born differs from the lazy and predictable formula of 'good guys' and 'bad guys' that we’ve become accustomed to seeing."
Most significant is the conflict between Jack and Rez, an icily pristine music manager played by Rafi Gavron, who takes charge of Ally’s career. Jack views Rez as cynical and commercial, blaming him for encouraging Ally to create vapid music and diminish her individuality. Both view each other as an obstacle, believing that they alone know what is best for her. They care deeply for Ally, but she struggles to find her voice as they play a mansplainer’s game of tug-of-war over her artistry.
As Ally struggles to cope with Jack’s personal issues, her support system -- led by her fiercely devoted father, Lorenzo, and best friend, Ramon, -- rally around her. We watch Ally’s father grapple with guilt and question whether his unflinching support and high expectations of her talent caused her to tread the wrong path. Ramon, played by Anthony Ramos, is coded as gay. While it is a shame that his sexuality is never explicitly stated, as a gay man it was certainly heartening to see this friendship dynamic, which is so significant and familiar to so many, played out so casually. Refreshingly, Ally’s queer extended family were displayed without the need for ridicule, bitchy side comments or a fashion makeover montage to seem relevant. These bonds are the film’s most aspirational, untainted relationships.
Critics of the male characters in A Star is Born will likely argue that they display some of the worst traits in men. It’s certainly possible to imagine that in years to come, just like male protagonists from films such as The Devil Wears Prada and 500 Days of Summer, Jack will be appraised less favourably.
Yet the handling of masculinity in Cooper’s A Star is Born does differ from the lazy and predictable formula of “good guys” and “bad guys” that we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Each central male character contains a mixture of traits, both problematic and positive, in unexpected combinations. None of them are entirely idolised or demonised.
In a moment of playful vulnerability, Jack allows Ally to put drag makeup on him while the pair bathe together. His masculinity is in no way diminished as he laughs in false eyelashes and lipstick. Yet he is also dismissive of Ally’s appearance and music when she deviates from his narrow perception of credibility. As tension between Rez and Jack simmers, Jack mocks Rez’s fashion-conscious choice of socks, a minuscule, split-second interaction that reveals just how fragile and artificial the performance of masculinity can be.
It was also refreshing that Rez, for all his flaws, did not try to become romantically involved with Ally. Even when their views clashed or he lashed out, he seemed genuinely invested in her career. Three of the most pivotal scenes in the film are conversations between two men, showcasing the tenderness of male relationships and marking a beginning, middle and end to Jack’s struggles. But the last, between Jack and Rez, displays the unfeeling and ruthless attitude some men can have towards their rivals. Jack’s story indicates that sometimes even the best intentioned men can’t escape the societal expectation to be “the man” or their demons of the past. Sometimes putting pressure on someone can take away their agency. Sometimes encouraging someone to find their voice is a convenient distraction from the fact that you haven’t found yours and can’t ask for help.
As Ally takes her first steps into stardom, Jack grabs her hand and says: “All you’ve gotta do is trust me”. But sadly she never really could. Over the constant murmur of male voices and dramas that threaten to drown her out, Ally realises that the person she must learn to trust is herself.
In a year where our collective trust in male characters and performers has been so severely dented, Cooper’s A Star is Born displays a masculinity that is complex, flawed and sometimes ugly, but is at least trying to be self-reflective and do better. Behind Gaga’s glitz and glamour, this feels like a quiet step forward.