A star is born

Autumn is always a good time for films. As soon as the last of the summer sun is soaked up, the holiday makers return home, and the blockbuster credits roll, the media are tipping the ‘big movies of the year’ which lead us into awards season.

Working in a Theatre and cinema, I like to think I always have my finger on the pulse of what’s new and upcoming in the arts. A Star is Born, was one that completely surprised me. Having only heard a little of the story, it being widely advertised as the new ‘lady gaga’ film, I was not in a hurry to see it. Yet due to a friend’s recommendation and a chance evening free, I found myself watching the film within its first week of release. During that 140 minutes, I was completely blown away by both Gaga and Bradley Cooper, who portray beautifully and unforgettably, the story of the rise and fall of fame, and the effect of the limelight on love and relationships. I can already imagine the emotional acceptance speeches at this year’s Oscars ceremony. It really was that good.

This is the fourth version of the film, which originated in 1937, based on a story by William A Wellman and Robert Carson, the screenplay was written by Dorothy Parker and Alan Campell. The 1937 film starred Janet Gaynor as an aspiring starlet and Rochard Marsh as an actor whose career is in jeopardy due to his alcoholism. It was then re-made in 1954, starring Judy Garland (of Wizard of Oz fame) and again in 1976, now set in the world of music, with Barbara Streisand and kris kristofferson, in perhaps the most recognised edition.

It is a fairly simple premise, famous rock star meets a talented young singer, they fall in love, but become threatened by the changing fates of fame, and their own personal demons. The two leads are perfectly cast to portray the story with great emotion and depth, they have fantastic chemistry and musical talent, their voices blending effortlessly. Cooper is also director, producer and a screenwriter of the film and in an impressive director debut, manages to portray the feel of celebrity life, the reaction of the crowds and atmosphere of the music gigs with great effect. Walking away from the cinema, it was hard to believe the story isn’t real. Although perhaps, in a way, it is. It’s a realistic representation of life in the public eye, of the fleeting world of music and celebrity, of the humanity behind the personas and the struggle to maintain an ordinary life and relationship. It’s very suitable for a modern audience.

We are immediately thrown into the spotlight at the beginning of the film, where we see Cooper as Jackson Maine at the height of his fame. He sings and plays guitar live on stage to an audience of thousands, before wiping the sweat from his face and running a hand through his shoulder length wavy hair (Cooper looks rough and rugged throughout) then jumping in a cab and finishing off a bottle of alcohol. Not content with this being the end of his night, he finds himself at a drag bar where Gaga’s character Ally is performing. This begins their meeting and a very bumpy journey through fame and out the other side. Early scenes did seem quite strange at times. Perhaps reflecting the awkward meeting of two people from very different lives, who barely know each other but feel drawn together. Jack talks about Ally’s nose, asking can he touch it and saying it should have its own spotlight. Ally punches a man in a bar for wanting to take Jack’s picture just to prove his girlfriend’s new man doesn’t look like the star, then Jack tapes a bag of frozen peas to her hand. These scenes, seem to show Jack’s vulnerability and a softer side to the rock star, while opening Ally’s world of music and songwriting. Later they sit in an empty car park and talk about music. Jack immediately seems taken with Ally and from then on he doesn’t quit until she follows him on his tour.

I like that we see Ally (Gaga too) looking natural and girl-next-door like at the beginning of the film. Her gradual transformation to a full-blown pop star is fascinating and very convincing. Even the music that she sings and how it changes when she becomes signed by an Agent, adding dance moves and dancers to her routines. In early scenes she talks about her nose, how she’s been told she doesn’t look the part. There are huge echoes of Gaga’s own experience and anxieties here, as well as the true workings of the film and music industry. Gaga manages to take us on a journey so that as Ally changes and grows with confidence, so do we. This is set alongside Jack’s fall in fame, his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and his crippling jealousy of the star he discovered.

At the heart of the story is the love the two characters share with each other. They are inseparable and this shows us the dangers of being in such an all-consuming relationship, the pressures of fame and addictive quality of life on the road. While Ally adapts and grows under the spotlight, Jack has become consumed by it and the only way he can cope is by drinking and drug taking, as his career continues to fall.

The final quarter of the film is extremely thought-provoking and hard-hitting. For those  who don’t know the story, like myself, it comes as a shock. I challenge anyone not to cry in the final scenes. It is here that Gaga’s voice is truly showcased. The music is incredible throughout, all original tracks written by many talented musicians including Mark Ronson and Diane Warren, accompanied by Gaga and Cooper’s stunning voices. The chemistry they provide is the heart of the film and it’s their story, as Jack and Ally, that stays with you, long after you’ve left the cinema.



