I’m frankly disturbed by the praise that is being lauded on A Star Is Born. The film is a front runner for the Best Picture Oscar and likely to be one of the most nominated films of the year, so I feel compelled to add to the conversation. I was cynical when it was released but came around to seeing the film last week after all the acclaim. I was disappointed for is derivative take on the well-worn story and underwhelmed by all the production elements except for the music. However, I’m primarily writing this because I just haven’t seen many confront the film’s gender politics that feel inappropriate for the 2018.
Firstly, Jackson Maine. His behaviour at the beginning of the film is predatory. He finds himself backstage in a changing area (with consent) but it’s just a teaser for the way he will come to use his privilege. He touches Ally several times weirdly, removing her eyebrow at one point in a moment that is supposed to be…romantic? He invites her to his show that night and mishears her negative responses; he sends a driver to stalk her until she changes her mind. Later Ally wakes up and Jackson has been let into her room by her father and he is sitting on her bed watching her sleep. The Bechdel Cast recommends ‘the Buscemi test’ – would this behaviour be acceptable if it was Steve Buscemi doing it? The first act climaxes with Ally being bullied on stage to perform the song that she wrote. Jackson begins to play the song without her consent, effectively making her choose between claiming back her intellectual property and allowing him to plagiarise her work. This all happens in just the first 30 minutes of the film. Overall, Jackson has a male saviour vibe, attempting to convince us that without him Ally could not be successful.
As for Ally – who doesn’t get a last name until she marries Jackson – she starts the film with more personality than she finishes it. Signs of her character’s potential depth are sidelined for a familiar male-centric narrative. Multiple instances in the film occur when she says “no” and these are translated by men into “yes”. As Aja Romano writes, the film has a problem with consent. Her agency is eroded as she is increasingly controlled by Jackson and later by her producer. Because Jackson’s treatment of her is increasingly bad as she continues to climb the stardom ladder, she comes across as dependent on him. So when she insists on him coming on tour with her, it comes across as contractual – not as a gesture of love. Exploring her background could have helped the film to explain her choices and develop her character; however, the most significant attempt at this is derailed by more patriarchal writing and direction. This scene with her father helps us to understand her relationship with alcoholic men but the foundation of the scene quickly departs from its potential when Ally forgives her father for his behaviour without giving any focus on the impact on Ally or the pain that she might have experienced. There are only men in her life; however, the films inclusion of two best friend drag queen characters is refreshing. Ally’s career is treated as matter-of-fact. The insane standard of beauty that women in entertainment are held to is scratched at but never really explored or commented on as much more than just something that needs to be accepted.
The last point I want to make is the ending which is shoehorned into the final 15 minutes as it appears Cooper suddenly realised that traditionally the male lead in the Star is Born franchise needs to die so that Mrs Maine can sing a final sad song in an emotional climax. Cooper goes for a suicide, but irresponsibly treats this as a moment of heroism. Once again Ally is deprived of agency as she could very easily just leave him or they could attempt long distance while she tours. Instead Cooper, inspired by a convenient plot beat from Ally’s producer, decides gallantly to end his own life to deprive Ally of any chance to make a decision that might put her career before him. Making the scene more problematic is how Jackson is not sober. This is only a step away from the irresponsible representation of suicide in ’13 Reasons Why’. It’s hard to align this scene and Lady Gaga’s work on mental health.
It so easily could have been different. A remake could have revitalised the story by inverting the genders or at least updating the gender politics. The best version of this film would have cast Shangela and Willam as the leads. This kind of familiar straight white privilege patter should be unwelcome in our modern cinemas. But strangely, it is apparently the best film made in the last year.