Reviewing a lavish new Hollywood musical in the Sept. 29, 1968, issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote, “Barbra Streisand arrives on the screen, in ‘Funny Girl,’ when the movies are in desperate need of her. The timing is perfect.” I’m tempted to say the same thing about Lady Gaga. Suddenly, she’s ruling the movies like no one else this year.
Black Widow? Godzilla? Venom? Vin Diesel? Michael Myers? James Bond? Well, okay, maybe Bond — or the sandworms in “Dune” — could give Gaga a run for her money. But I’d wager that the current of excitement running through the chatter about Gaga in “House of Gucci” is hitting comparatively higher levels of palpitation. She’s earning her buzz the old-fashioned way, by giving a performance that has to be seen, in a movie that’s being talked about the way movies used to be talked about — even if 27 out of 30 people with media megaphones insist that Ridley Scott’s brashly entertaining and accomplished drama is a flamboyantly trivial piece of so-crazy-it’s-fun high camp that no one of refinement could possibly take seriously.
I’ve never claimed to be too refined, but I take “House of Gucci” seriously. It’s a fantastic movie. And forgive me, but I’m starting to detect a pesky undercurrent of misogyny in the too-over-the-top-for-words reading of Gaga’s performance. You know, the whole “It’s scenery-chewing taken to mesmerizing levels of you-can’t-turn-away, so-bad-it’s-good grandiosity…oh, and she sounds like Natasha Fatale!” thing. No, actually, it’s old-school movie-star acting executed with fire and finesse and command. Gaga plays Patrizia Reggiani, the middle-class social climber who married into the Gucci fashion dynasty and did all she could to take it over, not as some operatic villainess, eyes flashing with dollar signs, but as a real-world diva who is as ruthlessly practical as she is ambitious.
Can we please lay the accent carping to rest? More than one critic, still stuck in reviewing-the-trailer mode, has claimed that the very fact that the characters in “House of Gucci” have accents is mildly absurd, since people in real life don’t speak with foreign accents in their native countries. But what we see plays off of a movie convention; I don’t recall any sniping over the fact that Hans Landa, in “Inglourious Basterds,” speaks with a ripe German accent. Beyond that, different nationalities have different temperaments, and the accents in “House of Gucci” express a certain Italian floridity. Does Lady Gaga, in the movie, really sound “Russian”? No, just listen to her — she sounds Italian. These camp-trash memes are replacing a riveting drama with some made-up “Saturday Night Live”/”Dynasty”/farce-opera version of it that doesn’t exist.
There’s no doubt that Gaga is the film’s commercial spark plug. People want to see her; she’s driving the conversation in Hollywood. And who thought that a movie — not a Marvel movie but an actual movie — could drive the conversation anymore? But, of course, Lady Gaga had already done that — in “A Star Is Born,” the film that linked her, almost karmically, to Streisand, the last woman to drive a remake of “A Star Is Born” (she was also the one who converted it into a rock musical). The Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper “Star Is Born” was a galvanizing movie that went through its own reductive 21st-century media-myopia experience: It was showered with love, until it wasn’t — until the loftier-than-thou pundit culture decreed that the movie, which should have won the Oscar for best picture, was too “soapy” and “déclassé” to deserve that honor. But remember what happened on Oscar night? Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper showed up to sing “Shallow,” and the entire world treated the splendor of their performance as if it were a revelation. One wanted to ask, “Uh, did you happen to see a movie called ‘A Star Is Born’?”
In her “Funny Girl” review, Kael goes on to discuss the dearth of mythical movie stars at that late-’60s juncture and how the incandescence of Barbra Streisand was just the ticket to fill that void. It was a prescient observation. In the ’70s and ’80s, it became a cliché to say that there were bankable male movie stars but only one bankable female movie star: Barbra Streisand. The box-office numbers bore this out; Streisand was the one actress who could consistently open a picture. But, of course, that was also the self-fulfilling statistic of a sexist industry that wasn’t doing nearly enough to invest in and cultivate the stardom of women. For years, it was Streisand, more or less alone, who carried the power-actress baton. Even in mediocre movies, she had a radiance, a smart-mouth joy, an inner melancholy, a je ne sais quoi.
