WARNING: Major spoilers for A Star Is Born
A Star Is Born‘s ending undoes what could have been a Hollywood classic – but that’s not exactly Bradley Cooper’s fault. From its first version in 1937, A Star Is Born has always had a problematic resolution to its story, one that’s only got worse over the past century, and this latest version is no different.
A Star Is Born is a classic story that Hollywood loves so much it’s told it four times (with a suspiciously-similar earlier version, several failed attempts and many, many imitators). A top-of-his-game star (in 2018, Bradley Cooper’s rock star Jackson Maine) is suffering from alcoholism and in a stupor discovers a struggling artist (Lady Gaga as Ally, a waitress moonlighting in a drag bar), falling in love with both her and her talent. He provides her with a big break, sending her fame into the stratosphere just as his addictions begin to derail his career. The pair marry, but despite their love things begin to fray.
Related: Read Our A Star Is Born Review
It’s a tale of rags to riches, of falls from grace, of the power of love, and personal identity within all of that. And, for much of the runtime, A Star Is Born 2018 is genuinely a great version of all those stories. Gaga’s first major concert leaves you floating, Cooper shows mental affliction with grace, both perform their songs incredibly (to actual live crowds, no less), and are utterly believable as troubled lovers. It is, for much of its runtime, a very good film worthy of that deafening hype.
However, everything implodes into a black hole of pretentiousness as what could have been a great film its own right has to follow through on being called A Star Is Born…
- This Page: The Problem With A Star Is Born’s Ending
- Page 2: A Star Is Born’s Ending Has Always Been Bad
- Page 3: Why Bradley Cooper Couldn’t Fix A Star Is Born
What Happens In A Star Is Born’s Ending
We’ll stick with Cooper’s take for now before going deeper into the past. A Star Is Born‘s third act is kicked off by Ally winning the Grammy for Best New Artist – a major step for her career, undercut entirely by Jack drunkenly taking to the stage with her and relieving himself on live TV. He goes into rehab and she wrestles with where her focus should lie, eventually deciding to try and protect her recovering husband. She cancels her European tour when her agent, Rez, blocks the duo playing together.
As a result, Jack kills himself. He’s confronted by a seething Rez who has no sympathies or expectations of sobriety and states outright Jack’s ruining his wife’s career. When she matter-of-fact states the tour cancellation, he sees the impact of his actions and, while she plays a concert, he hangs himself in their garage.
Related: Every Song On A Star Is Born’s Soundtrack
This breaks Ally at first, leaving her emotionally distraught, before her understanding the meaning of Jack’s sacrifice – to enable her to truly become the star he always saw – helps her pull through. The film ends at a tribute concert in Jack’s memory. “My name is Ally Maine.” she declares before singing “I’ll Never Love Again”, a song based on their relationship they wrote together while he was recovering. A flashback shows the pair singing, she looks through the camera at the audience, the end.
Why A Star Is Born’s Ending Is Bad
Removing the ending of all presentation and self-imposed importance (a character looking into the camera at the end is an overused trope that Cooper simply doesn’t earn), in just writing down the events of A Star Is Born its problems should be obvious.
Jack decides to kill himself to save his wife, committing suicide because it’s the only way to set her free. This comes about two hours into a film which has slowly built up its numerous interpersonal relationships, and so comes as a drastic and rather unearned turn. Now, there is an argument to be made about accuracy to the unpredictability of mental illness, but given the intimacy audiences had with both Jack and Ally up until this moment, that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film. A Star Is Born, plainly, presents suicide as the only way out. It’s meant to come across as a selfless act but still values success as a true route to happiness, meaning anything emotional about the “gesture” is laced with hypocrisy.
But it’s what comes after and Ally’s coming to terms with her loss that’s so disquieting. For all her innate talent being the drive of the story and her freely made decision to step back what motivated Jack to kill himself, the final scene makes everything about Jack; the mononymous singer for the first time takes on her husband’s surname at his concert, where she performs a song that he helped her write in her original singer style. The suggestion is meant to be that Jack was holding her back, but in the shadow of the previous two hours the strange implication is that the act of a true star being born came from the adversity of Jack’s sacrifice. Making Ally’s success symbiotic to her dead husband is already heavily in the text of the film, but the final scene makes her final ascension even more indebted to his drastic act.
It’s hard to not read A Star Is Born‘s ending as trivializing suicide down to a plot point to give the fundamentally broken male lead the defining role in its female protagonist’s arc. It’s a weird move to make in 2018, although don’t believe this is just the product of an 80-year-old movie being remade. There’s something flawed at the heart of A Star Is Born.
