Warning: Spoilers, obviously!
A Star is Born is an artful movie that masterfully tackles the issues of addiction, suicide, and toxic (specifically, non-toxic) relationships. I had the pleasure of seeing it the other day in an empty theater, sunken into a beanbag chair that by the time the halfway point of the movie came around, was absolutely drenched in tears. I would encourage everyone who would not be too upset by suicide or addiction portrayals to go see it. A few messages that Bradley Cooper wove into the script and that Lady Gaga and Cooper beautifully performed stood out to me as worth sharing.
- A healthy partner both supports and draws boundary lines.
The character Ally (Lady Gaga) is, to start, an alluring and vivacious character. She is seen crooning in a black slip about a drag bar in one of the audience’s first encounters with her, draping herself atop bar counters and playfully teasing patrons. She also is gifted with an appreciated ability to make healthy relationship choices, due to her emotional sensitivity and well developed sense of boundaries.
Ally clearly loves her husband. The chemistry between Cooper (Jack) and Lady Gaga is sizzling and tender, and they find joy in even the smallest, most ridiculous moments together. However, in tandem with her eternal commitment to him, we see early on that she’s able to be firm with her husband, who was already presenting as an alcoholic. In the beginning stages of the movie, Jack lovingly wakes Ally up in her home and asks her to come with him on a motorcycle he brought with him. She agrees, but in a jarringly firm manner that the audience hadn’t yet been exposed to from her, she makes it clear that not only would she not ride on the motorcycle with him if he was ever drunk, but he should never ask her to. In a later scene, Ally tracks down Jack, who was found by a friend, blackout drunk in the bushes. While she is ultimately supportive, she first makes clear to him that she “won’t come find [him] again.” She doesn’t want to enable his behavior, and frequently compels him to give up drinking, albeit for brief spurts.
Alcoholism is an illness. Based on the time I spent sitting in on AA meetings while in eating disorder treatment, I understand that a role that some will undertake, those who love the alcoholic, is that of the caretaker. Yes, Ally does perform this role to some extent (cleaning him up, apologizing for him, sending him to rehab), but she also isn’t afraid to say no, or demand an apology for terrible things Jack said to her while drunk. At the end of the day, she’s always “there for” Jack, meaning she does what’s best for him. She stuck by him through long-term rehab and, crucially, had an honest conversation with him as to what he thought would be the healthiest environment for him once he was discharged, making sure he knew that one of the loving options was distance and a new environment, perhaps even away from her if need be.
Mental illnesses, addictions, change the way sufferers interact with the world and people around them. While it is my personal hope that every sufferer can have a person in their life who is there for them and who is willing to do the right thing for them, being able to be honest with an ill partner and set boundaries is crucial to the mental health of both parties. If Ally was simply an enabler of Jack’s illnesses, her career and marriage, due to mental health decline, would likely have been jeopardized far earlier than it was. She understood before the audience did that alcoholism is a disease, that his behavior was due to this disease. In order for a relationship to succeed, honesty and boundaries must be formative elements of it. And yes, their relationship did succeed, despite the ending. Jack simply succumbed to his illnesses.
I’ve been in relationships where one party failed to draw boundaries, I’ve been in relationships where boundaries were excessive, and I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of both, whether the relationships were casual, romantic, authoritative, or familial in nature. A skewed relationship like that is destined to fail, and we are reminded of this by the knowledge, as the curtains draw on Ally’s tearful cheeks, that Ally and Jack’s relationship was not the cause of the tragic ending.
- Childhood and family trauma centrally guide the creation of the self.
The relationship between Ally and her father and Jack and his brother (and anecdotal inclusions of his late father) serve as a meaty contrast between a healthy, recovered familial relationship and a broken, tragic one. Ally’s father is a former alcoholic, but he is recovered and the two of them have not only made peace but are closely and lovingly bonded.
Jack’s relationship with his older brother is strained and distant, and both of his parents died by the time he was fourteen. He had tried to hang himself as a young teenager and his brother, his de facto caretaker, had not noticed. His father died around that time. His intense internal emotions about these events appear to have been unexplored by the time the movie takes place, for his conversations with his brother about his youth are either restrained and vague or wildly violent.
Ally, on the other hand, seems to have been able to rebuild a loving and supportive relationship with her formerly alcoholic father. Her father is sober and present in her life, giving her encouragement and pushing her to follow her dreams, whether they take her to a drag bar, Arizona, or the Grammys. She remembers a less pleasant past- she mournfully observes an old, hung photograph at one point, alcoholism having just been mentioned in dialogue- but she’s resolved that pain by creating a radically opposite relationship with her father. She’s joyously close with her father’s fellow driving fleet members, and they all are thrilled and supportive when a video of her singing first goes viral.
Jack actually isn’t completely short on family, technically. They have just never been ever-present in his life. With a mother he never knew and a father who was taken from him at an early age, he was well acquainted with both established and sudden loss through his most formative years. It was through his brother that he was introduced to alcohol as a way of coping with loss, working in tandem with the suicidal ideation that presumably accompanied his adolescent attempt. He has old family friends, his brother is still alive, but he hasn’t ever spent time to come to terms with his childhood, a fact symbolized by Jack’s reaction to Bobby selling their childhood ranch upon which their father was laid to rest (hint; it involves knuckles). Could such an intense reaction spring from a man at peace?
