A Star is Born (2018)

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Norman Maine and Esther Blodgett. They’re part of the Hollywood landscape, like the Hollywood sign, Hollywood and Vine, and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (in Hollywood). Smart move, Bradley Cooper, selecting a tried and tested quantity like A Star is Born for your directorial debut. Cooper is freed to focus on the staging and the singing and the songs, knowing full well that the story—made and remade three times already (with Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937; with James Mason and Judy Garland in 1954—probably my favorite of the three; and with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand in 1976)—will pretty much take care of itself. Smart move, too, casting himself as “seasoned musician” Jackson Maine—Jack, not Norman—even though it’s twice as much work. Because, as it turns out, he can carry a tune (who knew?). And yet another smart move picking Lady Gaga to play “struggling artist” Ally No Last Name (about which the internet is all atwitter, and rightly so). For we all know that she, Ms. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, can belt one out of the Superdome. So this fourth-and-probably-counting version of the classic Pygmalion-inspired sudser of an established artiste taking an aspiring she’s-a-good-girl-she-is diva under his wing has been crafted by Cooper (who also penned the screenplay with Eric Roth and Will Fetters based on the original story by Robert Carson and William Wellman plus its 1937 screenplay by Carson, Wellman, Alan Campbell and yes that Dorothy Parker, with uncredited input from six additional screenwriters, as well as the 1954 screenplay by Moss Hart, along with the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne and Joan Didion and Frank Pierson—got all that?) into an absorbing feature film, one that succeeds in putting a modern spin on this most tragic of melodramas. Yes, Cooper does do all his own singing (and acting and directing and producing—got all that?) as does Lady G., not surprisingly. They’re terrific together: excellent chemistry, genuine warmth and affection shown. Jack’s sweet. A drunk, for sure, but still charming when he’s not falling flat on his face. And Ally’s tough and spunky, a true talent. And the film’s songs are strong and stick with you. It’s a love story for the ages and, on the strength of A Star is Born (2018), Bradley Cooper seems likely to have secured himself a healthy future in the director’s chair. As for Lady Gaga, it’s not unimaginable to assume that she’ll add, oh, a few million additional members to her already prodigious fanbase.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Private Life (2018)

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Sometimes an excruciatingly sad film is worth sitting through because of the power of its performances. One such experience is Tamara Jenkins’s Private Life, which stars Kathryn Hahn (Transparent) and Paul Giamatti (Billions) as a middle-aged couple struggling with infertility. The subject matter is difficult—a failed IVF here, an AWOL surrogate there—but Hahn and Giamatti give it extra resonance because they’re so bloody believable. Jenkins is exceptionally good at writing this stuff too; look what she gave Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney to work with in her last offering, 2007’s The Savages. That poignant film is about a brother and sister dealing with their dying father and their barely-functional sibling relationship. And Jenkins brings the same tenderness and humor she brought to that film here. Her dialogue and direction are never forced or deliberately dramatic. The film just flows. Hahn and Giamatti mimic that naturalness with their fully-developed characters, boho New York writers Rachel and Richard. This doesn’t feel like acting; this feels like trying to get pregnant. Private Life also stars John Carroll Lynch, Molly Shannon, Denis O’Hare as a gynecologist, and Godless’s Kayli Carter, mightily impressive as the 40-something couple’s step-niece, Sadie, who agrees to donate an ovum or two. One wonders why Jenkins took 11 years to explore what she calls “the biological tyranny of being a woman,” but it turns out the film is somewhat autobiographical in nature. As Hahn explained in a recent AV Club interview, “As a woman and a mother I can only imagine what it would feel like not to achieve that [i.e., getting pregnant]. And the pain it must be on a couple… So I knew how personal it was to Tamara and I knew she was going to ride that beautiful line between funny and tragic which is, like, my sweet spot… where I am the most turned on, creatively. So yeah, I just wanted to get aboard. And the writing was so clear, the story was so crisp.” Hahn is spot on: Jenkins’s screenplay for Private Life is clear and it is crisp and, even though it’s depressing, it’s also hopeful and heartening, and you’d be wise to get aboard too.


(c) 2018 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com