Lady Gaga can’t shake her character from “A Star Is Born.” And she doesn’t want to. “I feel Ally inside of me,” Gaga says of the rising musical icon she plays in the film. “I wonder how long she’ll stay. Or if she’ll be in there forever.”
This symbiotic relationship is evident at her Variety photo shoot at her home in Malibu, a week before she had to evacuate due to the Woolsey Fire. Gaga isn’t sure what she’ll wear at first. Inspiration strikes after she slips on a taupe men’s collared shirt. It is the same shirt, she reveals, worn in several key scenes by her co-star Bradley Cooper as the singing heartthrob Jackson Maine in “A Star Is Born.” Later in the film, Ally inherits the garment. Like her character, Gaga keeps the memento in her closet, but she never dreamed of putting it on again — until now.
Over the next hour, Gaga poses with the shirt’s sleeves rolled up, its untucked edges falling just above her knees, revealing a tattoo of a unicorn on her left thigh. At one point, she balances on a wobbly stool in black suede knee-high boots with stiletto heels, performing a series of jaw-dropping acrobatic maneuvers. She even re-creates a moment from the film where her character traces the shape of her too-big nose. At the end of the shoot, Gaga makes a surprising confession. As she looks at the shots on a computer screen, she can’t recall the last time she saw a photograph of herself and didn’t see sadness in her eyes. These pictures are different. “And that makes me happy,” she says, tearing up.
Gaga, 32, is still processing the overwhelming success of her first movie. Seated on the deck of her sprawling estate in Malibu, with an adjoining barn for her horses and guard dogs, she speaks candidly about this period in her life. “This has been a very transformative time for me,” says Gaga about “A Star Is Born,” a life-changing journey punctuated by bursts of excitement and doubt. “As an artist, there’s always a feeling of ‘Am I good enough? Am I making something honest? Am I making something true?’ There is a sort of stagnant sadness in me, wondering if I’m enough. Today I did not see that. I saw something different. I saw a clarity. I saw a truth.”
Her vulnerable portrait of a fledgling musician has made “A Star Is Born” the movie event of the fall, catapulting Gaga into a new sphere. Musical legends like Cher and Bette Midler used to effortlessly carry their own cinematic vehicles in the ’80s and ’90s, but few professional singers have recently accomplished the trick. (Just ask Mariah Carey about the bomb that was “Glitter.”) Since early October, “A Star Is Born” has grossed more than $300 million at the global box office. Even better, the Warner Bros. release is the rare movie that transcends the big screen. There have been endless Twitter arguments about Ally’s musical evolution, Instagram love letters, memes about Gaga’s unwavering adoration of Cooper and public recitations from the soundtrack, especially of “Shallow,” the catchiest movie anthem since Céline Dion warbled about Kate and Leo’s lost love aboard the Titanic.
Now Gaga and the film are poised to storm the awards circuit as this year’s Oscars front-runner. “The business is changing so much,” says Cooper, who made his directorial debut with “Star” and spent four years producing the film on a modest $38 million budget. “I know it feels good for the industry that a movie like this, which is about relationships and how we need each other, is doing well financially.” It could finally mean some good news for the Academy Awards, which has been fighting charges of irrelevance as viewership dipped 20% in March, to a new low of 26 million. If “A Star Is Born” clinches the top prize, it will be the most successful best picture winner, in terms of domestic ticket sales, since “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” 15 years ago. (Back then, the show attracted 44 million viewers.)
And if “Shallow” is nominated for an Oscar for best song, Gaga says she’ll perform it at the ceremony. “One hundred percent,” she says. In fact, Cooper reveals that he has plans to sing the duet live with Gaga. “We talked about that actually, because I’m such a maniac,” Cooper says. “I started texting her the whole pitch of how we should do it. So we’ll see. There might be a cool, unorthodox way we could perform it.”
Gaga perhaps is perfectly suited to the rigors of modern-day Oscars campaigning, which favors bigger personalities over less-is-more. She’s been a devoted viewer for most of her life. “I used to wrap myself in an Afghan or my grandmother’s knitted blanket and stand on a podium while I watched the Oscars,” says Gaga, who grew up in Manhattan as Stefani Germanotta. “I had big dreams as a child.” Of course, she had no idea that her first movie — a remake of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor, with updates by Judy Garland (in 1954) and Barbra Streisand (in 1976) — would become such a phenomenon. “Well, give me a few more movies before you call me a success,” she says in her throaty voice. Even at her photo session, Gaga instructs the photographer, “Don’t shoot me as a movie star.”
