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‘A Star Is Born’ Lives Up to Impossible Expectations, and We Have Bradley Cooper (?) to Thank

Yes, Cooper pulled it off. We’re as shocked as you are.

A photo illustration of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in ‘A Star Is Born’ Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

A Star Is Born is a Great Man movie. The title may be a reference to Lady Gaga’s Ally Campana, a struggling singer hustling in drag clubs in L.A., but the movie lives and dies by Jackson Maine, the man under the telescope cowboy hat and wicker-brush beard. Maine, of course, is played by Bradley Cooper, who also cowrote, produced, and directed this fourth iteration of the classic Hollywood tragedy about a fading star, his rising muse, and their cursed love. He is all of it, and it is all of him.

The Great Man movie is the domain of the vainglorious. You know the kind: Citizen Kane. Patton. Braveheart. Realish figures with inordinate drive, significant achievements, and fatal flaws. They’re often made by singularly focused men who identify with the subject’s journeys, struggles, tests of will. They emerge stronger, or they die in spectacular fashion. Jackson Maine isn’t real but he fits many of the Great Man qualifications. He is also a rare composite: Cooper cites Eddie Vedder, sounds like Gregg Allman, drinks like Bon Scott, looks like Father John Misty, and—if the character’s trajectory is to be believed—has the career of Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill. Presumably this soulful pop-country rocker emerged around the turn of the century from his Arizona pecan farm and rose to great prominence alongside contemporaries like … Nickelback? Maine is a true-blue rock star in a hip-hop world, and for a movie that is breathlessly committed to its own sincerity, the idea that he could be a Coachella-headlining star in 2018 is one of its few credulity-straining notes. But leave it to Cooper, who, whether portraying an emotionally troubled Eagles fan or an animated space racoon, has the temerity to just go for it.

A Star Is Born is the living embodiment of going for it, one of the least humble, least self-conscious, least self-aware movies in recent memory—and maybe one of the best. But it’s a little hard to tell just how good it is, or how meaningful the whole affair is after one screening, because it swings a wrecking ball into your feelings with an irrational persistence. It is relentless in its orchestrative manipulation—the sound is cacophonous, like a bowling ball crashing into pins at close range. The music is ludicrously arranged high-drama rock, with Maine slashing his fretboard like a wolverine clawing at its prey. The performances are as expressive and high-wire as the kind you find in great movies directed by actors. In Gaga, Cooper has not only a foil, but, surprisingly, a low-key counterweight. Ally is a formidable woman, imbued with a point of view, identity, and mission—but she is the one bound by affection for her partner. She’s quieter, more still. Maine is the unraveling ball of yarn. And Cooper pulls out all the performative stops—his face is the shade of an overcooked squab, his hair is a nest of grease and Marlboro smoke, and his style blends ’80s Lou Reed with ’70s Willie Nelson. And that voice—Jackson Maine speaks as if his throat is coated in gin and his tongue has just been stung by a bee. It’s an extraordinary voice. It makes special noise.

There was a rash of early reviews for A Star Is Born that promised the second coming of Chinatown or, well, A Star Is Born. These reviews were as breathless as the film, eager to canonize it, to affirm its place in a long line of essential show business fables. Those reviews were absurd, but the desire of their authors to be a part of something as pop, as mainstream, as obvious as A Star Is Born is palpable. For those who are emotionally invested in the abstract idea of a movie culture, few of us want to live in the time when attention spans are fractured, no one is watching the same thing, and the Oscars feel like an irrelevant private party. Consensus isn’t useful as a constant—but as an exception, it has a unique power. Cooper’s A Star Is Born may not be Chinatown or Titanic, but it is that exception. It’s a heaping bowl of chocolate ice cream—sweet, creamy, and rough on the other side. Everyone likes chocolate ice cream, consequences be damned.

There is, similarly, an eagerness to declare A Star Is Born the Best Picture front-runner, given its familiarity of purpose. But that never comes at the expense of its vitality. It’s possible that the race will feel as if it’s already over by this weekend, when a great number of people see this crowd-pleasing, cockeyed love story. To declare it so would be foolish. It was just about this time two years ago when Barry Jenkins’s second feature film debuted in theaters and there was nary a soul who had Moonlight as an Oscar night lock. These things change quickly, and we have three months’ worth of movies to pore over and prognosticate about before really tussling with A Star Is Born’s chances.

But when it comes to awards and adulation, what this movie has is narrative. A Great Man sauntering into the frame, Cooper ready to inhale the praise and evade the journalists seeking public catharsis. He can genuflect at the altar of artistry, speak in vague, important-seeming koans like, “That’s the whole point of creating art, trying to somehow deal with the desperate reality of being alive, you know?” And he should.

The finest parts of A Star Is Born happen in the first hour, when Cooper’s character begins questing. He first stumbles upon Gaga’s character while looking for a bar to soak in after a concert. He finds his way to a gay club where Ally is performing “La Vie en Rose” in grand fashion. She vamps. He makes moony eyes. They lock eyes. The volcano erupts.

One of the easiest things to portray in a movie is two people falling in love—swell the strings, pull in for the two-shot, lean closer, slow motion, and … kiss. This isn’t what Cooper is up to at all. His love story is old-fashioned and has the feeling of magic, but the execution is in weird, authenticating moments—the odd way Maine admires and then touches Ally’s nose, a signal of affection that carries through the movie. It’s flirting that becomes ritual, the sort of hidden gesture you’d find in most any real-life long-term relationship. The interplay between Maine and Ally has an intimacy that is uncommon in a movie this commercial. It feels picked over and discussed, chosen. Maybe not real, but in the realm of true.

Cooper’s croaking character, who is often seen glugging clear booze from ice-filled tumblers, is the agent of weird. It is the thing I responded to most—he is a typical figure, that Great Man. A conventional star. But he is also messy and sometimes incomprehensible and wracked with kamikaze instincts. He fights his protector brother, embarrasses those closest to him, and teeters on a kind of emotional tightrope just long enough to fall from the worst possible angle.

Cooper, of course, knows he’s got a golden part on his hands. He shoots himself like Jesus’s son—beaming but bound for tragedy. It’s a movie made by a movie star starring a movie star for a movie star. And there is something abnormally reassuring about that. Previous versions of the A Star Is Born story had never been directed by an actor—the Maine character is a part that has been played by Fredric March (two Oscars, two Tonys), James Mason (three-time Oscar nominee), and Kris Kristofferson (an American treasure). The pedigree is serious. Given that he is essentially an alchemical blend of all three of those performers, Cooper—a three-time nominee himself—is playing to the history books. That he trained himself to be a believable rock figure who glides through songs in an assured key and modeled himself directly after his costar, Sam Elliott, gives his A Star Is Born a particular brand of historicity. It’s an ode to those who came before him, and to himself. This movie is a destiny-seeker, the kind of man-made mythos that ought to be hailed. There’s nothing shallow about that.