100 People in the Room by Rebecca Storm



Jackson Maine calls after Ally from the window of an SUV, while she’s still within earshot. She looks back: “I just wanted to take another look at you,” he gurgles. After a happenstance introduction, the two (played by one-of-a-hundred-people-in-a-room Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, respectively) have just spent the night getting to know each other—punching out bar patrons, icing a wrist with frozen peas, impromptu and completely unprovoked moments of bombast and song. It’s the 2018 edition of one of the most gratuitous film narratives since the dawn of cinema: A Star is Born.

The “taking another look” line is iconic for several reasons, one being that it’s a stunning instance of Bradley’s inexplicable sex appeal—the glittering of his blue eyes to a near ludicrous extreme, and his face as worn and as chestnut as a gerascophobic Cary Grant, somehow successfully bolster this. Another reason is that the line is one of few common threads in all the (now four) iterations of A Star is Born. Somebody felt we needed to “take another look” at this endlessly played narrative, and Bradley took it upon himself to direct, star in, and co-write and record the soundtrack for the 2018 version. But what new message echoes audibly (besides “Bradley Cooper!”) from the fourth iteration of the same story? Why do we continue to be fascinated by the A Star is Born saga in 2019?

I deduced seven minutes in that the 1937 version of ASIB is not worth your time, so let’s start with the second one, from 1954. This one stars a grown up Dorothy, I mean Judy Garland, and that man from Lolita, who I will forever refer to as Humbert Humbert, a name as pretentious as his cadence (his real name is James Mason). Imagine C-3PO plus a tin of pomade, reciting, “I just wanted to take another look at you,” and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what sort of man audiences were left to find attractive nearly 70 years ago. The release of the third version in 1979 features a transformed protagonist, John Norman Howard played by Kris Kristofferson, projecting a defiant masculinity and flagrant bare chest. His blue eyes also bear the same ostentatious twinkle that Bradley felt compelled to carry into the 2018 instalment—unsurprisingly this is the version Bradley says most inspired his rendition.

The lovers in 2018’s ASIB, Ally and Jackson, meet when the latter, blustering and wasted, stumbles into a drag bar. Ally, who is performing Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” just so happens to recline on the bar in front of Jackson—they lock eyes, time stops, etc. After the show, Jackson, taken with Ally’s performance, introduces his masculine presence into the dressing room, eventually asking if he can peel off one of her faux eyebrows. While we’re told early on that Jackson has tinnitus and is hard of hearing, this isn’t an adequate reason for his lack of boundaries and disregard for personal space. Speaking of space, over the course of the film, any milestone in Ally and Jackson’s relationship seemingly occurs in spaces traditionally occupied by minorities—a drag bar here, and George “Noodles” Stone’s (Dave Chappelle) Gospel church, for when the pair eventually marry in a spur of the moment attempt to resolve a dispute. Bradley’s version also carries forward a vintage lack of women in the cast of supporting characters. Ally’s best friend, Ally’s agent, Ally’s single dad and his male friends, Ally’s choreographer, Ally’s brother-in-law. The closest we get to a feminine network are Ally’s girls from the drag bar, who appear sparsely throughout the plot as a cheerleading squad. Maybe to have a woman in there would be a weak link in her support chain, or infer some type of rivalry—diminishing the message that a talented woman is a rarity. These instances suggest an endeavour to maintain some semblance of “authenticity,” at least in terms of what we plebs imagine show business to be like. Veiled in cinematic 70s realism, the otherwise potentially demeaning narrative is somehow palatable, charming.

It would be fair to say that given the plot’s ubiquity, each interpretation could serve as a barometer for the sociopolitical climate into which it was released. The 1937 and 1954 releases feature the ascendance of aspiring actresses, while the 1979 and 2018 stars are vocalists instead. A reflection perhaps of shifting engines of culture, or the aspiring woman’s evolving goals. But this all feels like a projection of what a man imagines women across the ages to have desired from show business, an industry which has consistently short-changed them over the course of history. This feeling of projection is perhaps what makes the many versions of ASIB loveable despite itself—we know that this is a deliberate representation of a man’s world. It is worth noting the predilection for the star’s autonomy in the later versions was apparently thanks to Barbara Streisand, the third film’s star, who was instrumental in adjusting its script. As a result, the 70s and ‘18 versions feel self-aware, authentic in the way they represent the patriarchal hierarchy of exposure. Symbolically subverting it, maybe, through the continued, if not increased success of the star after the men are gone.

The masses are ever-curious about the price of fame, the ins-and-outs and seeming injustices of how stars are selected. In an era where Keeping Up with the Kardashians leverages this curiosity into billions of dollars, ASIB seems misplaced—mostly for its dated implication that a talented, but common-looking woman needs to be seen by a powerful man in order to “be born” into her truest self. And for the reason that this is simply not really how fame works anymore. Rife with the notorious sexism of Hollywood, the film is palatable not just because its world is historically and empirically true, but because it’s somehow now almost quaint. With music, song, dance, and laughing in pyjamas. It’s difficult of course to feel nothing for a love story that ends in tragedy, an undercurrent to the narrative of the film as much as it was to the performance of “Shallow” at the 2019 Oscars, all mahogany tans and glistening eyes. Either by virtue of a death, or a pre-existing spouse, forbidden love IRL and in song is the cherry on the ASIB sundae. How else could a musical be not just universally tolerable, but revered in 2019?