And that’s what Lady Gaga has. She’s the greatest pop star of the last 20 years, so you might assume that her fan base would, of course, turn out to see her in a movie like “House of Gucci.” There’s no doubt that’s part of what’s driving the film’s success. But one needs to understand just how rare that is. Pop stars, in theory, should be major draws on the big screen, and you’d think they’d be natural-born actors, but they generally turn out to be neither. There’s a reason: Onscreen, pop stars tend to confuse the impulse to act with the compulsion to pose. Onstage, they are actors, but not intimate actors, and intimacy is what the big screen requires. On rare occasions, a pop star will cross over to become a movie star, but mostly the landscape is littered with music icons who tried and failed to make that leap.
The Beatles were stars in their own films, but despite a few shots at it (John Lennon in “How I Won the War,” Ringo Starr in “The Magic Christian”) not outside of them. There was talk in the ’60s that Mick Jagger might be cast as Alex in “A Clockwork Orange,” but that didn’t pan out, and Jagger, despite a riveting rock-opera sequence of greased-back-hair decadence in “Performance” (1970), never jelled as an actor. David Bowie had a spaced-out pansexual allure in “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (1976), but as an actor he had more aura than force. Prince, in “Purple Rain” (1984), gave off a James Brown-meets-James Dean charge of voluptuous narcissism, but in his other films, especially under his own direction in the eccentrically twee “Under the Cherry Moon,” not so much. Madonna, building on her thrift-shop punkette image in “Desperately Seeking Susan” (1985), tried — oh, did she try — to turn herself into a movie star, but the theatricality that made her riveting onstage and in videos became stiff onscreen. Eminem did a terrific riff on his younger self in “8 Mile” (2002), but he knew, probably wisely, that he could never top it, so he was content to go out as a big-screen one-hit wonder.
So who does that leave? It leaves Cher, a majorly gifted actress who knew how to underplay (“Mask”), overplay (“The Witches of Eastwick”) and, most of all, how to do both at once (“Moonstruck”). It leaves Jennifer Lopez, a deftly skilled screen star who was, in fact, an actor before she was a pop star. It leaves Tupac Shakur, who could have become a great actor — part of his tragedy, according to those close to him, is that he was overly infatuated with the nihilism of the street toughs he played so dynamically in “Juice” and “Gridlock’d.” And, of course, there’s Mark Wahlberg, an ace actor who deployed his Calvin-Klein-hoodlum-of-rap image into true movie stardom.
Gaga, I think, has the chance to become a movie star on that rarefied level. It’s not just that she’s as good as Cher (who at her best, in “Moonstruck” and “Mask,” was a powerhouse of an actress), or Wahlberg or Tupac. It’s that she has the potential to do for movies what Streisand did: give them a human center of gravity. Sure, she has flamboyantly fun moments in “House of Gucci” (“It’s time to take out the trash!”), but what haunts me about her performance is the incredible arc of it: the way she’s a party girl who chases Maurizio but genuinely falls in love with him, then seizes the chance to ingratiate herself into the Gucci clan, then turns on the people who gave her a leg up, convinced that she can hardball them out of the way, only to learn that she was always in over her head. Her backstabbing is going to come back to bite her.
What makes Gaga a star in “House of Gucci” is her glimmer of innocence, the way that she never lets us stop seeing the small-time striver within the big-time schemer. To me, the most potent part of her performance comes when she’s on the outs: her dressing down of Paola (Camille Cottin), her romantic rival, in St. Moritz, or the scene where she shows up outside Maurizio’s door with a book of family photographs. I confess: I was moved. Even as I chuckled at the fact that Adam Driver’s Maurizio had turned as cold as Michael Corleone in “The Godfather Part II.” No, Gaga doesn’t chew the scenery, but she does enact the desperate drama of getting her just deserts. Even when she’s arranging to have Maurizio killed, it’s not grand opera — she’s haggling over the price. The story that “House of Gucci” tells is undeniably, and thrillingly, outrageous, but Lady Gaga keeps it grounded, genuine, emotionally centered. The movie is her pedestal. A star is borne.