It was during the meltdown scene in Silver Linings Playbook when I realized how much I underestimated Bradley Cooper as an actor. He goes from tender to volatile, rage-filled to repentant. Some of the best actors often overdo high-emotion scenes like this. When it’s a bipolar character in question, it becomes all the more crucial to get the nuances right otherwise you risk mocking the affliction. Cooper, fortunately, nails it with heartbreaking frequency.
In any other year, I firmly believe Bradley Cooper would’ve walked away with the trophy for his performance as Pat Solitano, but there’s just no competing with Daniel Day Lewis.
This year might finally be his. Cooper faces stiff competition for sure with Rami Malek poised to win and Christian Bale in position to pull off an upset. But Cooper’s performance as Jackson Maine, more than any of the 2019 Best Actor nominees, feels the most complete to me.
In A Star Is Born, Cooper is tasked with the kind of Oscar-baiting transformation that gets the speculation going early on in the season. Cooper, frankly, deserves it. He’s no stranger to the attention either, having undergone a transformation for American Sniper to equally compelling results.
Cooper’s transformation in A Star Is Born is somehow even more impressive. He establishes an authenticity within the first stanza of “Black Eyes.” He’s got an aura, a command of the stage, and a 4-chair turn voice FOR SURE. The crowd shares our awe, or we share theirs. It’s clear they’re witnessing this transformation in real time during the take, even though the opening is meant to evoke Jackson’s tenure in the business. It works regardless because the reactions lend to the surrealism of the scene.
Collectively, we go from “I don’t know if he can pull this off” to “I can’t take my eyes off him” within seconds. Cooper’s transition in Hollywood feels just as sudden. Mind you, this was the guy in Wedding Crashers, Yes Man, He’s Just Not That Into You, The Hangover, The A-Team – roles in which he’s easily pegged as an actor. His status as a good-looking, love-to-hate d-bag enabled him to blaze a trail in comedic supporting roles.
It wasn’t until Limitless, his first leading man role, that showcased just how hungry he was as a performer. Sure, the premise is preposterous (though I’d kill for a dose of NZT) and Neil Berger’s direction is like an off-brand Danny Boyle or Tony Scott, but it’s Cooper who sells the whole enterprise. There’s conviction beyond the ripped body, the charming smile, and the raunchy joke-making, hinting at a character actor who just needed the right part.
Enter Pat Solitano aka Bradley Cooper’s first Oscar-nominated role. (I’d also throw in Place Beyond the Pines) Director David O. Russell brought out the best in Cooper and vice-versa. High energy, uniquely heartbreaking and tender; Cooper went from “that one guy” to THE GUY WITH RANGE.
Mental illness movies often run the risk of caricaturizing its subjects, leaning on eccentricity or sentimentality. (I Am Sam, Radio, The Soloist) A comedy is even more risky because without the right balance, it might sensationalize the affliction as a quirk everyone should have in their lives.
Cooper lines up that delicate balance perfectly. I don’t know who else can rant on Ernest Hemingway and make it feel funny but non-judgmental, or who can have an outburst and somehow come across as genuinely hurt inside.
That rawness is what makes Silver Linings Playbook such a fascinating character study. The film already scores points for being one of the most unique romantic dramedies of the decade, but that all actors involved rose to create a tender portrait rather than a sentimental caricature is still astounding to me 7 years later.
Cooper would get nominated again the following year for his supporting performance in American Hustle, further proof of his dramatic chops. But it was his performance as Chris Kyle that rendered his 3-year actor transformation complete.
His role as “Legend” Chris Kyle isn’t impressive for all of the physical details. Any actor is bulking up or adopting a new accent-dialect in any given film. Cooper’s talent is showing the cracks in Chris Kyle’s patriotism and masculinity, and thus, America’s patriotism and masculinity. It’s the added force he gives in little gestures like making sure his perfect cap is on his head perfectly, or meeting a fellow soldier and looking every which way except at him. The falseness of it ringing hollow and pointing to a tortured American psyche. Much has been made about American Sniper’s anti-everything connotation, but as a character study it’s a precise and brutal deconstruction of the “war hero” narrative.
There’s something intensely personal about Bradley Cooper’s turn as Jackson Maine. He’s a character imploding, but few times when he takes a moment to indulge, he’s keenly in silhouette. You know it’s Jackson approaching a black hole, but you also feel like Bradley Cooper has been here. The effect is uncanny and surreal, so much so that I don’t know where Jackson Maine ends and where Bradley Cooper begins.
Cooper has remained tight-lipped about his past so out of respect I’m not going to surmise what he’s been through but instead talk about what he’s expressing in A Star Is Born. The way his head is slung low, the deflated wave he gives to the crowd, his borderline mumbling into the microphone like he doesn’t believe in the lyrics, or that he’s so stone-drunk that he can’t articulate them. I’m no musician, but I recognize self-destruction.
Cooper clues us in to Jackson’s past without a wealth of exposition – a tactic very few movies seem to employ. Cooper, the writer and director, relies on Jackson’s barely-present-self in the present moment to convey hints of a traumatic and bruising life, and a life on its way out. (It helps when you’ve got a kick-ass cinematographer to pull off lighting cues like this 👇)
Jackson walks like he’s on his death march; his voice gruffs like his throat’s scorched to hell, his face blasted red with feverish self-loathing. When he’s in treatment, Cooper settles deeply into the seat. It might be Jackson’s first time in recovery, but Cooper’s posture and detachment betrays a familiarity in these circles.
To some, that might sound like breaking character. I suppose that’s only if you take acting as a binary expression of a hypothetical person on the page and not a meaningful fusion of both the written character AND the actor tasked with bringing him to life. Cooper doesn’t “disappear;” we know it’s him no matter how long he grows his hair or how low he drops his voice. Cooper fuses the dualities of character and actor into a tragic whole.
Jackson’s final bow is a masterstroke, expressed with but a walk, a breath, and a look. That turn to the camera, Jackson’s resignation as he looks below the frame is the single most painful image in the movie that you don’t have to see the act itself. You know. I still can’t shake that lingering hopelessness 4 months on.
I’d imagine it took courage to want to convey these things. Because Cooper doesn’t disappear into eccentricities. Jackson Maine feels like a life lived by Bradley Cooper; it’s why there’s so much authenticity in the quieter, intimate moments of the film. It’s a literal risking of everything in this performance. Perhaps that’s why Jackson Maine dies in the end – not just because it’s a recurring climax in previous versions of A Star Is Born. Jackson had to die in order for Bradley Cooper – the actor, producer, writer, and now director – to be born.
In a way, A Star Is Born is Cooper’s biopic. He’s not beholden to an iconic singer’s meaningful legacy or a biography of a controversial political figure. He’s free to express himself and does so with surprising subtlety and conviction. This isn’t an impersonation of Eddie Vedder or an ode to co-star Sam Elliot (as much as I’d pay to see those things). It’s all Bradley, and it’s no wonder why this is his most complete performance to date.