By Rahul Desai

I suspect that A Star Is Born, an otherwise unremarkable film, is winning hearts – by breaking them – because of Bradley Cooper’s remarkable turn. Cooper is Jackson Maine, a famous country-rock singer with a substance-abuse problem. He plays cinema’s most enduring cliché: a self-destructive man-child who embraces booze and drugs to deal with unresolved childhood conflicts. And he falls for Lady Gaga’s Ally, a girl who is both obligated and attracted to him.

Jackson Maine exhibits all the high-pitched signs of ‘performative’ alcoholism. He throws up into bushes. He passes out on their first night together. He wets his pants on stage during a live Grammy telecast. He kills himself. Any self-respecting tragedy thrives on the theatrics of substance addiction; these are the moments a narrative wants you to notice. Almost every drunken protagonist occupies a script that designs different variations of such scenes. But the truth of this condition exists not so much in life’s narrative nadirs, but in the seemingly normal interludes that connect these dramatic outbursts. Unlike other diseases, even the ‘peaceful phases’ of alcohol addiction – the calm before the storms – are infected.

For instance, Maine’s real symptoms lie not in when he makes Ally cry, but in when he makes her smile and soar. His nobility is heartbreakingly naïve. Cooper’s gait is the clincher. There’s alcoholism entrenched into his being – his smoky voice, his stunted diction, his boorish chuckles. His reactions are slower, his eyes wider: traits that Ally interprets as disarming innocence. Cooper’s act isn’t as simple as slurring between words – he manages to depict a history of systematic intellectual ruin even when he is just holding her hand or watching her sing. It gives us the visceral leg-space to wonder if Maine is actually hoping for love – an addiction to a person – to displace his addiction to a substance. Every time he realizes that his feelings aren’t dizzy enough, he drinks himself silly to turn his relationship into a version of his addiction.

Cooper, who has fashioned his career (Burnt, Limitless, Silver Linings Playbook) on conquering the nuances of sensationalized illnesses, is 43 years old. He was 36 when Clint Eastwood originally approached him for this role. But Cooper felt he wasn’t ‘weathered’ enough. “I hadn’t lived enough,” he admitted, in a recent New York Times profile. All of which suggests that Bradley Cooper, owing perhaps to his own personal history, understood that addiction – especially functional alcoholism – is a cumulative condition. It slowly adds up to become an intangible form of cognitive disorientation. Even the fleeting hours of sobriety bear visible scars of the years of physical and mental degeneration. Most movies don’t recognize that long-term addiction isn’t the loud hero or villain; it is more of an experienced character actor that rises through decades of low-key turns. It’s why we see younger actors – Shah Rukh Khan in Devdas, Aditya Roy Kapoor in Aashiqui 2, Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture, Kangana Ranaut in Gangster, Woh Lamhe, Fashion – struggle without the visual crutch of a bottle in hand. It’s hard to channel wasted wisdom so early in life. They overcompensate by acting their socks off, and invariably end up romanticizing the disease in context of artistic expression.

Passion, in contrast, is a younger feeling – which is why Ranbir Kapoor’s rendition in Rockstar is so significant. Imtiaz Ali’s version of the destructive musician treats love as a form of substance addiction. Jordan doesn’t drink or smoke. Yet, at no point does he look like he isn’t “infected” by her toxins of romance.

The narrative optimization of alcoholism is inherently a grey-haired animal. Nick Nolte as the estranged father to two MMA fighters in Warrior, Jeff Bridges as Crazy Heart’s lonely country singer, Denzel Washington as Flight’s embattled pilot, and Bruce Dern as a delusional patriarch on a quest in Nebraska, have that disheveled-wasteland experience about them. Ronit Roy, as the abusive father in Udaan, or Harish Khanna, as an absent father in Haraamkhor, isn’t your typical drink-for-effect alcoholic. Their drinking is internalized. Their addiction isn’t made for the camera; it is reflected in the bleak atmosphere of small-town rebellion.

Similarly, Dimple Kapadia as a divorced alcoholic in Farhan Akhtar’s iconic Dil Chahta Hai is perhaps the most authentic figure of alcoholism in modern Hindi cinema. There’s a fragility about her that, you can sense, is the result of gradual emotional decay. Due credit to young Akhtar, for recognizing that there is nobody better than a yesteryear superstar to mirror the muted excesses of social transition. Her name, Tara, translates to “star”. Which is maybe why she makes for the perfect cinematic ‘ally’ to Jackson Maine. For veterans like them, the days of shattered bottles are over. That the glass is always half full was always their biggest tragedy.