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Toward a Unified Theory of Bradley Cooper

With ‘A Star Is Born,’ the reluctant, bro-tastic movie star begins the auteur phase of his career. We’re far from ‘Wedding Crashers’ now.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

You are Carrie Bradshaw, beleaguered heroine of HBO’s Sex and the City. It is a Tuesday night in late-’90s Manhattan. Season 2. An unflattering portrait of you is currently gracing the cover of New York magazine, under the smarmy headline “Single & Fabulous?” You are convalescing with a fruity drink in a seedy bar, seeking validation, seeking something Real, or perhaps just seeking a floppy-haired stud for something frictionless and ill-considered. “I want to meet cute guys,” are your exact words. And lo, that is when this man appears, and asks this question.


Bradley Cooper! Scion of Philadelphia, soulful scamp, passionate bookworm, soon-to-be movie star, dreamer of dreams, leerer of leers, stonewalling bane of profile writers, charmer of innumerable babes. Rakish. Smoldering. Complicated. Here, he is playing a simple, charming man named Jake. Jake has another question for you.


You do. It ends badly, immediately. Which is so Jake, and so Bradley. A man destined for greatness and/or total disaster. He started small: In the 2001 cult sex-comedy spoof Wet Hot American Summer, he sang a silly song with Michael Ian Black, and then married him. He showed up in the pilot of the long-running Jennifer Garner spy series Alias as a softie reporter who looks like a police sketch of a Coldplay roadie, a years-long but gradually dwindling role that would, he later allowed, lead him to contemplate suicide. In 2005, he appeared in a two-episode Law & Order crossover event as a jerkoff defense attorney, his sumptuously floppy hair cut short to indicate the severity of his jerkoffness. That same year, shorn thus, he played the sniveling villain in the bawdy blockbuster Wedding Crashers, and suddenly all the world wanted a ride in his Porsche.

Fame came to him in waves, and with wildly varying degrees of prestige. Starting in 2009, the three-volume Hangover franchise established him as an uncouth leading man perfect for the sort of bro-tastic hard-R comedies Hollywood doesn’t much make anymore. With 2012’s Oscar-bait dramedy Silver Linings Playbook, he kicked off an unofficial trilogy of David O. Russell flicks that gave him depth, and a wounded grace, and a couple of Oscar nominations. He joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe as the voice of a profane, gun-toting raccoon. In 2011, he was named Sexiest Man Alive; in 2013, he was photographed reading Lolita to then-girlfriend Suki Waterhouse, 17 years his junior, while she sat on his lap in a park in Paris. It’s a rich tapestry.

His Marvel gig aside, he has struggled in recent years, his roles all cut from the same hacky cloth of volatile-but-sensitive jerks. Bad Bradley Cooper movies tend to announce his character’s sexy dangerousness outright: In 2015 alone came the wayward Cameron Crowe Hawaii romance Aloha (“Call it what you will, Captain. I go hard. I go deep. Sometimes I break things. OK?”) and the kitchen-nightmare foodie drama Burnt. (“It’s like sex. You’re always headed to the same place, but you gotta find a new and dangerous way of getting there.”) Too many sheepish bad boys seeking redemption. It was time to break that mold, or at least radically reshape it.

It was time to unveil this guy.

Warner Bros.

A Star Is Born—Cooper’s directorial debut, and the second remake of the 1954 Judy Garland melodrama—is out Friday. Finally. He also stars, opposite Lady Gaga, as a haunted rock god who looks about 40 years older than Sex and the City’s Jake, with a gravelly voice maybe two octaves lower than that of Rocket the foul-mouthed MCU racoon. The surreal press run-up for this movie has mingled pure joy and total confusion. The instant-classic trailer, a generous font of glorious memes. The charmingly pompous anecdote about Cooper wiping off Gaga’s makeup during her audition, because, you see, he wanted to make something Real. The bonkers movie clip in which he fondles her nose.

Add to this his usual habit of filibustering no-personal-stuff interviews. (Cooper, to GQ, in 2013: “I think we’re going to fucking get in a fight, bro.”) Add to this a recent super-awkward appearance on The Graham Norton Show in which someone offstage seems to have shot him with a stun gun. “I think Bradley Cooper is weirder than Tom Cruise,” a trusted confidante of mine recently observed, “because he has not found an ideology through which to channel his deep discomfort with himself.”

Which leads us to the central, timeless conundrum of Bradley Cooper, which is: Is he serious? Is he funny? Is he funny on purpose? Are his increasingly intense attempts to convey his seriousness (on accident) funny? Will A Star Is Born betray even one iota of self-awareness? If it doesn’t, will that make the movie better or worse? Is he one of his generation’s truly great leading men? Or is he a more pedestrian movie star with delusions of grandeur? And can the delusions, themselves, constitute a sort of grandeur?

