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'A Star Is Born' Has Always Been About Emotional Abuse

It's easy for filmmakers to portray abusers as clear-cut villains; it's much harder to treat them with compassion and to layer a story with the moments of levity and genuine connection.

by Robyn Bahr
Feb 22 2019, 10:44pm

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The scariest moment of A Star is Born occurs two-thirds into the film, when country-rock star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) surprises singer Ally Campana (Lady Gaga) with her own wedding. Minutes prior to their nuptials we witness Jack doubly betray his partner, first by not showing up to her inaugural show as a solo artist, and then by disappearing on a bender, ending up passed out in the yard of an old buddy several states away. While he's recovering in his friend's home, Ally shows up, terrified and furious.

"I won't do this again. Next time you can clean up your own mess,” she says. He's remorseful; they reconcile. The two make their way to the breakfast table and before the orange juice even comes around, Jack impulsively proposes to her, improvising a ring with a coiled guitar string. Before she even consents, his friend/enabler, George (Dave Chappelle) suggests they marry right away—today, now. She's barely given time to consider the question before she's swept away in the moment: To prove her love, she's going to marry Jack with only his people beside her, no family or friends of her own in sight.

This is not romance. This is emotional abuse.

A Star is Born is one of the highest-grossing films of 2018, clocking in over $300 million worldwide—unheard of for a romantic drama these days—and racking up awards nomination after awards nomination. On Sunday, it will battle for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Actress. The film's pop-rock ballad soundtrack debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 albums chart in October and was one of the best-selling albums of the last year. Critics may have pushed back against its melodramatic beats, but the film has clearly resonated with fans, and my theory is that it's because it captures what it's like to be in love with someone who slowly chips away at your confidence and independence—something many people can relate to.

It's easy for filmmakers to portray abusers as clear-cut villains; it's much harder to treat them with compassion and to layer a story with the moments of levity and genuine connection that leads a person to stay with someone who hurts them. Because abuse isn't always relentless. It's so insidious precisely because it's cyclic.

Jack's action in proposing to Ally is classic control and manipulation. It's the creepiest kind of insurance: He's sickly "rewarding" Ally for her loyalty, and even worse, he's locking her down minutes after she threatens to leave him over his poisonous behavior. The spontaneous wedding is done for the thrill, the rush of oxytocin and dopamine and adrenaline. But as I watched Ally say "I do" in her newly-purchased white lace cocktail dress, a humble flower tucked behind her ear, I felt like I was watching a horror film where the final girl decides to mosey on into the basement. Lady, watch out! There's a monster in there.

Believe it or not, though, A Star is Born was my favorite film of 2018 for this very reason: It's a beautiful cinematic experience that expertly captures the subtleties of emotional abuse. Director Bradley Cooper deftly weaving Jack and Ally's uneven power dynamic directly into the fabric of the story. It's truly one of the best cinematic examples of an emotionally abusive relationship I've ever seen. And much like real life, it's hard to detect when toxic behavior crosses the line into systematic emotional abuse. For example, I grew up with the paradigm of the Lifetime-like "battered woman" as my only image for what it meant to be trapped in an abusive situation. But most people I know who have experience with intimate partner abuse were emotionally and psychologically manipulated, not necessarily physically hurt. And the scars can last for a lifetime.

The film, the fourth in a series of remakes modeling the rise and fall of two artists, isn't just a tragedy about pop stardom or the devastations of fame and addiction, but a lesson in the cycles of abuse. Jack is textbook. At first, he entices her with typical red flag "grand gestures," flying her to exotic locales on a moment's notice or bringing her up on stage with him to sing her original music. These moments tightly bind her to him. As her notoriety heightens, he becomes angry and jealous—insecure about his own career, but also mistrustful of her manager, who exhibits influence over her he himself once had. He mocks her new pop persona, from her catchy music to her glamorous makeover. (Because the only way to be a serious artist, according to him, is to be like him.) She's weighed down with guilt all the time for leaving him to work, his soulful hound dog persona inciting her shame. And when she's feeling angry about his ridicule and spits acid right back at him, he verbally abuses her, calling her talentless and "fucking ugly," gutting her right in her Achilles heel.

He's a vulnerable narcissist and he's preyed on the right insecure woman, someone who grew up taking care of an alcoholic father, no mother ever spoken of. Emotionally porous, she's vulnerable to the power of her own empathy.

Some viewers have pushed back on the film, citing Ally's "lack of agency,” but I've always read this supposed passivity as the reality of becoming subsumed into an abusive relationship, how it consumes your identity. Actress Mandy Moore said this herself on WTF with Marc Maron while commenting on the abuse allegations against her ex-husband Ryan Adams, “I was living my life for him. It [was] an entirely unhealthy dynamic. Oh, I had no sense of self. I was imperceptible, I was so small in my own world.” During Moore’s marriage, she says she took smaller jobs because of Adams’ dependency. "It would become abundantly clear while I was working, things would completely fall apart at home,” she says.

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So let's call Jackson's "bad behavior" what it really is: Emotional violence. From the moment they meet, he's already lined her up to be his muse. She writes songs that inspire him and reinvigorate his stalling career. But the minute she steps out of his shadow, he disintegrates. He's no longer a god. There's true malice in his eyes the moment she tells him a record company wants to sign her and he smears a cream cheese bagel across her face. It's not a playful image; he wants to embarrass her, turn her into a clown. Diminish her power. Sure, it's jealousy, insecurity, and neediness—but it's also manipulation. He's the one with the authority. He's the one who controls the purse strings. Her career lives and dies by him alone, according to this action.

In truth, love can narrow our worldview, especially when someone is trying to rewrite your reality and make you feel like you owe them your voice. Jackson Maine is a tragic character because of the childhood neglect he suffered and the heartbreaking choice he makes at the end of the film. But his inner demons don’t absolve him from inflicting devastating control over the woman who loves him and, hopefully, viewers see that message loud and clear.