Let’s get this out of the way: Lady Gaga is probably not going to win the Oscar for Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards for A Star is Born, but she is probably going to win the Oscar for Best Original Song. I think she knows this too, although a lot of this year’s race is still up in the air. That hasn’t stopped her from making the most of the immense levels of press, hype and industry adoration that has poured her way since her debut as a leading actress in a film, A Star is Born, premiered at the Venice Film Festival to the kind of acclaim that most auteurs would kill for. While she may not take home the most coveted prize of the evening, Gaga has already ensured through her incredibly precise Oscar campaigning that her future in this business is sealed.
In a cinematic year of many compelling awards narratives - the oft-snubbed legend getting her due, the rising star playing a cultural icon, the streaming giants going up against the old-school studio system and winning - there is something especially alluring about Gaga’s journey. She’s a megastar of music, one with a heartily dedicated fanbase and a slew of absolute bangers to her name. With an ever-evolving visual and sartorial style that borrowed from everyone from Bowie to Madonna to Jeff Koons to Alexander McQueen, Gaga moulded herself as a celebrity of the past, present and future. She was tailor-made for the TMZ age as well as offering some of the most succinct satire of it. Say what you want about the meat dresses or the overlong music videos or the questionable recreations of Marina Abramovic, but you could never deny that Gaga was working extremely hard to make people pay attention. Whether or not they loved her for it was another issue entirely.
The Artpop era was a bit of a letdown, although the tunes are more consistently strong than you may remember. Everything was just too much: The concept was too serious, often jarring with the knowingly bubbly content of the music; the costumes went from consciously camp to burdensome; and then of course there was the R. Kelly issue. Artpop was Too Much Gaga, so it didn’t surprise anyone when she did what all image-shifting musicians do when things get overwhelming: They strip back. First was her work with Tony Bennett, which if nothing else offered a potent reminder that Gaga has the voice for the ages, then the Joanne era. Joanne is a strong enough album, one with great production from Mark Ronson, but it was tough to overlook how much of that era was built on this notion of ‘authenticity’ and that being directly tied to a lack of flair.
That’s not to say she wasn’t still putting on a show. The Netflix documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two is further testament of her ability to weave compelling emotional narratives. In one scene, she plays the title track of her new album, a tribute to her late aunt, to her grandmother. She sets up the moment as the emotional climax of the documentary, the searing family pain that has bound them all together and will offer her grandmother a reminder of painful memories. Well, that’s the theory. Mostly, Gaga’s grandmother seems touched but aware that her granddaughter was hoping for a more vocal display of such. The show must go on.
By the time we get to A Star is Born, the remnants of the Joanne era have given Gaga a solid foundation to build her new era upon: Gaga the Serious Actress. It’s fascinating how this season of campaigning, partly encouraged by Gaga herself, has quickly wiped away her previous acting work. Remember, she has a Golden Globe for acting thanks to her work in American Horror Story: Hotel, and she’s already appeared in films like Machete Kills and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. It’s a stronger narrative, however, to pretend she enters this new business with a clean slate. A star is born, indeed. We could talk for hours about how Gaga and director/co-star Bradley Cooper have played this awards season like a fiddle, forming a partnership of mutually beneficial benefits that plays to both their strengths and appeals to the most desired demographics. We may have all rolled our eyes at the story of Cooper wiping away Gaga’s make-up when he first met her, but isn’t it basically the perfect way to begin a new version of A Star is Born?
Bradley Cooper is a campaigning king. For someone who claims to be press shy and keeps up the pretence of not playing the game, he sure is great at it. The industry loves him, he works hard, he has friends in all the right places, and he was savvy enough to stake his claim as an up-and-coming director on a project that had everything going for it. Getting Gaga on board was simply the icing on the cake, a new way to continue this decades long narrative that has been as much a part of A Star is Born history as the movies themselves: Janet Gaynor was the first ever Best Actress Oscar winner staking her claim as one of the era’s true stars; Judy Garland was the beloved icon mounting her comeback; Barbra Streisand was the multi-talented diva looking to assert herself in a new era of cool; and Gaga was the megastar going back to basics.
It helped that Gaga herself was so willing to play up this version of events. She has talked regularly and profusely about her partnership with Cooper and being his muse, including the now highly memed ‘100 people in a room’ speech. During her time on the actress round-table with The Hollywood Reporter, she talked of her deep interest and training in acting, including an obsession with method acting, but tied her success directly to Cooper. If there’s an industry event going on or a red carpet a-calling, Gaga will be there. And look, there’s Gaga ‘spontaneously’ getting Cooper on stage to sing the song that will probably win her an Oscar! That’s a great benefit to an awards season desperate to cling to arbitrary notions of popularity and relevance, and the past few months have that that glow of A-List stardom that the Academy has clearly hungered for in large part thanks to Gaga. What’s better than a megastar? One who plays the game.
What Gaga’s campaigning reminds me most of is Cher. She faced similar skepticism when she made the transition from singing to acting, partly thanks to her lavishly OTT fashion, and her Oscar win was deemed the ultimate sign of her newfound legitimacy as a multi-talented superstar. Granted, it’s not quite an accurate comparison: By the time Cher won her Oscar, she’d been in several movies, had been nominated before and won Best Actress at Cannes, and she was also a decades long industry legend. That Oscar for Moonstruck was as much a celebration of her entire body of work as it was for that one great romantic comedy performance (seriously, revisit Moonstruck if you haven’t seen it in a while). Gaga doesn’t quite have all that under her belt, although given the speed with which she has reinvented herself over the past decade or so, it often feels like she does. However, what she does have now, in large part thanks to her Oscar nominations and the work of that campaign, is a route to that world for long-term success.
I’ve seen some people grumble that Gaga and Cooper’s campaigning can’t have been all that successful given that it’s unlikely either of them will win Best Actor or Actress on the big night, but that misses half the work of the campaign. It’s not just about the Oscar; it’s about ensuring your job security. Gaga leapt head first into being part of the system, gamely joining in with every cheesy aspect and willingly moulding herself to be a movie-star rather than an actress who sings. Think of how her red carpet fashion this season has been gorgeous but largely restrained by Gaga standards, far more in line with other actors than any of her wildest costumes (Cher never toned it down, not even when she won Best Actress). Gaga could have stayed in Vegas and sat out the season, and she probably still would have gotten a nomination, but doing the work ensures that she will work in this business again, probably sooner rather than later. She won’t win Best Actress this year, but maybe a few years in the future, with the right project and right team under her belt, after she’s put in a lot more work and the industry feels like she’s earned it, she very easily could have that statue on her shelf.
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