Bradley Cooper in turn is the fourth actor to take on the Maine role, the third to be Oscar nominated for the performance, though only the first to direct the film as well as star in it. Cooper taking on the part this time as the country rock star Jackson, a change taken from the much critically derided 1976 version with real singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson in the role. Cooper's work is the biggest transformation out of the actors, as Fredric March, and James Mason also played actors, though over the hill ones, where is Cooper seeks to realize a character quite different from himself. This is an essential facet from his performance as there is quite a lot on top of Cooper here, and I'm not just referring to his long hair, scruffy beard, frequent cowboy hats and beat red face. The most important part of this though is his voice he uses in the role that is essentially a Sam Elliott impersonation, to the point the film directly refers to it as such and given that Elliott plays Jackson's brother/manager Bobby here. His impression is occasionally a little thick, leaning at moments closer to a Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, sound, though it becomes more than enough of a lived in facet to his performance.
This approach is also a rather necessary part of his performance in order to be convincing as the successful country rocker that is Jackson here as Cooper does not naturally exude that sort of style typically. Cooper though is more than convincing in this regard, and like the film itself, Cooper's performance scenes are considerable highlights. This is not only just being believable when playing guitar and having a more than decent singing voice. He rather is able to exude that unique sort of star power on the stage, that isn't even exactly the same as a screen presence. Cooper though manages to find this effectively even while also conveying a certain exasperation within his solo numbers, reflecting the fading nature of his work in the early scenes of the film. Of course the film itself, and the character end up being as much defined by the star that is being born. Here in the order of Lady Gaga as Ally as an aspiring songwriter/performer whom Jackson meets randomly at a drag bar. Their romance that the film essentially devotes a good twenties minutes to just Gaga and Cooper interacting, as Jackson and Ally develop their love for one another.
Cooper and Gaga in this sequence find some great chemistry with one another. This in just the way the two are being engaged within essentially each other's presences, with Cooper being particularly effective in creating this sense of fascination with every part of Ally. They manage to develop an authentic rapport with one another in their moments of just honestly talking, with a bit of shop talking when it comes to developing a song. They find both the warmth of the moment with a real enthusiasm within their interaction. Cooper is most effective in terms of creating this almost as being an opening for Jackson in this "find", but manages to react to her with just only the utmost sincerity of interest, rather than some sort of one note lust. The most notable scene is essentially the climax of their romance in the performance of Ally's song onstage "The Shallows" which is started by Jackson, before Ally joins in to great acclaim. Both Cooper and Gaga are great in this scene as they capture such a joy and really exuberance in the moment, both in terms of living their dream as performers, but also the way the two of them build mutually off one another in the moment.
That is a great moment, unfortunately I actually think the film is mostly downhill from there for a variety of reasons. One of them being some of the repetition in the character of Jackson. This version of the character not only drinks, he takes drugs, has severe issues with his past, and is also losing his hearing. Cooper certainly captures the wear of these various elements in his physical performance essentially playing a nearly dying man at times, with Sam Elliott's drawl becoming all the more broken in his state of inebriation. The film falls into a series of scenes between another Ally performance, and Jackson expressing a combination of exhaustion, and a jealousy. This reduces their interactions as often Cooper as a director gets in the way a bit. For example the essential of their marriage, which is a highlight in the James Mason/Judy Garland version, is strangely dashed over with neither performance being really allowed to express what it means to the character beyond a swift cursory level. It nearly rushed as we just go back to the back and forth process between Jackson's being a mess and Ally's become the greater star, while also becoming more manufactured in a way. This eventually leading to a moment where he calls her ugly in combination of jealousy, and disdain for drifting from her own songs. I wish more had been devoted within their interactions, as Cooper certainly hits the messy cruelty of the moment, through his drifting delivery, though the impact overall is a touch limited.
Eventually though the film allows things to come to a head at Ally's crowning moment at the Grammy awards, meanwhile Jackson's nadir comes after he is taken off the headliner at Roy Orbison tribute, and performs drunk. This downfall is a touch shakier narrative speaking, as his actually loss of popularity isn't well realized, he seemed to have plenty of fans at his concerts for example. This is not a great moment for Jackson, but I have to say it's not really a great moment for Cooper's performance either. His whole early performance has a bit of a half drunk approach to begin with, however he goes a touch overboard in this sequence playing up every shaky physical movement and slurred bit of random speech to an excess. This too is the nadir of Cooper's performance unfortunately, though thankfully he makes up for it as we approach his attempt at recovery. Now throughout the film we have Jackson's little asides involving his father, that in part most directly relate to his contentious relationship with his brother, and Cooper's portrays these moments throughout. This being almost this attempt at remembering some greater importance and a better way of holding onto something, that any infraction of this is met with rage. His moments early on are strong with Cooper's bringing the certainty intensity as the younger brother tries to reinforce his perspective even as brother is essentially telling the truth. Although even in these moments, Cooper properly shows the subtle understanding that reveals their history that is founded on brotherly love, even if reduced due to Jackson's demons.
This is drawn out more in the moments of recovery, and Cooper is genuinely great in these scenes. He pulls away any of sense of posturing and in his somber delivery really shows the quiet anguish of the man who essentially has never recovered from his initial circumstances in life. What is perhaps Cooper's best moment comes as Jackson deals with this by admitting finally to his brother, that he looks up to him rather than their deadbeat father. Cooper's approach in this moment is fantastic in bringing a powerful moment of hesitation before meekly yet earnestly delivery the truth, showing it as something that was always true to him but struggled to admit it to himself. Cooper's work is most effective here in capturing the heartbreak of the man who is finally aware of his own demons, yet while he doesn't avoid them, is still swallowed by them. His final moment of essentially accepting this is a moving one, as Cooper's reaction captures this moment of a pure hopelessness. Of course I think in all of this there is something lost within attaching his to the idea of the central relationship being paramount, and it is unfortunate that the chemistry between the two initially is lost essentially because it isn't capitalized. The film would've benefited just really from more direct interactions between the two, instead we are left with just a final one, as a flashback where Jackson shares a final song with Ally. A choice I actually don't love direction wise, as just keeping in Ally's perspective in the moment would have been more powerful, however it is a good moment for Cooper's performance as he does once more capture the old tenderness and just a bit of the jubilation, though very subdued, as he sings to her. Although I think there are many imperfections with this performance, as well as limitations brought upon his own directorial choices, overall it is a strong turn.