Saturday, March 9, 2019

The Imperfect Complexity of Jackson & Ally

A Star Is Born portraits photographer Peter Lindbergh
photographer Peter Lindbergh
When A Star Is Born was initially released in late 2018, it received a lot of acclaim by both critics and moviegoers. But a not-so-subtle critique about the film was how it didn’t change its messaging about the tragic love story or its characters: does a male lead have to sacrifice himself as a woman rises to the top of their industry? Is the relationship between the love birds toxic more than purely romantic? With my love of director Bradley Cooper’s latest version in mind, I wondered about Jackson Maine and Ally Campana both on the page and screen, and if anything has truly changed in eighty-four years. (This post is l-o-n-g. Thanks in advance if you take the time to read it. Hope you enjoy!)

Jackson Maine A Star Is Born gifs
He’s maybe a little drunk, but this is Jackson Maine in his element, a singer-songwriter with a mean guitar. He doesn’t just play, it’s an all-out assault attack. - (PAGE 1)
Just like he’s described in the script's opening, Jackson Maine makes his entrance in the saga’s fourth version like a tornado. Similar to Ally meeting him for the first time, we as the audience is thrown on stage with Jackson, a cacophony of details thrown at us: Jackson’s drunk, adequately passing as sober as music blasts into his ears and ours; he’s in his element until he disappears into a dark and silent limo venturing towards his next drink. In this initial meeting, we almost learn everything about him that we need to. As Ally - played by Lady Gaga - later says to her father “he’s a drunk” – Jackson's consumed by alcohol and drugs to numb his own problems. But there's more to him than just what we see on the surface.

Where this intro to Jackson takes a turn is how vulnerable he becomes with the help of his leading lady Ally. Cooper’s vision of Jackson is specific both in the script and on the screen. He’s not a clone of the stock drunks in the previous films where there wasn't any background about how their alcoholism started. Just as soon as we assume Jackson is nothing but a drunk, we learn that his childhood was riddled with trauma that still defines him as an adult: mom died in childbirth; his father made him his drinking buddy; his older brother Bobby – played by Sam Elliot - was forced to become the man raising Jackson and also left him to his own devices. As Jackson sums up his adolescence: “It was 127 acres of nuts, Navajo and nowhere to go.”

Jackson finds music in the wake of all of his troubles. It acts as a saving grace to lighten his demons, but it also casts a curse between himself and his brother. They’ve had a contentious relationship with unspoken grievances that come to light in an epic showdown after Jackson discovers Bobby sold the family ranch and his father's grave washed away. Bobby accuses Jackson of stealing his voice, and Jackson chastises Bobby for not being good enough and too proud to perform anything he wrote. What Bobby doesn't know until his last encounter is that Jackson always admired him from the moment that Bobby first caught him singing and looked at him like he was special - a tender confession Jackson privately makes to Ally where he immediately shames himself for sharing something 'so embarrassing'. Despite their emotional misunderstandings, Jackson tries to heal these wounds by ultimately admitting to Bobby the importance he's had on him, but it never clicks all the way.

As well, Jackson’s invisibility is noted by Ally during their first night together, as she immediately recognizes that nobody asks about him; most refer to him by his full persona name Jackson Maine instead of 'Just Jack' as fans take photos of him without permission. Despite his success, the fame Jackson achieved is doomed: he tried to commit suicide when he was 13 years old, hanging himself from the ceiling fan which fell and laid on the ground for six months – his father didn’t notice it and his brother – as far as we know – never brought it up. Jackson’s mental health issues and inability to reconcile with the past is best heard with Maybe It’s Time, where he laments about barely hanging onto the present and finding it hard to let the past go – he’s glad those days of his childhood are gone for good, but if he could bring those spirits back, he probably would. Jackson isn't plagued with inconclusive origins; his past and everything he wanted to become or failed to live up to burdens him; and fame has only escalated these problems.

Jackson Maine A Star Is Born gifs
Bobby drives his truck down a dirt road with Jack riding shotgun. They’ve ridden like this across the country and back a lot over the years. A lot of hard miles on the odometer and between brothers…Bobby looks over to him, then back to the road, Jack just stares out the window, lost in thought. – PAGE
Recently, society has been calling on men to evolve from toxic masculinity. One would think that a character with a country-rock persona would easily fit into a cliche trope that makes him hard to earn understanding - misogynistic and hateful of the drag queen community. But Jackson’s softness emerges when he’s sober as much as his vicious ugliness does when he’s drunk and/or on drugs.

