Happy birthday, Bradley Cooper!
Bradley Cooper is 45 years old today. With all the recent talk about how people’s lives have changed over the past decade, let’s take a minute to appreciate just how spectacularly things have gone for Bradley Cooper, career-wise. Ten years ago, Bradley Cooper was probably best-known for playing the smarmiest member of The Hangover‘s quartet of friends. Now, Cooper is known for not only being one of the best actors working today but also for making an acclaimed directorial debut with the 2018 Best Picture nominee, A Star Is Born.
Cooper not only directed A Star is Born but he also starred in it. He played Jackson Maine, a country musician who has been drinking for as long as he can remember. He used to drink with his father and when his father died, Jackson continued to drink alone. (At one point, Jackson says that he was a teenager when his father died.) Managed by his older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), Jackson became a star but his career has been in decline for a while. For all of his talent and for all of his belief that he has something worth saying, Jackson is drinking his life away. He stumbles from show to show and is often dependent upon Bobby to tell him what he missed while he was blacked out.
When Jackson stumbles into a drag bar and sees Ally (Lady Gaga, making her film debut) singing a song by Edith Piaf, he is immediately captivated by her talent. Ally, whose father (Andrew Dice Clay) is a limo driver who once aspired to be bigger than Sinatra, is at first weary of Jackson but he wins her over. After she punches a drunk and he takes her to a grocery store to construct a makeshift cast for her hand, she sings a song that she wrote and Jackson decides to take her on tour. Soon, they’re in love and, before you know it, they’re married!
Unfortunately, Jackson’s alcoholism threatens both their happiness and their future. While Ally’s star rises, his continues to dim. Will Ally sacrifice her career for Jackson or will Jackson sacrifice his life for Ally?
It’s a familiar story, one that’s been told many times. The first version was 1932’s What Price Hollywood, which featured aspiring actress Constance Bennett falling in love with an alcoholic director played by Lowell Sherman. In 1937, What Price Hollywood? was unofficially remade as A Star Is Born, with Janet Gaynor as Esther, the actress who falls in love with faded matinee idol, Norman Maine (Fredric March). The next version came out in 1954 and featured Judy Garland as Esther and James Mason as Norman. Significantly, the 1954 version added music to the plot, with Judy Garland singing The Man That Got Away.
In 1976, the story was told a third time. This version of A Star is Born starred Barbra Streisand as singer Esther Hoffman and Kris Kristofferson as a self-destructive rock star named John Norman Howard. The 1976 version was terrible, largely because there was zero chemistry between Streisand and Kristofferson. And yet, one gets the feeling that the 1976 version is the one that had the most influence on the 2018 version. Not only does Bradley Cooper’s version of A Star Is Born make the story about aspiring singers but one gets the feeling that Cooper watched the 1976 version, saw the lack of chemistry between Kristofferson and Streisand, and said, “There’s no way that’s going to happen in my movie!”
Indeed, it’s the chemistry between Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga that makes the latest version of A Star Is Born so compulsively watchable. I mean, we already know the story. From the minute that Jackson and Ally meet for the first time, we know what’s going to happen. But Cooper and Lady Gaga have got such an amazing chemistry, that it almost doesn’t matter whether the movie surprises us or not. There’s a scene where Ally says that she’s always been told that her nose is too big and Jackson responds by nonchalantly touching her nose and, with that one simple and very naturalistic gesture, the film convinces us that Jackson and Ally are meant to be together, even if just for a while. It also makes it all the more upsetting when a drunk and jealous Jackson later uses Ally’s insecurities against her.
(Of course, I should admit that I’ve always been insecure about my own nose so, at that moment, I totally understood what Ally was feeling.)
It’s an unabashedly romantic and sentimental film but it works because, as a director, Cooper brings just enough of an edge to the story. Cooper, who has been sober since 2004, has been open about his past struggle with alcoholism and, as both an actor and director, he’s smart enough not to romanticize Jackson’s addictions. In many ways, Jackson Maine is a pain in the ass to be around. We watch as he goes from being a fun drunk to a sad drunk to a mean drunk, all the while lashing out at anyone who gets too close to him. At the same time, Cooper also captures the spark of genius and the hints of inner goodness that would explain why he is never totally rejected by those that he’s hurt. Cooper offers up hints of who Jackson could have been if he hadn’t surrendered to pain and addiction. We understand why Ally and Bobby stick with him, even if we wouldn’t blame either one of them if they refused to have anything more to do with him.
Lady Gaga, meanwhile, gives a performance is that is down-to-Earth and instantly relatable. Anyone who has ever been insecure or who has ever felt as if she was being punished for being independent or thinking for herself will understand what Ally’s going through. At some point, we’ve all been Ally and we’ve all had a Jackson Maine in our lives. Sadly, these stories rarely have happy endings.
For most of 2018, it was assumed that A Star Is Born would be the film to beat at the Oscars. While it was eventually nominated for 8 Oscars, Bradley Cooper did not receive a nomination for Best Director. (Cooper, Lady Gaga, and Sam Elliott were all nominated in the acting categories.) In the end, Green Book won Best Picture while A Star Is Born only won one award, for Best Original Song.
Of course, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of that song was perhaps the highlight of the entire Oscar ceremony.
That’s the power of good chemistry.