What does it mean to be authentic? What even is authenticity? Is it a simple, stripped down identity? Is it who you are when you’re alone, in the dark? Is it in an impossible thing that does not exist because whatever you are doing right now, even if you’re faking it, is authentically you?
Authenticity haunts A Star Is Born, the third remake of a movie starring an actor as a singer and a singer being an actor. Authenticity is what Jackson Maine hungers for, what he strives to embody and, in the end, maybe what kills him. He tries to be authentic in his rootsy, bluesy rock n’ roll, always preaching that you have to have something to say, something meaningful. When his protege and wife, Ally, plays Saturday Night Live he is disgusted by the falseness of her pop persona and the shallow repetitiveness of her lyrics. Where’s the pain, where’s the blood? He looks at her and sees a phony, and later he takes out his anger on her, cruelly tearing her down with words. Are the insults authentic?
More importantly, is Jackson Maine authentic? He believes he is, but the script, by Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters and Eric Roth, gives us hints that Jackson is fundamentally full of shit, that he wouldn’t know an authentic person if she punched a cop in a bar for him. Jackson Maine, played with such crusty greasiness by Cooper that I could smell him from the screen, is presenting a persona that is utterly false, and it’s quite possible that he doesn’t even know who the authentic Jackson Maine even is, or if he does, he hates that person and needs to kill him.
Jackson’s phoniness runs deep. His whole career is just an attempt to appease his father; he’s living his dead drunk dad’s dream. Is this what Jackson wanted for himself? It seems unlikely, but it also seems like Jackson isn’t clear WHAT he wanted. There’s nothing inside this man, a state of affairs reflected in the fact that he tells Ally his own home never felt like a home until she got there. Jackson has nowhere to go when he’s off the road; because he doesn’t know who he is he can’t create a space that feels safe and good to him. He just has a house that is adorned with big American flags and posters for his old shows, and rows and rows of vinyl that he doesn’t care about.
His voice isn’t even his own; one of the running resentments between himself and his big brother Bobby (played with such heartbreaking vulnerability by Sam Elliott) is that Jackson has stolen Bobby’s voice. “You weren’t saying anything with it!” Jackson yells at one point, but this is incredibly telling. The dream is his dad’s, the voice is his brother’s. What is in there that IS Jackson Maine?
It’s probably the songwriting. That’s the thing he’s best at, it seems, and he briefly tried to be the man behind the man, writing songs for Bobby. But Bobby had pride, couldn’t sing Jackson’s words (or maybe, in terms of the main thematic argument, he had too much authenticity… and look where it got him), and so Jackson stole his voice and sang them for himself.
Now Jackson struggles with his reality. He’s struggling from the beginning of the movie; before the scene where Jackson meets Ally at a gay bar the director frames himself in a car window with a billboard featuring three nooses behind him. Jackson’s trapped inside this space, and suicide is the only way out for him. That space in which he’s trapped is his own faulty notion of what it means to be authentic, but he feels false within it. And he can’t find a new authenticity; Jackson is going deaf and, rather than wear a hearing aid – living his authentic reality – he stumbles through the world unable to hear anything said to him. He’s deaf to truth, and he’s not honest about it.
Ally, on the other hand, has no strong central identity… and this is where her authenticity comes from. When Jackson first meets her she’s the only woman performing at drag night; drag is different from being trans in that we assume most of these performers dress as women and don’t identify as women. Drag is all about men taking on aspects of a frankly cartoonish version of femininity. Ally, who is a woman, performs within this idiom, taking on an oversized drag version of her own gender, not even quite presenting as her own true identity. She’s singing in French, and it’s a cover. To Jackson this is all inauthentic – he’s looking for the real Ally under the make-up and under the Piaf.
But Jackson doesn’t get it. That IS the authentic Ally. Ally exists as a reaction to the spaces and people around her, and this is what makes her a perfect pop star. She can be the alt-country piano player that Jackson wants, or she can be the dancing queen the pop charts need. It’s important to note that Ally isn’t empty – she pushes back against some of the pop stylings. But she is open.
In Buddhism we believe there is no self, that there is no solid-state center that is YOU. There’s no soul, no unchanging you located deep inside your mind. Everything about you changes, including your consciousness and understanding. Ally reflects that; she is almost chameleonic, able to shift into any scenario she needs to be in. It’s why she punches the cop at the bar – not because she has anger issues or is low class (although the movie is setting you up to believe that), but because she recognizes this as the correct response in this masculine, authoritarian space.
Ally’s authenticity is that she’s a shape-shifter; she’s like David Bowie that way, in that all of these versions of her are true facets of her. None of them are selling out, and it’s interesting to look at your own reaction to her different phases to see what those reactions say about you. Did you assume that her decked out in a Nudie Suit and crooning alt-country was her more ‘authentic’ moment, despite the fact that we met her singing a jazz standard? Did you feel that her pop moment was phony, despite us never getting a sense for what kind of music she personally likes?
I think there’s a whole essay to be written about Shallow and how it plays out in the film; from the title to the way that Jackson takes credit for co-writing it, to the ways it morphs from Ally’s first a cappella version into what we eventually hear on stage. But Shallow is the movie proving that Ally is real; she’s not phony or fake, she has this talent within her. I think that’s vital, because it offers a foundation upon which she can play with identity. We know that her identity may be fluid but that fluidity coalesces around a core talent that is strong and real.
But A Star Is Born isn’t a straight-ahead story. The authenticity question plays itself out in the maladaptive aspects of these characters as well. Ally is well-named, as she is an ally to whomever she is with, but at the same time she can take it too far. She is, frankly, codependent. Her strength is also her weakness here; she can become anyone she needs or wants to be, but she also loses herself in other people.
