“A Star Is Born” is an emotional masterpiece. The film documents the tragic love story of Ally and Jack, two musicians played astoundingly by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Jack — an aging, severely depressed, hearing-impaired, washed-up, alcoholic rock star who dabbles in coke and pills when the booze can’t get the job done — meets Ally, a slightly younger, existentially restless waitress. They meet in a nondescript drag bar, where he is awestruck by Ally’s performance of a classic, playfully erotic French tune.
Needless to say, they fall in love.
Jack kickstarts Ally’s music career by inviting her to perform alongside him as he tours the country. Thereafter, Ally is picked up by a record label and managed by a self-interested, sleazy opportunist who is looking to capitalize on Ally’s electrifying voice, songwriting, and stage presence.
More importantly, Jack and Ally soon get married, though their relationship becomes increasingly strained as Ally’s newfound stardom, which earns her a Grammy, accompanies Jack’s fall from grace.
But before Jack’s ultimate breakdown, he and Ally love each other so much and so intensely. Of course, you always get the sense that the alcohol, the coke, the pills, the depression, and sheer spiritual decay will eventually catch up to Jack, and, by extension, his relationship with his soulmate. Yet before that happens, Ally and Jack’s relationship is one of the most profoundly intimate and emotionally developed unions in the history of American cinema.
We never see Ally and Jack actually have sex — even though it’s clear they have a lot of it. By transcending the erotic, the film reveals a deeper, more complex intimacy between the couple.
“A Star Is Born” centers music as one of the primary vehicles of this intimacy. When the two perform duets in front of thousands of screaming, ecstatic fans, they seem united in a manner that is far more intimate than sex. The obvious connection between their bodies and their minds when they make music nearly renders the intimacy of their love-making secondary.
Even off the stage — on Ally and Jack’s bed to be exact — it’s the lovers’ soft tenderness and affectionate subtleties, not the sex they have, that demonstrates their intimacy. On the bed, when the couple kisses, caresses, touches, sleeps, intently listens to one another, or longingly looks each other in the eyes, the lovers’ faces and upper bodies are filmed through a series of close-up shots.
But the film doesn’t just show the bright side of intimacy, as it masterfully balances joyous love with a darker relational dynamic. Beyond the couple’s bed, another important and more sinister symbol of the film is the bathtub, which conveys self-incarceration and concealment from the outside world. Several times throughout the film, we see Ally, overwhelmed by her abrupt entrance into international fame, lying in a tub, her body splayed across the porcelain.
In one of the film’s most distressing scenes, Jack, drunk off hard liquor, enters the bathroom and finds his wife bathing in the tub. After some petty bickering about Jack’s drinking and the allegedly adverse impact of fame on Ally, Jack calls his spouse “ugly.”
Ally demands that Jack exit the bathroom, and as he leaves, she furiously stands up, fully naked. The scene is probably the least vulnerable of the entire film, as both Jack, who acts like a drunken misogynistic fool, and Ally uncharacteristically fail to open up to each other. This renders the two seconds of full-frontal nudity ironic, and the visual fogginess that accompanies the shot of Ally’s naked body a reinforcement of such invulnerability.
Ally and Jack’s increasingly troubled relationship forebodes the central tragedy of “A Star Is Born.” When Jack returns from a brief stint in rehab to recover from his alcoholism and drug addiction, he comes to believe that he is a drag on Ally, who continues to climb the ladder of glorious fame, as he effectively reaches rock bottom.
One night, consequently, while Ally is out performing, Jack hangs himself in their garage.
Jack’s suicide is as shockingly tragic as it is completely inevitable. Audience members, if they’re being honest with themselves, know Jack won’t survive all along. But since the film’s oriented by the soul — that is, soulful, spiritualized intimacy — rather than the body, Jack and his love for Ally seem essentially unbreakable and transcendent of bodily decay.
When Jack takes his own life, we are confronted with a reality so unspeakably impossible to accept. We are finally forced to acknowledge that the soul is only as powerful as the body in which it is contained, and that once the body dies, the soul passes away with it. The soul may enliven the body, but ultimately, the body gets the final existential say.
Every time Jack takes a drink, snorts a line, pops a pill, or drowns in depression, we think he can survive his broken body. We think his soul can save him. We think love would eventually bring him peace.
We thought wrong.
Like Ally, who, in the final moments of the film, performs a love song addressed to her husband at his funeral, we irrationally cling to the hope that Jack will overcome his demons and stop punishing himself — that he will finally stop hating himself and denying himself the happiness we so desperately want him to have.
We cling to Jack even as we are given a thousand reasons not to.
We cling to Jack until we can’t hold on any longer.
We cling to Jack until we have to let go.