While A Star is Born came out a month ago, I didn’t see it for the first time until a couple of weeks ago, the day before I went to the opera with my grandmother. And then on Wednesday last week, I saw it again. And then yesterday? I’m ashamed to admit that I couldn’t resist going again. I may even go one more time before it drifts out of theaters and finds its way to Blu-ray. Then, I’ll buy a copy and proceed to cry over it in the comfort of my own home countless more times. Such is the way of enjoying quality filmmaking.
Yes, I know. I know! I’m super late to the party on this one; after all, the film is old news by now, and pretty much everyone who wants to see it has already seen it. Maybe, if you’re like me and you really enjoyed yourself while watching it, you’ve already read everything there is to read about the story and characters. Maybe you’re scratching yourself on the head and wondering, “Wait, does this article even belong on this board?”
After seeing the film for the first time, I immediately wanted to write an article on what I watched, but I struggled over whether or not I could justify writing it here on the grounds of it being a musical. Is it a musical? Well, even though the characters don’t spontaneously burst into song as a sort of “dialogue,” and all of the musical numbers are in the form of in-universe performances, I eventually reasoned that you could consider this a musical in the same way Once was able to compete as a musical at the Tonys. While the characters’ songs aren’t spontaneous, they still assist in telling the story, and they give us an insight into how the characters are feeling, their reactions to the events going on, their thoughts. Therefore, I’m going to freely share my thoughts without shame or hesitation.
The truth is that A Star is Born hit me deeply, deeper than any movie has hit me in a very long time. I’ll admit going in that I had never seen any of the other versions of this film, and I purposefully avoided spoilers before going in so that I could experience everything for the first time. Afterwards, as we were walking out, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this was absolutely the right decision, because A Star is Born is one of those stories where, if possible, the experience is heightened if you have no idea what will happen. In my case, the way the film ended was much more emotionally jarring when I didn’t know the story, because I expected the entire movie to go one way, but at the last second, the rug was pulled out from under me. And because of this ending, as I stumbled to the bathroom after the screening, numbly processing everything I had just seen, my mind landed on one observation:
A Star is Born presents the dark, messy side of mental illness that, at best, often gets glossed over in media, or, at worst, is entirely vilified through a black-and-white lens.
I assume you’ve seen the movie if you’re reading this right now. We know Jackson Maine is a tortured rustic country singer who suffers from a serious alcohol addiction. We know Ally is a waitress and aspiring singer who manages to rise in stardom after stumbling across Jack. Unsurprisingly, the two begin a romantic relationship and eventually get married despite the difficulties already clouding their relationship. As Ally’s talent causes her mainstream success to rise, Jack’s crippling addiction to drugs and alcohol ensures that his own fame begins to fall, and as a result, Jack doubles down on his alcoholism and clings to his unhealthy habits as a way to cope. As it all happens, Ally grows concerned and frustrated with her husband in turn.
Throughout the film, I thought I had heard this story before. The woman would try to stick by her husband’s side and juggle her success with ongoing mistreatment, and when the husband would hit rock bottom, the woman would realize that her marriage was only holding her back and call for a divorce, ending the film as a free and happy individual who’s ready to take on the music industry by storm. In many ways, it seemed a bit similar to the way the marriage in The Last Five Years fell apart, and I sat in my seat with anticipation for the inevitable collapse of the couple’s struggling relationship.
Each time Jack messed up as a result of his drug and alcohol problem, I waited for the moment when Ally would throw her hands up in the air and announce that she was leaving. Instead, I was surprised when, after a nasty, alcohol-infused argument in which Jack insulted Ally, Jack came up to Ally sober the next morning and apologized for his behavior before proceeding to not pick any arguments with her again.
...Okay. Well, the next thing would probably break them up, then.
Ally won a Grammy Award, and Jack, having become blackout drunk before the ceremony, stumbled onstage during Ally’s acceptance speech and passed out in front of the entire world, mortifying Ally and ruining one of the most special moments of her entire life. Surely that would end things, right?!
No. In fact, Jack understood exactly how terrible that was for him to do and checked himself into rehab, determined to become sober so that he could be with Ally in a stable, healthy relationship.
...Oh. That’s...actually very self-reflective of him. But there must have been something really bad coming up, then. The final straw. The abhorrent deed that would make Ally once and for all give up and break away on her own. After Jack was released from rehab and shown living a seemingly clean and sober life with Ally, I watched as Ally left for a final performance after extracting a promise from Jack that he would meet up with her there, certain that they could surprise their fans with a live duet. Night fell, and Jack set a steak on the ground for their dog before wandering out to the garage, assumingly to climb in the car and drive to Ally’s gig. Instead, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a bottle of pills.
Okay! There it was. He was about to relapse with a dose of drugs and let Ally down during a big performance. That would be the final straw for Ally. I waited. However, after a beat, Jack slowly slipped off his belt and hooked it into a noose shape. He walked back into the garage.
I waited again, only this time for some confirmation that his attempt had failed. That maybe he decided not to do it after all. That someone had stopped him. Ally was shown worrying over Jack backstage and asking her manager to send someone to the house to check on Jack, and before we moviegoers knew it, there were ambulance lights flashing in front of the couple’s house. At the start of the next scene, Ally was mourning in her house.