Yes, there have been other film offers. But she hasn’t been reading too many scripts. The last few weeks of her life have reminded her of the time after the release of 2009’s “The Fame Monster,” the album that cemented her status as an artist who could sell out stadiums around the world. “This feels for me very much like that, but in a different way, because I have all the wisdom slash pain and betrayal of the last 10 years,” Gaga says. “Look, from the outside in, I think people think it’s all champagne and roses for us. ‘Us’ meaning the collective artists slash celebrities.” She pauses for a split second. “I don’t like the word ‘celebrity,’ because to me it negates my artistry. There’s a lot of pain you go through. Everything changes. Your whole life changes.”
“A Star Is Born” is a meditation on that fame — Gaga relates to a scene at the beginning of the film when Jackson leaves the thundering applause of a stadium to enter the quiet loneliness of his chauffeured car. She estimates that she’s watched the movie, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, five to 10 times. On the first viewing, Cooper brought a stereo system to a private room, to amplify the sound, and he covered up the windows with garbage bags so “the light from the screen would be crisper,” she recalls. “I cried the whole time, because I missed Jackson.”
More recently, she bought a ticket to watch the movie at a local multiplex. “Yeah, I snuck in,” she says. “I sat through most of it.” She left early, but not out of fear of being spotted. “I had to remove myself before the end,” she explains. “The film moves me so deeply. I feel so entrenched in the character that the second half of the film — without revealing what happens — is so emotional and tragic. I have to take myself out of it.”
For most of her career, Gaga has been a larger-than-life presence, hiding behind masks and motifs tied to her album releases. Like Madonna, her most natural predecessor, she embraces and abandons personas with each new song, from “Bad Romance” (and that meat dress) to “Million Reasons” (with a pink pantsuit and cowgirl hat). But who is Gaga? “A Star Is Born” presents a more intimate look at the artist stripped of her armor.
Like the Garland version of the film, this latest “Star Is Born” succeeds because of the marriage between the ingénue and the icon. Gaga isn’t shy about reminding you that she isn’t Ally, although they may resemble each other. She worked hard to create the character, co-writing the songs and providing anecdotes about the music business that informed the script. Prior to the 42-day shoot, she trained with the late acting coach Elizabeth Kemp in a workshop in Santa Barbara. She submitted to an exercise where she had to lie on the floor and imagine when “life blasted you so hard you can’t remember who you were before it happened,” she recalls. “I just broke down in tears and started to cry. Before I knew it, I was talking about feeling like I was my bed and my bed was telling me to get out.”
In the script, Cooper added touchstones that nodded at the previous iterations of the story. The drag bar where Jackson meets Ally is called the Bleu Bleu, a callback to a club in Garland’s version. There was also another, more overt homage that ended up on the cutting room floor. “We did one scene where Jackson gave Ally a pair of ruby slippers,” Gaga says. “He was laying underneath the bed, and she’s on top, and all you heard him doing was clicking the heels together. And she leans over, and he’s laughing, and they are so in love.”
Toby Emmerich, the chairman of Warner Bros. Pictures Group, reveals that the original script had a different finale. “The first ending that I read, [Jackson] actually swims out into the ocean, where he commits suicide,” Emmerich says. “The script that we had when he started shooting, he rides his motorcycle. It was more like the Kris Kristofferson ending [in the 1976 version] with the Ferrari, but with Jackson with the Harley. But Bradley changed his mind and came to see me and pitched the idea of what he ended up shooting. I think he was right. When I watch the movie now, I can’t imagine it ending any other way.”
Gaga swiped several souvenirs from the set. She’s the owner of Ally’s songbook and a bottle of Mr. Bubble from a bathtub love scene, in addition to Jackson’s shirt. “I just wanted to have a piece of him with me,” says Gaga, who is engaged to talent agent Christian Carino. “This is very precious to me. These are heirlooms, or they will be heirlooms one day. They are things I will want to show my little girl or little boy and say, ‘Here they are. You can touch them.’ I want them to have a close, tangible, poetic experience with the film the way I have.”
