Commentary: ‘A Star Is Born’ dims in the shadow of Kavanaugh confirmation
What a decade the last few weeks have been.
After a year that saw the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court on Saturday despite multiple accusations of sexual assault was just a bridge too far for some women.
For the record:
7:30 a.m. Oct. 10, 2018A previous version of this story misidentified the release years for two previous versions of “A Star is Born” as 1956 and 1978. The films were released in 1954 and 1976.
It’s no wonder, then, that many of us flooded theaters over the weekend to see the new remake of “A Star Is Born,” a musical romance starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.
Women made up 66% of the audience for “Star” over the weekend, according to the film’s studio, Warner Bros., so it seems that many women found solace in Gaga’s dulcet tones and Cooper’s growl.
But not all of them.
I was one of those women who eagerly awaited “Star” after rave reviews out of the Venice and Toronto film festivals, and I dutifully rushed to the theaters to see it for myself.
And I was disappointed. The film was visually stunning and the performances sterling, but underneath was an undeniable undercurrent of misogyny that was hard to shake.
Admittedly, most of that is not entirely the movie’s fault. The paternalism is baked into the story’s conceit, with a male gatekeeper (Jackson) discovering a preternaturally gifted young woman (Ally) and ushering her into the spotlight she so deserves.
(Never mind that megawatt stars who have played Ally in the various versions of the film — Janet Gaynor in 1937, Judy Garland in 1954 and Barbra Streisand in 1976 — would need no such help.)
Even though the latest update comes from a place of enthusiasm and encouragement, there’s still something deeply unsettling about the way established musician Jackson (played by Cooper) goads ingénue Ally (Lady Gaga) into situations she’s uncomfortable with.
(Fair warning: Spoilers ahead.)
Jackson wants Ally to have a drink with him, to sing her songs for him, to perform on stage with him in front of tens of thousands of people with no preparation. And each time, Ally’s immediate response is to tell him no.
But she almost always gives in to Jackson’s good, if condescending, insistence that he knows what’s best for her.
And that’s where the film lost me.
Because now Ally and Jackson’s dynamic suggests that when Ally says no, what she really means is “yes, but persuade me.” Though almost certainly not the movie’s intention, it echoes the cultural coding of sexually predatory situations, so much so that it creates a disconnect. How can you root for a relationship in which the power structure is so imbalanced? For much of the film, Ally never truly has agency; she merely has acquiescence.
Beyond that, Ally’s life is littered with men who make her responsible for their emotional labor. Being with an addict makes Ally more of Jackson’s caretaker than his companion.
And at a key moment in the film, when Ally is dealing with a traumatic event that temporarily distances her from Jackson, instead of comforting her, Ally’s father forces her to comfort him for his sins.
These aren’t unrealistic depictions, but they are framed as laudable traits in Ally, instead of unconscionable manipulations by the men tasked with loving her most.
This was not the comfort food I was seeking after the emotional roller coaster of 2018. The movie works as musical escapism, but it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s not an examination of the rigors of being a woman in the entertainment industry, no matter how much I wanted it to be.
The world is changing, with the currents shifting in politics and beyond. “Star” comes across almost as a relic of a simpler time, and the film’s lack of insight into modern realities leaves it feeling emotionally hollow.
And here’s an idea. It’s been more than 80 years since the original version of the film — why has Hollywood yet to flip the gender script?
We can’t see a woman discover and shepherd a young male talent to stardom because, even now, it would seem unrealistic. Women are not the gatekeepers. They do not hold the keys to the kingdom.
“A Star Is Born” is a lovely film that will most likely win plenty of Oscars. But it’s not the movie we need it to be because this isn’t the world we need it to be.
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