Below are the remarks from the October 16, 2018 “Off the Couch” viewing of A Star is Born with Benjamin Herbstman, MD, MHS, Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.
In this new take on the iconic love story, four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, makes his directorial debut and also stars alongside multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music superstar Lady Gaga in her first leading role in a major motion picture. Cooper portrays seasoned musician Jackson Maine, who discovers and falls in love with struggling artist Ally. She has given up on her dream to become a successful singer until she meets Jack, who immediately sees her natural talent.
When thinking about this film, I found myself focusing on the title, A Star Is Born, which in many ways feels incomplete. A more accurate but far less marketable title might be, A Star is Born, and A Star Dies because while this is a film about ascension, it is just as much a film about descent and despair.
This film is actually the 5th installment of the A Star Is Born series, with the first being the 1932 film titled What Price Hollywood?, followed by the first A Star is Born in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, then the 1954 version with Judy Garland and James Mason, then the 1976 version with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, and now the 2018 version that we’ve just watched with Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. While there are some differences between these films, they all repeat the overarching theme of a female star rising while a male star descends.
As a psychoanalyst, one listens closely for repetition because this is how unconscious conflicts and themes frequently show up. Relational templates from a person’s early life often repeat in contemporary relationships, and this usually happens outside of a person’s awareness. It is through the recognition of these patterns that unconscious themes emerge and are brought into one’s awareness, which allows for insight and understanding and ultimately provides us with choices other than repetition.
So, what is behind Hollywood’s fixation with this film that it has repeated it – with some minor variations – every 20-40 years? In many ways, the film is a creation myth that aims to tackle the complicated and universal questions that Paul Gauguin asked in his 1897 painting entitled “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” Creation myths take many forms (religious ones like the Garden of Eden, national ones like the founding of this country, or smaller, more personal ones that are the bread and butter of individual psychoanalytic treatments), and it is not surprising that individuals catapulted into stardom might be looking for a way to better understand the disorienting world of fame.
In many ways, the film is inherently a meditation on fame, best captured in the original film’s title – What Price Hollywood? As we follow Jackson Maine and Ally in the 2018 version, Cooper shows us the cost of obtaining fame, the challenge of maintaining it, and the narcissistic blow that accompanies fame’s inevitable decline. Ally shows us a rising star, plucked from obscurity and thrust into the entertainment industrial machinery that alters her appearance and artistry. Jackson, on the other hand, demonstrates the costs of maintaining fame: he is fawned over, photographed, and talked at as if he were an icon rather than a man – as Ally says to herself in disbelief early in the film, “I’m talking to Jackson Maine,” which leaves Jackson – or “Jack” as he would prefer to be called – feeling unseen, at least at first.
Another reason Hollywood may keep revisiting this film may have something to do with the appeal of a romantic rescue. Through recognition and mirroring, processes that also occur in a psychoanalytic treatment, Jack and Ally try to save each other from themselves. Jack recognizes Ally’s talent and is able to provide her with the validation and encouragement that allows her to step out onto the stage despite her fear and insecurity. Ally recognizes the pain that lies underneath Jack’s hardened façade, which she captures in her lyric, “Tell me something boy,/ Aren’t you tired tryin’ to fill that void?/ Or do you need more,/ Ain’t it hard keepin’ it so hardcore?” Their mutual recognition rescues them both – at least for a period of time while their respective stars are somewhere in the same orbit. As her star rises and his falls, however, their connection and union cannot be maintained. Ally’s deep love for Jack cannot keep him from descending into addiction and an empty sense of self. And Jack’s love of Ally’s voice cannot keep her from changing into an artist he can no longer recognize.
Given that relational templates often unconsciously repeat, it is hard not to wonder how Ally and Jack’s early parental relationships may be playing out in the present. Jack is connected to his father through drinking and music, and Jack’s own alcoholism and choice of a career on the stage may be an unconscious wish to identify with a hard-to-locate father. Ally’s tendency to repeat may show up in how her history of taking care of her father, wonderfully played by Andrew Dice Clay, and his thinly disguised grandiosity may have prepared her for taking care of Jack. And while fathers in the film are some mix of powerful, grandiose, and narcissistically vulnerable, mothers are virtually absent. Perhaps the maternal absence in some way is a commentary about how the absence of an internalized comforting maternal presence can propel artists to “fill that void” with stardom and the adoration that comes with it.
Finally, the theme of suicide repeats in each of these films – in the second and third films (1937 and 1954, respectively), Maine swims out to sea and “accidentally” drowns. In the 1976 version, he dies due to an accident caused by reckless driving. In this installment, though, he chooses a more deliberate method that leaves no question about his intent. Hollywood is no stranger to the premature death and likely suicide of too many of its stars including Marilyn Monroe, Robin Williams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Heath Ledger, just to name a few. This film captures something about how the combination of addiction, narcissistic injury, aloneness, aging, and the loss of one’s identity can lead to collapse and self-attack.
A prominent late local psychoanalyst, suicide expert, and mentor Terry Maltsberger, wrote about how a character like Jack is at particular risk for a suicidal crisis. First, Jack has a disturbance in his self-representation – his identity formed around being a leading musician, and as his career declined he was left with little underlying identity to fall back on. Maltsberger – among other psychoanalysts – spoke about how past responses to stress, in particular losses, help predict future responses to loss. It seems notable that in Jack’s crisis of identity and purpose, he revisits not only his suicidal thinking but also the method of his first suicide attempt when he was 12-years-old. Other important factors that raise the risk of suicide are overwhelming emotions of aloneness, self-contempt, and rage; Jack was all too familiar with this emotional triad. In addition, by the end of the film when he thought he was holding back Ally’s career, his feeling of being a burden – a known risk factor for suicide – also likely increased his risk of self-harm. Finally, it seems far from coincidental that Jack’s suicide occurs after he is discharged from rehab, in part because the risk of suicide multiplies in the setting of discharge from a hospitalization. Much of this has to do with the stress of moving from an insulated, supportive environment back into the original environment that led to one’s crisis in the first place.
Finally, while this film is ostensibly about stars in Hollywood, actual stars in the sky serve as an apt metaphor for our fascination with fame. We cannot help ourselves from gazing up at them, but their light is a poor indictor of where they are in their life cycle and how much fuel is left to burn.
Benjamin Herbstman, MD, MHS is a candidate at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute where he chairs the Off the Couch film program. Dr. Herbstman is a Lecturer, part-time, at Harvard Medical School and an Assistant Psychiatrist at McLean Hospital. He is a member of the Boston Suicide Study Group where he writes about and lectures on understanding and preventing suicide. Dr. Herbstman supervises psychiatry residents and is a faculty member in the MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program. He is an editorial associate on the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association. He has a private practice in Cambridge.
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