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"A Star is Born" Inspires Courage, but Could Have Done More

Why love matters when it comes to fighting anxiety, and the reality of hope.

Photo courtesy of Amazon
Source: Amazon

Some stories are worth telling. And some stories are worth telling over and over again. Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born, starring himself and Lady Gaga, is the fourth film rendition of a story that does not grow old, and was just released for digital purchase on January 15. Like so many other fans, I spent part of the weekend watching—and rewatching—the film and was utterly captivated.

The love story filled my heart and the musical performances gave me goosebumps. The chemistry between Cooper and Lady Gaga was magical. As a psychologist, I appreciated the convincing narrative of love and the brave depiction of addiction, though I found myself conceiving a different ending.

The power of a person who believes in you

Gaga spoke often of the parallels between her real life and that of her character Ally when she said, "There could be one hundred people in a room, and 99 won't believe in you, but all you need is that one person who does, and that was Bradley for me." Gaga was not the first person considered for this role and was met with skepticism by Warner Bros., but Cooper was resolute. Cooper’s belief in Gaga, just like Jackson’s belief in Ally, was the foundation to allow these tremendous talents—real and fictitious—to soar.

A key part of my practice and my new book, Hack Your Anxiety, is showing people how to face their anxieties, listen to the signal anxieties are trying to them, and use that energy productively to achieve happiness and success. Another’s belief in you can often give us the courage we need to face our fears and take a calculated risk.

Watching Ally overcome her anxieties, fears, and years of self-doubt to take the stage for the first time with Jackson to sing her song was the highlight of the film for me. We see her trepidation and doubt, we see his belief in her potential and talent, and we get to watch as she decides to participate and stare down her irrational fears that she isn’t good enough. It is a thrilling moment—masterfully scripted and portrayed.

Longing for authenticity, amidst the sabotage of addiction

Another powerful theme of the film relates to authenticity: how critical it is for connection, and how crippling its absence can be. Throughout the film, we hear Cooper’s Jackson and others encouraging Gaga’s Ally to speak her truth to a world who needs to hear her. Ally begins the film insecure in her appearance and voice, the product of having been told too many times she wasn’t good enough to make it.

We watch Ally's confidence blossom from the encouragement she receives and risks she takes that build her confidence and success. Distracted by her success, Jackson worries about her authenticity in her performances and warns that losing one’s soul on stage is like losing your legs and having nothing to stand on. We see Ally continue to fight for authenticity even as so much continues coming at her.

But authenticity is tougher for Jackson than he lets on, especially when it comes to being emotionally vulnerable. While Jackson coaches Ally to draw from her soul, he struggles to do the same. He answers Ally’s questions honestly, but we can tell he feels uncomfortable and awkward, and he often adds humor or a subject change when the moment becomes too vulnerable.

Jackson’s longing to be enough for someone is palpable, and he even says just this to Ally at one point. His feelings are understandable, and a common longing—and struggle—for survivors of neglect. Being vulnerable to someone is super hard when you can’t ever be sure they will stick around, or even really care. We see this in Jackson’s emotional struggle and relationship fears, especially when he uses alcohol and drugs. The more he tries to numb his fears of failure, the more he cements its very likelihood in every way.

The film does a masterful job of showing the tragic sabotage of alcoholism and addiction. Cooper’s portrayal of Jackson was spot on. He showed a person who could be charming, fun, and caring and then morph into someone helpless, unreliable, and at his worst, cruel. We see Jackson drowning in his suffering and addiction, and the dynamic between him and Ally powerfully demonstrate the wrenching havoc addictions can cause. So central is this suffering to the film that Gaga tearfully dedicated her Golden Globe for Best Actress “to all people who have suffered from alcoholism and addiction, or who have watched their loved ones suffer.”

Depression’s deafening silence

What is missing from the movie is a more direct discussion of the dangers of depression. Jackson, and to a lesser extent Ally, are both depressed. We enter Ally’s story just as she is discovered by Jackson and her life turns around through Jackson’s belief in her, his love, and the opportunities he gives her. There is clearly an untold backstory of a young woman who has resigned herself to nothing really changing. Jackson’s depression is much deeper and we learn far more dangerous. The movie focuses on his alcoholism and drug use but leaves relatively unexplored his underlying depression that fuels his self-medicating.

Jackson’s emotional withdrawal is beautifully depicted, but never directly addressed in dialogue. True to depression, we see countless shots of him alone or withdrawn from people around him. We sense his longing for connection, but his also his deep discomfort with himself. We see he has never developed any real coping skills beyond his music, and drugs.

[SPOILER ALERT: For those who have not seen this version, and I sincerely hope you do—stop reading now.]

Jackson’s untreated depression, complicated by his addiction, is what ultimately claims his life. In treatment, we see him open up to his past, and assume he is learning coping skills he will bring to the rest of his life when he returns to it. But instead we see him blindsided by the events of coming home, and unprepared to cope.

The tragic story arc understandably precludes a happy ending, but I wish we had seen more treatment efforts helping him, and the recovery necessary to allow for his discharge. Even if there was to be an ultimately tragic ending, hope could have been offered through a bit more therapeutic dialogue, seeing improvement in Jackson's handling of his emotions, or even an on-screen acknowledgment of his enduring depression, rather than just his addiction.

I yearned to see a couple’s session where Jackson and Ally got to talk through some of his powerful feelings, and not just his tearful apology for his behavior. Instead, we are left sensing how utterly powerless he feels when it comes to his raw feelings, and how easily they overwhelm his fragile coping tools.

A low point for me was Jackson's brief discussion at the treatment center about his teenage suicide attempt. The disclosure was treated as a lighthearted moment with the therapist laughing along with Jackson about the circumstances. We see the therapist gently asking more clarifying details, but we missed seeing how the therapist (hopefully) used the therapeutic moment to help. Instead, we are left feeling Jackson once again alone facing the pain of his past.

The reality of hope

Talking with a skilled therapist allows a person new opportunities to think about and learn from the past so that they can develop better ways of coping with today. I wanted to see some nod to this process, some hope for Jackson’s healing and recovery, and for the viewer who may overly identify with Jackson's pain. Perhaps by design, we see the continued silence that surrounds Jackson when he digs deep and discloses his truth.

None of this is to say that A Star Is Born is not a terrific movie. It is. But it is also a heartbreaking one and one that risks sending the message that mental illness is untreatable. If Jackson can’t shake his depression and drug addiction after 2.5 months of inpatient treatment, how in the world can a depressed viewer believe they could?

This classic tragedy might have had to end in heartbreak to stay true to the story, but mental illness doesn’t have to. There is help, and there is always hope.

With depression and suicide on the rise, it seems important to point out that Jackson could have continued his path toward healing, gotten the support he needed, and stretched to become more authentic with himself. We could have seen him predictably stumble and Ally’s discomfort with the process, even her rejection of him. But with tools, Jackson could have learned to handle his feelings, and heal his depression.

I have the privilege of watching this unfold every day, and I can say for certain that change is possible, and hope is real.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7 dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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