Friday, February 15, 2019

The LAMB Devours The Oscars: A Star Is Born As Best Picture

Warner Bros. Pictures
After eighty-four years, it might be time to let A Star Is Born die. The story of an ingenue rising to the top of the music (or film) industry while falling in love with a veteran spiraling out of control has been told since 1937 (and again in 1954, and then 1976). Now with the massive success of the latest version by director Bradley Cooper and co-star Lady Gaga, there's no doubt that the saga can go out on a high, if also bittersweet, note.

When the production of this musical-drama started coming together in 2016, most people were left scratching their heads: the remake of A Star Is Born had been circulating for years, rumored to star everyone from Beyonce to Leonardo DiCaprio, with director Clint Eastwood, until Bradley Cooper finally signed on to helm the project and Lady Gaga to make her debut in a leading role. Many suspected in the film's earlier days that it would garner the worst the industry has to offer known as the Razzies versus reaching the pinnacle of film-making at the Oscars. As possibly the only other rendition that rivals the most popular 1954 version starring Judy Garland and James Mason, everything that didn’t sound good through the grapevine managed to pull the film through to critical acclaim, memorable chemistry between its leads, and crowd-pleasing tunes.

The film follows aspiring singer Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) who falls in love with Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country-rock musician plagued by substance abuse. While her career takes off with the help of his belief in her talent, his begins to fall apart. Out of their attempts to love each other in the midst of fame comes a movie where almost every production element is the star.

As the face of the film, it’s difficult to not spotlight that Cooper’s performance as Maine is one of his career best so far, if not the best he might ever play again. While taking the lead as a director and helping write the script, he learned to play guitar and piano, sing, dropped his voice to match supporting actor Sam Elliot’s iconic drawl, and created a Jackson Maine that’s much more than a stock-drunk character from the series’s past.  His Maine is haunted from a turbulent childhood, hopes the electrifying chemistry with Ally will carry him through his darkest days, and lost over a future he can't seem to find his place in. Playing opposite Cooper is a respectable debut by Lady Gaga who is caught up in the whirlwind romance of Maine’s affection. His belief in her having something to say that the world wants to hear gives her confidence to try to make it in an industry that all but shut out her because she wasn’t their type; by doing so, she also ends up losing and finding herself, and who she’s meant to be. Together, their chemistry and all of the drama that comes with it, takes moviegoers on a rollercoaster ride, in a story that’s not so concerned about reinforcing the grimness of our own day-to-day 21st century reality, but just another tragic (if also, imperfect) love story to escape into for a few hours.

If there’s one thing that nobody can walk away from the film without memorizing, it’s the songs. Musicals are often adapted with their Broadway-esque origins still attached, where the leading characters break into song and dance as strangers join in or remain oblivious to the spontaneous concert happening around them. Taking note from the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, Jackson and Ally are able to wear their hearts on their sleeves through their music, both individually and together. And yet the chemistry and development for the characters’ story follows in the footsteps to Garland and Mason, where you feel every step of their relationship from the adrenaline-filled highs to the tear-drenched lows. Similar to huge blockbuster movies using CGI more than practical effects, Cooper, with the suggestion by Gaga, made some tremendous changes that we don’t normally see in musicals: they sang their songs live, and the concert sequences were filmed during some of the biggest music events in the world. Not only did they squeeze filming in-between sets of legendary musicians like Kris Kristofferson, but they also managed to keep the hype of their music a secret, only playing the track for the first several rows of fans.

As for the soundtrack, Shallow has been picking up most of the film's acclaim from the Golden Globes to the Grammys, and I’ll Never Love Again pivots the film’s closing moments into a tragic catharsis. But the soundtrack is filled with lots of understated songs: Black Eyes as Maine’s latest hit that electrifies the opening sequence; Always Remember Us This Way iterates the magic Maine and Ally create on stage; I Don’t Know What Love Is lands as a beautiful romantic duet of the couple finding peace amid the chaos; Heal Me stands as Ally’s last lyrical attempt to reach out to her husband as their relationship faces off against his substance abuse; Is That All Right captures Ally’s hopes for her future with Jackson – to name a few. They don't have the catchiness of Shallow, but if listened to as a whole, one by one, the album acts as a story of their relationship on its own.

Interestingly, despite the enduring interest of the A Star Is Born saga, the film has not had an easy history at the Oscars. The four films combined has been nominated 25 times, but only won three –1976 version won Best Song, and the 1937 original won an honorary award for color photography and Best Writing. None of the actors who were nominated – Frederic March, Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland, and James Mason – ever won. Arguably, the biggest upset for the ‘series’ came when actress Grace Kelly won over Garland for The Country Girl, a role which showcased the future princess's abilities beyond portraying a Hitchcock starlet. Garland's version, however, became one of her career best, doubling as a vehicle to re-cement her career after suffering from her own bouts of substance abuse and an unforgiving studio system that attempted to shut her out. It was a loss that many in Hollywood were disappointed by. Famously comedian Groucho Marx wrote in a telegram to Garland stating "it was the greatest robbery since Brinks's".

How weird it is that history might almost repeat itself here? Cooper managed to pull out a lot of tricks for this ‘simple’ drama that has been both recognized and ignored. Eight Oscar nominations - including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Original Song - is nothing to sneer at it, yet it's still surprising that the film has rarely taken gold home for anything other than Best Song for Shallow.

When left out of the running for Best Director, Cooper admitted in an interview with Oprah that he felt embarrassed because it felt like he hadn’t done his job. Though he was chastised talking about the snub, it’d be hard to believe if he didn't feel differently. Not only did he earn the support from legendary director Steven Spielberg during the early development stages, but most of the buzz for the film went from how many Razzies it would win to how it was a clear winner to sweep the Oscars. The trust Cooper put into Gaga to collaborate with Mark Ronson and Lucas Nelson for the music, and Gaga trusting Cooper as a first-time director who'd been working on the project for four years, speaks volumes for why and how the film has earned its success. So far, the movie has raked in $420 million dollars worldwide as of January 2019 and remains on moviegoers’ minds months after it was released in theaters. Even though the film’s chances at the Oscars are, for the time being, still up in the air, fans of A Star Is Born will adore this story for years. And, maybe why it's also time to let it go.

*This post is apart of The Lamb Devouring the Oscars, where members spotlight all of this year's nominations for the 91st Academy Awards ceremony. Check out more of the bloggers coverage here *

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