So by the time Jack meets Ally, he’s already drinking heavily and using drugs. Ally is able to provide him some of the stability that he ultimately needed, a love healthy and unconditional. She’s eventually no match for illness and what the movie begs us to hone in on: the alluring illusion of fame’s riches. As Ally becomes more successful and strays from the soulful art that Jack fell in love with, we watch him spin into self blame and destabilization that leads directly to a bottle and a line. In a man who’d been raised with stability and healing, he’d have seen Ally’s progression as natural and human, been there for her despite it. He tries, but he ultimately can’t overcome his feelings of guilt and self-blame that are directly tied to his childhood and family.
Ally is not free of self-blame. After Jack’s suicide, she experiences plenty. She is simply able to digest it healthily; she notices her self blame, listens to the consolation of others, heeds it, and turns her grief into respectful, compassionate art. She’s avoided addiction and has managed to resolve her alluded-to traumatic childhood influences. Her husband wasn’t able to do that, so when testing times rolled in, he succumbed.
- The only people ultimately accountable for suicides are the deceased.
This is a bit of a controversial take, but the movie finishes with Jack’s suicide and we are privy to a few minutes of the aftermath of his decision. We see the moments leading up to his death, his hanging body, and the damage it strew in his wake. A few of these moments stood out to me as impressive learning moments, to the movie’s appreciated credit.
Yes, before Jack’s death, he has a devastating conversation with Ally’s manager. The manager (Rez) comes to the couple’s house while Ally is out, sits Jack down, and explains to him that though Ally would never say so, he was sabotaging her public career by even being with her and that he would inevitably drink again, so he should leave her in order to save her from that ordeal. We, the audience, know that Ally does not think like this, that her kind, thoughtful, supportive words while visiting Jack in rehab are incongruous with her manager’s observations. However, this conversation is NOT why Jack commits suicide. While his words were deplorable, neither Rez nor anyone on Earth has the power to make someone kill themselves, save by force. This scene does serve, though, as an appreciated reminder that we never know what emotional battles others are facing, and that compassion can be crucial in unexpected ways. I know that in my period of suicidality, my internal battles were mine and mine alone, but I often replayed unkind words that various others had said to me. If not for my illness, these words would have been healthily digested by my brain. My illness was at fault for my state, not those who spoke ill to me.
After Jack’s suicide, we are witness to a scene in which Ally has a heart-to-heart with Jack’s somewhat estranged older brother. In it, Ally is tending to blame herself, lamenting how the last words she spoke to her husband were lies (white lies; she claimed to have cancelled her tour for him). I was initially jarred by the following, supposedly consoling words of Bobby Maine (Sam Elliott).
“It’s Jack’s fault!” he growls, but he always growls, and Ally knows he’s right. It took me a few moments to remember that he was, too. It was tempting to yell at the screen (especially since I was alone in the theater) but Ally’s manager told him he was hurting her! It is his fault!
I could have said that about any number of factors in Jack’s life, though. I could have blamed his mother’s death in childbirth. I could have blamed his father’s death in Jack’s adolescence. I could have blamed his brother’s drinking, his indelicate upbringing. Doing so, however, would have disenfranchised not only the work of those around him to help him (of which there is much, namely from Ally, Bobby, and Ally’s father), but more importantly, the intentional devastation of the illnesses that Jack had. Yes, he suffered from alcoholism, depression (presumably) and suicidal predispositions, which are diseases that can be healed and deserve much sympathy. That being said, those were a part of him, too. Jack’s illnesses, and the person they turned him into, were the ones who made the final decision to commit suicide. Having been a member of therapeutic communities in which folks have been often privy to suicide, I know that guilt runs high and thick in survivors. Survivors are only responsible for their actions. Ally’s manager berating Jack was deplorable, and Jack should have grown up with alive, present, healthy parents, but they didn’t tie the noose. Guilt on the part of survivors is natural and makes sense, but it isn’t ultimately fair. If we held folks in suicide victims’ lives accountable for the death, we’d have to do so for everyone the deceased encountered, including those who likely positively affected them, because we never truly know or are responsible for what another person is experiencing. This is NOT to say that we shouldn’t be unfailingly compassionate and intentional in our actions; we should be, always. We just can’t pull others’ triggers.
Two excerpts from the songs that are featured in the film are worth sharing, I think. The former illustrates the dichotomy of Jack’s predicament; his good times are fraught by a desire to, ironically, escape from the escapism he’s built for himself, while his sicker times are marred by his inner self’s fear of what his illnesses will make him do. The latter stanza is a tear-jerking reminder of the deep self-blame and ultimate tragedy that suicide instills.
In all the good times I find myself
Longin’ for change
And in the bad times I fear myself
Wish I could, I could’ve said goodbye
I would’ve said what I wanted to
Maybe even cried for you
If I knew it would be the last time
I would’ve broke my heart in two
Tryin’ to save a part of you