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A Star Is Born teaches us a vital lesson about mental health and addiction

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Kayleigh Dray
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A Star Is Born review

It would be all too easy to sum up the plot of A Star Is Born thus: Jackson (Bradley Cooper) cannot handle Ally (Lady Gaga)’s rise to fame, and so turns to drinking as a coping mechanism. But this interpretation undermines the Best Picture nominee’s powerful message about addiction and mental health…

Lady Gaga, who was awarded Best Actress for her work on A Star Is Born at the 2019 Critics’ Choice Awards, had an important point to make during her acceptance speech.

“I would like to dedicate this award tonight to all people who have suffered from alcoholism and addiction or whoever watched their love ones suffer,” she said. “I wanted nothing more than to show the truth and the power of this very heartbreaking dynamic.”

Gaga added: “This is the true star of the film, the true star of the film is not me. It’s bravery and perseverance.”

For those who have yet to see the critically acclaimed film, this stark announcement may have come as something of a shock. After all, A Star Is Born is an age-old Hollywood story: the original first hit cinemas back in 1937, with Janet Gaynor as the eponymous star. In 1937, it was remade again – this time with Judy Garland in the lead. Barbra Streisand made the story her own in 1976 when she starred opposite Kris Kristofferson.

However, there is no denying that Gaga and Bradley Cooper – in his directorial debut – have created something truly extraordinary in their fourth remake of the film.

What’s it about?

The plot, at first glance, seems simple enough. Fading country music star Jackson Maine (Cooper) falls in love with talented singer-songwriter Ally (Gaga) after a chance encounter at a bar.

“I don’t sing my own songs. I just don’t feel comfortable,” she tells him, when he asks why she hasn’t pursued a career in the music industry.

Ally then rests a finger on her Roman nose, in a clear, some might say sledgehammer-like, reference to Gaga’s own struggles in the music industry (“I was told when I was first starting out that I should get a nose job, but I didn’t because I wanted to be who I was,” the musician has previously said). 

 “Almost every single person has told me they like the way I sounded but they didn’t like the way I look,” she informs Jackson.

“I think you’re beautiful,” he responds. And, of course, he is right.

It is Jackson who insists on taking Ally on as his protégé, pushing her to write more, sing more, and believe in herself. Indeed, it is he who orchestrates her first big break, practically forcing her to take the mic at one of his biggest concerts. 

However, this is where the tone of the story shifts. Thanks to Jackson’s initial support, Ally’s music career thrives – to the extent that her fame eclipses his. And, when she shakes off her country sensibilities and charges headfirst into the 21st-century media machine, working with a choreographer, staging SNL performances and donning glittering costumes, Jackson bitterly accuses her of selling out and becoming a pop music clone.

What he fails to realise, though, is that Ally remains fully in control of her destiny: when her new manager suggests she dye her hair blonde, she refuses. Similarly, she says “no” when he asks her to perform with a pair of female backing dancers. And, most importantly of all, she still insists on writing her own songs. As such, she remains fully in control of her rise to superstardom.

 Jackson’s problem with this – whether he’s aware of it or not – is simple: she’s doing it on her own terms, not his. 

Who’s in it?

Gaga is phenomenal in her first major movie role. Signature powerhouse vocals aside, she gives us a character who is both vulnerable and fierce, caught up in the riptides of fame and yet still thoroughly in command of her own destiny (it must help, of course, that the plot cleverly blurs the boundaries between the fictional ascent of Ally and Gaga’s own meteoric rise to fame).

Cooper, meanwhile, is entirely believable as the troubled rock star who believes he has found salvation in Ally. We, like her, fall in love with his sunburned squint, his drawling Southern lilt, his old-fashioned charm, and his almost childlike enthusiasm for music. And we, too, are utterly taken aback at the man he becomes when he drinks. It is no small feat that Cooper’s portrayal of alcohol abuse has given us a character that simultaneously inspires feelings of pity, revulsion and utter dread.

Together, Cooper and Gaga have (to borrow a phrase from 2018’s A Simple Favour) more chemistry than a school science fair. We believe in their star-crossed romance. We want them, more than anything, to find their happy ending. And, when they lift their voices together in song, we literally feel tingles down our spines. 

What can we learn from it?

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” sings Jackson. And while this could be considered a metaphor for the ever-shifting trends of the music industry, it can also be interpreted as a commentary on the ongoing conversation around mental health.

It would be all too easy to sum up the plot of A Star Is Born thus: Jackson cannot handle Ally’s rise to fame, and so turns to drinking as a coping mechanism. But this interpretation undermines the film’s powerful message about addiction and mental health.

Long before he meets Gaga’s ingénue, we learn that Cooper’s character has a toxic relationship with alcohol. Indeed, the film opens with him swigging bourbon straight from the bottle as he lounges in the back of his chauffeured car. When the liquor runs out and the traffic jam ahead shows no sign of abating, he demands his driver find him somewhere to drink (“I don’t wanna go home,” he says, staring blankly out of the window) and it is for this reason, and this reason alone, that he winds up at Ally’s bar.

Ally, much like the audience, is aware of Jackson’s issues. Indeed, when she describes the musician to her father the day after their first meeting, she terms him a “drunk” – and, throughout their relationship, she sternly informs Jackson that it is not her responsibility to clean up after him. That she is not his emotional caretaker. And that he, and only he, holds the key to his own recovery.

It is a message which feels all the more relevant in the wake of Mac Miller’s death. In 2018, the musician died of a suspected drug overdose, just a short while after he confirmed that every song on his 2014 album, Faces, is about cocaine. Instead of focusing on this, and the fact that Miller did not seek the help he so desperately needed, though, his fans instead decided to blame his ex-girlfriend Ariana Grande. Indeed, their baseless accusations were so relentless that #ArianakilledMacMiller became a trending hashtag on Twitter. 

However, as we noted at the time – and as is shown in A Star Is Born – it is not possible to “love” someone out of addiction. As the “three Cs” of addiction recovery state: you didn’t cause it, you can’t cure it and you can’t control it. Because, while you can educate yourself about addiction, you can’t make someone quit… nor can you do the work of recovery for them. They have to want to get better, and they have to steer themselves towards that goal. 

This is the most important message of A Star Is Born sets out to remind us, and it sends it with aplomb. And we don’t doubt that, with Academy Awards season on the horizon, the film will be recognised for its powerful portrayal of love and addiction, too.

If you are struggling with addiction, Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Image: Warner Bros

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is editor of Stylist.co.uk, where she chases after rogue apostrophes and specialises in films, comic books, feminism and television. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends. 

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