Cheltenham Literature Festival

I’ve been going to Hay literature Festival in Hay on Wye, for the past 15 years. Ever since I first discovered it during my MA Creative Writing course, when we gained a slot to promote our group anthology due to a course member’s mutual acquaintance with one of the founders. Since then, I’ve only ever missed one year of the Festival. I build my year around it, and May is always a month that is carefully planned, being mindful of the dates that I must keep free for my yearly pilgrimage. Almost nothing gets in the way.

I have been planning, for many years since my original adventure into literature festivals, to branch out and attend others across the UK, to see what differs, hoping to extend my love of literature and the arts into more than a ‘once a year’ celebration with like minded people. So this year, thanks to a new and equally as literature obsessed colleague, I took the opportunity to attend Cheltenham Literature Festival.

Having no knowledge or preconceptions of Cheltenham, other than a reference to the Cheltenham and Gloucester building society and a family members exclamation that the ‘shopping is great,’ I was completely unaware of what to expect. I booked my accommodation, event tickets and picked up all the local information I could before setting off in the company of someone who granted, was not ‘a book person.’ What I expected was a literature festival in the middle of a busy town, perhaps similar to hay and maybe a little bigger, with some bigger names. What I got was a wonderfully different experience which came up close to my beloved Hay Festival.

Set in the grounds of Montpelier Park, the festival site is a welcoming warmth of coloured flags, fairy lights and quirky monuments to literature, which included giant book covers, typewriter keys which doubled up as seats and an owl sculpture. All of this is built around a collection of various sized marquees and surrounded by full Autumnal bloom. It is literature for a new season, foreshadowing the dark nights curled up by the fire with a good book, or wintry days at a coffee shop with the newspaper and a recent podcast. A bandstand had been transformed into a little nook for people to sit and relax with friends, or drink coffee and read books. Large armchairs and settees were surrounded by quirky furniture scattered with reading material, while Chinese lanterns hung from the ceiling. Immediately I loved this place. Immediately it seemed to invite me in.

The festival was buzzing with anticipation. People of all ages were dashing about despite the rain, on their way to events, to grab hot drinks or to meet friends and family. I booked for two events over the weekend. The humorously titled Heathcliff Vs Darcy: Who’s the bigger s**t? and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80. 

The first, Heatcliff vs Darcy: Who’s the bigger s**t? was a lively debate between a panel of well known writers, including Festival Curator Sebastian Faulks, Novelist and Sunday Times Columnist Dolly Alderton and Novelists Sarah Moss and Phillip Hensher. Faulks and Alderton were to argue for Darcy as the bigger s**t, while Moss and Hensher chose Heathcliff. My mind was already made up. Although it can be argued that Heathcliff’s mistreatment and violent upbringing as a child, contributed to his treatment, torture and responsibility of the death of several characters in Wuthering Heights, his character is far worse in his actions than the snobby and prejudiced Mr Darcy, who is little more than an upper class twit who is put in his place by the witty and smart Lizzie Bennett. In both situations however, class is a key theme to the characters lives and causes their misery as well as their actions.

The debate was an interesting one though. Alderton brought a nice touch of the modern day dating world to the argument, siting Darcy as a bad man, who in the modern world would be asked by her fellow millenials to ‘check his privilege’. She explained his behaviour towards Elizabeth as ‘negging,’ in which he appears to be complimentary but only seeks to lower Lizzie’s self confidence whilst also causing her to seek his approval. Alderton noted she has come across many Mr Darcy’s in her time and that we have gained a kind of Stockholm syndrome to them. She waved away any excuses of shyness or social awkwardness, refusing to accept an audience members suggestion that Darcy was ‘on the spectrum’. Inevitably, the Colin Firth reference came up, (He starred as Darcy in the hugely popular 1995 TV Adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and Alderton claimed Mr Darcy had been ‘misrepresented’ by Firth. If he didn’t wish to dance at the ball, the key source of social interaction of the time, he would have had no sense to put on a see- through white shirt.  This was met with laughter from the audience, but a fair point.

Sarah Moss’ response to Alderton’s ramble about the bad influence of Mr Darcy on women readers throughout history, was met with laughs too. Brief and to the point, she replied that if Alderton has met lots of Darcy’s, she should be thankful she hasn’t met lots of Heathcliff’s, as ‘Kathy ends up dead’. With reference to the way Lizzie must live as Darcy’s wife, having married into money and status, she summed up her argument with the words’ I’d much rather have a big house at Pemberley than a nice grave on the moors’.