From the time he walks into the bar listening to Nikki’s story to tearing up at Ally’s rendition of La Vie En Rose, his vulnerability could easily be book-ended in his initial hook-up with Ally. When he meets her in the dressing room, he’s as awestruck as meeting Ally as she is confused that he wants to seek her out; he helps her peel off her duck taped eyebrow and compliments the drag queens on their transformations (even being impressed with how Emerald decorates her guitar with flowers and sequins). Tenderness emerges in his actions, even if he’s slightly buzzed taking care of Ally’s hand after she punches a cop; he even tries to take responsibility for how the night gets out of control. A great credit of these moments goes to what Cooper focuses on as a director and the cinematographer Matt Labitque like the way they caress each other's hands and faces, among other details. A mere twenty-four hours later, the unveiling of “Jackson Maine” continues where he isn't the hardened toxic male we assume he might be.

Jackson's mental health issues doesn't make up for the way he abuses his body or the bitter ways he treats Ally while intoxicated. However, his inability to claim his feelings speaks to how men are more inclined to commit suicide than admit about their struggles. Unlike the other Norman Maines who committed suicide in an effort to 'make-up' for their shortcomings, Jackson tries to apologize and finds no pride in his drunken stupors - the worst of which he is so intoxicated at the Grammys he joins her on-stage and urinates – a cutthroat metaphor in and of itself.  Unlike the previous versions of A Star Is Born, this veteran’s spotlight doesn’t dim as an allusion that his wife rises “in his place” as if there’s only room on top for one talented person in all of show business. But similar to the older renditions, he can’t live with the self-awareness of his own actions as a complicated human being.

Jackson Ally A Star Is Born gifs
Another day they’re in the recording studio together Jack, ebullient to be back in a recording session, the band all playing together. Vamping the music, singing nonsense lyrics…Jack playing his guitar, feeling great, creating…and it actually feels likes something…something special…and even if it didn’t, the feeling of being there, feeling young, being free, is good enough….ally joins him at the mic. They begin to kiss and sing, and sing and kiss….
Cooper’s Jackson will actually be the most complex version of this recycled character.

In 1937’s first remake, loosely based on What Price Hollywood? (1932), Frederic March's portrayal of Jackson Maine is limited - an alcoholic actor cast against Janet Gaynor’s sweet ingenue Esther Blodgett. He's an aging star who drinks all the time and comes across Esther, who hails from a small Wisconsin town and wants to become a big actress. Both of their backgrounds aren’t particularly in-depth, and their love story isn’t particularly grand. Similar to Ally, it's about a young woman getting caught up in the false glamour of Hollywood. It's a simple and fitting melodrama for what would become the foundation for the other remakes to build on.

Followed by the 1954 version, James Mason and Judy Garland fare better – his Norman Maine doesn’t need bells and whistles to be a sympathetic character as Mason's performance is a strong balance between gentility and violent temperament. In the film’s opening, Norman’s wreaks havoc behind the scenes at a theatrical show starring Tinseltown’s biggest stars; he stumbles on stage during Garland’s number as Esther Blodgett who covers for him. Back when Classic Hollywood’s studio held an iron fist on catching scandals before they hit the press, credibility has been running out on Norman before Esther comes into the picture. He can’t escape a self-awareness of his troubles and an inability to resist them. Persevering through her rise to fame and Norman's alcoholism, Blodgett throws herself into work as well as trying to understand what makes Norman tick. Mason and Garland share intimate moments together and the story explores the emotional toll Norman's alcoholism takes on both of them. Similar to the 2018 version, the story still explores how their love completes each other but can’t cure the pitfalls of stardom and a faulty identity.

Though some traces of the 1976 version is apparent in Cooper’s film, the third version puts the saga through the wringer the most. The film was riddled with troubles behind-the-scenes, which bleeds into the final cut. Barbra Streisand’s Esther Hoffman works in small clubs before she meets Kris Kristofferson’s John Norman Howard, and like Jackson with Ally, calls her on-stage during one of his concerts where she wows the crowd. Her success skyrockets while he becomes a bigger drug addict, alcoholic, and a philanderer. Similar to the 1937 version, this one is emblematic of the 1970s over-the-top soap operas and fits the assumption that every decade another remake should be made because of the potential star power.

