September 28, 2018
Shedding her persona for her performance opposite Cooper, the pop deity is strikingly believable as an undiscovered talent on the verge.
Lady Gaga Tips the Scales in Bradley Coopers A Star Is Born
In the beginning was George Cukor. In 1932, he made “What Price Hollywood?,” in which Constance Bennett plays a waitress who hungers to be a movie queen. She gets her break, thanks to Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), a decent director and a lousy drunk. Fortune functions like a pair of scales: as she rises, he must fall. The same process affected Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in William Wellman’s “A Star is Born” (1937), the title that has stuck ever since. Next up was Judy Garland, in 1954, with Cukor back in charge, and James Mason on the alcoholic skids. By now, the fable had become a musical, and so it was again in 1976, when Kris Kristofferson was defeated by Barbra Streisand’s vast voice and the untamable majesty of her perm. Here, in short, is a story that never dies.
Now it’s back. “A Star Is Born” has undergone yet another rebirth, and the midwife is Bradley Cooper. He wrote the film, with Eric Roth and Will Fetters; he directed it; he takes the leading role of Jackson Maine; he sings the tunes and plays guitar; and it’s more than likely that he did the makeup, the animal wrangling, and the on-set catering. If he wasn’t up at 4 a.m. to make scrambled eggs for the crew, I want to know why.
At the start, we see Jackson onstage, in the open air, facing a mighty throng that sways like the sea. In consort with an expert bunch of musicians (played by Neil Young’s backing band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real), Jackson gives his devotees the gnarly, hairy, hard-driving sound for which they yearn. His songs are beefed up with old-school earnestness, except when they’re tender with old-school regret. Leaving the premises after the gig, he lowers his head, beneath the brim of his hat, as if in shame. Celebrities tend to seek refuge from their fans, but this guy looks like he’s fleeing himself.
Ducking into his limo, Jackson reaches for a bottle of gin. It’s not enough, though, and he asks his driver to hunt for a late-night bar. Anywhere will do. They find a drag bar, where Jackson settles down and drinks in the entertainment. The high spot is a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga), who, refusing to be cowed by a mere cliché, belts out “La Vie en Rose.” So far, so camp. Then, at the climax, she lies back, close to Jackson, and slowly turns her face to his. She fills the frame; their eyes meet and greet; boom. Whatever it is, she’s got it. In that vertiginous instant, Jackson falls for her, and we foresee, with a shiver of premonition, that the world will follow suit.
Ideally, Cooper’s film would end after the first hour—after this first night, in fact, that Jackson and Ally spend together. They don’t have sex; they just hang out. She gets into a fight, and he buys frozen peas to soothe her swollen hand. He listens to her sing in a parking lot, then drops her off at home, where she lives with her father (Andrew Dice Clay). All that’s good about the film is in these scenes, with their clash of the coarse and the delicate, and you can sense the scales beginning to tip. Everything hereafter feels hokey by comparison, not least the swiftness of the heroine’s ascent. Like her counterpart in “What Price Hollywood?,” Ally used to wait tables, but within a day or two she has flown on a private jet and made her début in concert, hauled into the spotlight by her adoring superstar beau and fêted on social media. Before long, she has a recording deal and three Grammy nominations, while Jackson’s contribution to the Grammys is a bit part in a Roy Orbison tribute. Worse, and more ignominious, is to come.
“A Star Is Born” is very much a product of our times. Jackson Maine’s problems date back to a wretched childhood, guaranteeing our pity and love, whereas Fredric March and James Mason gave the hero a nasty and dangerous edge. Cooper’s camera crowds the characters, getting in their faces, and the dialogue is determinedly foul with oaths: “If you don’t dig deep into your fucking soul, you won’t have legs.” What? In striving to make the whole thing rough and rooted, Cooper slakes our need for the apparently authentic, and yet the story he tells, with its sudden shock of fame, is little more than a fairy tale. The result is pure Saturday-night moviegoing: it gives you one hell of a wallop, then you wake up on Sunday morning without a scratch. (By contrast, the emotional nakedness of the Judy Garland version, poised within formal compositions, can still reduce me to rubble.) To be fair, what does linger, from this latest effort, is Lady Gaga. Alone among pop royalty, she could walk down the street without being recognized, such is her reliance on costumes and confected personas. Here, early on, in T-shirt and jeans, she could be anyone; hence, of course, the thrill of her blooming into a somebody. A star is born.
