In the career of every pop star there comes a time when, perhaps to maximize the life cycle of stardom, they try out acting. Lady Gaga, who has always had a “Broadway, baby” bent, seemingly wants to bring back the all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting stardom of yore with her own career choices; she is currently filming the fourth cinematic edition of A Star Is Born, directed by her costar Bradley Cooper. Having demonstrated that her acting abilities are more than a lark on the haunted-hotel season of American Horror Story (she won a Golden Globe in 2016 for her efforts playing the vampiric “Countess”), Gaga is ready to make the leap to the big screen like Britney, Whitney, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake have attempted before her, to varying degrees of success. With A Star Is Born, Gaga is officially throwing her pink Joanne cowboy hat in the ring for an EGOT.
A Star Is Born is a deathless Hollywood fable that people continually remake because we love the mythology of it — it’s like a real stories-we-tell-ourselves of American lore. As far as musicals goes, it’s its own kind of special franchise — a sentimental tearjerker that gets at deeper issues regarding fame and love, topics that are especially dear to Gaga’s heart. A Star Is Born is the tale of a famous male star who falls in love with an up-and-coming young starlet and helps launch her into superstardom, his own career fading as she ascends. With its inborn fatalism, very depressing ending, and warning about the poisonousness of ambition, the film has the feeling of a Greek myth. The fact that it has been remade three times since 1937 serves as a reminder that clothing and music may change, but the siren song of show business forever remains the same.
The original A Star Is Born starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; the 1954 remake, Judy Garland and James Mason. The 1976 version featured, notably, two actor/singers — Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson — in a thrillingly campy version that flipped the context from acting to a very ’70s music business. In the first two versions, the young up-and-comer is an aspiring actress who clinches an Oscar as the climax; in the 1976 version, it’s a Grammy. A Star Is Born press photos released the day after Coachella began show Cooper and Gaga onstage, clutching guitars, making it safe to assume they’re keeping the frame of the ’76 remake — nevertheless, it’s always a story about the meat-grinder mechanics of stardom. Fame is only granted to up-and comer Esther after she changes her name to “Vicki,” an apt role for the former Stefani Germanotta.
A Star Is Born is about the perils of addiction and fame, but it can also read as a socially conservative warning for women that if you become too successful, your male partner will feel so deeply emasculated he’ll see no other option than to [spoiler!] off himself. Depressing? Sure, but it’s also a story that played out in real life in early Hollywood so many times that nobody is sure of which real couple A Star Is Born was based on — there are so many historical analogues from the time period rumored to be the inspiration. But paradoxically, this movie, whose main statement is “don’t eclipse men or life will punish you for it,” is also best known for being a vehicle for actresses. Mirroring the narrative, Garland was nominated for an Oscar (she lost to Grace Kelly), and Streisand won two Grammys for “Evergreen,” her original song.
The film comes with a proven record of garnering attention and awards. It’s attractive to actors because there are a lot of meaty drunk fight scenes between the couple. In the midst of a mini-comeback of the musicals genre with the success of La La Land and Beauty and the Beast, there is certainly space for a big campy modern movie musical that’s not the jukebox version. If that old Hollywood-musical workhorse is going to come back, Gaga is ideally suited to bring back triple-threat star status. There’s always been something very Old Hollywood about Gaga, and she’s at her best when she steers all the way into her “Bob Fosse jazz hands cabaret singer” quality. A Star Is Born is a camp classic about show business — so there’s a lot of wiggle room for the acting quality — the broader the better. With Gaga in her early thirties and having just broken off her engagement to actor boyfriend Taylor Kinney, there’s also a meta-quality to her starring in this story of love and fame that suggests talented women are doomed to be martyred in love.
Gaga has always felt very “Liza With a Z,” but Judy Garland might actually be a better point of comparison. Garland was a child star who struggled with fame and the pressures of image, and A Star Is Born, a sort of reintroduction to the public for Garland, was a funhouse-mirror version of her own career narrative. Talent can’t be hidden away — it has to sing and dance, no matter the emotional cost. Garland’s Esther works her way up from vaudeville to the Academy Awards. The parallels with Gaga’s career are obvious: She started in East Village dive bars and cabarets and became world-famous. All it took was a name change, natural talent, a guardian angel named Akon (who “discovered” Gaga and cowrote “Just Dance”), and the indomitable force of sheer will. Like Garland, Gaga has always had a kind of preternatural oldness beyond her years. Even when she debuted in her early twenties, there was something about her recalling zany character of the midcentury. Her bawdy charisma and unconventionality also draws a line to one of the biggest musical stars of the early 20th century, Sophie Tucker. The lesson of A Star Is Born is that the tradeoffs stars make for fame are not always pleasant, but that there’s also no other choice for those born with charisma and the will to get up onstage. Live for the applause, die by the applause.