Last year’s Netflix documentary “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” which followed Lady Gaga, neé Stefani Germanotta, as she recorded her 2016 album, “Joanne,” and prepared for the Super Bowl halftime performance of the following year, was presented as an exercise in the stripping down of artifice. Since the performer’s début, in 2008, she has been known as much for her danceable, hard-edged pop hits and three-octave range as for her hyper-theatrical, constructivist-cum-surrealist ensembles—an outfit shaped like a multi-pronged star, a floor-length gown made of purple hair, a dress and shoes forged from raw meat. But here, we were told, she was revealing her true self. Shown behind the scenes, dressed down in cut-off denims and faded tees, the musician was filmed writhing in pain on her couch (she suffers from fibromyalgia); wearing a paper gown as she attempts to maintain her composure at her doctor’s office; and sobbing as she plays the title song of “Joanne” to her grandmother. (Gaga wrote the album as a tribute to her aunt, who died, at nineteen, of lupus.)
In one early scene, Gaga is shown poolside at a Malibu recording studio, wearing a mint-green bikini and dark sunglasses, and having a discussion with her creative directors, Andrea Gelardin and Ruth Hogben, about her look for the new album. “Honestly, we’ve just seen me fucking glamorous for almost ten years. It’s boring,” Gaga says, munching on a fruit plate. The camera turns to Hogben, who nods. “We understand you,” she begins. Off-camera, Gaga’s disembodied voice interrupts: “Sorry, it just feels better.” When we swing back to the singer, she is suddenly bare breasted. There is a pause. Gelardin grins, a little embarrassed, and Gaga smiles slightly, too, clearly pleased with the minor but palpable shock her nakedness provides. Then the moment passes, and Gaga continues, “The truth of the matter is, I just want to have a uniform. And I think my uniform should be a black T-shirt and black jeans and black boots.” Watching this scene, I thought about the documentary’s larger project of unveiling the so-called real Gaga—five feet two rather than larger than life, openly emotive rather than poker-faced—and the ways in which the display of one’s most intimate moments can become its own sort of performance. Gaga doesn’t want her costumes to distract from her true self, the person who, as Hogben says, “people will trust.” But whether in plain jeans and a T-shirt or even just in skimpy bikini bottoms, she is still putting on a show.
I recalled this moment as I watched Bradley Cooper’s new film, “A Star Is Born,” in which he also stars as Jackson Maine, a rock star on the wane, who meets Gaga’s character, Ally (no apparent last name), a waitress and aspiring singer with mousy brown hair and a nose that, she tells him when they meet, everyone in the music industry has said is “too big.” This encounter takes place in a bar where drag queens lip-synch to standards, and Ally, despite being a cis woman, is allowed to participate, performing a virtuosic rendition of Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” in dramatic makeup to a small, enthusiastic crowd. “It’s good to be one of the gay girls,” Ally says. A drunk and lonely Maine, who has stumbled into the bar by chance, is deeply moved by the performance, and comes backstage to seek Ally out in the dressing room. Within what is figured as a hub of performed femininity (“It’s B.Y.O.B. here—bring your own boobs,” Ally says), Maine directs Ally to take off her stick-on eyebrows (“The whole point is I can see your face”) and asks to see the real color of her hair, concealed under black grease paint.
“My hair is your color,” Ally says to Maine, gesturing at his light-brown locks, and this likeness, the movie seems to suggest, is reflective of a broader affinity between the two. For Maine, beauty is truth and truth is beauty, and Ally is most beautiful when she reveals her true self, performing her own material, on the piano, with her face unadorned and her voice unmanipulated. (Gaga told the Los Angeles Times that, before her screen test for the role, Cooper wiped off her rouge and mascara, telling her that he wanted her to be “completely open, no artifice,” and that she understood then that she had to “completely let go and trust” him.) Maine, too, is presented in the movie as a throwback to a seventies-style Gram Parsons-ish authenticity. He holds on to the barren Arizona property where he grew up, and where his father was buried; he is a hard-drinking man of the West who decorates his home with Navajo-fabric pillows and wears suede and denim and a wide-brimmed hat, his chest beneath his unbuttoned shirt busy with masculine fuzz; he teaches Ally that the most important thing for her is to look deep inside herself, to her true core, because that is where real art comes from. Ally, in turn, becomes the Emmylou Harris to his Parsons. Their duet, “Shallow” (a video of which had, even before the movie’s release, garnered millions of YouTube views), marks the blossoming of their artistic collaboration and of their love affair, and emphasizes the triumph of depth over outward appearance: “I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in, I’ll never meet the ground / Crash through the surface, where they can’t hurt us, we’re far from the shallow now.” When the couple’s relationship hits a snag, it’s not because Maine turns envious of Ally’s success, as in the iteration of the movie from 1976 starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. It’s because Ally is tempted to sell out to what is figured, rather old-fashionedly, as the false world of electronic music, and is convinced by a suspiciously British, loafers-with-no-socks-wearing manager to dye her hair orange and sing lyrics like “Why you look so good in these jeans?” as she gyrates alongside a troupe of backup dancers.
If it sounds as if the movie’s depiction of authenticity, especially in the case of Gaga, is somehow blinkered, this isn’t the case. “Gaga: Five Foot Two,” in its focus on its subject’s usually concealed struggles, willfully disregarded the showiness inherent even in her most private actions. “A Star Is Born,” however, is able to accommodate exactly this doubleness. Cooper’s movie presents itself as the greatest love story ever told. It’s an emotional blockbuster, visually grand, and, within the logic of its world, meaningful gestures undertaken by larger-than-life characters—a single tear trailing down Ally’s face, Maines’s finger tracing the outline of her strong nose, Ally cupping Maines’s cheek—take on a duality that Gaga’s skills are exactly made for. She is both the dressed-down girl next door and the mythical superstar, and her ability to nimbly straddle these two poles is what makes her performance great. What came across in the documentary as an uncomfortable mix produces a satisfying combination in an outsized epos like this one, the two impulses tempering and complementing each other.
In the scene in which Ally’s star is first born, when Maine pulls her onstage to perform “Shallow,” and she begins to belt out the chorus, she briefly claps her palms over her eyes, as if too overcome to look out at the crowd cheering her on. She is both attempting to conceal herself and performing this attempt, and the moment, much like the movie itself, reads as both entirely theatrical and entirely authentic. Watching her, and listening to her sing, I couldn’t help but be completely moved.