What A Star is Born Gets Right About Toxic Masculinity

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What A Star is Born Gets Right About Toxic Masculinity

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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e’ve seen this story countless times before. An alcoholic artist in the decline of his career mentors a talented woman, and when she succeeds, goes into a fit of jealousy-fuelled self sabotage. In a world that is coming to terms with toxic masculinity and its effect on women, was it really necessary to remake A Star is Born, a film that glorifies the very traits we’ve spent the last one year examining? Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut makes those efforts and succeeds, if only partially, in giving us a nuanced view of a relationship marred by emotional abuse and the effects of stardom.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a tinnitus-suffering, alcoholic singer-songwriter, while Lady Gaga plays Ally, a waitress who aspires to be a singer. Jackson first meets Ally in a drag bar, where she is singing “La Vie En Rose”. With an intensified call for sensitive portrayal of the LGBTQ community in films, the bathtub scene, where Ally puts makeup on Jackson’s face and paints his nails, seems written to script. It’s a poignant sequence which cements the fact that the masculinity portrayed on screen is different from the versions we have come to expect from Hollywood.

After a clunky first act which is propelled mostly by Lady Gaga’s electrifying singing, the movie picks up in the second act, digging deeper into Jackson’s insecurities, fuelled by his alcoholism, and Ally’s meteoric rise to fame. Hollywood loves stories about itself and it’s no surprise that the movie excels in the moments which show the toxicity of show-biz. Maine’s continuous downward spiral and toxic behaviour is given context as a tragic backstory which involves a less-than-devoted father, while Ally’s struggle to balance her stardom and the influence of Jackson comes to an especially heartbreaking conclusion in a Grammy award ceremony.

But for all its efforts at updating gender dynamics, the film would have worked even better had it understood consent too and not made it entirely about the man.

Men have, from time to time, blamed their shitty behaviour on alcohol and disabilities. And while Maine is himself affected by all these things, in the end, it’s clear that only he is responsible for his actions – and the movie makes it a point to affirm this. For Maine’s resentfulness doesn’t come from the fact that Ally’s career is overshadowing his own – he believes in her talent and is sorely disappointed when she signs up with a record label and starts taking up gigs which have nothing to do with her singing and everything to do with how she presents herself. This is a departure from the earlier versions of the film while also being a scathing commentary on showbiz which prides product over talent.

A Star Is Born

In favour of showing spectacle, it eschews its female lead’s agency.

Image Credits: Warner Bros. Pictures

It’s even more tragic that Maine only gets to tell Ally this in an alcohol-fuelled rage and not sober. In less than capable hands, this narrative would have devolved into hammy melodrama, but Cooper’s surprisingly deft touch lends a nuance rarely seen in movies like this. It’s satisfying too, especially when the upshot of the movie is that this behaviour is categorised as bad.

But for all its efforts at updating gender dynamics, the film would have worked even better had it understood consent too and not made it entirely about the man. In favour of showing spectacle, it eschews its female lead’s agency. Which is a shame, considering Lady Gaga’s terrific performance as Ally. I suppose there were always going to be hiccups in in re-telling a tale of old-school romance. But, as the song from the film goes, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die?”

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