One of the most surprising moments in A Star Is Born has nothing to do with the core storyline. It’s a small moment in which Bradley Cooper’s character, alcoholic rock star Jackson Maine, autographs the fake breasts of a drag queen named Emerald, played by RuPaul’s Drag Race vet Willam.
For context: Jackson had stumbled into the gay bar looking for his next drink, but doesn’t leave when he realizes a drag show is taking place. Instead, he sticks around and sees—and hears—Ally (Lady Gaga) for the first time. What follows is an electric conversation, made even more dynamic by Emerald and the other fabulous drag queens who surround them.
What stuck out to me was how Jackson is unfazed by the queens. He chats and bonds with them in a seemingly authentic way, which brings me back to his exchange with Emerald. It’s witty and bombastic, but also important. Rarely in pop culture do we see straight men—let alone weathered country singers—be so comfortable with queerness. Think about how the football players on Glee treated Kurt (Chris Colfer) when he showed up to school in women’s clothes, or the mocking comments Chandler (Matthew Perry) made about his drag queen father on Friends for just two examples.
But his “wokeness” goes far beyond just tolerance. Jackson also isn’t afraid to indulge in a little flamboyancy himself. At the beginning of the film, for example, he’s enamored with the Edith Piaf-inspired eyebrows Ally wears to perform “La Vie En Rose.” So enamored, in fact, that Ally later tapes them onto him while they canoodle in the bathtub. (She also paints his nails, and then they have sex.) This may seem minuscule, but it’s still novel to see such a guy’s-guy be at ease wearing makeup. These scenes are incredibly liberating and say something significant about Jackson: Yes, he’s masculine, but he’s certainly not toxic.
That’s a critical distinction to make because up until this point, all the male leads in the A Star Is Born films have been. “Jackson Maine” has essentially been played three times in the past: by Kris Kristofferson in 1976, by James Mason in 1954, and by Fredric March in 1937. It’s difficult to say how these characters would have behaved in queer settings because there aren’t openly LGBTQ+ characters in the older movies. However, their toxic masculinity flares up in a completely different capacity.
In all three earlier versions of A Star Is Born, the rock-star character grows to resent the success of the woman he helps break into showbiz. That resentment is only fueled by his addictions, leading to devastating and destructive outbursts. This happens in the latest iteration of A Star Is Born too, but the source of Jackson’s resentment isn’t that Ally is eclipsing him: It’s that she’s losing her identity—or so he thinks.
As Ally’s music stardom rises, a record executive swoops in and revamps her entire image, dyeing her hair and swapping her soulful ballads for generic dance-pop. It’s a nuanced transition, though: Ally does put her foot down in some instances, proving she has some degree of autonomy over the changes in her career. But there are definitely compromises she makes, and that’s what pushes Jackson over the edge. He genuinely believes in Ally and what she has to say.
“The difference between Jack and the other guys [from the A Star Is Born movies] is he doesn’t resent her success whatsoever,” Bill Gerber, one of the producers of the new A Star Is Born, tells Vanity Fair. “He’s upset that she’s not being true to her voice, and what he fell in love with, and the kind of music she wanted to create. It’s her pop turn that starts the rift between them, not her success.”
The other A Star Is Born men want their female partners to be successful, sure, but not at the expense of their own egos. Cooper’s Jackson Maine doesn’t have one, though. He’s comfortable, even encouraging, of Ally having the spotlight, which is a refreshing update to this age-old story. Also refreshing—albeit heartbreaking—is how Jackson only begins his downfall when he feels like Ally is selling out. All he wants to do is amplify her voice; that’s a very poignant thing to show on screen, especially now.
Too often in our current climate we see women shamed for having a voice—or worse, pressured into silence. The music industry, in its own subversive way, tries to do this to Ally, and it infuriates Jackson. She’s completely capable of standing on her own, as evidenced by the final scene, but it still feels satisfying to watch a man fight this hard for a woman to use (and keep) her voice.
Is Jackson a flawed character? Absolutely. He breaks Ally’s heart and trust multiple times in the movie, but he’s never anything but supportive of her dreams. That’s crucial. Ultimately, Jackson’s alcoholism is his downfall—not the fact that he can’t deal with Ally’s supersonic success. It’s sad, but it’s not misogynistic.
That lack of ego is why A Star Is Born is so exciting to watch, and a welcome reprieve from the adaptations that came before it. The movie is a triumph, full stop. Cooper and Gaga give powerful, skilled performances; the music is thrilling; and there’s a central narrative that captivates you from beginning to end. But interwoven between the thrills is a sharp commentary on masculinity. We can certainly learn something from Cooper’s Jackson Maine: a tragic hero with horrible vices but a warm, open heart. “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die,” he sings at one point in the movie—and everyone, men in particular, should heed that advice.
Christopher Rosa is the staff entertainment writer for Glamour.