'A Star Is Born' Misses a Major Mental Health Opportunity
This post contains spoilers for “A Star Is Born.”
“A Star Is Born” is this season’s hottest new movie. It’s Lady Gaga’s breakout role on the big screen and actor Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut. Given its emotionally raw storyline and critical acclaim, it’s a movie many are eager to see. But for a film that’s been remade four times, its latest edition could have done more to give its modern take an ending that better aligns with what the current mental health movement is trying to achieve.
Jackson Maine (Cooper), a famous singer and infamous alcoholic, sees Ally (Gaga) perform at a drag bar and is immediately captivated by her. In a whirlwind romance, Jackson aka Jack takes Ally on tour with him and they sing together. Eventually, Ally skyrockets to stardom while Jack’s alcoholism becomes increasingly worse. After he is released from rehab, Ally’s insufferable manager tells Jack he is a joke and an embarrassment who will only hurt Ally’s career. Feeling like a burden, Jack kills himself.
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The first version of “A Star is Born” premiered in the 1930s with a ’50s and’70s version to follow. Each version is reflective of the time it was made. That’s why in the 2018 version, the characters are Ally and Jack instead of Norman and Esther. In the ’70s version, made during the women’s rights movement, the Esther/Ally character, played by Barbra Streisand, incorporates some of the feminist ideas from that time. And yet, despite 81 years passing between the first movie and its current iteration, the Jack character struggles with addiction and dies by suicide all four times.
While Jack goes to rehab, which happens in other renditions as well, we could expect Jack to seek more mental health treatment than would have been available in the ’30s, ’50s or ’70s. While the suicide rate has gone up in recent years and the mental health system is far from perfect, modern conversations around substance abuse and mental health highlight that there is hope out there for those who are struggling. However, hopelessness and feeling like a burden are narratives the movie harps on.
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Hopelessness is one of the strongest signs of suicide risk. In a study that looked at suicide notes from those who attempted and those who died, both groups showed high amounts of feeling like a burden, though those who died included more detail about their feelings.
Like many who attempt or die by suicide, Jack sees his situation as hopeless. He’s gotten sober, yet he’s still a “burden” for Ally. He’s unable to stay sober for long, and he causes trouble for those around him — to the point his brother tells him it’s easier to not be around Jack.
While Jack clearly feels hopeless, those feelings can be transferred to audience members and may be especially difficult for those vulnerable to suicide. (I would advise if anyone feels hopeless or like a burden that they skip this movie until they feel stable. Jack’s suffering is palpable, and if anyone feels remotely like Jack, his thought process, that loved ones would be better without him, might seem logical.)
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Despite the film’s brilliant cinematography, the scene where Jack dies is problematic. Though viewers don’t see Jack die, the film provides details in previous and subsequent scenes that makes it easy for moviegoers to determine the method he uses.
Showing suicide methods or giving graphic details can be dangerous for vulnerable viewers like those who live with suicidal ideation. It is common for those contemplating suicide to envision a plan or what the scene will look like for the person who finds his or her body. This is called a suicide flash-forward and can be a particularly dangerous form of suicidal ideation. Even a seemingly tiny detail like the one in “A Star Is Born” could bolster someone’s suicidal ideation.
The current film could have diverted from its previous versions to instill hope. Suicide risk drastically reduces when people feel hopeful. If Jack was given more professional mental health support, he may have gotten to a place that felt hopeful. More supports would have allowed for an honest conversation about his feelings of worthlessness.
While subtle suicide warning signs — Jack giving up his vinyls, telling Ally he wants to get a “good look” at her on the day of his suicide — are sprinkled throughout the movie, the seriousness of his struggles never seem to be fully recognized by those he reaches out to.
When Jack tells his counselor about a previous suicide attempt when he was 12, the two laugh about it like he’s recounting a silly thing he did as a kid. Jack also notes his father, who also had a drinking problem, didn’t even notice. This dialogue was with a mental health professional, who should have paid more attention to the meaning behind this conversation. He may not have been able to prevent Jack’s suicide, but it was a perfect time to talk about where Jack’s mind was.
Every mental health professional is different, but no (good) counselor would laugh about a previous attempt and ignore it as something that doesn’t need more attention. Knowing from personal experience, it is incredibly hard to open up about suicidal thoughts. Watching a mental health professional laugh about a suicide attempt is not reassuring. If a mental health professional isn’t going to take it seriously, who will?
While a tragic story about love and personal demons, the film didn’t have to end tragically. Suicide could have stayed a part of the story. The movie could have made Jack a suicide attempt survivor instead. Many suicide attempt survivors say they felt regret after their attempt, and they realize how suicide was the wrong choice.
If Jack had attempted, the movie could have addressed the aftermath of an attempt, which could include dialogue about worthlessness and hopelessness. We could have seen Jack finally getting better and the duo singing together just like their story began. I don’t believe Jack’s death is paramount to the story, but I believe a lesson about suicide and mental health could have been.
If, for some reason, Jack had to die by suicide, there are ways the film could have addressed hopelessness and feeling like a burden. This could have been done while Jack was in rehab or in conversations with Ally or his brother. Even with these conversations, Jack may still have died. The difference is, he would have had a chance.
Many people who see this movie will relate to Jack. They’ll see their struggles in his and may even ache for a release like Jack did. There are so many tragic stories about people dying by suicide, in real life and on the big screen, it’s time we make way for something more productive and show people that recovery is possible.
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