Ten years after the death of Paul Newman, and almost half a century since “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Robert Redford has gone back to robbing banks. He has nothing more to prove, but it’s nice to keep the skills of yesteryear polished and oiled. In “The Old Man & the Gun,” Redford plays a kind and capable fellow named Bob, which can’t be much of a stretch. Bob isn’t his real name, but that’s what he calls himself when he stops on the freeway to help a woman whose truck has broken down. What he doesn’t tell her is how convenient it is to hide beneath the hood of the truck while police cars hasten by, or how much money he just stole from a bank, or how many banks he’s robbed in all, over the decades. Maybe he lost count.
The woman is Jewel (Sissy Spacek), a widow, and she’s the only treasure that Bob makes no attempt to pocket. Early on, they go to a diner, and we start to realize what kind of film we’re dealing with here, and how unorthodox it feels; just as the plot should be gunning along, it pauses, getting its breath back, while Bob and Jewel simply sit and talk. The writer and director is David Lowery, whose patient yarns unspool at a pace that sets him apart from his contemporaries, as if he switched to moviemaking only after a long spell of fishing for trout. His characters also keep themselves to themselves. In his previous film, “Ghost Story” (2017), a note is tucked into a fissure in a wall and finally read, ages later, by a spectre, though not by us; at the diner, in “The Old Man & the Gun,” Bob scribbles something confidential on a scrap of paper, and passes it over to Jewel. We never see what it says.
This air of concealment serves the movie well, and its star even better. It offers a chance to take stock of Redford, who is now eighty-two, and the long haul of whose handsomeness is not done yet. Though the features are furrowed, the eyes and the smile remain at maximum strength, and he can still charm the ring off a finger. So open and so winning is his presence onscreen that we forget how secretive his finest hours have been. Check out “The Candidate” (1972), “Three Days of the Condor” (1975), “All the President’s Men” (1976), the otherwise foolish “Spy Game” (2001), or the one-man oceanic show “All Is Lost” (2013), and you will find Redford holding something back, or keeping himself under surveillance, as if there were mysteries to these roles that reach beyond the clutches of the plot. Why he should have foundered in “The Great Gatsby” (1974) may be the greatest mystery of all.
In the latest film, one layer of Bob is peeled away. His true name, we learn, is Forrest Tucker, and he is a serial jailbreaker, whose habit of holding up banks verges on obsessive compulsion. (Tucker was a real-life criminal, and the movie springs from a 2003 article in this magazine, by David Grann.) When asked, time and again, what kind of account he’d like to open, he answers, “This kind,” briefly holding wide his jacket to show a gun. Not once, however, does he fire it, and there’s no denying that the movie softens the edges of his deeds, encouraging us to forget that the threat of violence is itself a violent act. Few of the bank tellers whom Forrest confronts look traumatized; most remark on his courtesy, as befits an elderly customer. “He was also sort of a gentleman,” one manager says.
In its way, then, “The Old Man & the Gun” is as much of a fantasy as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Yet you buy into the geniality of Lowery’s movie, nourished as it is by the entire cast. Tom Waits and Danny Glover play Forrest’s occasional sidekicks. Spacek is as gracious as she has ever been, and unafraid to take a moment, or more, for contemplation; watch Jewel fill a kettle and let it overflow while her thoughts float toward Forrest. On his trail is a cop, John Hunt (Casey Affleck), bone-tired at forty, who is invigorated, not angered, by the quest. As his young daughter points out, “If you caught him, you wouldn’t get to chase him anymore.” From the opening credits, in fact, the film is full of children and senior citizens. The young and the old seem to grasp some long-buried truth that is denied to the souls in between, lost as they are in the limbo of middle age. One witness to a robbery, bewildered, even describes Forrest as “happy.” When did you last see a movie whose hero was hailed for his contentment? ♦
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