The mythologizing of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” started early: first-time filmmaker Cooper wiping co-star Lady Gaga’s face free of makeup the first time they met to better “see” her, the four-year break Cooper took from other projects to launch his directorial debut, the curious parallels between Cooper’s Jackson Maine and the actor’s own personal life. And then there was the voice thing. Cooper infamously spent months transforming his own speaking and singing voice into one that sounds a whole heck of a lot like the trademark gravelly drawl of actor Sam Elliott.
Cooper wasn’t just trying to sound cool; he was also crafting his character’s entire backstory on his long-held desire to sound like his own brother, Bobby Maine. When it came time to cast said brother, no one else would do. It had to be Elliott. In hopes of snagging the lanky actor for the part, Cooper did something a little strange: He re-recorded an entire interview Elliott did years earlier, using his Cooper-as-Elliott, Jackson-as-Bobby voice. Then, he invited Elliott to give it a listen. The five-decade Hollywood veteran loved it.
“He’d made this commitment, like it seemed to me like he’d been doing this for four months with this voice coach,” Elliott said. “I thought, ‘Wow. What if I’m not available?’ Or what if, I don’t know, what if I don’t want to do the movie? Not that that was ever gonna be a thought in my mind. But I thought, ‘Wow, that was an amazing, ballsy kind of commitment he made.’ He not only made the decision to do it, he achieved what he set out to do, which I think is just typical Bradley Cooper. I don’t think there’s anything this guy can’t do.”
That’s high praise from Elliott, who has worked in Hollywood long enough to see pretty much everything. Over the past five decades, the two-time Golden Globe nominee has worked steadily in both film and television, able to earn accolades for projects as diverse as “Tombstone,” “The Big Lebowski,” and “Grace and Frankie.” He knows what’s going to work. From the start, “A Star Is Born” worked.
“You’re always looking, number one, to do good work,” he said. “And I suspected it with Gaga and Bradley, this obviously wasn’t gonna be some run-of-the-mill remake. There was never a question whether I wanted to do it, I didn’t talk myself into doing this, or have somebody else talk me into it. … I always recall the adage that someone came up with eons ago, that ‘if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’ I’m a pure believer in that. That doesn’t mean that you start out with a brilliant script and it can’t all go to shit.”
Cooper’s insistence on casting Elliott as Bobby Maine, one of the few steady presences in Jackson’s lonely rock-star life, is one of the best choices in a film laced with them. While Cooper’s “A Star Is Born,” the third remake of the classic 1937 classic, remains rooted in the romance between superstar Jackson and struggling singer Ally (a radiant Lady Gaga) who steals his heart as she rises to her own acclaim, Cooper’s version is also compelled by the fraught bond between Jackson and Bobby.
“You get backstory out of Bradley’s character [with Bobby]. There’s not a lot of backstory here. I mean, his entire career has gone by before the movie starts,” Elliott said. “It was important that he created this character who was not only the manager, but he decided to make him his brother, and brought that relationship [to the screen]. It’s like a love story of sorts. And with Bobby, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship that they’re talking about. … It’s hard to imagine now, maybe ’cause I’m playing the part, but it’s hard to imagine the story being as full as it is without Bobby. If you took Bobby out of the scheme of it, then it’d seem like there might be a missing piece.”
Early in the film, Jackson talks openly about his and Bobby’s long-deceased father, a towering figure seemingly ripped out of some old Western. That’s the guy Jackson appears to style himself on, his biggest influence, his number-one hero, but as “A Star Is Born” winds on and Jackson’s internal turmoil is laid bare, the truth emerges. It was never their dad, it was always Bobby. Suddenly, the voice stuff makes sense, both to the audience and to an emotional Bobby.
That’s not to say that such revelations are easy for either man, and when Jackson finally confesses his adoration for his big brother, it’s during a claustrophobic fight inside Bobby’s truck. It doesn’t end on a happy note, and as Bobby jerks into reverse and peels out, the camera catches him in the early throes of crying. It’s a small scene, but it encapsulates so much about both Bobby and Elliott’s understated skill in bringing him to life.
“It was only one shot. We did it one time,” Elliott said. “And Bradley said, ‘We got it.’ He shoots the rehearsals. He doesn’t rehearse. … He just knew when he had it. When he got it, you know you got it. Some people shoot a backup for some insecure reason. … It’s insane that he’s his first time directing, you’d think he’d had an entire career doing it.”
The pair is never seen together on-screen again, but the film offers Elliott one last chance to bring Bobby and Jackson’s relationship to life, thanks to a heartbreaking scene between Elliott and Gaga.
“It kind of all led to the last scene with Gaga,” he said. “Initially, in the script that was to be her dad, that was to be [Andrew] Dice [Clay], and it seemed like the right thing, the dad would come to commiserate with the daughter. I’d wrapped on the film, and I got a I got a text from Bradley, ‘I got a great idea. What if…’ And I just texted him back, I said, ‘Fuck. Just let me know when you want me there.'”
It’s a big change, but it’s one that works. Elliott credits Cooper with always being willing to do the right thing for his film, for his characters, even if it wasn’t in the script.
“It was always open for changes, all the way through,” Elliott said. “You get it all down, get the script down, but when you get there, throw it out. And just get to the heart of it, and that’s really the truth of it. It’s not so much every word. It’s what’s at the heart of the matter that really matters. And that’s why he changed that scene, that’s why he decided it should have been Bobby. And it’s so right. They had this relationship, and it was a terrible relationship. They loved each other clearly, but it was a terrible relationship. Never resolved. Unrequited.”
He added, “That was one of the nicest things that anybody’s every done for me, to bring me back to do that.”
Even months after wrapping the film, Elliott is intent on living in this particular moment, the afterglow of an experience that even a Hollywood veteran like him can’t quite shake.
“It’s coming to a close, for this leg of it anyways. I don’t know how long it’s gonna go on,” Elliott said. “I don’t wanna chase this thing. I’m not interested in the buzz and all that bullshit that people are talking about. I want to savor what’s going on. I could weep at any of it, if I talked about any of it long enough. I’m just really, just loving it.”
“A Star Is Born” is in theaters today.