We encounter people only in the present. We may inquire about the past, scroll through Facebook timelines, even read a Wikipedia page if they are famous enough, but all we gain are snippets of who they were before. These bare wisps of information cannot be sustainable and certainly cannot compare to the living, breathing persona in front of us now. So, all too easily, we brush aside the remnants of history and only see how someone appears in the moment that we interact with them. Even as we get to know someone on a deeper, more intimate level, we cannot clearly imagine how they were as a child, as a teenager. The journey is lost in translation and only the destination is seen. Perhaps that is why A Star is Born feels as relevant as it does despite being retold for the fourth time. It dwells on the unseen events and how they can’t be merely brushed away.
We first encounter Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) as he prepares to mount another performance. He pours pills heedlessly into his palm and then into his mouth. He grabs his guitar and the audience cheers, unknowing and overwhelming. Later, after the splitting lights and the pounding sound, he sits alone in the back of an expensive car and drinks until he runs out of alcohol. The film excels at these secret insights and personal moments. The characters dominate the camera and their point of view drive the film with little outside interference. Even the screaming audiences that Jackson, and then Ally, command are little more than smudges on the periphery. This is not a film merely about fame or even stardom, as the title proclaims. Instead the film is relentlessly focused on two people who love and damage each other.
We first encounter Ally (Lady Gaga) as she prepares to mount another performance. She has tucked away her waitressing apron from her first job. But as she leaves the restaurant, unseen by anyone, she spreads her arms and twirls. It is a perfect moment and Gaga inhabits every moment of her performance. Young, inexperienced, but more than willing to stand up for herself, she is the perfect foil for Jackson. In her, he hears something special, a voice with something to say. In him, she sees someone whose caring and kindness has been rendered invisible by fame. But even without all the explanatory factors, Ally and Jackson belong with each other. In a credit to Gaga and Cooper’s acting, their characters have an electric chemistry that never wavers. For a film that is over two hours long, it is crucial. We remain invested in Ally and Jackson’s relationship as they reveal their little chips and flaws to each other, because of the quirks. Cooper, as the director, manages to make a story that could easily devolve into romantic melodrama, grounded and intriguing. So, we see as Ally and Jackson develop into something more than a meet-cute. They are meant for each other, yet there are equally many things driving them apart. The more they try to be together, the more the past interferes. Unlike the typical romantic movie, the film doesn’t posit that love can solve all their problems. In the end, both Ally and Jackson are separate people, who cannot understand every essential element of the other, as much as they try. In the end, they are still flawed.
For all the pomp of its title, A Star is Born is a film ultimately about two people. We may glimpse the occasional trappings of stardom, the dance rehearsals, the awards ceremonies, but they never last long. What truly embeds itself in the memory is a look, an embrace between two people.