A Star Is Born Is Obsessed With Drag

And the sophisticated artifice drag introduces does no favors to a simple-minded film pushing “authenticity.”

Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born
Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born © 2018 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

When Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) closes the garage door for the final time toward the end of A Star Is Born, we’re supposed to feel sadness—for him, for Ally (Lady Gaga), and, I guess, for Art. I did not feel sad. Instead, I felt gratitude. Gratitude that Cooper’s esophagus-shredding vocal fry, made seismic in my theater’s Dolby Atmos surround sound, would cease, and still more gratitude that with Jackson’s menacing, nonsensical, gin-soaked fever dream concluded, he might now awaken back in the drag bar where this whole adventure started. There, he might receive a glass of water and a disapproving glare from Shangela, then stumble off into the night, leaving us to enjoy the epoch-defining Gaga vehicle we were promised.

Alas, that film—where the drunk, creepy interloper is quickly ejected by the bouncer and the dive-bar chanteuse becomes a star via some influencer-gay’s viral Instagram Story—does not exist. Other critics have discussed how weird this Star is in terms of its anachronistic portrayal of the music industry and its unconvincing core romance. All true. But even weirder, to my mind, is its engagement with drag. The bar where it all begins and its performers, Cooper and Gaga’s much-discussed bathtub-makeup tutorial, the draggy aura of Gaga herself—through these, drag sashays into a movie obsessed with authenticity and actively works against it, bathing all director Cooper’s earnest ’70s realism in the artificial shimmer of a disco ball. The resulting dissonance is like being at one of those mostly straight corporate events where a queen has been hired just to add a splash of eccentric color, but she ends up painting the entire room: It’s both awkward and cringe-entertaining, but you mainly can’t stop wondering what the organizer was thinking by inviting such a force in the first place.

In this case, we know what Cooper had in mind. According to an interview with Digital Spy, he and his co-writer drew on Lady Gaga’s own come-up in the queer-nightlife milieu of New York’s Lower East Side as a way “for us to get to know these two characters as quickly as possible.” “I wanted to put [Jackson] in a situation where you would think he would behave a certain way, but he doesn’t at all,” he added. “It felt like a drag bar would be the perfect place to explore and then define for the audience who these people are.”

In that early Bleu Bleu bar scene, the script takes great care to assure us that though Jackson is a cowboy, he ain’t no homophobe. (“It’s incredible what they do,” he mumbles, while wiping the drag makeup off Ally’s face—apparently something Cooper enjoys doing in real life.) For her part, Ally goes on about the “honor” of her weekly guest spot at Bleu Bleu, where she gets “to be one of the gay girls,” tapes on her brows, and adds some live vocals to the usual lip-sync show.

All of this reverence does not prevent the actual queer characters present—notably RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Shangela and Willam—from being used as handmaidens to the straight meet-cute. (At one point, they actually cede their dressing room to the awkwardly flirting couple, which, LOL.) Whether it’s her on-call gay BFF Ramon (Anthony Ramos) or the Bleu bar queens ringing in on FaceTime, Ally’s queers are always totes available just when our emerging starlet needs a boost.

This dynamic is lazy and tiresome, but fortunately, drag gets its revenge. For Cooper, having Jackson discover Ally in a drag bar was merely a way of telegraphing artistic grittiness and asserting the progressive bona fides of his characters. But drag comes with baggage—usually a lot of it. One of the biggest pieces is a bit of wisdom about self-presentation, gleaned from closely studying other forms of humanity and transposing those details onto oneself: namely, that everybody is doing some kind of drag every day. Any notion of an “authentic” self is at best a comforting fiction and more often an unhelpful mirage—it’s wigs all the way down, honey. Cooper wants Jackson and Jackson’s long-suffering brother (Sam Elliott) and Jackson’s family-man friend (Dave Chappelle) to all come off as super grounded and real, when, once the notion of universal performance has been invoked, they come off as drag-king acts, parodies of particular strains of masculinity. Andrew Dice Clay’s turn as Ally’s father Lorenzo (“I want youze to look at my daughter”) could be a relative of Gaga’s Italian American New Jersey drag-king alter ego, Jo Calderone. In one crucial scene, Jackson inadvertently intensifies this feeling, revealing that he somehow stole his brother’s deep growl of a voice, Ursula-style. Whether you think these individual performances are successful or not is a matter of taste, but having them underlined as such by drag’s presence is clearly not helpful to Cooper’s salt-of-the-earth vision.

Drag’s mischief also inflects the film’s investment in authenticity in the realms of art and love. Watching A Star Is Born, I continually found myself exasperated at how someone like Ally—who is meant to have spent a great deal of time around inevitably world-weary queens and queers—could tolerate all this earnest handwringing about “meaningful,” from-your-soul music vs. supposedly crass pop—not to mention be taken in by a man who harbors such clichéd, guitar-string-for-a-wedding-ring ideas about relationships. On the few occasions when Ally does express skepticism around these shibboleths, each a kind of cultural drag in their way, it felt to me like Gaga herself—who built her career on the principles of drag—was exerting some temporary gravity on the writing. But the formulaic structure of A Star Is Born pulls back: Ally must buy in to the movie’s bad ideas about genuine art, its requirements that she stand by her man. This tug of war, a consequence of misguided casting, threatens to tear Cooper’s tale apart: Gaga knows better than this film—anyone at all familiar with her work knows that. Watching her conform to it—while literally singing, “This is not like me”—was one of the more frustrating artistic experiences of my life.

If I ever think about this version of A Star Is Born again, it will only be to wonder what it might have been like had Gaga not just acted well and sung the house down but been in total control. I suspect it would have focused more on the titular female star than the fading male relic, at the very least. But saving this particular story from the troubled gender politics at its heart is always going to be a challenge. If we can’t leave Judy well enough alone and are going to insist on having a new Star every generation or two, let’s hope for a director with a richer, freer imagination. And, if queer people and art forms are going to be involved, a treatment of them that is not quite so shallow.

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