Or rather, who’s really the hero in the movie. This is a basic question we’re asked a lot in film school. And the answer is usually the character with the biggest arch. Basically that whose growth (or lack thereof, or any other kind of change) the movie is about. Also, equally important to having an arch, having an obstacle to overcome in order to complete the journey from A to B. And, finally, having the character make an active choice when that obstacle arises, not just drifting around by the current.
But sometimes there are two or more characters, equally important, that can pose a challenge to answering these questions. Sometimes though, it’s a script and directorial fault that the protagonist didn’t own up to their role in the movie. I went to see A Star Is Born yesterday (co-scripted, directed and produced by Bradley Cooper and acted by himself and Lady Gaga) and, against the general praise I had seen, I think it could be the latter case for this one. It is still an entertaining movie and the music is great, but I felt it lacked some basic principles that, in my opinion, make Bradley a far better actor than director at this stage.
The logline describes in one sentence who the protagonist is, what is their obstacle and where does their choice take them in the end. The same movie can be described with different loglines according to different points of view. Consider, for example, the following for A Star Is Born.
A young waitress with body image insecurities but a talent for song, has been continuously denied success base upon her appearance, but will finally make it after her artist boyfriend gives her the push she needs to rise.
An artist in decline and addicted to alcohol and drugs, finds renewed incentive in music when he meets a talented aspirant, for whom he will end up giving his life in order for her to succeed.
I’m not too good at creating compelling loglines, but these do sound like two different movies. The first with no obstacle or active choice by the character, her story. The second, with a major arch (life and death) and the most difficult decision in one’s hand, his story.
Ally is talented and would like to succeed in the music industry. Or so we think because as far as she says, she is pretty contempt with her gigs at the drag club. But we must assume there’s always hidden dreams in anyone. She will find success, in fact, three Grammy Award nominations. She is not only successful, but an example of how the pop music industry destroys talent and actual good songwriting. There’s definitely an arch to her life but you’re wrong to guess that her obstacle is godlike producers around her converting her into a puppet of pop culture. She doesn’t seem the slightest bothered by that, not even after Jack, her partner who she admires, tells her in all honesty that the new music she’s doing is garbage. On this occasion she’s only moved to anger when he calls her ugly, proving again, that her rise to fame and her career is something she stumbles upon and happening to her, instead of her being the active tour de force behind it.
We’re told she has stage fright, yet she never ever crumbles on stage, not even right after drinking shots. We’re told she is insecure, yet she is dressing racy outfits on stage in no time. We’re told she doesn’t like to sing her own songs for an audience, yet she nails it the first time Jack invites her on stage and every other after that. The growth is kind of told to us, but explicitly not acted out. She is always the brilliant Gaga we know.
Her father and his colleagues form a group written for comedic advantage, very cool and entertaining, but even when this Italian man falls serious in his dislike of Jack, this is never as serious an argument with his daughter Ally as it could have been. An issue that could draw their relationship apart only to fix it later. A missed script opportunity in my opinion.
The only apparent drawback to her ascending career is her husband Jack, when at the Grammys makes a fool of himself and her. You’d think she would have to address this issue somehow, but she doesn’t. Her career keeps moving in the hands of producers. It only resolves when sadly, oh my, Jack commits suicide… so all is good now. The obstacle has solved itself and she is free to get on with her success. No dichotomy for her, no doubt, no choice.
How could this have been more interesting? Say she somehow learns that her manager is who told Jack not come to the concert and leave her for her own sake. She could have sabotaged that concert, maybe cancelling mid way in, have a fight with the man who’s been oppressing her art and then run to the guy who’s always supported her early songwriting. Only to find him dead because he gave his life for her. Still sad, traumatic and romantic, but at least she’s not just a dumb dummy watching life go by around her.
On the other hand, Jack is a fading renown artist. He finds renewed inspiration in this girl that will help him overcome his alcoholism and drug addiction. He will actually make a commitment in rehab to staying sober that looks like the real thing. His obstacle has always been himself. His brother has always loved and admired him but his trust and confidence issues make him vulnerable to auto sabotaging that relationship as well. His obstacle is, therefore, himself. Luckily this is something he will be able to fix in the end.
Solely his presence is now damaging Ally’s career and he is made clear about this from the producer (Ally unaware). His choice is the most difficult of them all: he needs to leave her side forever in order to save her and her career. So he ends up committing suicide. Regardless of the questionable romanticising of suicide in the movie, he faced an obstacle in his own wellbeing and rehabilitation (musically, career wise, personally… in all aspects): he has to give up what is his cure. It’s either him or her. It’s a choice.
And because of this, I think he is really the hero in the movie, the protagonist, and she is kind of a flat written characters with a lot to say apparently but not really doing so. Some could even say the star is born the moment Jack finds peace and gives way for Ally to rise. But, you know, achieving all your dreams and goals is so millennial, that we blindly consume stories bombarded with false dreamers who make it by losing who they are in the process and not really sticking up to anything they once believed in. It’s industry, not art, and in my opinion Ally is a dumb and one-dimensional portrayal of what it really takes to be up there with the stars. I’m pretty sure even Lady Gaga’s own story is filled with more exciting decisions and arguments to create her persona.