On the night before “A Star Is Born” opened in theaters, Gaga was on the edge of her seat. Appearing alongside the other cast members, she answered questions at an Academy screening at MoMA. She spoke lovingly about working with Cooper, which she does whenever she’s asked about him. As the event ended, a throng of noisy fans gathered at the entrance, creating an unruly scene. “This is like for Princess Diana,” one Oscar voter gasped. Although bodyguards had instructed the fans that Gaga wouldn’t be signing autographs, she did anyway. As her car cruised down 53rd Street, taking a right on 6th Avenue, groupies started chasing her vehicle on foot. She rolled down the window at a traffic stop to sign more memorabilia from the back seat.
The idea of remaking “A Star Is Born” had been kicked around at Warner Bros. since the ’90s. “Anytime a big pop star broke, we would talk about it,” says producer Bill Gerber. “Hey, should we do ‘A Star Is Born’ with Lauryn Hill or Aaliyah? Whitney Houston had been talked about way back when.”
In 2011, it looked like there would be some movement. Clint Eastwood was briefly attached to direct, with Beyoncé in talks to star with Cooper. The deal didn’t come together, but in 2014, Cooper started eyeing the project as his directorial debut. “I love acting,” he says. “I think it’s the best way to direct for sure.” Still, Cooper initially considered someone else to play Jackson. “I saw this other person that I wanted to do this, who is an actual musician,” Cooper says. “But [the studio] wouldn’t make the movie with him.” A source with knowledge of the talks says that Cooper had met with Jack White, the former lead singer of the White Stripes. But this was all before Gaga came on board.
Gaga and Cooper’s chemistry is so natural, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing these parts. Their closeness is on display during a joint interview with Variety in October in New York. Both swear that they haven’t read any of the film’s mostly glowing reviews. “My manager will sometimes text me little one-liners here and there,” Gaga says. “I’ll be like, ‘Stop it!’” Cooper has only broken the rule once. “I read one review, and it was horrible,” he says. “It was from a place I grew up reading my whole life. And I just saw it on a news feed.”
They’d like to work together again. “Maybe she’ll direct,” Cooper says. “No, no, no,” Gaga replies. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves or confuse our mediums. I did this because I believed in him and all the people he brought together. I’ll stick to directing music videos.”
One question that persists about the movie involves Ally’s career trajectory. In the middle of the film, at the hands of a smarmy British manager, she dyes her hair orange and starts producing more commercial pop. On “Saturday Night Live,” Ally belts out a sexually provocative tune, “Why Did You Do That?,” which leads Jackson to believe she’s lost her way. Diane Warren, who co-wrote the lyrics, has said it wasn’t intended to be a bad song. But Gaga has avoided providing her own interpretation until now. “When we see her on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and she’s singing a song about why do you look so good in those jeans, it’s almost the antithesis of where we started,” Gaga says. “That is relatively shallow.” Cooper doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t necessarily view her music as superficial,” he says. “I think she’s performing with all her heart.”
There’s no denying the universal appeal of “Shallow.” A few weeks later, at her house, Gaga explains her theory on why it’s become such a hit. “We are living in a time where there’s so much conversation about women’s voices being heard,” Gaga says. “Men listening to those voices. And also, men not listening to those voices. Women being silenced in very public ways, like Dr. [Christine Blasey] Ford with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh. Judge Kavanaugh being appointed is basically like telling every single woman in the country that’s been assaulted, ‘We don’t care. Or we don’t believe you.’”
She says what’s special about the song is that it’s an open dialogue between a man and a woman: “To me, that conversation is what makes the song successful and beautiful and why people cry when they hear it. It’s because that man and woman connect, and they are listening to each other.”
As Gaga reflects on the cultural impact of “A Star Is Born,” she looks at the film through the eyes of her fans. It means a lot to her that they’ve championed this project. “I only want to win now,” she says, speaking metaphorically, “because I want that kid who feels like me, that misfit or outcast that didn’t belong, to win. The reward for me is that this movie is a win for them.”