A Star Is Born starts out as all good Lady Gaga stories do—with drag queens. The peak Gaga scene in Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, which premiered last night at the Venice Film Festival, takes place at a gay bar, where Gaga is "discovered" at a drag show, dressed as a Parisian vamp, belting out Edith Piaf's "La Vie en Rose," pulling a rose from her fishnets.
The A Star Is Born story is a tale as old as Hollywood, based on a 1937 musical drama starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March (with later iterations starring Judy Garland and James Mason in 1957, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976). With a squad of drag queens led by RuPaul’s Drag Race legend Shangela Laquifa Wadley, though, here things look very 2018.
Yes, this film is based on the fairytale of an older man discovering a young female star who skyrockets to fame and falls in love with her mentor, we get that. The love story will sell this film at the box office and to Oscars voters, but to another audience this film all boils down to the queens who first believed in Gaga’s character Ally, who first gave her the stage—even if the alcoholic country star Jackson Maine, who charmed her into a drink after falling in love at first sight, put her in front of an audience of 50,000 to sing her own songs.
In the film, Ally is a waitress at this cute little gay bar, but the queens egg her on to pursue her calling—her voice. Then Jackson enters the bar, and he clearly is not in his element (he asks Ally's friend, played by Anthony Ramos of Spike Lee's She’s Gotta Have It, if she’s actually singing, or it’s just "karaoke").
And when Jackson goes backstage to meet Ally, he asks if her taped-on eyebrows are real. What? It’s only later in the film, after their fiery romance fills the screen, that Ally and Jackson celebrate their anniversary in a bathtub, where she dresses him in drag. She paints on black eyeshadow, mascara, and the same taped-on eyebrows he first took off her, and then both of them erupt into a passionate kiss.
It’s interesting that makeup is both at the core of and part of the conversation around this film—especially since Gaga said at the Venice press conference on Friday that Cooper wouldn’t allow her to wear makeup for most of the film.
“Before we did a screen test, he had a makeup wipe in his hand and he put his hand on my face and wiped the makeup off and said ‘I want no makeup on your face,’” recalls Gaga. “This vulnerability is something he brought out in me. Bradley was able to pull out a vulnerability I might have not been able to pull out myself. I was very afraid to approach this role.”
While there is certainly an element of high camp to this rags-to-riches narrative, Gaga’s own struggles in the music industry are echoed by those of her character. “I was always very strong at the beginning of my career,” she said at the presser. “I never wanted to be sexy like other women, I wanted to be my own artist and have my own vision. It’s the same thing with Ally in this film.”
This isn’t Five Foot Two, so don’t expect any meat dresses or "Born This Way," but what’s fascinating is that the film's man-discovers-woman tale was actually turned around behind the scenes, with Gaga mentoring Cooper, who also performs Jackson's songs in the film, as a musician.
“He sings from his gut, the nectar of his soul,” she said. “What I love is there was a true exchange—he accepted me as an actor and I accepted him as a musician.”