To note, for the 1937 and 1954 movies, Norman is led to commit suicide while overhearing Esther talking with a studio head about giving up her career for him. He drowns himself in both versions. In the 1976 remake, John races recklessly through the desert towards his ambiguous death, which is  ruled an accident because he was under the influence. These small details will come into play later with Cooper's changes to Jackson's suicide.

Lady Gaga Ally A Star Is Born gifs
Ally Campana (early 30s) is on her cell phone, breaking up with her lawyer boyfriend Richard. – PAGE 2
For every Jackson or Norman, there’s an Esther or Ally waiting in line to be discovered. Lady Gaga offers a lightning-in-a-bottle type performance because, despite Ally becoming the star of her and Jackson’s story, the script lacks developing her into a fully-fleshed character.

Ally’s life is defined by landmark moments in her career: she’s caterer by night, and a drag queen starlet by laterer nights who's more comfortable dressing up as other women and singing their songs than performing as herself; she’s been rejected by the music industry because of her looks until Jackson shares his spotlight with her, and then she’s offered everything by her manager Rez. The trajectory is loosely followed by success: millions of views on YouTube from the Shallow performance, an album release, magazine cover photoshoots, performing on SNL, winning Best New Artist Grammy, and the promise of a world tour. Yet for all the acclaim she earns, her validation is inhibited by one authoritative male figure after another.

The film’s ambitious statements of how a woman is treated as an artist versus a man are both frustrating and fascinating. Often without an endgame in sight, the men tell her what they think she should be or needs to hear: Jackson believes she has something to say and earns her trust; her father Lorenzo thinks she’s talented but equates her looks as to why she’s a nobody instead of a somebody;  Rez sees her as a cash machine. Each one evaluates her self-worth differently: Jackson gives her all the advice in the world to trust her voice but doesn’t give her direct guidance about the industry (neither does Bobby); Lorenzo pops in and out of the picture as no real support system; Rez is only interested in making her a star, not that her life starts falling apart.

Because Ally's career takes off without anyone clearly steering its direction, she's described in the script and the final cut as beautiful, ugly, and by the power of her musicality. Her definitive reason for being held back is because sexist male executives thought she sounded great but didn't look great. Her physical appearance is supposed to be 'the keys to the kingdom', which strengthens her self-doubts, especially when her feelings are redirected to her looks. For one example, when she confesses about being vulnerable with her album release, her friend Ramon replies "I don’t know about all that, but you look pretty,” to which Ally questions incredulously “Really?”. (Interestingly, she isn't talking about this with Jackson, and instead he has the monologue encouraging her to find her voice.) While a female character having insecurities is not new, Jackson’s transformation focuses on his internal compass while hers centers on her physicality. It's ironic that the film utilizes her legitimate excuse for not being more successful as the primary way she has to navigate her success.

Lady Gaga Ally A Star Is Born gifs
“It’s as if all the life has been sucked out of him. He tries to speak, but the words don’t come…he bends down and sifts some dry sand through his fingers.” – description of Jackson discovering his father’s grave is gone (PAGE 60)

VERSUS

“Ally watches the fight goes down, thinking god knows what. Jackson notices her taking this all in and how beautiful she looks. – After Jackson and Bobby square off – (PAGE 60)

AND

“She thinks about this, she’s never really given it much thought – When Rez offers to be her manager (PAGE 66)
In a similar move to the 1954 version, Ally is the dynamic musical force behind the film, where all of her emotions come alive song after song. Most don’t get the exposure as Shallow but other tracks boldly reveal her state of mind: Always Remember Us This Way, Look What I Found, Is That All Right? celebrates her falling in love; Heal Me beckons Jackson to help her because she doesn’t know what to do; Why Did You Do That? is the sheer act of selling out; Hair Body Face unveils her self-awareness of wanting validation for her looks; Before I Cry reveals the true pain Jackson causes after the post-bathtub fight. Disappointingly, many of these are squeezed into transitions between scenes instead of standing on their own. When it comes to re-calibrating what she’s gotten into as Jackson and Bobby have their blow-out fight, or Rez offers her the world on a platter, the script has nothing for her to ruminate. And that's a crux of the script: Lady Gaga’s Ally prominently exists in the soundtrack and what the camera beautifully captures between her and Bradley.

