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Lady Gaga Shines in ‘A Star Is Born,’ Even When Her Character Doesn’t

Is Gaga’s Ally supposed to be a “good” pop star? The chief shortcoming of this wild, fascinating movie is that it’s never quite clear. But either way, it’s the perfect movie for her lead acting debut.

Lady Gaga as Ally in ‘A Star Is Born’ Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

I still think about the stinkface that Leonardo DiCaprio made when Lady Gaga won a Golden Globe. As the woman born Stefani Germanotta snaked through the crowd to accept the award for 2016’s Best Actress in a Miniseries or TV Movie for her role as The Countess in American Horror Story: Hotel—more of a stunt guest-spot than an award-worthy performance, but remember these were the Globes—she happened to brush up against Leo’s chair. He was leaning back, holding court, midway through an awards season in which he collected statuette after expected statuette for his lead role in The Revenant. His body language made it clear: This was his turf. When Gaga passed him, the camera caught his unmistakable sneer. Even if he later denied any ill will—“I just didn’t know what was passing me, that’s all!”—the story the image told was familiar: The too-cool jock mocking the earnest, try-hard theater kid behind her back, during Her Moment.

Hollywood reacted to Gaga that night as though she were an interloper, even as she admitted from the podium that she wanted to be an actress before she wanted to be a singer. “I feel like Cher in that John Patrick Shanley film Moonstruck right now,” she said as she began her speech, the mention of the director’s name feeling like an awkward assertion that she’d done her Hollywood homework. As though anyone thinks of Moonstruck as “that John Patrick Shanley film.” As though, 30 years later, anyone who hears “Moonstruck” first thinks of anyone but Cher.

It is not out of the realm of possibility that when the 2019 Oscars are handed out, Lady Gaga will once again feel like late-’80s Cher: A pop-star-turned-actress at whom Hollywood initially turned up its nose and then, not too long after, deemed worthy of its highest honor. (Cher credits her acting career to director Robert Altman who, in 1982, cast her in a film when everyone else dismissed her as a silly pop singer; her performance in Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, marked a turning point in her career, earning her a Golden Globe nomination and leading to infinitely better roles.) Similar accolades for Gaga have already begun to trickle out. The New Yorker singled out her performance in A Star Is Born as the one part of the film that “does linger.” The New York Times said that her “disarming, naturalistic presence is crucial to the movie’s force.” Yes, that Lady Gaga, the Artist Formerly Known As the Woman in the Meat Dress.

By now you probably know the story of A Star Is Born, that American fairytale told and retold by George Cukor and Frank Pierson, by Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Judy Garland, and Barbra Streisand: An aging, troubled star takes a younger female hopeful under his wing, and before long—and to the detriment of their romantic relationship—she’s flying higher than he is. In Bradley Cooper’s version, Ally’s ascent comes after she’s “gone pop,” ditched her piano, hired dancers, and dyed her earth-toned hair neon-bright.

As a tough-talking Italian-American singer-songwriter who transforms into a technicolor pop artiste, Gaga’s role in A Star Is Born might not seem like much of a stretch. But the best parts of her performance are during the first half of the movie when she’s playing against type, convincing the spellbound audience that she is not internationally recognizable pop idol Lady Gaga but rather an anonymous aspiring artist named Ally Campana who’s a few unlucky breaks away from eternal obscurity. In the opening scenes of the movie, she plays Ally as a young woman with her defenses up like tinted limo windows. She moves through the world tentatively, having been burned one too many times by romantic disappointment—one of her first lines in the film is “Fucking men!”—and the cruel indifference of the music business.

“Everyone I’ve ever met in the music industry has told me my nose is too big,” she tells Cooper’s Jackson Maine the first night they meet. The line, of course, is a dizzying bit of meta-commentary: The real Stefani Germanotta has been told this by countless critics (as has her precursor in the role, from the 1976 version of the film, Barbra Streisand). This line becomes the real Lady Gaga’s winking way of criticizing the music industry’s sexism and beauty obsession, while at the same time stressing Lady Gaga’s I-was-born-this-way authenticity, because Lady Gaga did not fix her nose—and if she had, maybe she wouldn’t be as believable as Ally. Like so many moments in the movie, this scene is so deeply self-serious that it becomes silly, and then passes through another dimension where its self-seriousness becomes genuinely moving. A Star Is Born is at once emotionally operatic escapist entertainment and—almost paradoxically and at times maybe even in spite of itself—a movie so dizzyingly meta that it leaves your head spinning for days.

