The Hollywood Power and Unknowable Force of Bradley Cooper
Bradley Cooper has been one of the undeniable stars of the 2018/19 Oscar season. The industry has practically bent over backwards to reward him for making such a critically and commercially successful directorial debut. With A Star is Born, the third remake of one of Hollywood’s most enduring fables, Cooper cemented his status in a very old and beloved cultural narrative, and he did it with Lady Gaga by his side. It is likely that he will be nominated not only for Best Director but also Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s a major accomplishment for anyone in this business but especially one on their debut as a director. And Cooper isn’t taking this battle lying down. He’s hustled for his time in the spotlight, appearing on every possible round-table, promotional event, red carpet and magazine cover to ensure the proper demographics never forget his face. Those Golden Globe losses were mere blips in the road. Believe me, he is not going home empty handed on Oscar night.
I have spent a lot of this Oscar season feeling conflicted about Bradley Cooper, which is not an unusual feeling these days. He’s a three time Oscar nominated actor who is seemingly beloved in the industry and has cultivated a powerful cache of friends, business partners and connections. He’s someone of evident talent who nonetheless still feels like he’s been given a three-lap head start over everyone else. I liked A Star is Born and think it is a strong accomplishment for a first time director but when I look back at 2018, even in the narrow confines of awards prestige, I struggle to find room for it amidst tough competition. I admire his hustle but I find myself put off by it at the same time. I know I’m not alone in this. In an industry where privilege reigns supreme, Cooper cannot help but feel like Exhibit A in discussions of The Problem.
Before I continue, I must state this: I don’t hate Bradley Cooper, and I also don’t believe that writing a critical study of his talent, star power and the industry that has made him a celebrity should be characterized as a ‘hit job’ or ‘attack’. These two things can exist at once. I’m not sure why I even feel the need to make this point. Perhaps it’s my own form of insurance, given that Cooper is very popular and he’s directed a very popular film. It also doesn’t help that awards season is so naturally contentious and frequently leaves no middle ground between lavish praise and exhausting contrarianism. However, I think it’s important to talk about Cooper and what he represents because this awards season feels like a throwback to a different era of Hollywood in more ways than one. Cooper is not the most cynical representation of that — hi, Bohemian Rhapsody — but his benign charm and particular place in the hierarchy reveal much about how we always default to Business As Usual.
Cooper’s filmography has all the markers of a working actor hitting the right beats before stardom arrives: there are the guest part on Law & Order spin-offs, the starring roles in TV series that got cancelled after one season (RIP Kitchen Confidential), the cult movies (Wet Hot American Summer) and the mid-2000 rom-coms that everyone of that era starred in (Failure To Launch, The Wedding Crashers). He even did Broadway. He was never out of work, certainly, but his resume is also clearly that of a guy who has already been boxed into a type: Handsome romantic hero who can frat-boy it up when required.
That proved the winning formula in his first true break-out movie, The Hangover. In Todd Phillips’s black comedy, which spawned a franchise, Cooper plays Phil, the leader of the Wolfpack who is clearly the coolest and most socially confident one in the group. Bouncing off Ed Helms and Zach Galifianakis, Cooper isn’t quite the straight man but he is the most obvious centre of normalcy in the story. He’s also the one who gets to stay handsome throughout. He never loses any teeth or gets and bad tattoos or does something mortifying in public that would make you look at him with shame. Really, the worst thing that happens to him is that he gets a bit sweaty looking. Cooper is always game in the films, but he never stops being Bradley Cooper.
It takes a couple of years after the first Hangover movie for Cooper to start asserting himself as a particular type. Once he grows out of his rom-com phase, he branches out into action with films like The A-Team (which, for my money, is also his peak era of hotness) and Limitless. These aren’t bad performances. Indeed, he’s actually super charismatic as the new version of The Faceman in The A-Team. But he doesn’t seem especially challenged by these parts. These films never suggest he’s going to run off and be the next Dwayne Johnson.
But from there, he begins to refine his type, and boy does it pay off handsomely with the industry. Cooper forms partnerships with two directors: David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood. With the former, he lands two Oscar nominations for Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, both of which he also produced. With the latter, he makes American Sniper and also lands a Best Picture nomination thanks to his producer credit.
I’ve always felt weird about Cooper’s incredible success at the Oscars as an actor. Three nominations in as many years is a staggering achievement and yet a lot of it rings hollow for me. A lot of this is subjective taste, of course, but I don’t find Cooper to be an actor of immense range. He’s good at types and finding the specific layers within those parameters but I’ve seldom felt like a film could rely solely on his acting abilities. In Silver Linings Playbook, he benefits from strong chemistry with Jennifer Lawrence, although the film never truly deals with the elephant in the room that is her miscasting and their obvious age gap. Cooper’s work is held down by questionable writing regarding depicting a mental illness but there’s an anxious energy to him that feels right for the story. He gets to have way more fun in American Hustle, where he can truly stretch those ‘absolute d-ck’ muscles, but he’s still overshadowed by Amy Adams and Christian Bale. American Sniper sees him go full moody for a more traditionally dramatic performance, the kind that feels like a deliberate opposition to the charming frat bro persona that brought him to public prominence. It’s not especially ground-breaking but it, like his work with Russell, is clued into what the industry loves and what general audiences want. I wouldn’t say he’s necessarily an actor of intense range or someone who is daring in his voices. In that aspect, I’d put him on a level with Leonardo di Caprio, who is more versatile but is similarly safe in his choice of projects and directors. You’re probably never going to see Bradley Cooper work with a truly esoteric director or someone that requires him to get ugly. He won’t slum it in the indie circuit now.