Ally's conflict as The Songstress Turned Pop Star is a maze throughout the story. As her career takes off and the audience gets a taste of her country-rock vibes, Rez’s cold acumen twists her image into an electric pop star. Contrary to Jackson earning her trust during Shallow, Rez approaches Ally by saying, “there are people who want to hear what you have to say – musically’, and we see him back up his power by making her flashier with dancers, changing her hair color, and morphing her sound. Though Ally suggests to Rez she doesn’t want to change into something she is not and the story moves on, there’s no visible conflict between Ally and Rez. In fact, when confronted by Jackson about Why Did You Do That?, she owns up to creating it and is shown learning to perform with a back-up crew without problems. The song also has undertones of someone turning her on and someone coming onto her, and this undeniable attraction she has for him. Is this purely Ally pumping out a song that will catch radio play or was there someone that she found attractive while performing without Jackson that nobody ever knows about. Ally's ability to move between every genre makes her a valid performer in her own right, but there is also a lack of direction on whether or not she feels like a puppet once she becomes a pop star. This part of her arc could've benefited from a real scene of Ally discussing with anyone that she doesn't like Rez's direction and how she is feeling lost rather than impressing upon the audience to feel uncomfortable about her transformation just because she's changed. The underlying statement of Ally becoming a pop star remarks on how the machine values appearance more than talent. However, equating a pop star to mindless bops is also a stale assessment of music and its power, considering the relevant pop stars at the top of their game who are in control of their brands.

Lady Gaga Ally A Star Is Born gifs
Despite everything, they’re on this journey together, and Ally lets him in, if only for a moment. (PAGE 81)
Watching Ally becoming famous subtly reverts to womankind’s common experiences of lacking agency as men take control. From refusing and obliging to taking care of Jackson to comforting Lorenzo when her career is falling apart, Ally is the essential caretaker to the men around her. However, there’s nothing to suggest that Ally is not capable of standing on her own. She does so throughout the film by handling the demands of her career and her husband’s see-saw support. (Not to mention she has the gull to punch a cop.) Ally has her moments of seeking autonomy and being encouraged by Jackson, but on her own, she's often reprimanded like a child or overlooked, treated more like an entity instead of a person.

One of her strongest non-musical scenes, that also puts Jackson’s jealousy on display, is when she tells Jackson about Rez’s offer to be her manager. In his semi-drunken haze, he smears a creampuff all over her face and Ally’s emotions come to light – shock, humiliation, and confusion before laughing it off. Originally, in the script, she rubs a little cream on his face and then rolls into bed with him. In the final version, she takes a stronger stance as they butt heads before she moves away and he crashes into the wall saying, “You want to play? We can play.” It's a nice reference of how they are on the same playing field but Ally can take care of herself. Later her defenses strengthen during the other confrontational scene where Ally feels abandoned by Jackson, who mocks her single as if he's failed her. Both are perfect examples of Gaga bringing Ally a semblance of a personality in-between all of the songs as well as reflecting that Ally keeps her emotions close to the chest as much as Jackson does. Mirroring the courage she has to join Jackson to sing Shallow, Ally is perpetually stuck in the threshold of the shadows and limelight. When she’s given the opportunity to open up, she struggles to show her real self. That famous raw high note is almost the loudest Ally expresses herself until the final moments when she silently faces the camera and stands in front of us without any veneer.
She’s caught between what she so badly wants and what is stopping her…she looks at Jack, who smiles in encouragement, making her feel safe, despite her biggest fears. Ally looks at the audience, here she goes, into the abyss. And she starts to play an original song, which makes the night stand still…the world at her feet. But for now, in this glorious moment, people on their Iphones are recording it for posterity…one of those times where people will tell you they were there when Ally Campana sang on her own for the very first time. – First Performance of Always Remember Us This Way (PAGE 64-65)
While the other films focused on the rigmarole of tragedy striking down a love story, this A Star Is Born succeeds in personalizing an artist’s process, especially between two lovers. Music is their blessing and curse: a way to exorcise doubts, express their love, acts as an escape for Jackson and Ally to talk face-to-face, and letting outside forces threaten their trust.

