'A Star Is Born' and 'If Beale Street Could Talk': Which is the better melodrama?
Updated: Feb 24, 2019
Despite their melodramatic flair, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk have hardly been discussed in the same vein amid an arguably distracting award season. Both films disarm audiences with earnest portrayals of romance in a climate that often satirizes such raw sentiment. The much-remade A Star Is Born mourns a relationship between a thriving woman and a gnarled man by chronicling the phases of their undoing. In a more distinct approach, the James Baldwin adaptation Beale Street laments the sorrowful fate of an enamoured couple whose their lives are disrupted by racial injustice. Both films emit an affecting sense of agony, but only one fully realizes the devastation at its center.
Since its release last October, much has been made of the tragedy that renders A Star Is Born. Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a drug-addicted rockstar who takes interest in an amatuer singer-songwriter named Ally (Lady Gaga). The pair embark on a whirlwind romance, touring the country and making music together, until Ally’s career eclipses Jack’s. Bothered by her mainstream success and newfound independence as an artist, Jack begins to unravel. His alcohol and drug intake increases significantly, and his internal struggles manifest themself in ways that hinder Ally’s budding stardom and tamper her fulfillment as a talented artist.
Despite his visibly bad behavior, there’s a certain ambivalence to the way Jack’s character is tackled that falls right into Hollywood’s man-centric canon that favors the “tortured, male genius”. Jack has built-in sympathy because of his drug-addiction, depression and a sad upbringing despite the pain and embarrassment he inflicts on Ally. In making this movie, it’s clear that Cooper, the director, and his other male screenwriters wanted the audience to leave the film with an understanding of Jack, not as a selfish, insecure man, but as a martyr of somber circumstance.
Then comes the underlying and more pertinent tragedy in A Star is Born, which ultimately feels muted. When Jack takes his life, Ally is left not only with the heartache of losing someone she loves but the knowledge that her rightfully earned success ultimately ruined him. In a piece for the New York Times, Manohia Dargis put it:
“For all its romanticism, the movie reads as a pessimistic take on heterosexual romantic relationships. Here, lasting equality between a man and a woman in love — artists in the same field — isn’t just difficult, it actually kills the guy.”
In a roundtable interview for The Hollywood Reporter, director and co-screenwriter Bradley Cooper said that he set out, “investigate relationships, particularly between a man and a woman in love” in remaking the Hollywood classic. But Cooper leaves much of the film’s more cultural and political aspects to grappled with by the viewers. Despite being a modern take, A Star is Born sustains a seemingly eternal legacy of passe gender norms regarding the relationship at its center.
If Beale Street Could Talk focuses less on the internality of its romance and more on the outside factors that make it difficult to maintain. Still, the audience understands how integral Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (Kiki Layne) are to each other and how fiercely protective they are of one another through tender flashbacks, high-stake scenarios and Tish’s narration of the story.
Set in 1970s, Beale Street observes a family’s fight to rescue one of their own. Tish and Fonny, engaged, have settled into to their first home when the police wrongly arrest Fonny on a charge of rape. There’s clear evidence that Fonny is not the assailant - he was at home with Tish when the crime took place and, most importantly, is being framed by a police officer he once had a dispute with. Yet he remains in jail awaiting a delayed trial, as Tish and Fonny’s families do everything thing in their makeshift power to bring him home. And on top of all of that, Tish is pregnant with Fonny’s baby.
Much has been said of the film’s visual elegance, mesmerizing score and overall moony feel. But Beale Street’s melancholic undertones and, furthermore, the cruel reality it depicts is just as palpable and affecting. Like Baldwin’s words, the film is both poetic and romantic with a pulsating sense of rage. But most of all, it understands the thing that it’s mourning, a reality that is much more potent to reckon with than that of A Star Is Born.
I don’t have any issue with depicting problematic gender dynamics on-screen like the one in A Star Is Born. Relationships like Ally and Jack’s exist in the world and can be valuable to the public’s understanding of misogyny and the burdens men can put on women’s lives. But with the film’s final shot resting on Ally’s tearful face after she’s performed an Whitney Houston-esque ballad called “I’ll Never Love Again,” we’re forced to set aside our qualms with the blatantly troublesome relationship we’ve witnessed for the past two hours for an half-earned moment of sorrow and appreciation for Jack. Beale Street’s finale puts its audience in a less perplexing situation.
Unlike some of 2018’s films that deal with race, Beale Street’s ending is anything but triumphant. It’s distressingly uncertain and deeply upsetting. Tish visits Fonny in prison with their now toddler son as he’s accepted a plea deal in place of a proper trial. We see that Tish and Fonny are still very much in love as they hold hands and gaze at each other longingly. Fonny will get out of prison eventually, but we still don’t know how this tragedy will manifest in their marriage, how their family will navigate the world, whether Fonny will have a strong relationship with his son, whether he will suffer from PTSD once he gets out and whether he will be imprisoned again. The film closes to a somber and achingly ironic version of “My Country Tis Of Thee.” It’s the first time the film truly relinquishes its dreamy tone and drives home its most salient truth: racism doesn’t just impede people’s lives: it can completely ruin them.
That’s why I think the conversation about Hollywood’s revival of melodramas should focus on the effectiveness of Beale Street and not the gaudiness of A Star Is Born. The latter has obviously had a bigger machine behind it this award season with Cooper and Gaga’s star power, more mass appeal, better promotion and larger release, earning it a Best Picture nomination from The Academy while Beale Street was snubbed from the category. A Star Is Born is a thrilling film. But Beale Street made me feel more, cry more and reckon with its plot in material ways.