Jackson Maine was gone.
Immediately, my thought after watching this movie was that as an audience member, I fell for the idea that addicts are inherently bad people who deserve to be punished and will never, ever try to kick their destructive habits. In real life, I like to think I understand that addicts are suffering, but while the film was on, I consistently expected the worst from Jack and never once considered that the movie would show him succeeding in overcoming his struggles, nor did I think it would show him even attempting to. When the rehab scenes came up, I assumed it would be a half-assed visit to quiet Ally down before Jack inevitably reverted back to his old behavior. I didn’t know he would actually become sober and intend to stay that way.
I didn’t know Jack would see himself as a failure and decide to “solve” the problem by killing himself instead of seeking more help.
How many people in real life feel trapped like Jack? How many struggling addicts are trying to juggle their trauma with overpowering depression and a belief that they are inherently incapable of becoming better for the ones they love? How many addicts find themselves in a tight spot and are met with a shrug and the damning response, “Well, that’s your fault for becoming addicted in the first place.”
How much has our society failed to understand that addiction, at the root of it all, is just as much a disease as any other mental or physical ailment?
In A Star is Born, Jack’s damning conversation is after he returns from rehab. Ally’s manager comes by to visit while Ally is away, and when Jack tries to strike up a conversation, the manager coldly replies, “You know...we’re not exactly friends here.” He proceeds to explain that while Jack was gone, Ally and her publicity team have had to clean up the mess of the Grammy Awards fiasco, and now the entire world sees Ally as an embarrassment for choosing to stay by her husband’s side. “She would never tell you that because she loves you too much,” the manager insists. But he promises that, once Ally’s fame reaches the highest it can go, she’ll leave Jack behind and never look back after understanding that Jack has only been holding her down. Their marriage is a hindrance, and the manager wants Jackson Maine the drunk to stay far away from Ally when the time comes.
All of this is said after Jack has already sobered up and left the alcoholic life behind him for Ally’s sake, and yet he still takes the words to heart and decides the manager is right. Even though Jack did everything he could to apologize for his behavior and be a better husband and partner for Ally by cleaning himself up considerably, his brain still tells him that it wasn’t enough, and nothing ever will be.
It should be noted, too, that Ally has been supportive of her husband’s efforts for the entire film. She readily agrees to Jack going to rehab and wants nothing more than for him to get better. She cancels a European tour so she can stay home and help him stay on track after he returns from his treatment. She tries to convince her manager to let Jack go on tour with her. While visiting her husband at the rehab center, she assures him that, if he thinks it would help his recovery, she would understand entirely if Jack decided that he needed some space and chose to be away from their marriage for a while, to which Jack defiantly replies, “I want to be with you. That’s why I’m here.”
The thing about this movie that pleases me is that both parties in the marriage understand that there’s a problem, and both parties actively work to improve the situation and support each other in this battle. It could have easily been a tale featuring the woman putting in all of the emotional labor and the man not accepting that he’s actively causing the rift in their relationship, but instead, the man makes the choice to seek the help he needs to make their marriage work.
But in the end, tragically, mental illness wins out. As a result, instead of choosing to leave a heartless man who refused to improve himself, Ally loses a beloved husband who did everything he could to make himself better for her.
Don’t get me wrong: stories of women leaving their abusive husbands, or even husbands leaving their abusive wives, are always welcome in society, and I know that there are indeed people out there who embrace their addictions so deeply that they don’t care how their choices affect others. Had this movie told the story of a woman leaving an alcoholic who constantly mistreated her and never, ever tried to make any changes to his behavior despite half-hearted apologies, I would have been satisfied. But A Star is Born is special in that it reminds us of the addicts who are trying to get better. I wouldn’t say that Jack and Ally’s relationship is abusive so much as I’d say it’s a messy journey for the pair; while Jack definitely has moments where he hurts Ally, he’s consistently shown coming back and apologizing before not doing the specific action again. He takes responsibility for his choices, and Ally, in turn, offers a loving hand to her husband when Jack finally decides he needs help to become better. It’s an unhealthy relationship, no doubt about it, but the point is that the couple wants to change that so their dynamic is clean and healthy. Can we really fault them for aspiring to that kind of goal?
Jack’s tragic end comes because of the idea that an addict can never grow from their position, no matter how much sweat and blood and tears they push through to become clean. Why do we as a society treat people with addictions this way when they announce their intentions to overcome their struggles? Why do we discourage the idea that someone can rise above a troubled past and learn to do better, learn to be better? Why do we frown upon the concept of self-improvement? Many of us, myself included, like to imagine that we’d be like Ally in supporting the ones we love, but in the end, we ultimately end up acting like Ally’s manager in our judgmental attitude towards people we don’t even know.
As long as issues like this continue to be commonplace, I imagine that we’ll see more remakes of A Star is Born made for future generations. Maybe the next remake will reverse the genders. Maybe we’ll see a same-sex couple struggle with this tragic story. I’m interested in seeing what the future will bring, but I also hope that we will learn better, so that one day, perhaps, stories like this will no longer be necessary to tell.
(Photo by Neal Preston)