Is Ally supposed to be a “good” pop star? The chief shortcoming of this movie is that I’m not sure how Cooper would answer that question. Ally conquers the world—SNL season-finale gig; Best New Artist Grammy—seemingly overnight and on the strength of a single song, “Why Did You Do That?” (During one of the duo’s most heated fights, Jackson mockingly sings the lyrics: “Why do you look so good in those jeans? Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?”) It sounds like a generic circa-2017 pop hit (the title doesn’t not remind me of “Look What You Made Me Do”), but it also sounds a little bit like “Telephone”-era Lady Gaga. What’s going on here? Is Gaga repudiating her pop past? Is Cooper? Is this movie smart enough to know the answer?

I blame this tunnel vision on Cooper, who, as a director, brings so much more depth and detail to the leathery, gin-soaked world of Jackson Maine than the modern pop realm in which Ally operates, and in doing so suggests that pop success is as easy as flipping an ever-ready switch from “NOT” to “HOT.” But nothing happens that easily. For a 2018 pop star, Ally’s persona feels both flimsy and outdated, and so it feels like a waste to have Lady Gaga—one of the most visionary and visually intriguing pop stars of the past decade—styled the way Ally is, with an outdated Vitamin C dye job and an unimaginative Forever 21–grade wardrobe.

But the film does not exactly condemn the music Ally is making (which, like every song on the soundtrack, was written or co-written by Gaga herself) or suggest that her business decisions are unsound. Even as it suggests that Jackson Maine is somehow more “authentic” than Ally, his unwillingness to separate himself from his grizzled, hard-living persona is ultimately what does him in, not just within the industry but in his personal life too. “In part, the story is as creaky as that of Pygmalion, the male sculptor who turns a beloved carving into a woman,” wrote New York Times critic Manohla Dargis in her review of the film. “Yet one of the pleasures of A Star Is Born in all its renditions is that it is also about a woman whose ambitions are equal to those of any man and who steadily rises as she weeps and sings toward fabulous self and sovereignty.”

In its last act, A Star Is Born could have easily turned into No Country for Country Men—a sour and caustic rebuke to an unfeeling present. Instead, the sad but inevitable demise of Jackson Maine—who sticks to his roots so stubbornly that they strangle him—strikes a note similar to the end of John Ford’s 1962 classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, when John Wayne, feeling obsolete in the modern world and an inadequate lover to a modern girl, burns his own house down while he’s inside. What Jackson expresses in his tragic final moments isn’t rage so much as acceptance. To quote Jackson Maine’s most melancholy and foreboding hit, maybe it’s just time to let the old ways die.

At the end of that moment already immortalized in the trailer, when Ally sings for Jackson a sketch of a song she’s written, she looks down at her hand, swollen from a bar fight sucker punch and onto which Jackson has tied a bag of frozen peas. She’d been carried away, lost in the moment, and suddenly the absurdity of her pea-appendage brings her back to earth: “What the fuck is this?” she mutters to herself. These little tics of questioning her sudden good fortune—“What the hell is happening?”—are my favorite details Gaga brings to Ally’s character. They’re fleeting moments of self-consciousness in a deeply unselfconscious movie, frequent enough to acknowledge the fairy-tale quality of it all, but never lasting long enough to break the spell.

A Star Is Born is the perfect movie for Lady Gaga’s lead acting debut because, for all her gesturing toward postmodernity with the meat dress (or the Kermit outfit, or the alien facial prosthetics), she is, at her core, an earnestly old-fashioned entertainer—the kid from New York who just wants to put on a show. It’s not exactly a cool thing to be, especially in this post-ironic, memed-to-death age. But there is also a part of Lady Gaga that thrives off being an underdog, who almost courts failure (see: ARTPOP) if only to experience that sweet moment of triumph when she can once again prove the haters wrong. Perhaps that’s why she’s so creatively restless and why she continues to push herself uninvited into new realms—the Tony Bennett tour, the Super Bowl, the Sound of Music tribute—in which she actually has something left to prove. If she’s still an outsider in Hollywood, all the better. It’s just another crowd to win over.