We’re finally less than a month away from the Oscars telecast. I am eager for it to come and be over with. Though I feel it is my responsibility as a scholar of film to watch the Oscars and their many precursors, the past couple of years it has truly become a slog. I always start out the season enthusiastic about the films I saw throughout the entire year (not just between Labor Day and Christmas). This year, as with most, many of my favorites ended up not included in the awards season discussion at all, or were slighted by the Oscars in at least several categories when the nominations were announced. This year has been particularly frustrating because one film has been nominated by virtually every guild only to go home empty handed or close to it every time. That film is A Star Is Born, which in my opinion is one of only three of the nominees for Best Picture this year that deserve to actually win the award. The other two films are BlacKkKlansman and Roma. The latter seems poised to take home many of Oscar night’s top awards, and it would also be surprising, as of this writing, if BlacKkKlansman didn’t win Best Adapted Screenplay.
A Star Is Born has had the unfortunate luck of mostly just winning awards for the song “Shallow.” It certainly should win that award, but there are other areas where the film should be a lot more competitive than it has been so far. The Producers Guild of America gave their top prize to the dreadful Green Book. The Golden Globes favored Bohemian Rhapsody in the Best Film-Drama category. Just last night, the Screen Actors Guild awards saw A Star Is Born go 0 for 4. The film has clearly lost a lot of the hype that it attracted earlier in the season, which is a common occurrence each year as releases from November and December are fresh in the minds of voters in the industry. My plea, if any Oscar voters stumble upon this piece, is to give A Star Is Born another look and consider some flaws with the competition.
The one thing I will not do is argue for Lady Gaga to win Best Actress. I do not mean this as a criticism of her work. I don’t think it is anywhere, shall we say, Close, to the best performance of the year in that category, but it is solid. If Gaga pulled what would be an upset at this point, I would not be angry. It’s not going to happen though. Glenn Close is going to win Best Actress and Gaga is going to win an Oscar for co-writing “Shallow.” The songwriting category is where Gaga’s work is absolutely the best of 2018, and it is there that she will be recognized.
A Star Is Born is worthy of winning Best Picture. Yes, it is a remake. I’ll admit that in most cases I am not a fan of remakes. Because a film is a remake, however, is not on its own a disqualifying attribute. Besides, remakes aren’t alone in being overtly familiar. Consider Black Panther. Its main differences from other Marvel films is that it has a diverse cast and a different setting. It does touch on socio-political issues, but it also follows a straightforward, even recycled, arc from many of the other MCU films. Bohemian Rhapsody is the first major Hollywood film about Freddie Mercury, but it sacrifices accuracy in order to embrace a triple-vinyl anthology worth of music doc clichés. The film may be about Freddie Mercury, but plot points such as the band selling their van to pay for studio time or breaking up in the early 80s, are made up. They have been transplanted into Freddie’s arc because they worked in other successful music docs. You’ve seen them before, and you’ll see them again in a couple months when RocketMan is released. I can’t wait to see how these same filmmakers fabricate some major feud to account for the brief period in the late 70s where Elton John and Bernie Taupin stopped writing songs together.
Green Book may be a true story, but it conveniently hits some of the same beats as Driving Miss Daisy, Crash and Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. Even Vice in many ways feels like a remake (albeit a superior one) of Oliver Stone’s 2008 film W. Yes, Vice focuses on Dick Cheney instead of George W. Bush, but it still incorporates many of the key arguments of Stone’s film, including the theory that Dubya cared more about pleasing his dad than governing. It also spends a lot of time connecting Cheney’s involvement with Haliburton to the decision to invade Iraq.
My point is that the current crop of Best Picture nominees, with the exception of BlacKkKlansman, Roma and The Favourite, all seem very familiar in terms of plot, theme and style. A Star Is Born does more with its familiar elements than the other aforementioned titles. Even if you are tempted to say Lady Gaga’s is the worst performance (in terms of acting, not singing) in the film, it still isn’t bad. Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliot shine. Clearly the Academy didn’t think much of the acting in Black Panther, and, while none of it is bad, I agree. Michael B. Jordan left a lasting impression, as he always does, but most of the really impressive work was done by director Ryan Coogler and his crew.
Bradley Cooper deserves to win Best Actor more than Rami Malek and Christian Bale. Malek’s performance in Bohemian Rhapsody was, to me, along the lines of Gaga’s work in A Star Is Born. He was effective onstage (even though, unlike Gaga, he didn’t sing) and he wasn’t bad otherwise, he just wasn’t great. How Bohemian Rhapsody was nominated for a SAG ensemble award baffles me, because Malek was the only person in the film who made an impression, and even it was just so-so. For his part, Bale was solid, but the most memorable thing about him in Vice was how he looked like Dick Cheney. He sounded like him too, but emotionally he seemed to be in one mode most of the time. The real Dick Cheney does too, but capturing that trait still results in a performance that demonstrates little range. We’ve seen Bale do more onscreen and I’m sure we will again in the future.
There were a lot more sides to Cooper’s character and his performance. Jackson Maine is likable at times, a jerk at others. He doesn’t just slide downward in the film’s second half either. There are glimmers of hope that things will get better for him and for Ally. The dynamic between Jackson and his brother Bobby (Sam Elliot) also adds depth to both performances. Sam Elliot is the most deserving performance in his category too, though Richard E. Grant and Adam Driver are close behind. I’ll admit, Mahershala Ali is also deserving. He is the only good thing about Green Book, so good that what he brings to his character prevents the film from being more offensive than it already is. Ali is good, but he has already won an Oscar for a much better performance merely two years ago. Sam Elliot should be recognized this year, not just because he is a legend, but because his performance, though brief, was able to match and enhance the impact of Bradley Cooper’s. Though the screen time disparity is actually greater between Cooper and Elliot than it is for Ali and Viggo Mortensen, Elliot is not tied down by a script that limits his character’s development.
I’m not going to argue for A Star Is Born to win adapted screenplay. I think the writing is good enough for a nomination, and if it wins I wouldn’t be upset, but the adapted screenplay award really should go to BlacKkKlansman or If Beale Street Could Talk. The cinematography award will go to Roma, and that’s also the correct choice. I do think A Star Is Born has a shot at winning sound mixing and that would be appropriate.
Audiences, Hollywood and Oscar voters clearly seem eager to embrace musicals right now, and A Star Is Born provides the right mix of acting and songwriting, story and spectacle, familiar elements and fresh additions. It wouldn’t be the most relevant or diverse pick, and that is its biggest downside. It’s a familiar story, skillfully re-told and well-acted all around. It will provide many in the audience with a touch of good old-fashioned catharsis that most studio films these days fail to achieve. That’s a feat worth recognizing.