Straight White Man, Interrupted: ‘A Star Is Born’ and the Politics of a Best Picture Winner

· Updated on October 30, 2018

Many spoilers ahead for A Star Is Born.

Lady Gaga is given no shortage of signature numbers to sing during A Star Is Born’s runtime. Her voice emphasizes the story’s beats and segments the narrative as its periods, colons and semicolons. Conversely, Bradley Cooper sings the same few notes to support the same ten syllables over and over: “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.”

And, boy, are they old ways, and boy do they die! As I wrote in my earlier review, while Gaga plays Ally, the titular star, the film focuses its lens on Cooper’s Jackson Maine. If Ally is the star, Jackson is the midwife who bears her. And the film decides in its second half that it is more interested in Jackson’s midwifery than in Ally’s first days as a newborn.  

While Jackson is the film’s emotional center, he’s also, let’s face it, a fucking relic. Those old ways that have to die? Yeah, he’s them. He’s a cowboy from Arizona (Ally calls him “cowboy” several times) who grew up on a pecan farm. His farm, found in the land of “papers please” anti-immigration bills, is eventually turned into a new-fangled wind farm. Thanks, Obama! I mean, just to underscore how old Jackson is, they have him play second banana in a Roy Orbison tribute at a Grammys event. When he tries to steal too much screen time with an out-of-place guitar riff, the whole room gives him a side eye.

A Star Is Born takes great pains to make sure we understand the complex psychology of an aging white man struggling with alcohol addiction who doesn’t understand why his talented wife has chosen a fast-paced pop music career. He also doesn’t understand that pop music can relay deep emotions. He basically yells at Ally to turn her racket down and get off his lawn. So while he’s the most complex character, he’s also the one who dies, the old way that has to go.

In that sense, A Star Is Born hits a lot of eerily similar notes to 2014 Best Picture winner Birdman, Or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. In Birdman, Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) spends most of the film walking around in a stupor as characters remind him just how much the world around him has changed and how outdated his whole mode of thinking is. Riggan Thomson, meet Jackson Maine, who shares your stupor.

When a film wins Best Picture, it wins the accolade not only on its merits, but for what it symbolizes about the national culture at the time of its win. When The Shape of Water won, the Academy anointed a love story that centered the disabled and the marginalized, even if that was symbolized through a fishman. Moonlight argued for the dignity of black queer people only months after the 2016 election. Spotlight anticipated the furious attacks on the media from the right by centering the importance of the fourth estate and rigorous journalism.

A Star Is Born may signify a return to Birdman’s triumphant themes if it makes its way into the Best Picture race and wins itself the top prize. The notion is not that far off: fifteen of the top twenty critics on Gold Derby have the film listed in their top 3 prospects for Best Picture nominees. After a solid opening at the box office, Forbes declared it the “film to beat” at the Oscars, which makes sense: after years of flagging ratings, the film is sure to inject the ceremony with an enthusiastic viewership.

But A Star Is Born may ignite fervor in the Academy for more reasons than just its straight white maleness. It invites more people to the party than Birdman did, even if just through cursory nods. A Star Is Born has Gaga’s Ally, who is struggling with her newfound fame. And while Ally is the great woman standing behind the film’s great man, a bar of drag queens are the great queer people supporting the great woman. A Star Is Born does not treat queer people with the same delicacy and complexity of Moonlight or even The Shape of Water, but it does show a tale as old as time: queer people supporting and trumpeting a white woman who eventually leaves us in the dust for a problematic, abusive white man.

This nod to diversity will be enough for many to push it to the front of the line. Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which stars Mexican actors and is helmed by a Mexican director, will court the anti-Trump vote. Green Book, which won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival, could get the liberal feel-good vote for its exploration of segregation-era racism. First Man is very much the “America is great!” vote. And then there’s A Star Is Born, which may end up being the compromise pic(k) for best picture, appealing to all quadrants of voters, even if it’s not at the top of everyone’s list.

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