No star is born out of nowhere, which means that every actor has a first notable on-screen appearance. For Stefani Germanotta, that was the meaty role of “Girl at Swimming Pool #2,” featured in “The Sopranos” Season 3 Episode 9, “The Telltale Moozadell,” airing April 22, 2001. The 15-year-old future Mother Monster doesn’t even get a full line of dialogue in the scene, and it’s hardly an indicator of what was to come for one of the world’s biggest pop stars. But “The Sopranos” is worth highlighting because on Lady Gaga’s resume, it’s one of the very few acting credits where she’s not essentially playing herself.
IMDb credits her with nearly 40 appearances as an actor, but the majority of these are tied to her music career and Gaga persona, including cameos in “Muppets Most Wanted” and “The Simpsons.” Which is understandable when you’re a performer releasing studio albums and touring constantly, but also a bit odd, given that she’s on the verge of becoming an Oscar-nominated actress for “A Star is Born.” That potential has been obscured in the many performances leading up to the film’s release.
One of Lady Gaga’s most fascinating qualities is her awareness of her own image, and the ability to engage it with manipulation, re-imagination, or flat-out mockery. As just one example of the latter, during a sketch in her dual hosting/musical guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live” in 2013, she played a schlubby Apple Genius Bar employee making an appearance on Kanye West (Jay Pharoah) and Kim Kardashian’s (Nasim Pedrad) talk show. When asked about her choice in apparel, “Karen” says, “I think people who try too hard with their outfits are maybe hiding something — like, come on, dress like a person.” She then looks directly into the camera, a knowing smirk on her lips.
Gaga plays a number of characters in this “SNL” episode that stretch beyond her typical persona — but true to the show’s format, they’re all broadly drawn, in a classic sketch comedy way. The same can basically be said, in a less comedic way, of her joining the cast of “American Horror Story” two years later, as a series regular for the “Hotel” season.
The caliber of actors that Ryan Murphy has brought onto “American Horror Story” over the years is extraordinary, which is a major factor in why it keeps winning Emmys. But it’s hard to say that any of those who dive into the show’s twisted world are truly acting; they’re instead chewing upon the lavish and bizarre scenery provided by these insane premises, exploring the pinnacles of weirdness made possible by the show’s “anything goes” ethos.
Perhaps that’s what made the show a natural fit for Gaga’s first major acting role, beyond “Girl at Swimming Pool #2” and a brief but fun cameo in “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” “Horror Story” provided the perfect transition from her previous pasttime of turning awards show red carpets into performance art (such as her memorable entrance to the 2011 Grammys in a plastic egg), while also playing a character who might have Gaga-esque qualities, but is certainly given more depth and development than what Gaga was being asked to play in music videos.
Playing the Countess in “AHS: Hotel” was something she took seriously, as Variety reported in 2015: “I find it funny that people wonder if that’s just the way that I really am, so this was very easy for me to just kind of walk in here with my blonde hair on and just be a bitch and be rude to everyone and that’s just what I do, because you’ve seen me do something like that before,” she said then. “The truth is that it’s actually very challenging to be sincere when you have all of that on. It’s not comfortable. It’s never been comfortable for me.”
Her follow-up appearance as Scáthach in the next season, “Roanoke,” was seemingly even less human than the vampiric diva she played before, drawing upon her talent for complete and utter transformation into an immortal witch. But Gaga pulls it off, because if there’s something she knows how to do, it’s wear a costume. Even when Gaga played up her own authenticity for her Dive Bar Tour supporting the 2016 album “Joanne,” it came with an iconic ensemble — that pink hat! — and props. For 10 years now, she has been smarter than nearly anyone else in the game about the importance of image, and how it plays into persona.
This is truly where the power of her performance in “A Star Is Born” lies. It’s far too easy to assume that because of the similarities between their trajectories, playing rising pop star Ally is hardly a stretch for Gaga as an actress. (The fact that Ally happens to sound a lot like Lady Gaga when she sings makes it more than a little difficult to draw the line between reality and fiction.)
However, this is frankly the first time that Gaga hasn’t been asked to put up a front, in a role that — like the woman herself — is keenly aware of what it does to a person, to put up a facade. From Cooper’s improvisational style and extreme close-ups to the deliberately stripped-down wardrobe to Gaga’s own rawness, the effect leads to something real and true.
The narrative surrounding “A Star Is Born” is all about how star-director Bradley Cooper drew this performance out of her, wiped her make-up off her face, and dared her to expose herself. What’s been unmentioned, though, is that this may be the first time that Ms. Germanotta has been seen in such a raw state, but it most certainly happened on her own terms, a choice that has made the one-time wearer of meat dresses into a major best actress contender.
It could be said that all this time, from the very beginning, Lady Gaga has technically been acting, that she herself is a character — that the only time we’ve ever seen the real her on screen is perhaps that laughing teenager sitting by a New Jersey swimming pool, all those years ago. And with any performer, even the ones most drenched in authenticity, image is just another tool in the toolbox.
However, watching “A Star Is Born” offers legitimate excitement over what might be next for Lady Gaga as an actor, now that we’ve seen her like this. It was always clear that she could transform into anything. Now it is obvious that she can even transform into herself — that maybe she’s ready to stop hiding.