Cooper might win an Oscar in a few months. As either an actor or a director. Or both. The Hangover guy. The A-Team remake guy. The All About Steve guy. But he hasn’t so much shed his frat-party-Romeo past as refined it, weaponized it, elevated it to some delirious new astral plane. Because career-wise, for a lucrative and distinguished new way forward to reveal itself, the old ways don’t necessarily have to die.

Let me remind you that Bradley Cooper’s character in Wedding Crashers is named Sack Lodge. He is the stereotypical dreaded awful boyfriend to a radiant Rachel McAdams, except he’s so loathsome and detailed that he transcends the stereotype, a leering rom-com Joffrey who throws his tie over his shoulder before punching someone in the face. He is awful and precise whether he’s playing backyard football, or hunting quail, or vomiting after Owen Wilson poisons him, or checking out the rack on that bartender. The single line of dialogue from this film I have retained for 12 years is when he snaps, “You’re not getting enough attention?” when a playful McAdams interrupts his bedside reading. Fuck this guy. He was perfect. A villain destined to be recast as the hero, but memorable enough that the villain never truly dies.

New Line Cinema

Cooper worked steadily for a few years after that breakout, but nothing quite clicked. (The crowd at my theater giggled constantly during Wedding Crashers, but later, a different packed theater served up a much bigger laugh at the trailer for his woebegone 2008 horror movie, when the title was revealed to be The Midnight Meat Train.) But 2009’s The Hangover, in all its caustic man-caveman glory, made Cooper a superstar. Directed by Todd Phillips with a maddeningly effective darkest-timeline sense of Ocean’s 11-Year-Olds style, it presents Cooper as the slogan “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” incarnate, gorgeous and amoral. The guy you can’t take home to your mother, because he’d definitely make crude remarks about your mother’s rack. His most frequently asked question is, “Who gives a fuck?” Nobody gives a fuck.

The Hangover made nearly half a billion dollars worldwide and reigned as the biggest-ever R-rated comedy until Deadpool; its fractured-timeline structure, in which Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis struggle to piece together a bleakly raucous bachelor party, was elegant even at its ugliest. Cooper is the pretty boy, and for one quick second he head-fakes at black-comedy depth, following up “You know I drive great when I’m drunk” with “I fuckin’ hate my life.” He recedes into mere handsome loathesomeness as the garish improbabilities—the tiger, the Mike Tyson cameo, the saintly escort played by Heather Graham—pile up. And yet, in the early, establishing “We fucked up” phone-call scene, Cooper is capital-A Acting, trying for maximum pathos, dressing for the job he wants. He wants to be better so bad that he genuinely makes the movie better.

The result kicked off a craze for super-macho R-rated buddy comedies (Hot Tub Time Machine, et al.) that couldn’t hope to best the original. Naturally, this also applies to The Hangover’s two sequels, both rushed out in tight two-year intervals to great commercial success and even greater critical derision. The Hangover Part II, from 2011, duplicates the plot structure with unnervingly intense devotion—Cooper’s “We fucked up” speech is now an “It happened again” speech—but changes the setting to Thailand, and yikes, this is not the sort of franchise you want trying to Up The Ante. (Hence swapping out Heather Graham for some good old-fashioned transphobia.) Whereas 2013’s The Hangover Part III is simply miserable, abandoning structure, and momentum, and comedy, and joy. The truest line of dialogue, courtesy of Ken Jeong as an oft-naked and insufferable wild man named Mr. Chow, is, “Hahaha we gonna die finally.” But by then Cooper had been reborn as an Oscar-caliber guy.

Relativity Media

Limitless, Neil Burger’s 2011 sci-fi fable about a pill that can turn you into an instant super-genius, made a pile of money (and inspired a short-lived CBS spinoff) despite making very little sense. Cooper plays a long-haired loser writer who slowly transforms into a close-cropped Master of the Universe dickhead, and suddenly his movies were in uneasy dialogue with each other. Limitless rehashes the we use only 10 percent of our brain canard Wedding Crashers turned into a joke, and The Hangover’s funniest scene, in which Zach Galifianakis Rain Mans his way to blackjack glory via onscreen equations, is now a dead-serious depiction of Cooper writing a bestselling novel in four days.

And yet, Cooper is still elevating his game in Limitless, reacting to his first dead body the way a better character in a much better movie might. This is a dangerous approach: Overcommit to trash for too long and you, my friend, are Nicolas Cage. But he locks horns with Robert De Niro as a fellow Master of the Universe named Carl Van Loon and doesn’t bust out laughing even once.