Because here’s the thing: Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-nominated movies make money. Audiences actually go to see them, to the point where the three aforementioned titles made a combined total of over a billion dollars worldwide. Not every awards baity film Cooper has made has seen box office success (see notable disappointments like Aloha and Burnt), but he is an actor who has consciously chosen to lean into an old-school style of stardom: A classic movie-star of crowd-pleasing prestige who gets butts in seats and votes in critics’ circles. He doesn’t necessarily need to be the absolute best actor of the year, but he’s probably the best big name right now at getting himself into those narratives through sheer mastery of the game.
Cooper doesn’t just work with the right people or appear in the right movies: He works the room like nobody else. Don’t listen to him when he claims he’s all about the craft and has no interest in awards. He’s no fool. He knows what industry and cultural cache an Oscar nomination comes with. That’s why he does all the round-tables, all the magazine covers, all the hand-shaking brunches and vanity awards that keep his name in the headlines. The thing about awards season, but especially the Oscars, is that the campaigning is often more appreciated than the performances themselves. Nobody likes that actor who doesn’t seem to honour the process by playing the game. If you openly call out the Oscars for the madness that it is, you’re deemed disrespectful and forced to rush out a harried apology via your publicist. But you can’t want it too much. You can just say out loud that you want to win an Oscar for fear of being too ambitious (although this is a problem that seems to affect women more than men, oh I can’t imagine why). Cooper walks that fine balance with utter ease. He’s the kind of guy you want in the front row of the ceremony: gracious, charming, hard-working, proudly a cog in the machine.
And he does it while remaining personally unknowable. I asked my Twitter followers what was the first thing that came to mind when they thought of Bradley Cooper and the vast majority of tweets were related to his roles or appearance. Very few people mentioned something relating to his personality or public image, although a couple did discuss the ever-present rumours about his sexuality, which have swirled for many years. It reminded me of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s profile of Cooper for The New York Times, wherein Cooper seemed hesitant to engage with the traditional notions of the celebrity profile. Rather than answer questions typical of this format, he pushed back and asked why anyone would want to know details about his life. This is not Cooper’s first time at the rodeo but it is notable how Cooper wants to define himself as a private cipher while living a consciously public life as an industry favourite. It’s not as if Cooper hasn’t engaged with the machinations of gossip before either: Remember those totally casual paparazzi shots of him reading Lolita in the park with his then-girlfriend Suki Waterhouse, aged 21 to his 38? Or him lavishly kissing now-partner Irina Shayk on a beach in a pose reminiscent of From Here to Eternity? He may not like talking about his private life but he is happy to provide an immensely controlled narrative of it when convenient to himself.
Which brings us to A Star is Born, the film that has all but been anointed the Oscar champion to beat. People LOVE this movie. I like it. The first half is really special, a romantic drama with a firecracker central pairing that captures the dizziness of a love affair that everyone knows is doomed. It all falls apart when it has to remember to be A Star is Born. But the film was good enough, and it’s probably Cooper’s best performance to date (insert your jokes here about Cooper being at his best when directing himself). It’s a movie that’s completely within the wheelhouse of awards prestige, anchored by a performance defined by its status of artistic worthiness. He sings! He plays guitar! He steals Sam Elliott’s voice! He pees himself! It doesn’t hurt that the film is so much more interested in Cooper’s character than Gaga’s, although this ultimately weakens the story in the second half. Cooper took on a legendary Hollywood story, did so under the studio system with a major star at the centre, and made hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. No wonder people want him to win an Oscar.
Cooper pleases people for the same reason he infuriates so many others: he makes it seem so easy. He’s a classic star with all the privilege that comes with. He’s clearly talented but he’s also got enough people in his corner that he’s never going to truly struggle. A Star is Born is not the typical directorial debut of anyone, much less an actor, for a very good reason. But the fact that Cooper got the job speaks volumes to the allies he has in the business and the security his name now comes with. The heavy lifting with that story has already been done more than once. The industry is always prime to reward its own sons who do good enough. And once again, this is not to denigrate the good work he does in the film. There are several moments of such emotional intensity in A Star is Born, such as the scene with Sam Elliott in the car, that knocked me sideways. I truly believe he will one day make a brilliant film. That still doesn’t stop that instinctive wince I give when I see him on his way to a Best Director Oscar nomination on his first movie while women are systematically shut out once more and Spike Lee has had to wait close to three decades for a shot at the top prize.
Bradley Cooper has a bright career ahead of him. He’s got money, looks, talent, connections, profitability, and an intense understanding of what he wants from his future on his side. He’s got it all, and depending on who you ask, that’s either the best or worst thing ever.
Still, A Star is Born is pretty good.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.
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