The stage is a simple thing. Strip away its size, its sets, its rigging and pyrotechnics, and it’s merely a platform—as flat and innocuous as a kitchen floor.
But as soon as someone steps onto that stage, it breathes. It almost sings itself, giving voice to drama or song. Eyes fix on the thing, unwilling to turn away. The stage comes alive, and those who watch are changed somehow. Sometimes the change is a fleeting thing, but every now and then the change lasts forever.
The people onstage are changed, too. Some hate or fear it. But for others, the stage, in all its incarnations in city and state and country, is home. Perhaps the only home they’ve ever known.
Jackson Maine lives most of his life under a hat. The brim hides his boozy eyes as he moves from show to show, from chauffeured SUV to private plane. When he speaks, his voice sounds like it’s been yanked, unwillingly, right from the ground, full of gravel and root. Everything about him suggests that he just wants to be left alone.
But when he steps onstage, the hat comes off. His hands move across strings and frets, and his voice rises like a country path: It rolls with the sonic hills and gullies, sounding off in confessional intimacy. He’s going deaf, he knows. His brother, Bobby, begs him to wear earplugs to preserve what hearing he has left. Jackson waves him off. They get in the way, Jackson says, between him and the audience. He’s more alive on stage than anywhere else, and he’d rather go deaf than deaden the experience.
Ally’s life is more pedestrian. She works as a server at a semi-swanky banquet hall, her supervisor swearing and belittling her whenever he sees her slink in. She lives with her dad in a modest little house, where she cooks and cleans and dreams.
But one night a week, at a local dive where wig-wearing drag queens populate the stage, she transforms. She paints her hair, tapes thin eyebrows to her face and becomes a torch singer—a Judy Garland, a Barbra Streisand, a Lady Gaga for her small room of cheering fans. There, she’s not just a plain-Jane kitchen worker, but a star, and her voice rises to the rafters like a wren.
Jackson becomes himself on stage. Ally becomes someone else. But they both feel at home.
But is it home? Home, a real home, doesn’t care a whit for album sales. It won’t kick you out when your fame begins to dim. The stage does. It always does.
They meet, of course. They fall in love. Jackson encourages Ally’s talent and tells her to be honest up on that stage—as honest as she’s ever been. “If you don’t dig deep in [your] soul, you don’t have legs,” he tells her.
But as the stage gives birth to one new star, cradling it and holding it in its spotlight, we see a darker truth behind: The stage, if it is a home, can change the locks at any time.
The stage, if it is a mother, sometimes eats its own.
A Star Is Born is, at its core, a love story. Like all real love stories, this one can feel pretty complicated. Jackson and Ally bring plenty of baggage into this romance. But we never doubt that the two love each other (even if that love is strained at times). Jackson wants Ally to succeed—most of the time, anyway—and he works hard, especially early on, to help her realize her potential (and for his fans to appreciate them).
Sure, Jackson can act jealous at times. But we should note that what might look like peevishness can actually be a bit more multilayered. As Ally’s star rises, she seems (in Jackson’s eyes) to lean more on superficial artifice rather than the raw, authentic honesty on stage that Jackson favors. It’s not just Ally’s growing fame that bothers him: It’s the way she’s achieving that fame, which feels like a sellout to him.
Ally’s own loyalty to Jackson rarely wavers, even in moments where he hurts and shames her deeply. She loves him, and she’s willing to hamper her own career to make sure that Jackson has the support he needs.
Ally and her dad (Lorenzo) also love each other (in spite of a rough moment or two). He’s proud of his little girl’s successes, and he can be very protective. When Lorenzo feels like he’s taken a step too far—ruining more things than we can say here—Ally tells him that it wasn’t his fault. She reminds him how he’d lug a piano around with him so she’d always have something to play, and how he never failed to listen to one of her songs.
One of Jackson’s songs, “Maybe It’s Time,” alludes to his spiritual uncertainty: “Nobody knows what waits for the dead,” he sings. “Some folks just believe in the things they heard, in the things they said.”
Ally, meanwhile, wears a cross around her neck early on. And even when she becomes famous and goes on tour, she gathers with her band and dancers to say a pre-performance prayer.
Ally and Jackson get married in a church. “Welcome to the Lord’s house!” The pastor says in welcome.
Whatever Ally’s spiritual inclinations are, she has no problem becoming Jackson’s on-the-road bedmate well before they tie the knot. We see the two having sex in bed and in a bathtub. A third scene pictures the couple again bathing with each other, though this time they’re fighting. All three scenes involve varying degrees of nudity, with one of them briefly picturing Ally fully nude. Ally and Jackson frequently kiss and cuddle, too.
As mentioned, Jackson discovers Ally in a drag bar. We see lots of men in (as well as getting into and out of) women’s clothing and accoutrements, including one man who’s wearing fake breasts. A male drag queen asks Jackson to sign his fake chest. (When Jackson asks which breast he’d like him to sign, he says, “Both.”) The same character flirts a bit with Jackson as well. It’s also suggested that Ally’s best friend, Ramon, is gay; but the movie doesn’t contain any explicit references to his sexuality.
