Lady Gaga: Magnificently Ugly

 

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If Hollywood filmmaking is spellcasting, A Star Is Born seduced me absolutely. Bradley Cooper has demonstrated himself to be an immensely skilful filmmaker, in addition to an accomplished actor. I’d never paid him much attention: he was in The Hangover, and that was such a bucket of shit I thought it was best to leave him to it.

A Star Is Born is a completely different affair. There are many things that make it work, but I think the thing that works strongest is that Cooper makes you fall in love with this  Lady Gaga person. And I have a strong feeling that in some way, even if it’s only within the confines of his creation, he did, too.

The film is focused on the intimate performance of its leads. The concert footage was shot at actual concerts, which is a logistic triumph in itself. Most films would focus on size and scale of that achievement, but under Cooper’s direction, the camera heads somewhere else.

It zooms into extreme close up, taking you into close intimacy with Cooper, expressionist touches created by lens flare and other artfully deployed limitations of the camera. These kinds of expressionist touches belie exactly his ability as a director: his protagonist, Jackson Maine is privy to mystical experience. He walks a tightrope as an artist, and the film charts his fall from it.

When he meets Gaga, she is in deep disguise; Allie is the only woman singing in her own voice as part of a drag revue in a gay bar. She draws closer and closer, finally locking eyes with him when she lays down on the bar. He insists on an audience with her, and they begin to get to know one another. Rockstar or otherwise, she keeps her distance.

After, there is more drinking and eventually, an intimate conversation in a car park at which point Allie explains that she has had label attention, but they aren’t interested in her because of her nose. He says how much he loves her nose, and this is where the film diverges from the standard Hollywood script.

I once heard it said that the thing that distinguished cinema from other media is the close-up; it gives you the opportunity to scrutinise a stranger at the most intimate range. And what Cooper shows you are two people falling in love in real time; a story written in the deeply personal ciphers of their lines, pores, the shapes of their mouths and their eyes.

The big surprise is how beautiful she is. Seeing her so close, the texture of her skin and the topography of her face allows you to see the intimate detail of what the other is privy to, things not witnessed by any other character in the film. There are only three people within this territory; Jackson, Allie and you.

Naomi Woolf observed in The Beauty Myth that the myth of immaculate female beauty, presided over and preserved by an industry that through its own impossible standards keeps men and women separate and isolated from one another; a man cannot tell a woman she is beautiful and have her believe him.

Possibly the pinnacle of the film’s tragic power comes upon us suddenly, when a very drunk Jackson calls his wife ugly as she sits in the bath. It is not a simple statement; he hurts her to punish her, a futile attempt made to prevent their world from taking her away from him.

Lady Gaga is probably the most synthetic of modern pop divas, a singer playing a character that she manipulates across its different incarnations. However, underneath the various personae is a beauty as natural and striking as her voice.

That vivacious beauty is the chief visual pretext of the film. As their relationship grows, the more she shows us. And the more she seems to become more like herself. It is something personal and intimate that he recognises and as she becomes more and more like herself, the more of it she shows him.

Such beauty. Hiding in plain sight.

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