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How the New ‘A Star Is Born’ Complicates an Old View of Womanhood

In the 1937 film “A Star Is Born,” Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) has a dream: to leave small-town life in North Dakota and become a movie star. It won’t be easy, as she — and we — are reminded time and again. “For every dream of yours you make come true, you’ll pay the price in heartbreak,” her gruff but supportive grandmother tells her plainly.

Of course, she pays. Norman Maine (Fredric March), a self-destructive movie star whose career is on the wane, gives her the break she needs; also they fall in love. Yet his alcoholism only worsens as she becomes more famous, and his addiction ultimately threatens to bring her career down with his. Upon overhearing her confess that she plans to quit acting to take care of him, he kills himself, his death allowing her to triumph, both professionally and as a woman who has been loved by a man. “Hello everybody,” she declares at her next movie premiere. “This is Mrs. Norman Maine.”

The time periods, casts and settings have varied, but this is the template that all the remakes have generally followed — in 1954, with Judy Garland as Esther and James Mason as Norman, and in a 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand as Esther Hoffman and Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard that transplants the drama to the music industry. Then there’s the latest, Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born.”

In his directorial debut, there is never so explicit a statement about what Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) must sacrifice to become the music sensation she dreams of being, but that message remains palpable. After being plucked from obscurity by a fading rock star, Jackson Maine (Cooper), Ally’s enduring love for him threatens to derail her flourishing career — until he removes himself from the equation, for her.

[Read our review of "A Star Is Born.”]

On the surface, it feels antiquated, this persistent suggestion that only in her husband’s death can Ally become the star she is meant to be. Yet the more I consider how Cooper depicts the ebbs and flows of their relationship, the more I find this latest version intriguing in the way it complicates an already complicated narrative. If it maintains some of the more questionable aspects of the original story, it also tries to push against them for a modern audience.

The 1937 version — which is said to have been at least partly inspired by an earlier film, “What Price Hollywood?” — was conceived during the Great Depression. (William A. Wellman directed, and the writing team included Dorothy Parker.) For its time, the movie starts off surprisingly progressive, rebuffing the idea that Esther should just find herself a husband with an inspirational speech from Grandma Lettie in which her journey to settle out West is likened to Esther’s plans to become an actress.

In other ways, however, the movie echoes films of its era: Gaynor’s Esther must choose between career and love; she can’t possibly have both. And being a woman in a 1930s movie almost always meant choosing love.

In 2018, Ally’s relationship with Jackson is presented in a less straightforward way, taking its cues from the deservedly maligned Streisand version (it’s a confounding mess, with little chemistry between the stars). That remake (directed by Frank Pierson, who adapted along with Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne) sought to update Esther for the women’s liberation era — the outcome is the same, but her commitment to him wavers when it never does with the earlier Esthers.

Once Ally has broken out on her own, she shows signs of impatience with Jackson’s addictions: After he misses an important performance because of a binge, she berates him, telling him that if it happens again, he’ll have to clean up his “own damn mess.” It injects some conflict in their dynamic that implies Ally hasn’t fully lost her sense of self. Streisand’s Esther similarly dresses down the alcoholic rock star John after she finds him in bed with a journalist who was supposed to interview her: “You can trash your life, but you’re not gonna trash mine,” she declares, heartbroken.

Esther/Ally’s responses to John/Jackson show women coming undone while also allowing them to unleash female rage — Streisand smashes liquor bottles with a pool cue — even as they remain unable to resist caring for the men in their lives. In movies, such expressions of fury are often portrayed negatively, as hysterical, vengeful, sinister. Or they aren’t portrayed at all: Gaynor’s Esther, a wide-eyed dreamer, lacks this anger. Garland’s portrayal is in line with almost every performance she gave, from “The Wizard of Oz” to her famous Carnegie Hall concert — deeply enveloped in pathos and vulnerability.

Ally’s exasperation stems in large part from Cooper’s rendering of Jackson, which taps more explicitly than previous versions into the story’s preoccupation with the emasculation of its out-of-control star, who faces the loss of his employment and fan base, and thus his power.

Jackson believes Ally “has something to say,” and he repeats this mantra throughout the film as encouragement. Yet it’s also how he puts her down when he’s jealous. When she tells him that she’s been approached about a manager for her career, an intoxicated Jackson responds by smashing a cream cheese bagel in her face. The moment is unsettling — it’s hard to tell if Jackson is upset, too far gone to process the news or a bit of both — but it passes, until Ally scores her first Grammy nominations. Jackson can no longer contain his bitterness, hurling insults and criticizing her for selling out with a frothy pop song. (The film adopts an archaic rockist attitude; pop is “fake,” and the singer-songwriter is somehow “the truth.”) To plunge the knife even deeper, he refers to her as “ugly,” knowing full well that her looks have been the subject of harsh critique all of her life.

No scene like it exists in the previous versions. Even as the 1937 one makes Norman’s downfall painfully obvious (Esther’s stage name, Vicki Lester, replaces his on a billboard), he remains unfailingly supportive of Esther. When he does lash out, it’s not at Esther, but at a press agent who taunts him for living off his wife.

Mason’s Norman in 1954 comes closer to Cooper’s Jackson. When he drunkenly disrupts Esther’s acceptance speech at the Academy Awards — a scene that appears in every iteration — he begs his peers in the audience to give him a job, a humiliation that more acutely disregards Esther’s achievements. To pile on the embarrassment, he accidentally smacks her in the face, making clear the menacing nature of his alcoholism.

Jackson feels like the most realistic and contemporary take on the male figure in this central relationship — his criticism of Ally for his own shortcomings echoes the conversation currently playing out around (mostly white) male resentment about lost jobs and a feeling that as women make gains in society, men are losing much.

The key final-act moment — Jackson’s suicide — is handled more carefully than in earlier versions while reinforcing some of the old-fashioned details. Rez, the manager, disparagingly tells him that Ally will ruin her image if she stays married to a “jerk,” and when Jackson learns that Ally plans to cancel her European tour rather than leave him behind, he decides to take his own life. Canceling a tour is perhaps not as drastic as retiring, as Esther intends to do in the 1937 and 1954 versions (the 1976 Esther doesn’t express a desire to quit), but it’s effectively a step backward in Ally’s career. Cooper and his co-writers avoid making her the direct cause of Jackson’s suicide; he recounts an unsuccessful attempt before he met her. Yet the impetus is his fear that Ally will lose everything she’s worked for so that she can take care of him — Jackson makes the choice for her.

Last month, the rapper Mac Miller died at 26 of a suspected drug overdose. He had long struggled with addiction, and he was open about it; it also reportedly led to the end of his relationship with the pop star Ariana Grande earlier this year. In May, she responded to someone who blamed her for his post-breakup troubles, tweeting that it is “absurd” to think “someone should stay in a toxic relationship.”

Grande was astutely confronting the continued belief that women must, and desire to, care for men, even when it costs them their own well-being. It’s the same belief at the core of every “A Star Is Born,” and Cooper challenges it in some ways while promoting it in others. It’s notable that no remake has tried to swap the genders of its falling and rising stars.

As disturbing as this notion is, the tale of loving someone with addictions remains compelling. It’s the tragedy that Hollywood continues to recycle, and continues to draw in audiences, myself included. Ally, like the Esthers before her, pays for her success with heartbreak, but how she lands there is as messy and fascinating as their relationship.

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