Is ‘A Star Is Born’ Campy, or Have We Forgotten How to Feel?

Is ‘A Star Is Born’ Campy, or Have We Forgotten How to Feel?

As a gay man with a fondness for things that other people might find ridiculous, I think I have a good internal compass when it comes to camp. Still, when people describe Bradley Cooper’s new take on “A Star Is Born” as campy, I’m left wondering if my inner machinery needs a tuneup.

Certainly, previous versions of “A Star Is Born” have had their campy moments, and it’s impossible now to even look at the overwrought poster for the 1976 Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version without stifling a giggle. When the trailer for Mr. Cooper’s take came out, with its feature-length sincerity reduced to an easily parodied montage, those two-and-a-half minutes inspired countless memes: I was particularly knocked out by how the film’s “Just wanted to take another look at you” moment, shared between Bradley Cooper’s dissolute rocker Jackson Maine and Lady Gaga’s on-the-rise Ally, was turned by two New Yorkers into a hilarious couples’ costume.

But is the movie itself a new camp classic, now that it can be viewed in full? I keep seeing reactions that treat “A Star Is Born” that way, or that dismiss it as “schmaltzy,” and I have to confess that I’m surprised. “A Star Is Born” is melodrama, for sure. The love story is big and the tragedies are even bigger, and they need to be because by the end, the two main characters are supposed to have the grandeur of icons.

And yet the film is so grounded, and directed with such moving sincerity by Mr. Cooper, that I thought it never once tilted over into camp. Are we just so unused to full-throttle romance on the big screen that we’ve become suspicious about our reactions to it?

If the film had gone wrong, if it had been an epic boondoggle torpedoed by ego and bad acting, I can see how it would have become an object of so-bad-it’s-good fascination. Yet I’ve noticed that even many of the raves for “A Star Is Born” come with some sort of disclaimer, a tendency that was expertly elucidated by the Vanity Fair critic Richard Lawson:

I’m tempted to say that, yeah, sure, there is a little cheesiness to be found in the movie. Because that’s how we’re supposed to love movies like this, with caveats and qualifications that show we’re aware that it’s all a little silly. But you know what? I thought barely anything in “A Star Is Born” had an actual ring of hokiness or schmaltz. What I think is so often mistaken for that stuff is big, sincere, high-drama feeling, which the film has in abundance.

I think Mr. Lawson gets at how people must frame the movie as campy to excuse their authentic reactions as ironic ones: They defang their enthusiasm for “A Star Is Born” by publicly pinpricking it. And I don’t necessarily blame them! We are cynical about so many things these days, including love, and part of the reason the well-worn romantic-comedy genre fell into disrepair is that people stopped believing in it. We’re also conditioned to think that a love story, with its inherent female appeal, is thus more frivolous than most other stories.

But maybe it’s time to let the old ways die, and to drop the air quotes when we deal with matters of romance and sincerity. Fittingly, “A Star Is Born” has the power of a good love song — either it works on you, or it doesn’t — and yet, how often do we dismiss that sort of song and our emotional reaction to it as a “guilty pleasure”? As “A Star Is Born” argues, if you love something, maybe the bravest thing is simply to love it all the way.

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