John Caramanica declared the celebrity profile dead a few weeks ago. Yet Rachel Syme’s story on Lady Gaga for New York Times Magazine about her new film, the third remake of A Star is Born, does everything the best profiles are supposed to: It draws the subject as a fascinating main character and gives us a peek into what she does and why. It illuminates a specific moment in time. It tells the audience what the writer thinks is interesting or compelling about its subject and how that relates to us all. It offers an origin story, not just of the main character, but an origin story of the origin story — revealing the social world the main character inhabits and how it explains something essential about who she is.
For her interviews with Syme, Gaga, possibly one of the last true pop stars, was not very forthcoming:
Now, as we toured her house, Gaga was as opaque as Ally is transparent. She spoke carefully, in a breathy tone, as if she were in an active séance with an old movie star whose press agent advised her to remain enigmatic and demure. She showed me a bizarre bathroom, where she had found a bed over the shower; she gestured delicately at her backyard, announcing: “Some beautiful lemon trees. It’s a nice place to come and just create.” When we got into the studio, she tiptoed through the cavernous live room, pointing out a grand piano in a voice so quiet I could barely hear her. We made our way to a small alcove with whitewashed walls and 20-foot ceilings, which looked like the storage room of an art museum — an echo chamber, she explained. I asked about the acoustics, in part because it seemed the polite thing to do, but in part because I was trying to open any conversational tap I could find. Whether she was feeling legitimately shy or was simply method-acting as a restrained ingénue, she had yet to speak at full volume.
In Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s piece on Gaga’s co-star, Bradley Cooper, also the film’s director, Cooper’s dull aphorisms only make Brodesser-Akner’s insights shine more brightly. “His voice is not yet as good as it would become,” she writes of seeing the first time Cooper and Gaga sing together, in footage from before they made A Star Is Born. Watching Brodesser-Akner watching Cooper tells us more about his journey in making the film than anything he says in the entire piece.
Similarly, I’m not sure whether less reticence from Gaga would have helped us understand more about her first major film role or the mystique and mythology of A Star is Born. Some of the most memorable and probing profiles ever written don’t even include interviews with their subjects. It’s Rachel Syme’s trenchant musings on Gaga’s rise, her performance as Ally, and “the grueling machinations behind celebrity” that are a delight to read.
“A Star Is Born” has never really been a film about an unknown actress shooting across the screen like a rare comet. Instead, from the very beginning, it has always been a film about an already superfamous woman shooting a movie. That’s the real reason the franchise works: It comes with a built-in insurance policy. In 1937, when Janet Gaynor stepped into the role of the farm girl Esther Blodgett in the first version (which was itself a remix of a 1932 drama called “What Price Hollywood?”), she was making a comeback, but she had been a box-office titan of the silent era, the first woman to ever win an Academy Award for acting. Judy Garland, who tackled Esther in 1954 (a studio executive quickly changes her name to Vicki Lester in the film), was a household name at 17, no longer a vaudevillian striver but a minted studio girl, kept on a steady infusion of amphetamines and barbiturates and praise. In 1976, Barbra Streisand, whose character’s name was Esther Hoffman (we have to believe she goes from mieskeit to swan), was already an Oscar winner for playing Fanny Brice, and fresh off another nomination, for “The Way We Were.” These actresses were all at least a decade into their careers, and they used the material less as a coming-out party and more as a victory lap. Of course the Esthers would succeed; their real-life counterparts had already pushed through every obstacle.
This is why the lead role is so alluring to divas who want to explore the boundaries of their fame and what they had to endure to lasso it. These actresses, in drag as younger versions of themselves, get to wrestle with their flaws and air out their darkest fears. But we don’t fear for them, not really, because we know how the story turns out. Garland, who always felt so intimidated by the leggy army of MGM blondes that she spent her life making self-deprecating jokes, fashioned herself into the world’s most beloved brunette. Streisand, whose line “Hello, gorgeous” was soaking in wry irony, turned a prominent bridge into a locus of desire.
Gaga’s innate New York City toughness brings a different flavor to the role than her predecessors. Where Janet Gaynor plays the starlet as pure and cornfed, Garland plays her as a plucky troubadour in pert ribbon bow ties and Streisand plays her as a wisecracking prima donna in colorful ponchos (hey, it was the ’70s), Gaga’s Ally is more world-weary and knowing. She is the kind of woman who gets into fistfights, who alternately sasses and fusses over her father (Andrew Dice Clay), a chauffeur who once had showbiz aspirations himself but never had a lucky break. When Cooper offered Gaga the role, he told her that “this is what it would be like if you were 31 and had never made it,” and she readily embodies the ferocious hunger of the would-be famous. She’s no innocent when she walks onstage to sing. She knows exactly what to do, and exactly what this will mean for her career. She’s ready to go.
Ally’s journey is not about a singer developing her talent — that’s already there. It is about finding her way toward an aesthetic once she has the world’s attention. She dyes her hair Tang orange, begins working with a choreographer and sings springy pop songs about butts, all of which she does without wavering, even when Jackson drunkenly criticizes her for being inauthentic. Some viewers may read a rock-versus-pop hierarchy into Ally’s transformations — that she is more “real” when she is harmonizing with Jackson’s twangy melodies or sitting at her piano — but Gaga’s onscreen mastery over both genres is a pre-emptive rebuttal to what is essentially a gendered bias. What “A Star Is Born” makes clear about Lady Gaga is that she possesses the dexterity to make whatever kind of music she likes.