Page 2: A Star Is Born’s Ending Has Always Been Bad
The True Story Behind A Star Is Born’s Ending Explains The Problem
There have been four versions of A Star Is Born: the 1937 Hollywood-skewering original starring Janet Gaynor and Frederick March, the 1954 musical starring Judy Garland and James Mason, the 1976 shift to the music industry with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and the latest Cooper/Gaga release. Each one has its own quirks, but all endeavor to tell the same story of love and fame intertwined, and all have the same basic ending. But the 1937 version isn’t the start. While A Star Is Born‘s narrative is a fiction, it’s very much based on truth; each movie is rooted heavily in the entertainment industry of the time – Hollywood for the 1937 and 1954 versions, music for 1976 and 2018 – and aims to tell an encapsulating story. There are some real-life events that inspired it.
The established star falling for an unknown as she climbs to the top was seen in actors Barbara Stanwyck and Frank Fay’s relationship, with the pair marrying in 1928 when the former was an unknown after starring in a Broadway show together. Their marriage fell apart after she rose above him and he fell into alcoholism. They separated in 1935 after seven years of marriage, two years before A Star Is Born was released. This appears to have been composited with the death of silent film actor John Bowers, who died at sea in 1936 after failing to win a part (whether it was a suicide or not is unclear). There are others (as we’ll see) but these are regarded as the ones who powered the 1937 version.
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Of course, there’s one key distinction between inspiration and movie: in real life, it was two unrelated stories. There are the famous lovers who piggyback success and the past-it star who takes his own life, but in all cases these two aspects are entirely independent; the woman goes on to greater success by cutting the man out, while elsewhere another man falls from grace. Both stories epitomize Hollywood together, and taken alongside each other rather than melded have an ingrained believability. A Star Is Born trades that for something more streamlined in having the suicide be the culmination of the romance, but it’s also idealistic and wistful, losing the real moral of either.
This is reflected in what is regarded as a proto-Star Is Born, the 1932 film What Price Hollywood? Released five years before the 1937 version and produced also by David O. Selznick (and directed by George Cukor, who was approached for the first A Star Is Born and directed the first remake), this is regarded as something of a dry run at the story. Obviously from the release year it can’t share the same real-life inspirations (although, because this is the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are others pointed to), but the core concept and even smaller story beats are there, albeit with one massive difference: the leads are not romantically involved. Lowell Sherman’s Max drunkenly finds Constance Bennett’s Mary and helps make her a star, eventually killing himself after he sees realizes how far he’s fallen and is hurting his friend, while Mary’s suffers an ill-fated marriage that breaks down due to her absences filming and is reconciled at the end.
Watched today, What Price Hollywood? has a cynicism about the film industry ahead of its time despite ultimately being a movie romanticizing Hollywood – and at the core of this is the tragic story of Max and its impact on Mary’s life. The title question is apt.
How The Remakes Have Tried To “Fix” The Ending
In contrast to What Price Hollywood?, A Star Is Born 1937 carries a self-awareness and charm, but in bridging the romantic and the career side of protagonist Esther creates the problematic suicide reading. It’s not helped by dated elements, including the defining part of Esther’s ascension being the actress known as Vicki Lester taking on her husband’s name with a declaration “This is Mrs. Norman Maine“. It works given the time period, but even 16 years later needed an update.
Related: Watch the Trailer For A Star Is Born
The 1954 version is, for the most part, a beat-for-beat remake, just with dance number expansion to make it a musical, but it does make some strides to justifying the ending. The toll that caring for a drunk has on Judy Garland’s Vicki Lester is shown gradually, most upsettingly in an off-stage breakdown she immediately returns to filming from: an unavoidable presentation of the line between art and performer. But, ultimately, it ends in the same way: Norman Maine overhears Vicki’s plans to quit acting to care for her husband, so he feigns going for a swim and drowns himself; after a traumatic period and being unmasked at her funeral (the invasion of the press), Vicki returns to the public eye where she declares herself “Mrs. Norman Maine“. Every issue discussed is here.
The 1976’s A Star Is Born is overall incredibly melodramatic, nowhere less than its handling of the ending. What it should be praised for is its attempts at giving the female lead a greater sense of autonomy: throughout Streisand’s Esther makes decisions that power the narrative, not just being led along by Kristoffersen as those who came before her, but that’s lost thuddingly in the finale. After his meltdown, John Howard has imposed isolation – not rehab – and when returning home immediately sleeps with a reporter wanting an interview for Esther. The couple tries to power past this, but John figures he’s still broken and crashes his car at high speeds. Again, Esther is sad before taking his name (and singing at a tribute event).
Like we’ve already explored with A Star Is Born 2018, all versions have tried to provide their own contemporary spin on the tale to iron out its kinks, yet all wind up having to repeat the same suicide-anger-name triple-tap that doesn’t belong. A degree can be accounted to the changing times, but that ignores that the original trio of movies released over nearly 40 years, and that Cooper wasn’t able to address it either.
