Clara Scott: The ‘A Star is Born’ formula and why it still works

Thursday, October 4, 2018 - 5:42pm

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star is Born'

Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star is Born' Buy this photo
Warner Bros.

Everyone loves a diva. From Mae West to Marilyn Monroe to Aretha, Céline, Madonna, Beyoncé and more, the poise and inimitable power of the diva archetype continues to proliferate through time. Arguably the most memorable and unique diva of our time is Lady Gaga, an artist who has fused visual culture, the avant-garde and her singular voice into a brand which changes with the wind, but always maintains its originality. Gaga’s music alone is a celebration of individuality, and combined with her experimentation in fashion, she consistently creates art that will last the test of time. She is truly an idol, a perfect example of American iconography and pop culture at its finest. For these reasons, she is heralded as an innovator in the public eye, but it is also why her upcoming film “A Star is Born” is already so successful at its release ― seeing Gaga bare-faced and raw highlights the soul at the heart of her fame, the thing that makes her different from the rest.

But the Gaga phenomenon is not new, even if this version of the movie is: “A Star is Born” has been made and remade three times before the current iteration, the first being released in 1937. The original version starring Janet Gaynor and its first remake in 1954 with Judy Garland follow the classic storyline that all of the films share; a washed-up alcoholic male star stumbles upon a budding female talent, and with his help she becomes famous. These first two movies ran with the framework to create full classic musicals ― Judy Garland’s film was almost three hours of dance numbers and Old Hollywood songs ― drawing on the allure of a rags-to-riches narrative to highlight young starlets in typical Tinseltown fashion. But the most recent versions — Barbra Streisand’s epic rock musical in 1976 and the Lady Gaga / Bradley Cooper behemoth this year — take a different approach to the conceit, instead focusing in on the grit and reality behind the shiny image of stardom. In both, a well-known star is momentarily stripped down to her base, allowing an eager audience to see the woman behind the diva.

When I first saw the trailer for this year’s “A Star is Born,” I was more excited than I think I’ve ever been for a movie release. 2018 is the year of great music movies, “A Star is Born” is among great company, like Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” and others. The teaser itself is a great film, full of emotion and a crescendoing close that emphasizes the serious approach Cooper made as a director to fill his movie with music that actually holds up alone. I’ve listened to the soundtrack’s first single, “Shallow,” probably more than is healthy. Anyone who lives in my dorm has definitely heard me screaming it in the shower  ― “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I’ll never meet the ground!” This is a testament to the power of Lady Gaga; I haven’t even seen the movie, but the clip of her, no makeup, t-shirt and jeans, singing her heart out has lodged itself in my mind permanently. Many of my friends have also fallen prey to the trailer, and I assume they too are screaming that song in the shower. Above my own personal excitement, this is evidence of why “A Star is Born” has been remade three times: It’s not just a movie, it’s a phenomenon, one that audiences will always love.

But why do we love it so much? At the core, “A Star is Born” is all about the diva in question. Audiences are always a sucker for a transformation, whether it be in the purest circumstances (à la “The Princess Diaries”) or in classic rom-coms like “She’s All That.” But “A Star is Born” does this in a different way, showing the artist as a real woman at the beginning of her career, being brought up the ranks into the star we know and love. In this year’s version, Lady Gaga is stripped down to her roots, upholding the conceit of remakes past but enhancing it even further. From the promotional material and her press interviews alone, it is clear that the movie is an opportunity for fans and the masses alike to see Gaga in a new light. This is the most obvious draw of the film, to take a glimpse behind the mask of extravagant excess that the singer often creates around herself, but the plotline of “A Star is Born” adds to its status as a phenomenon just as much. It’s an interesting take on the American Dream, but through the eyes of a woman, a relationship and the failure of a famous man. In that, audiences are given a chance to dream for themselves and ruminate on the inherent luck of fame, stardom and talent in the American music industry through an interesting lens.

The gender dynamics of “A Star is Born” are not uncommon in the business, as many women in the past have been guided to fame by self-destructive men over the years. So it’s even more powerful to imagine yourself in Lady Gaga’s place, knowing that her character’s story is not so unique in the scope of history. It is not all glitz and glamour, and “A Star is Born” doesn’t ignore this: The film’s common plot instead uses the male character’s alcoholism as a device to bring realism and candor into an otherwise fairytale story. That realism is ultimately what makes the movie’s formula work time and time again, and why a fourth rendition is popular before it has even been released. The combination of a common story, the allure of seeing the diva stripped and a balance between the joys and darknesses of success allow the viewer to simultaneously place themselves in the movie and watch as it unfolds at the same time. At its foundation, “A Star is Born” is about rebirth, something that through the prism of fame becomes vastly more powerful than it already is. We all search for a sort of rebirth in our lives, but it is often hard to tell if you are enough to achieve it. The success of “A Star is Born” tells us that we are enough, and that even a diva doesn’t need anything but herself to be seen.