Warning: This article contains spoilers for ‘A Star Is Born’.
After countless five-star reviews and the first big Oscar buzz of the year, my expectations were understandably sky-high when I got to the cinema to watch ‘A Star Is Born’ last week. Widely billed as Lady Gaga’s first big foray into acting (she already has a Golden Globe for her leading stint in ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’, of course, but why let that stand in the way of a good narrative?) I was fully ready for the emotional rollercoaster that practically every film critic had assured me I was in for.
On a personal note, I don’t think the film ever reached the dizzying heights that had been laid out in the reviews for the past few months, and I left feeling a mixture of perplexed and bored, but that’s not my biggest issue with ‘A Star Is Born’. My main problems were the more troubling aspects of the remake that the critics failed to address when they started writing about it.
The first of these is lead character Ally’s relationship to the men in her life, namely leading man Bradley Cooper’s character, rock star Jackson Maine. Like the meteoric rise to fame described in the title of the film, Ally and Jackson’s relationship grows very quickly, and seemingly within minutes of them meeting, she’s following him around the world on tour, before he eventually helps her launch a music career of her own.
We don’t learn much about Ally as a character, other than she’s fresh out of a break-up and has a complex about her nose (indeed, a surprisingly large amount of time is devoted to Jackson giving Ally reassurance about her hooter), and it’s clear that as a viewer, we’re supposed to be rooting for the two central characters as a couple, rather than individuals. The only issue there is, in 2018, there’s a fair argument that Ally and Jackson’s relationship is far from aspirational.
In the early days of their romance, we see Ally walking on her waitressing job to fly across the world to attend Jackson’s concert (she’s unaware at this point that this will lead to him pulling her up on stage, kick-starting her own professional music career). He’s also one for arriving at her house out of the blue, which has more than a touch of the Christian Grey about it. Essentially, it’s clear in their relationship’s developing stages that it’s Jackson who holds a lot of the power, and celebrity or not, if Ally was your friend you’d be telling her to be careful.
Anyone who knows a little bit about the plot of the first three ‘A Star Is Born’ incarnations will know it’s about an established star who helps propel a female companion to fame and success, only to struggle when her glow begins to eclipse his. Already having this knowledge before I saw Bradley Cooper’s take, I was therefore unsurprised - but nonetheless uncomfortable - with scenes in which Jackson shows his jealousy, rubbing a cake in her face when she lands a record deal or branding her “ugly” and mocking her songs when she lands three Grammy nominations.
What I was less ready for was how much of this behaviour would go unchecked. While at the beginning of the film, Ally says nothing when her father puts her ambitions down in front of his friends, she’s similarly unfazed about the cake-smearing, instead laughing off the stunt and returning to the party. Their bath-side row about her Grammys success is similarly forgotten about as soon as he shows up at her rehearsal studio to surprise her, with no one really learning anything from either unpleasant incident.
Ally never really gets the chance to stand up for herself when it comes to Jackson’s treatment of her, and instead it’s her manager that winds up telling him off, after she reveals that she’s calling off her European tour to be at his side.
What happens next is my second major gripe with ‘A Star Is Born’, namely its depiction of Jackson’s suicide. Having already told a jarring anecdote about a previous suicide attempt during his rehab stint, largely played for laughs, the film’s most upsetting scene comes when Bradley Cooper’s character walks silently into his garage and removes his belt. It’s obvious what’s coming next, and yet we have to see it anyway, as we cut suddenly from Ally shouting out her beloved on stage, to a shot from the outside of Jackson’s garage, with his lifeless hands and torso seen hanging through the window.
There’s certainly an argument that this shot was included so as to remind everyone of the horrors of suicide, but to me it simply felt gratuitous. Suicide, of course, is a particularly pressing issue right now, particularly among young men, so for a mainstream film to feature a scene like this could well be perceived as progressive.
But for me, the whole scene felt insensitive, unnecessarily detailed and potentially triggering for anyone who has been affected by suicide in the past, particularly considering it was a plot point I’d not read mentioned in any reviews, and had no preparation for.
In all three versions of ‘A Star Is Born’ that pre-date this recent offering, the male lead has died at the same point in the story, with two of those deaths being due to suicide, so I can understand why Bradley Cooper felt that Jackson had to die too. But given that this is a modern take on ‘A Star Is Born’, with pop music and ‘Saturday Night Live’ and YouTube virality, why couldn’t the ending too have been updated?
By the time the infamous Grammys scene has aired, we already know Jackson is at his lowest ebb, we know the humiliation he’s experienced at the hands of a fickle music industry and we know the dangers of addiction. His death serves as little more than an excuse for Ally to dye her hair back to brown and rediscover her love of “real” music, which feels like a rather trivial handling of an issue as serious as suicide (I won’t even get into the scene in which Bobby tells Ally that Jackson’s death was “no one’s fault but his own”, which feels like a rather unhealthy message for an audience to be consuming unchallenged).
If Jackson in ‘A Star Is Born’ is supposed to highlight issues relating to mental health and addiction, it’s unfortunate that Bradley Cooper didn’t want to give him a more hopeful ending, even if that meant him stepping out of the limelight completely. In the same way, it would have been nice for Ally to grow a backbone and take back control of both her career and her relationship for herself.
Instead, ‘A Star Is Born’ is just the latest in a long line of films that portray a toxic and borderline-abusive relationship as aspirational, and it is a wasted opportunity to give an age-old story a modern update.
Daniel Welsh is an entertainment reporter at HuffPost UK. Follow him on Twitter at @sillyolddaniel