Jackson, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of narcissistic addict who is like honey to the co-dependent. The pain that he carries as he struggles with his own falseness may kill him in the end, but it also powers his art. It’s a terrible dichotomy – the only thing true about him is the agony he feels over being a phony, and that comes through in his music. Together they are a combustible chemistry experiment, and in the end they explode, although perhaps in unexpected ways.
There’s a codependent inside of Jackson as well. He’s codependent with his father*, and then his brother, and eventually Ally. I think Jackson only exists as a complete person when he’s with these people; again and again we see him tell Ally things that he cannot believe he’s sharing.
But again and again he lets these people down, or believes he does. He seems to hold himself accountable for his father’s death, the kind of guilt a young man in an emotionally abusive addiction relationship might carry. He certainly carries guilt about his brother, and while he feels that Bobby betrayed him I can’t help but believe he also understands how he betrayed Bobby. Jackson knows he killed that relationship. And then there’s Ally.
His suicide comes when he believes that he is a millstone around her neck. He relapses and then hangs himself after learning that she canceled her European tour because he couldn’t come with her (she lies to him about it, but her Satanic manager fills Jackson in on enough details that he can connect the dots). This is Jackson’s most authentic moment, and I don’t mean that as some kind of defense of his suicide. His suicide is a childish and self-centered act.
No, it’s his most authentic moment because it’s the only thing he’s wanted his whole life. Like most alcoholics, Jackson doesn’t drink and use to party, he drinks and uses to stop feeling the way he feels. He’s trying to get away from his authentic reality (there’s a saying in recovery: SOBER stands for “Son Ovva Bitch, Everything’s Real!”), and he’s slowly killing himself to make that escape permanent.
This has been his trajectory since childhood; he tried to hang himself as a kid. And the big takeaway from that: nobody noticed. The ceiling fan he broke in the attempt lay on the floor for MONTHS as he father was too deep in his own addiction to pay attention. Jackson kills himself on a big night for Ally, in the garage where she’ll pull her car in, because he wants the attention he didn’t get back then.
That’s his truth. He wants to die (stop feeling), and he wants to do it in a way that everyone will notice. In the end Jackson kills himself not only because he is tormented, but because he remains that child who couldn’t hang himself at home. That’s his authentic core.
Ally, though, is a survivor. She’s adaptable. And in the end the movie gives both of them their most authentic possible moments: Jackson hangs himself, leaving behind a song for his wife to sing (remember my theory that Jackson’s truth is that he’s a songwriter, that he should be putting words in other people’s mouths), while she becomes the absolutely perfect mourning wife and sing his song like no one else alive ever could.
When we first meet Ally she’s singing La Vie en Rose, and director Cooper has her stare into the camera at the end of the song, looking into Jackson’s eyes but also ours. That’s one of the most electrifying cinematic moments of recent years; I got goosebumps and broke into tears. She’s singing someone else’s song, someone else’s words, but they’re HERS, and she is communicating directly to us. That’s how Cooper ends the film as well, with Ally staring right into the camera, singing someone else’s words but making them HERS.
In the end we see how her authenticity works – she takes on these identities but they’re all parts of her. None of them are foreign to her, they all reflect the fact that she is multi-dimensional and complex. Unlike Jackson Ally refuses to dull herself down into just one thing – she allows herself to be many things. And that’s how she triumphs and perseveres.
Many critics today want their movies to be After School Specials, with easily defined moral lessons. What’s more, they want a kind of Woke Haye’s Code, where the people who are bad meet bad ends, or are explicitly denounced by the film, and where the good people are strong and active in ways that even children could identify. A Star Is Born doesn’t do that; it’s a movie about complex and messy people who are both wrong and right, sometimes at the exact same moment. This is an adult movie in that it tackles complex themes and concepts without sitting you down and telling you how to feel about it. It approaches relationships in a realistic way, in that they can be toxic and they can be transformative, and that one doesn’t preclude the other. It looks at people as systems that are in motion, not as fixed blocks upon which we can project our philosophical and political needs.
This is part of what makes A Star Is Born something of a masterpiece; it’s an extraordinarily executed film on every level, but more than that it’s a movie where many things are happening at once, and only some of them are on the surface. I’m excited to read the post-hot take essays on this movie, because I think that Bradley Cooper – damn his handsome face and luxurious head of hair – has made his feature directorial debut with a movie that will reward thought and future immersion.
A lot of what makes this movie work, it should be noted, is in Lady Gaga’s performance. The cinema has a spotty record of pop stars crossing over to acting gigs, but I think Gaga raises the bar for all who follow. She is so multi-faceted, so beautifully internal, so full of a radiating sense of character and reality, that I actually got antsy when she was offscreen. Sure, Jackson’s in rehab, but what’s Ally up to, I wondered. Cooper’s an actor, so of course he focuses the movie on his own character, but Gaga is magnificent and deserves more screentime. I hope her future roles are as well written and delicately suited to her as this one is.
That this is the third remake of A Star Is Born is fitting; there’s nothing new to Ally and Jackson’s relationships or their characters. These people are real people, and their stories have been playing out again and again throughout history; the songs and the clothes may change, but the fundamental humanity remains the same. In a Hollywood obsessed with spectacle and sturm und drang, A Star Is Born manages to stun us with a warm and close attention not to the trappings of stardom, but to the realities of being a flawed human being.
There is nothing more authentic than that.
*there’s another essay to also be written about the contrasting relationships Ally and Jackson have with their fathers; both are living out the dreams of their fathers, although their fathers are deeply different men.