Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, above, give new life to ‘A Star Is Born;’ below, Tom Hardy sinks his teeth into the Marvel-ous role of ‘Venom.’
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga each stretch themselves in new ways in ‘A Star Is Born’
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor
The writing credits for the new remake (the third) of A Star Is Born cite not only the current writers, but acknowledge the 1976, 1954 and the 1937 versions — a telling genealogy for a story that feels universal, even cliché, but constantly invigorated by reinvention. The first two versions were about actresses in Hollywood; the latter two, about singers in the music industry. But the tale — of a starry-eyed ingénue whose Svengali encourages her, just as his demons cause his light to fade — could apply to almost any profession. You could even say All About Eve is the catty, cynical obverse.
It has been more than 40 years since the last remake (the longest dry spell), in which Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson boozed it up on the way to immortality. La Streisand, of course, is a particular kind of singer, whose bombastic style is less in favor on the airwaves than it once was, so the script was in desperate need of updating. The lengths to which Bradley Cooper — who co-wrote, directs, produces and co-stars in this version — is ready to announce this show for the new millennium occurs almost at the start: His proto-protégé, Ally (played by Lady Gaga in her major-role screen debut), is discovered singing, in of all places, a gay bar. Cooper’s character, a rock legend named Jackson Maine, seems completely at ease among the drag queens (among them Drag Racers Shangela and Willam Belli) and fruit flies, a man attuned to modern society and not cowering from it, secure in his own masculinity. (Imagine Kristofferson doing that in 1976.) And from that moment on, this A Star Is Born establishes its credibility with a contemporary audience: This is not your dad’s rags-to-riches tale, on your granddad’s, or your great-granddad’s. Hollywood’s Golden Age, meet the 21st century.
A tweak here or there wouldn’t necessarily justify a wholesale reboot of this familiar tale without added value; even if you consider Lady Gaga’s presence as stunt casting, that would only take it so far. No, what makes A Star Is Born the first serious awards-contender of the fall season — as well as a likely box office bonanza — is the authenticity and depth of character these folks have undergone since the days of Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. Jackson (previously Norman) is still an alcoholic, but his decline is not left to the mere fact of his addiction, but to the reason for it: A degenerative hearing disease that will leave him deaf sooner rather than later. He isn’t jealous of Ally’s success so much as she is his legacy project, his final gift to the world of music.
But Jackson is a purist: It’s not enough to make good music, or popular music, but to be true. When Jackson senses that Ally is being led astray by her label, turned into a commodity more than an artist, he undercuts her, disparages her, and drifts into a world of self-pity. What profiteth a woman to inherit the world, yet lose her soul?
Cooper really hits the sweet spot with his work; it wouldn’t surprise me if he joined Orson Welles and Warren Beatty as the only men ever to get four Oscar nominations for the same film. When he first speaks, you swear you’re listening to Sam Elliott; only later does Sam Elliott himself turn up, playing Cooper’s brother, and you realize how intentional the performance is, and how exact. And the directing has the raw energy yet confidence of a more seasoned filmmaker, as well as fearlessness and lack of ego. Cooper-the-director shows Cooper-the-actor warts and all (and even takes second billing). It’s an amazing personal achievement.
Acting-wise, Cooper is well-matched by Elliott (who should finally get his first Oscar nod), whose weather-beaten disposition embodies the weariness of being Jackson’s brother, and, of course, Gaga herself. Nobody needs to be told she can sing the shit out of “Happy Birthday to You,” so her powerhouse vocal prowess comes as no shock. But the chemistry between the stars is palpable. She also turns herself over to Cooper’s aesthetic, playing a plain Jane (no meat dress here!) with an unaffected effortlessness that proves she’s got acting chops as well as charisma. When Jackson tears into Ally about her reliance on flash over substance, you can imagine those words landing with particular heft on someone as commoditized as Gaga herself. That’s when A Star Is Born hits home, not as a remake, but as a cautionary tale for all time.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is having a hard time. A successful investigative telejournalist, he loses his job, his career and his girl (Michelle Williams) when he dares to do something bigger than a puff piece on the sinister industrialist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) — “Fake news!” the Elon Musky science-entrepreneur claims, though all of Eddie’s allegations are true. Then Eddie has the misfortune to become a further victim to one of Drake’s schemes: He is attacked by an amorphous alien creature called a symbiote, a sort of Super Silly Putty who embues Eddie with superpowers that seem to mimic other, more famous mutants: Wolverine (super-healing!), Spider-Man (super sticky!), Hulk (super strength!), as well as the cravings of a vampire and the fluidity of the T-1000. When they are joined, they go by the name Venom.
And it’s all super dumb.
Though a Marvel Comics character, this Sony film is not part of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe but a stand-alone attempt to create a new franchise, though I can’t see that happening. The film is both bloodless and bloodthirsty, with no logic or strong sense of Venom or the limits of his abilities. Hardy gives it the ol’ college try, but this is right up there — down there — with The Incredible Hulk as one of the Marvel movies that is anything but marvelous.