At one point, in a typically nonsensical subplot, Cooper finds himself in a police lineup, but his oily lawyer brags that it’s stacked with look-alikes, sure to leave the eyewitness hopelessly confused: “It’s gonna be one big handsome blur to this guy.” Same goes for the promising but also disappointing slate of young male superstar actors in 2012. (That year, Cooper starred opposite Ryan Gosling in the macho-moody crime flick The Place Beyond the Pines, a summit of two prime contenders to Tom Cruise’s throne, which remains filled by … Tom Cruise.) Nobody seemed destined for lasting greatness, a vexing issue that persists with this new generation of leading men, who can perk up many a Netflix comedy but can’t cough up a convincing young Han Solo. Our old pal Brad, though, was seemingly on track to play Batman, or yet another troubled young Jedi, or at least a reboot anchor for franchises more decorated than The A-Team. But wisely, he reached for a trash bag instead.

Does Silver Linings Playbook hold up? In 2012, David O. Russell’s romantic dramedy was a minor sensation, serving up two absurdly beautiful people (Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence) as they battled with mental illness and fell in love, earning Oscar nominations for both. (J-Law won in spectacular fashion; Cooper did not, given that houses do not generally receive prestigious awards for surviving tornadoes.) It is a relentlessly charming movie—in my darker moments, I turn to its swooning climactic scene for comfort despite not believing a second of it. It’s a wonderful experience provided you can overlook (a) the two leads’ 15-year age difference, and (b) the fact they both cease to display any sign of mental illness with, like, 20 minutes left in the movie, and what symptoms they have displayed are wiped out by an energetic dance montage set to “Girl From the North Country.”

The most impressive thing about Cooper’s quick three-movie run with Russell is how subordinate he’s willing to be, at his best when he’s letting better actors be better. He’s great in Playbook, actually, vulnerable and volcanic, his frequent outbursts just loose enough to not seem Actorly. But his most gracious decision is to stand aside and let Lawrence cook. Which goes triple for 2013’s American Hustle, in which he is, comfortably and effectively, the Ringo of a fearsome Actorly quartet rounded out by Lawrence, Amy Adams, and Christian Bale. This is a flamboyant ’70s con-man potboiler with no compunction about ramming “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” into “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” into “Evil Ways” onto the soundtrack rapid-fire, and in terms of thespian action, everybody onscreen is pointing a fire hose at everyone else at all times. It’s possibly great but definitely exhausting, and it’s a feat in itself that two hours later, Cooper doesn’t look totally exhausted.

Columbia Pictures

Although, there he is, glumly sitting on the toilet and eating over the sink whilst he curls his hair. He’s playing a cocky FBI agent, and his early patter with Adams has a tone familiar from far lousier Bradley Cooper movies: “I break the rules. I like you.” Very long story short, he gets wrapped up with some black-diamond con artists and is soon in way over his head, with all the disco hedonism and eventual freakouts that implies. He can’t hang at this level is pretty gnarly, as A-list-actor subtext goes. But even when he’s clutching Adams and growling, “YOU GOTTA CALM ME DOWN,” he’s never quite out of control. The good news and the bad news is that the best part of American Hustle—and maybe Cooper’s single funniest onscreen moment to date—is when he does a derisive impression of his gutless FBI boss, who is played by Louis C.K. So. Yeah.

The Cooper-Lawrence-Russell trilogy, too, ended with a whimper, in the form of 2015’s Joy, in which a broke and browbeaten J-Law invents a mop and battles with her cartoonishly evil family, her natural-disaster acting style no match for tonal shifts this calamitous. Cooper only gets a few scenes, as a slick but indistinct QVC impresario whose sole plot function, speaking of A-list-actor subtext, is to literally stage-direct Lawrence’s character to greatness. But the good news, and/or the bad news, is that he’d already moved on, and found himself back in a tux on Oscar night.

It is time to deal with American Sniper. Under Clint Eastwood’s effectively lurid and breathtaking direction, the Christmas 2014 war movie is Cooper’s most challenging and most central role, as well as his most physically transformative: In portraying Navy SEAL and highly decorated Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, he lets his beard, and his newfound bulk, and his aviator shades do the heavy lifting. (His wobbly Texas accent, alas, is only slightly more convincing than the blatantly fake baby.) Based on Kyle’s own 2013 memoir, Sniper is unceasingly reverent toward the man and unsparing in depicting the viciousness of the war, and Cooper clings valiantly to the character’s fundamental decency despite shooting a truly alarming number of men, women, and children, and throwing the word savages around with casual aplomb.

