[NOTE: I wrote this blog post yesterday morning, before learning about the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh. I don't intend to throw this spoonful of feel-good movie chatter into the midst of such a dark moment. Then again, if a little light reading about the "movie of the moment" is exactly what you're looking for today, with so much gloom and doom elsewhere in the world, please enjoy.]
Our Fairfield friend and neighbor Cristin Jameson, like millions of other people around the country, is going bananas about A STAR IS BORN. Cristin’s son Luke is in our middle-school storytelling class (he's a superstar talent, by the way, remember the name: Luke Jameson). Cristin asked me to explain why I think A STAR IS BORN has taken her brain and guts hostage, and more generally, why it's been such a massive, culture-unifying smash.
Here are three thoughts.
1) SCARCITY. Movies like A STAR IS BORN are now a rare occurrence in our lives, and when I say “our,” I”m specifically referring to our Gen-X-ish generation, born in the 60s and 70s. Hollywood used to make a few classy romances every year, whether they tended towards the rom-commy Meg Ryan side, or the slightly-more-dramatic Meryl Streep side. With rare exceptions, Hollywood literally just doesn’t make straight up romances anymore. Period. So when a movie like this comes along, it’s like we’ve forgotten how thirsty we are, because we grew up on movies like this.
2) FULL-ON, HIGH-STAKES LOVE. Even when Hollywood *was* making more romances, the love story at the center of the story tended to be a little bit cute, geared a bit more towards laughs than love. The love story was served up a bit obliquely, often through an awkward/cute Hugh Grant or Colin Firth. Now, both of those guys are terrific actors, and their movies are nice and cuddly and all that, but the "adorable bookish British guy" approach to romance movie-making is deliberately and carefully chosen to deliver a nutritious love-meal for movie audiences, without having to confront the messy sex-ingredient that Hollywood tends to avoid. In other words, Hollywood can be more than a little Puritanical. They tend to play their love stories a little safe.
So: when they finally rear back and uncork a big love story, warts and all, one of those movies that delivers the full-on “I love you so much I’d actually rather die without you, and yes, that includes wanting to have mad passionate sex with you”...and those movies are well-made with real movie stars...those movies tend to land like a nuclear bomb.
I’m thinking about movies like TITANIC and THE NOTEBOOK and DIRTY DANCING and LOVE STORY and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN and ONCE and THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.
A STAR IS BORN is obviously and clearly a worthy addition to this list. It's a full-on, high-stakes, love story: a pretty rare bird. FOHSLS's aren't even that common on TV these days, even with all of the thousands of new TV shows that none of us has any time to watch. Why? Because FOHSLOS's have to end. They can’t go on for season after season. Remember how they squeezed every conceivable drop out of the Ross/Rachel love story that they could, until it was completely dried up, and then they kept on squeezing some more...? The point is, episodic TV isn’t built to give us that big love-bomb storyline. That's something only movies can really nail. A STAR IS BORN nailed it.
3) EXECUTION. So OK now, this is the magic part, the X-factor, the bit that’s a bit tough to quantify. Bradley Cooper is having his “moment” right now. He’ll never be a bigger star than he is right now, this fall, with this movie. He seems to be about as talented a dude as Hollywood has ever produced, right up there on the tippy-top tier with Redford and Pitt, guys who get slightly shafted by the critics (and Oscars) because they’re just a little too good-looking, but in truth not only are they all amazing actors, they're oh by the way some of the best directors and producers on the planet.
Cooper is that good. He's been biding his time wisely, planning his directorial debut, learning from the best filmmakers in the world - and when he decided that A STAR IS BORN was going to be it, his big swing, he just hit it right in the sweet part of the bat. It doesn't always work out that way. But it did for Cooper.
There’s no exact formula for the stars lining up like this, any more than there is for LeBron to somehow find a way to put the Cavaliers on his back and beat the Warriors in 2016, or for Adele to make an album like 21. Sometimes brilliant people get the opportunity to make a piece of work that - well, if it’s not all things to all people, it’s pretty damn close.
By the way, as I kneel in praise of Cooper, I don’t mean to give short shrift to Lady Gaga - she’s terrific in the movie. But I’d give a bit more of the credit for the movie’s success to Cooper, just because he directed it, on top of giving a phenomenal performance. (And his goddamn singing his as good as his acting! The brilliant bastard.)
It is interesting to think of the role luck plays in a project like this coming together. I’m trying to think, just off the top of my head, about artists who were in similar positions to Bradley Cooper, who put it all on the line at the peak of their powers, and it just kind of missed. For some reason I’m thinking of Paul Simon making The Capeman. Martin Scorsese carried around the Gangs of New York script for 20 or 30 years before finally making it, and he got Daniel Day-Lewis and pretty much the best cast imaginable, but the result was just kind of...meh. I know Billy Joel was trying really really hard to make Sgt. Pepper-caliber masterpiece when he made The Nylon Curtain, and I don't know anyone who likes that album as much as they like The Stranger or Glass Houses.
There are tons and tons of these. The truth is that "near miss" is the story of 95% of all pieces of creative work we see and listen to. Maybe even 99.99%. A STAR IS BORN is one of those stories where just about everything went right. That’s pretty damn rare.
Thanks for the question, Cristin! Happy to blog about movies and storytelling anytime one of you has a thought or question.