Ally sometimes wears revealing garb. Before what she hopes will be an intimate encounter, she wipes herself down in several places. She dances provocatively with a male dancer during a performance, which makes Jackson a little jealous and uncomfortable. She publicly commits to staying married to Jackson “for life,” even if she suggests to Jackson privately that if he wants to leave, she won’t stop him. She thus insinuates to Jackson that she might secretly want him to leave. “I just want you to be happy,” she says.
Jackson’s brother, Bobby, tells Ally that while Jackson’s been with other women on tour, he’s never brought one up onstage with him before.
Ally takes exception to a picture-taking fan who invades Jackson’s space, and she slugs the guy. Jackson takes Ally to a supermarket afterward to buy some frozen peas to put on her hand to keep it from swelling. Jackson socks brother Bobby in the face, and the two nearly escalate the fight.
[Spoiler Warning] While at a rehab clinic, Jackson confesses to a doctor that he tried to kill himself when he was a kid—trying to hang himself from a ceiling fan. Instead, the fan was yanked out of the ceiling, and all Jackson got was a cut on his forehead—an incident he and the doctor laugh about. (His father, always drunk, never noticed the cut, never asked about the fan and let the thing lie on the floor for “’bout half a year,” Jackson says.) The anecdote turns out to be grim foreshadowing: Jackson eventually hangs himself off camera.
More than 100 f-words and about 20 s-words. We also hear “a–,” “b–ch,” “h—” and “p-ss”, along with more than a dozen misuses of God’s name (three of them with “d–n”).
When Ally first spends the night with Jackson, she’s eager to sleep with him. But when she gets out of the bathroom, Jackson’s passed out cold. Bobby eventually, and literally, puts the music star in bed. “Think he drinks a little too much?” He asks Ally snidely.
Jackson’s alcohol and drug abuse only get worse. When Ally tries to talk to Jackson during an after-show party, he staggers and falls to the ground. (She tells the guests not to worry, that he does this all the time.) When he’s forced to perform (ironically) at a pharmaceutical convention, he grinds up a few pills and snorts them, before scooping up the medicinal residue and brushing it into his drink (which he quaffs). He’s clearly high as a proverbial kite during the performance. The next time we see Jackson, he’s passed out in the front yard of an old friend. (He sheepishly tells the friend that he imagined he’d at least made it through the door.)
Jackson drinks before concerts, after them and while onstage, and at least half of his conversation is slurred and boozy. He smokes the occasional marijuana joint, as well.
That said, A Star Is Born hardly glamorizes the drug use: When Jackson’s not drinking (or, at least, not too drunk), he’s charming and transparent. Sometimes when he drinks, though, he turns surly and mean, especially during one scarring scene with Ally. We can see that the stuff is destroying him, and Ally constantly worries about his drinking habits. She’s visibly relieved when he’s sober. Elsewhere, Jackson’s drinking leads to a deeply embarrassing moment for Ally—one that immeasurably impacts their trajectory as a couple.
She drinks too, of course, including one big shot of (apparently) vodka before taking the stage with Jackson early in her career. Her father and his cronies drink and smoke like wannabe Rat Packers.
Jackson’s substance abuse eventually gets him sent to an intensive rehab program. When he gets out and comes back home, Jackson has a talk with Ally’s agent, who suggests that they both know his sobriety is only temporary: It’s just a matter of time before he’s back to the booze.
Bobby alludes to times when Jackson’s been so drunk that he’s wet himself. Later, we see him do just that.
Funny: In the four film incarnations of A Star Is Born, we’ve never actually seen a star being born out of it. Janet Gaynor was the titular “star” in the first iteration, back in 1937, but she’d already won an Oscar by then. Judy Garland had gone to Oz by the time she fronted the 1954 version. Barbra Streisand wasn’t just a star when she appeared in 1976’s A Star Is Born with Kris Kristofferson: She’d gone supernova.
Only by comparison, then, does Lady Gaga (who plays Ally) look like a wet-behind-the-ears ingénue, acting-wise.
As iconic as she undeniably is in the music world, and though she’s done some well-received acting in FX’s American Horror Story, she’s still a bit of a revelation here. Largely stripped of the glamor and style and flat-out weirdness that have been hallmarks of her career, the woman born Stefani Germanotta feels real and grounded and oh-so vulnerable in this breakout performance. She will likely earn one of the many Oscars nominations no doubt coming for this film, and a win may not be out of the question. The film has already been received enthusiastically at various film festivals (Vienna sent it off with an eight-minute standing ovation) and by critics, who’ve given A Star Is Born an impressive 95% “freshness” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And like Ally’s story, it seems like the movie’s momentum is just beginning.
But as strong as Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s performances are, and as palpable as these talented actors’ chemistry may be, moviegoers should approach this film with deep caution. In fact, it’s this film’s very quality that make it that much more ticklish.
A Star Is Born is, like many films this year, is preoccupied with themes of self-destruction. And Jackson’s slow slog to the bottom can be incredibly difficult to watch. Drinking and drug use is pervasive, and while that’s never glamorized, Jackson’s final response to it may be. It feels to Jackson, and perhaps to some in the audience, like a sacrificial act, not a selfish one—and that is in itself deeply problematic. The movie’s pervasive sexual content and language don’t help, either. And this film didn’t need a hundred f-words to make its message meaningful.
The stage—and by extension, the movie screen—is indeed a powerful thing. What takes place there can move us, even change us. And here’s the sad, sobering truth: Movies, even great movies, don’t always change us for the better.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.