Page 3: Why Bradley Cooper Couldn’t Fix A Star Is Born
Why Bradley Cooper Can’t Fix A Star Is Born
Bradley Cooper certainly tries to bring a modern slant to the worn tale of A Star Is Born. He invests heavily in making Jack and Ally’s opposite trajectories operate independently – Jack is suffering from tinnitus before he’s heard a note of “La Vie En Rose”, while Ally’s SNL appearance is deemed to contradict his advice – while making the love story more immediate. It’s a bigger story, more personal and considerably more consummately paced.
But, like all the others, the ending hits a snag. And some of his decisions make it worse. The method of final descent is different, with the awards show upset and rehab undone not by Maine going off the rails again as in every other take, but rather by Ally’s agent calling his supposed bluff. It’s implied from the British Rez knowing when exactly Jackson first toured across the pond that he was once a fan, now disillusioned with his hero, making him a millennial scapegoat to any affronting reading.
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This generational push and pull could have been what sent A Star Is Born to greatness. Sam Elliott’s speech about there only being twelve notes played over and over, with the majesty coming from how the artist uses them is a beautiful sentiment that sees Cooper self-justifying another remake and appears like a zen view on the entertainment business that birthed it. Except it isn’t, because this idea is also trying to explain the ending, claiming that the music industry is cyclical and that stars are born and then new stars are born later; Jack’s death is enabling that. What the film seems to miss is that for one state to ever enter another, a star must always die. Ally will fall too. The raw textual argument is that the failures are as eternal as the successes, raising the question of worth, yet the film provides no further exploration and presents it as somehow immediately uplifting.
And that’s the hump that A Star Is Born 2018, like its predecessors, can’t get over. The story thinks it’s a biting, self-aware take on itself, but it’s too close to the subject to see that it’s really just propagating a harsh cycle. This isn’t helped by the film being weighted by so much – the casting of Lady Gaga, his writer-director-producer-actor whammy, even Sam Elliott as the Sam Elliott-type – although those concerns are also the key explanation for what’s really going on.
A Star Is Born Only Exists Because Of Ego
Throughout this article, there’s been one question dangling unspoken. Why are there four versions of A Star Is Born anyway? It’s a story that is flawed and dated, on a topic which has been tackled in more films than any other. Yes, each movie got serious Oscar nominations and wins, but that alone isn’t enough to justify going back. The true answer is enlightening.
1954’s A Star Is Born was conceived as a bid to restart Judy Garland’s career after it stalled over the 1940s. 1976’s A Star Is Born was Barbra Streisand’s attempt (along with then-husband Jon Peters) to boost her standing in Hollywood. And 2018’s A Star Is Born is Bradley Cooper’s grand attempt to win the Oscar that he believes he deserves (his entire post-Hangover career is a carefully played game of chess with a Golden Baldie the King). There are studio concerns too (before Cooper, Warner Bros had been attempting to get a remake off the ground since the early 2010s, although as a Beyonce vehicle has the same career expansion goals), but those are the primary purposes of each version. A Star Is Born is a vanity project on repeat.
Related: A Star Is Born Is An Oscar Favorite – But Could An Infamous Producer Hurt Its Chances?
Now, vanity projects needn’t be bad, and indeed a lot of good comes from each of these attempts. Indeed, each was ultimately successful in both their primary and commercial goals: Garland’s career was rejuvenated; Streisand won her second Oscar; and Cooper’s currently the front-runner in multiple categories for next year’s Academy Awards.
But this aspect appears to be why each version of A Star Is Born struggles to understand the real meaning of its ending. Each powering force believes this movie will be what takes them being a Norman/Jack Maine to a new Esther/Ally while missing that it’s built into the story to be impossible. They believe so much in the two contradictory Hollywood legends wholesale, so don’t see that the story is almost warning against such a thing.
A Star Is Born Is No Longer Needed
In recent years, we’ve seen Hollywood’s reliable rotation of movies about itself take a genuinely incisive slant. 2015’s Best Picture Winner Birdman was an ostentatious exploration of ego that too ended with the protagonist committing suicide, but there it was with the wry critique that fame and adoration are fleeting and that such a bold act was the only way for the self-involved hero to reach the heights he dreamed of. Then there’s 2017’s almost-Best Picture Winner La La Land, which was a celebration of Hollywood-gone-by looking at love in a city of stars, eventually concluding that success required the sacrifice of the central relationship.
Together, these take on all the ideas that A Star Is Born is playing with and apply them in a more thoughtful way. The messages are more widely applicable and their endnotes have considerably less of the hypocrisy. Birdman and La La Land may find joy in the arts, but they also uncover the trials of creativity and fame, keeping the brutal truths in earshot while presenting from a position of success.
A Star Is Born 2018 is a good movie, an undeniable achievement for both Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. But there is a flaw at the heart of the tale that just doesn’t ring true. Unless it’s made with a completely revisionist, ego-less eye, in twenty years we do not need another one.
More: Every Version Of A Star Is Born Ranked, From Garland To Gaga
2018-10-06 01:10:52 – Alex Leadbeater