It’s ugly. In scattered moments—especially Kyle’s late-in-life interactions with other veterans—it also feels necessary. This is a hell of a movie to revisit in 2018, when babies born on 9-11 are now old enough to enlist in the war in Afghanistan. Eastwood’s movie, in a handful of pointed lines, takes that longer, darker view. (“It’s only gonna be six weeks, baby,” Kyle tells his new bride as he prepares to embark for Fallujah. “That’s what they say.”) But there are garish video-game aspects, too. Secondary characters are constantly updating Kyle as to how many kills he’s got (160 by movie’s end), and there’s a highly fictionalized evil sniper on the insurgent side to give our hero a Final Boss. “Savages,” “savages,” “savages.” For the second half of the movie, Kyle is referred to constantly as “Legend.” Eastwood was two years removed from haranguing an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention at this point, and he’d rediscovered some degree of nuance. The precise degree was the subject of a great deal of heated debate.

American Sniper did indeed unleash an avalanche of think pieces and fraught reviews, pro and con, veteran and appalled civilian. There is broad agreement that the movie minimized the crueler aspects of Kyle’s memoir, and handled the matter of his death with a delicacy that bordered on evasiveness. There was also general agreement that Cooper himself did both the character and the larger, thornier circumstances justice. He’s vivid even at his most repressed, and very quietly provides a moral center even when the movie threatens to disavow the idea of a moral center entirely. It’s his best performance, in that he makes even the unwatchable watchable. He was nominated once again for Best Actor, lost to The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne, just as in 2013 his Silver Linings Playbook bid was repelled by Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln. How’s that for subtext.

Of course Bradley Cooper wound up in a bunch of Marvel movies, and of course he did it in the weirdest way possible. Starting in 2014 with Guardians of the Galaxy, he has provided the voice for, yes, Rocket the crass and homicidal raccoon, reprising the role in the 2017 sequel, plus this year’s Avengers: Infinity War, all gargantuan blockbusters beyond any scale he’d ever known. This meal ticket is currently imperiled by the poorly handled firing of Guardians franchise director James Gunn, and also imperiled by Thanos. (Cooper is currently swatting away rumors that he might direct the third Guardians movie himself.) But man, is it a trip watching him record his dialogue.

Cooper’s voice has never been his single greatest asset, sturdy and manly when required, shrill and whiny when necessary. It is his function, in this universe, to drop mildly inappropriate three-pound swears like “conceited douchebags,” “scrotum hat,” “moronic shitbag,” “crapsack,” etc. It’s a fairly narrow point of view, expressed rather broadly. He is way on the shrill end of the scale, vocally, to the point of sometimes being unrecognizable, but this, too, shows an admirable lack of vanity, one supposes. Let’s not think too hard about as many aspects of the MCU as possible.

Trouble was, until quite recently, he didn’t have much else going on. His latter-day live-action filmography is a bit of a mess, as typified by the 2015 trifecta of Joy, Burnt, and Aloha. Burnt is Troubled But Great Man boilerplate, with Cooper in a smoldering Gordon Ramsay mode, delivering lines like “We should be dealing in culinary orgasms” with as straight a face as he can muster, which is, at this point, pretty straight. But Aloha was an outright flop, its classic redeemed-fuckup Cameron Crowe whimsy coated in an ash of narrative confusion and culture-clash bumbling. (Emma Stone’s character, in a poorly received decision, is self-described as being of both Hawaiian and Chinese descent.) It’s a rom-com that also features a nuclear satellite; halfway through, Stone and Bill Murray, as an Elon Musk–esque tech baron, dance in a bar, because why not put the movie’s wrap party in the middle of the movie. Don’t watch this.

And yet I keep thinking about Aloha’s final scene.

Short version: Cooper’s character goes to watch the teenage girl he recently learned was his daughter hula dance, and conveys to her, wordlessly, that she is, in fact, his daughter. (The movie is too inept for this to count as a spoiler.) It is lovely, and understated, and gently tear-jerking in a manner Cooper traditionally doesn’t much bother with, and in another context—meaning, if it were attached to a much better movie—it’d belong on his highlight reel. Which is why it belongs on his highlight reel as is: Elevating movies that don’t necessarily deserve to be elevated has always kinda been his thing.

The critical rapture that seems to be greeting A Star Is Born suggests that this phase of his career may finally be over. Get a load of this Forbes headline. Is the world ready for Bradley Cooper, auteur? He seems preoccupied with using this film to dismantle the most cynical aspects of the Hollywood star-making machine, which to his mind seems to be most if not all of them. That he might jump several tiers in the high-art moviegoing imagination by doing so is just another fun little bit of subtext. It was hard to see this coming, but maybe you saw it coming. Maybe, like Carrie Bradshaw, you knew it the first time you laid eyes on him.

An earlier version of this story misstated the Best Actor winner in the year Cooper was nominated for American Sniper. It was Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, not Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln.