Marriage and Sacrifice in 'A Star is Born'

A few weeks back some of the new golf media and I were engaging in a Twitter thread about A Star is Born. Yes, golf bros like highly emotional dramas, too. We all agreed that it was a great movie, but the film left us wanting. Not wanting for a happy ending, per say, but something we couldn’t quite distinguish stuck in our craw.

Through the course of the conversation, we settled on it. The suicide by Bradley Cooper’s Jackson was a tragedy of addiction, but it was also shown to be a form of sacrifice for Ally (Lady Gaga), and that didn’t settle with me. As I said on Twitter:

But the story we were told throughout the movie, specifically the nature of their relationship, did not match up to the ending.

The climax of the movie is early, and it is the best ten minutes had in a movie theater this year. The Shallow performance was used as a marketing tool, a trailer, a hit song, and more than anything, it is the thesis for the movie. It is the axis by which this movie turns, and Cooper’s visual language shows us that Jackson Maine gladly descends into the background as Ally ascends to center stage. Both are fulfilled by each other and the roles they play in each other’s lives.

You know what? Let’s watch!

 

Wipe the tears from your eyes, shake off the chills. Let’s look at why this is such a powerful visual.


Maine knows the talent Ally possesses, who she is, and he gives her the platform to see her talents realized. Cooper’s direction is impeccable in this scene. It’s extraordinary the way he captures all Ally’s nerves and her breakthrough. She sings with hesitance, locking eyes with Maine, finding reassurance. She covers her face with her hands because she can’t believe it’s happening, and she continues. Maine is in the background, leading his band and grinning- he’s fulfilled watching Ally succeed. He joins her for a the chorus, and then lets her fly.

Ally grabs the mic, belts out the interlude, and sings, “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in,” with her arms extended as if she’s soaring, and she is. Maine, blurred in the background, has deep joy on his face as he has ceded the stage to someone worthy, someone who would have never had a chance without him. It’s so good. It’s just so good

The movie is multilayered, messy, and allegorical. It addresses fame, addiction, mental health, romantic and familial relationships. It’s so dense, it is difficult to cleaning parse through it’s meaning. It’s plot is the decline of Jackson’s career and ascension of Ally’s, but the story is their romantic relationship.

The first hour of the movie is about how Ally shoot into stardom, while the second half is her continued ascension while Jackson declines. Yet, in the whole movie- Jackson’s family fights, humiliation at the Grammys, his rehab, a rather bad SNL performance- their relationship is the ballast that holds them steady through their storms. From Ally’s firm grace to Jackson’s grizzled wisdom, they seek to better one another and provide what the other needs personally and professionally.

In a podcast about A Star is Born at TheRinger.com, Bill Simmons asked his guest and website Editor in Chief, Sean Fennessey, “But why did he have to kill himself?” Fennessey proudly said, “he had to die so she could live on as a star.” I reject that premise because Ally needs Jackson there, and his death does not allow it.

I was bothered with how Cooper used suicide in A Star is Born as a sacrifice for Ally. First, I was bothered because it seemed counterintuitive to what the entire film built to. Second, I was disturbed because the suicide, while earned in a character sense, was a tragic misrepresentation of what sacrifice for a spouse is.

 Bradley Cooper has been open about his own alcohol abuse, and he uses this movie as a cautionary tale, perhaps even a supposal of what could have happened to him if he did not achieve sobriety. Maybe that was the pull for him to show the tragic ramifications of addiction as the emotional catalyst for Ally’s character to achieve full stardom. But I find the suicide an incomplete piece of storytelling.

You’re supposed to critique the movie you got, not the one you wish you got, but Cooper’s expression of sacrifice left Ally alone, and wasn’t what she needed. Ally needed someone with her all the time, a veteran of the business who could help her navigate the pitfalls of skeezy managers like the one she had. I wish Jackson would have given up his career for Ally, found stability and sobriety in his purpose for her, faded into the background joyfully fulfilled, and in that joy the movie would have shown a truer meaning of sacrifice.

I think a lot about sacrifice, specifically sacrifice inside a marriage. My wife and I have moved around the Southeast US three times as she completes he medical training. Her career has taken off, and she has worked in some of the most renowned pathology labs in the world. I am a teacher, and I have to start over at a new school each year. Actually, I have to find a job first, then convince an admin to hire me knowing that we will probably leave in a year. Then, I start over in a new school and curriculum and community and such.

Now we have a two-year-old, and while my wife works long hours morning to evening, I play single dad with a full work day sandwiched in the middle. This year, my wife’s work schedule and my teaching schedule didn’t align with dropping off or picking up our son at preschool, but I still needed to work to help make ends meet. So I picked up an hourly job. It’s easy and flexible, but it’s also not a career, and the money is tight.

Thing is, I’m not a martyr; I don’t get adulation for supporting my wife’s career. I’m a sinner. A big one. I am impatient and easily frustrated. I am judgmental and have a quick tongue. Basically, take the fruit of the spirit and think of the opposite. Often I am overwhelmed and brought to my knees where I have to ask Jesus for help.

Maybe that’s why the ending of A Star is Born didn’t sit well with me. It is a tragedy that their relationship has to end for her fame to be complete, and that’s a commentary on the Entertainment Industry. But the ending undermines the story we’re told and presents a bleak proposition for those in sacrificial relationships, let alone those struggling with addiction. 

Whether acknowledged or not, men want to work towards something greater than themselves, something that tests their metal and requires from them more than they have, and in the end, their sacrifice allows for life to flourish. Paul calls this loving your wife as Christ loved the church. I love supporting my wife and sacrificing daily for her, but it’s not because I’m a good person, it’s because I love her. It’s what she needs to succeed. It is hard and I get frustrated. I get worn out. Who supports me in my daily brokenness when my marriage can’t? Or a better question, can my marriage support me in every way I need?

As a Christian, I did find some hope in the ending. It is hopeful to know that at my shallowest (pun intended!) need of patience while late for work and changing a dirty diaper, or in my deepest, most existential need neither fame nor booze nor relationship can fill me. Like all of us, we need something eternal, we need a God who has been there, is there, and will always be there, and his sacrifice for us wasn’t a one-time action leaving us without him for the rest of our days. 

It’s something of a misnomer that we are brought back to God via Christ’s crucifixion alone. It’s become shorthand to describe the long term, daily, eternal, active intercession that Christ achieved in his perfect life, death, resurrection, ascension, and advocacy at the right hand of the Father.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ- the Bible- is the story of a God who relentlessly pursues his people, daily meeting their needs so they are not alone.