Within Ally and Jackson lies an intimate struggle with the impostor syndrome and refusing to sell-out. Though Jackson’s popular monologue about ‘everyone being talented and trying to be heard so people will listen’ is directed to Ally, it also applies to Rez, who is talented in another way: spinning bullshit to get what he wants.

Unlike the previous versions, where the manager doesn't want to Esther to give up her career and truthfully admits Norman might never recover from his alcoholism, Cooper makes Rez the direct influence to Jackson's suicide. Throughout the film, Jackson knows Rez does not have Ally's best interests at heart. However, he fails to recognize the seed that Rez implants, and one that Ally incidentally confirms: her world tour isn’t canceled because they're starting a second album, but because 'the world thinks' Ally’s a joke staying married to Jackson. Instead of having examples of media coverage to prove what he is saying is true, or even Rez struggling to get Ally's career back on track, we and Jackson are forced to take Rez at his word. Despite the film building up to his death, to fit the template of this story, Jackson bears the weight of Ally’s talent being cast aside rather quickly after leaving rehab and trying to atone his mistakes. Though Ally told Jackson she doesn't blame him for what happened, Rez twists her words around and pushes Jackson's suicide into motion.

In an effort to generalize that there's no hope of Jackson maintaining his sobriety in the future, Ally burdens herself by Rez’s actions and wrongfully blames herself - Lorenzo and Ramon hardly offer any comfort and Bobby takes an 'old-school' approach to Jackson's suicide by saying it's all his fault; he seems keen on the fact that it might've happened one way or another. What we feel as the audience is the loss of love between the two singers, however, the script is a mix of reactions by those closest to her.

Jackson's suicide reminds Ally of her powerful voice. Though it’s not confirmed in a textual way, the dots can be connected that Ally returns to her roots by changing to a natural brunette and performing Jackson's love letter that he wrote for when she came back to herself. In a more perfect world for the film, hopefully, Ally fires Rez and rebuilds her career with Bobby as her new manager in Jackson’s memory. But, this can only be inferred by our want for Ally to not feel guilty for something she didn't do. Ironically, Ally rising to stardom or Jackson’s career crashing isn't the catalyst of the film - it's the need to resist the white noise and changing who you are or know to be true about yourself. When you follow what the trolls want you to believe, you can lose your identity and self-worth, maybe even your life.

Jackson’s vulnerability, family history, and the state of his mental health are woven in and out of Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters' script. While Ally, more or less, is described by her looks or an incredible voice, Gaga manages to give Ally a personality that the script lacks. To the surprise of no one, the only times that the characters are described equally is when they’re on stage or interacting with each other. While Jackson and Ally's relationship isn't wholly toxic, there are certainly strands that Ally's decisions of her own life and image aren't as detailed as Jackson's - something oddly enough the other films don't lack.

While there are some gaping details that leave a lot to be desired, Cooper's take is more in-depth than what meets the eyes. The imperfect complexity of Jackson and Ally emanates from how they both dive into each other’s lives. Once they meet, there’s no going back. They're made for each other as well as being doomed from the start; they wound, caress, and awake parts of themselves that have been hidden; they're both soft, and when backed into a corner, defensive. Similar to their Oscars performance for Best Original Song, it’s the camera and performers that put it all on the line catching the longing looks, caressing, hand-holding, hugs, inside jokes, the risks they push to reveal each other to the world, and the intense chemistry of being in the moment.

The strengths and faults of the A Star Is Born script remains by how two people are linked together despite the hardships of stardom and their own insecurities. In the words of Ariana Grande, Cooper’s passion project teaches the love, patience, and pain of being in a complicated relationship that’s not all sunshine and noses, where things get harder when both people struggle with their identities. It also explores the risks of finding the courage to finally leave the shallow behind and share your heart with another person and the world. While the parts of the whole aren't revolutionary, the story is kept alive by people who still think its voice hasn't been silenced yet.
“And the crowd goes wild. Jack singing with her as if he was a boy again and nothing will ever be the same. All of it new to her, surreal and frightening, and at once euphoric.”

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