What went wrong for ‘A Star Is Born’ on the road to the Oscars
Maybe those Oscar obituaries for “A Star Is Born” are premature. Maybe Bradley Cooper’s smash-hit romantic remake will make good on more than one of its eight Oscar nominations. Maybe, to use the pitch in Warner Bros.’ last-ditch campaign plea, academy members will vote for the movie that makes them feel instead of the movie they simply admire. (Cough. “Roma.” Cough.)
If there’s anything we’ve learned this awards season, it’s that there could be 100 people in a room and 99 don’t believe in you, but all it takes is just one.
Full disclosure: I am not that person.
Lady Gaga first trotted out that “all it takes is just one” talking point at the Venice Film Festival world premiere of “A Star Is Born.” She then repeated the story — about how Bradley Cooper, the film’s star and director (and co-writer and producer and songwriter), took a chance in casting her — at the Toronto Film Festival. Then she repeated it again and again (and again), telling it so many times that it became a meme.
It was kind of cute. At first. Everything about the movie was golden right out of the gate. “A Star Is Born” earned rapturous reviews at Venice and Toronto and crushed it at the box office, and its signature song, “Shallow,” was playing everywhere. You could not escape it. Some awards pundits mused that the film could possibly sweep the Oscars’ top five categories — picture, director, lead actor and actress, screenplay. Everyone wanted to know what brand of beard oil Cooper was using.
But aside from some prizes from the nebulous National Board of Review, a couple of Grammys and a Golden Globe for “Shallow,” “A Star Is Born” has been an awards season also-ran. When Cooper lost best director and best first-time director at the DGA Awards earlier this month, anguished fans wondered if he could possibly win anything this year. (Shortly afterward, PETA gave him a prize for using his own dog in the movie.)
What happened? This being Hollywood, there’s no shortage of theories — and finger-pointing. Veteran Oscar consultants and academy members offered the following reasons why this “Star” hasn’t shone.
‘Star’ burned too brightly, too soon
The drumbeat for the movie began long before its Venice premiere, with people like Sean Penn calling it “one of the most beautiful, fantastic, it’s the best, and most importantly, commercial film I have seen in so many years,” adding, in a podcast interview with Marc Maron, that Cooper and Gaga were “miracles in it.” Past “Star Is Born” star Barbra Streisand gave it her blessing in March, revealing that she had seen it and it was “very, very good.”
Then came the festivals, the “just wanted to take another look at you” memes, the Oscar buzz and the $42 million opening weekend in October, leading to a coronation as the best picture front-runner, much to the dismay of those running its Oscar campaign.
“You never want to get out front that early,” says an awards consultant, who, like others interviewed for this story, asked for anonymity to protect client relationships. “When you set up expectations that soon, it can only go south. And it did.”
Another strategist notes that the publicity onslaught was also designed to promote the movie’s theatrical opening — which succeeded spectacularly, given the film’s $210-million box office haul.
But that ubiquity also created expectations that, for some, could not be met.
“It’s the third remake of this movie — and that’s not even counting ‘The Artist,’ which is basically ‘A Star Is Born’ without the guy killing himself at the end,” one consultant says. “For a movie that felt that familiar, I think it did pretty well. I just think people went a little overboard with all that early ecstasy.”
‘There’s not a lot of humility’
To win an Oscar, good work is a plus, but a strong story about the nominee is even better. Glenn Close, 71, is on her seventh nomination without ever winning. It’s her time! Rami Malek overcame bad dentures to make Freddie Mercury come alive. Give him the Oscar!
Awards consultants say Cooper and Gaga never gave voters a reason to root for them. “Bradley Cooper Is Not Really Into This Profile,” a September headline in the New York Times, captured what many observers saw as an aloofness on Cooper’s part to engage in the season’s niceties.
“There hasn’t been a ton of graciousness on his part,” complained one strategist. “I don’t think there was ever a day when he marveled that he might get the kind of recognition Alfonso Cuarón might get.”
Another consultant says Cooper should have talked about his acting more. “He wanted to be seen as this auteur and now, ironically, he’s going to lose best actor to a guy [“Bohemian Rhapsody’s” Rami Malek] who didn’t even do his own singing, which Cooper did — and did quite well.”
Campaigners likewise say Gaga came off poorly in her messaging, citing the dramatic, Cinderella-style dress she wore to the Golden Globes and her admission that she slept through Oscar nominations morning because she was on “showbiz time.”
“First of all, I don’t believe she was asleep,” a strategist says, “but even if she was, old people who have spent their whole lives waiting for an Oscar nomination don’t want to hear something like that.”
“Also,” the strategist continues, “the choice to show up at the Golden Globes wearing a dress with a 20-foot train that requires three people to hold does nothing but ‘other’ yourself. She arrived as the unknowable megastar of the night, not the musician-turned-actress who’s starring in her first real movie and is overwhelmed and touched to be there. She just played the wrong part constantly.”
An academy voter in the producers branch didn’t fault Gaga or Cooper or their publicists, saying that it’s hard to create a sympathetic narrative around two people already incredibly famous.
“You were never going to turn them into underdogs,” the producer says. “They’re too beautiful for that.”
Choose your friends wisely
In the home stretch, awards campaigners love to solicit famous folks to lavish praise on their films. Sometimes it feels organic, as when Guillermo del Toro saluted “Roma” in a long Twitter thread, calling the film, made by his longtime friend Cuarón, one of his five all-time favorite movies.
And sometimes it feels … awkward.
Just before final Oscar voting began, Penn turned up again to voice support for Cooper and his film in a piece published at Deadline Hollywood, an industry news website.
The article quickly became the talk of the town — for all the wrong reasons. After gushing about the movie and noting the injustice of its many losses (“In a fair world, ‘A Star Is Born’ sweeps the awards”), Penn concluded with a preemptive Oscar toast.
“To spare myself potential disappointment, I’m raising a glass in advance to Bradley Cooper and ‘A Star Is Born,’” Penn wrote. “Surely a raised glass is as legitimate as a globe of gilded gold or a male statuette minus a penis (also gold gilded). God forbid it have balls this year!”
“You wonder if anyone from the movie’s team read that — and if they did, why they didn’t just tell Sean Penn to send it privately to Cooper,” one strategist says. “Forget the clunky writing. To say that it should ‘sweep the awards’ is just obvious shilling. Praise the movie, but don’t grovel for awards — at least, not that openly.”
‘Not everyone can win’
Steven Spielberg’s “The Color Purple” earned 11 Oscar nominations. It won nothing. Same with the 1977 ballet world drama “The Turning Point.” Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” went 0 for 10, as did David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” which many regarded, like “A Star Is Born,” as a potential Oscar powerhouse.
“A lot of good movies have gone home empty-handed,” notes one consultant. “And ‘A Star Is Born’ is likely to win at least one Oscar — for song. Plus it grossed more than $400 million worldwide. And it established Bradley Cooper as a director and Gaga as an actress. I think people need to have a little perspective.”
“Then again,” he adds, “I still consider the Dodgers a failure because they lost the World Series again. So maybe I’m the wrong person to talk to.”
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