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But How Gay is ‘A Star Is Born’?

In “But How Gay Is It?”, we seek to answer the biggest questions you have about a new movie release in theaters now — including, most crucially, the titular question. Does the movie have any queer characters? Are there stories involving same-sex lovers? Which gay icons star in the film? We’re bringing you all that and more.

What is A Star Is Born? The third remake of William Wellman’s 1937 classic of the same name, A Star Is Born Version 4.0 is perhaps best known as The Lady Gaga Movie. She plays Ally, an up-and-coming singer/songwriter discovered in a Palm Springs drag bar by drunk-and-delirious rock star Jackson Maine. The film charts her rise, his fall, and their love; it’s truly a tale as old as time. Or, at least, as old as 1937.

Who’s in it? Gaga, of course, plus the film’s director/writer, Bradley Cooper, as Jackson. RuPaul’s Drag Race favorites Shangela and Willam appear as friends of Ally’s at the drag bar, while original Hamilton star Anthony Ramos rounds out that crew as friend Ramon. As the movie moves into Jackson’s world, Sam Elliott stands out as his brother and manager, Bobby, while Rafi Gavron pops up as Ally’s new pop music manager, Rez. Dave Chappelle, Halsey, and Alec Baldwin all show up in cameos as well.

Why should I see it? It’s the musical movie event of the year! It’s Gaga! It’s going to be nominated for a raft of Oscars! You’ll be left behind if you don’t see it.

But how gay is it? Well, we need to reframe this question a little bit. Because the answer is different depending on which half of the movie you’re talking about.

Okay, so how gay is the first half? Exceedingly so. The drag bar scene is excellent, so perfectly queer and fun. I wanted to stay in the bar forever. Willam gets some of the biggest laugh lines of the movie, while Shangela perfectly nails her drag mom character. It’s also a delight to see Jackson so interested in learning about their art, their makeup, and more.

It’s also when the movie is the most interested in Ally. Gaga shines when the camera is on her in the first half. She’s positively electric, acting through song in a way we too rarely see in musical films. It’s a performance fully deserving of praise.

But how gay is the second half? It’s not. At all. It’s remarkably focused on Jackson, to the film’s detriment and to Gaga’s extreme detriment. Ally becomes a hybrid saint-cipher, losing her fire and flavor. You can see her acting on the edges, but Cooper’s film no longer cares about the star once she’s been born. It becomes about him exclusively. The drag bar is a distant memory.

Moreover, the movie is exceedingly anti-pop, in a pretty distressing way! Which feels anti-gay, to me. Maybe that’s extreme, but it’s a bummer to watch the movie lean so hard against music that so many gay people find to be a clarion call.

Is the movie anti-pop, or is the character of Jackson anti-pop? Others will argue the latter, but I think it’s the former. We’re clearly supposed to laugh at Ally’s song “Why Did You Do That?,” but here’s the thing: “Why Did You Do That?” is a fucking bop. The song slaps! I’m not rooting against this Diane Warren-penned jam!

Additionally, the movie ends with Ally stripped down, hair color changed again, singing a ‘90s-esque adult contemporary ballad. It’s a sign that she’s returning to who she truly is. Which is a bummer! Plenty of great pop music is authentic and genuine. Signaling pop as the distancing force between Jackson and Ally in all this feels like a case of misplaced blame.

So this is Joanne, the movie? Kind of! It feels like Gaga is firmly rejecting pop by doing so many projects that frame pop as inauthentic and false. Considering I personally feel Gaga was never better than when she was doing pure pop, I can’t get on her level.

Do you recommend seeing the movie overall? For its killer first half, amazing songs (love “Shallow”), and a trio of terrific performances, yes. But maybe lower your expectations a bit.

A Star Is Born is in theaters now.

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Kevin O'Keeffe

Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' herstorian. He covers film and TV for INTO, and writes the movie review column "But How Gay Is It?" every Friday.

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