Sebastian Faulks approached the argument that Darcy is more of a sh**t than Heathcliff by using direct quotes, displaying the rudeness of his character. He noted how Darcy states it would be ‘mortifying’ to be drawn to Elizabeth and his resistance to her ‘objectionable family’. He also uses Darcy’s refusal to intervene with Wickham’s dastardly plans, allowing him to attempt to run off with his own sister, and then Lizzie’s too, as a reason to site him as the worse of the two. Darcy, Faulks says, explains his refusal to react to such a situation as ‘beneath him’ despite it threatening to ruin his family honour and the Bennett’s too. Faulks didn’t hold back, calling Darcy a ‘manipulative, hypocritical, self centred depressive.’ Much of which I agreed with. His final comments that Darcy needs Bingley as an interface between himself and other people was interesting. As in each instance, Bingley seems to be there to encourage Darcy and also to make him a slightly better person.

Phillp Hensher had the most amusing and believable argument. To begin, he noted that we must recognise the difference between ‘an a***hole and a s**t’. The first, he states, doesn’t know his behaviour is bad, the second, knows he is being a s**t and will go out of his way to be that. Hensher’s hilarious reference to Darcy and Heathcliff taking a disabled parking space is comedy gold, and it makes the point. Darcy, Henser states would take the disabled space not realising he’s depriving anyone, while Heatchliff would see someone trying to drive into the space and he would deliberately overtake them to take the space. Met by laughter from the audience, Hensher had set his argument well. Hensher went on to talk in detail about this difference, and to apply it to Heathcliff and Darcy in turn. He notes Heathcliff’s ability to cause the death of several characters in the novel and to destroy the lives of everyone he comes into contact with. The most valid point in the argument. He also talked about the idea of redemption in Wuthering Heights and in much 19th century literature, Heathcliff’s attempt to wipe the slate clean so he could go and do it all over again. He concluded that ‘we all need a bit of shit in our lives. The sex appeal, the excitement.’ This may have been going too far, but then, Hensher is right in the sense that there are many s**ts in the world, and we can’t escape that. Whether it makes life more interesting is a matter of opinion. It certainly makes for a more interesting read.

The audience questions were interesting, from suggestions that Darcy is ‘on the spectrum’ to wondering what would happen should Heathcliff and Darcy meet? The panel replied with comments such as, ‘Darcy wouldn’t have time for him…’ ‘Heathcliff would set the dogs on Darcy.’

The final conclusions led to an audience vote which resulted in the winner being crowned Heathcliff. A worthy winner in my opinion. What did make me laugh, was a final comment by Hensher to a lady in the audience who began with ‘Wuthering Heights is my favourite book,’ on answering her question, he seemed more perplexed by her first comment, ‘really? It’s your favourite book?’ Such an entertaining event! It made me wonder if in future they could do a series of similar events, pitching other literary characters against each other.

Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca at 80 was an interesting discussion by a group of Du Maurier enthusiasts and writers within the thriller and Gothic literature genre. Author, broadcaster and critic Sarah Dunant, Author of The Essex Serpents, Thriller writer Sarah Perry, Sabine Durrant and chaired by The Pool’s Sam Baker.

These 4 women were clearly huge fans of the novel and of Du Maurier herself. Sam Baker noted at the beginning how Rebecca has never been out of print since it was first published in 1938. Also, it’s lack of real recognition for critics, and the common reference to Du Maurier as a Gothic romance novel writer. I remember reading Rebecca when I was in my twenties, after recommendation from a friend. The opening line pulled me in straight away and I can not remember a novel that left me so cold and with such a strong memory of the characters. They still haunt me even now. I could relate to everything the women were saying, and I could see the audience, (which spanned several decades) were connecting in the same way. There was much talk of that opening line, of the two Mrs De winters, of Maxim and even Mrs Danvers. I would have liked to have heard more of Du Maurier herself, and should I have had the confidence to ask a question, I might have asked how the reading of Rebecca had affected the panel’s individual responses to the rest of Du Maurier’s work. Believing I was not the only one to read her most famous work and then rush out to buy anything else I could get my hands on.

The audience members were most interested in the many film versions of the film. To which the panel seemed to agree, as I did, that they seemed to take away the essence of the book within the last few minutes. Also much discussion fell onto what the second Mrs De Winters first name might be. All we know is that it’s ‘unusual and it suits her’. There was also an interest on the different gender reader perspectives and the span of age ranges approaching it too. It is a book that spans time and can change on different readings as the panel noted, many of them having first read it when they were teenagers. It certainly inspired me to take another reading of it.  It’s a book that I have never been quite able to erase from my memory.

Should I have had more time at the festival, I certainly would have attended more events. There were several that I had highlighted in the programme as of interest. Mary Shelley: A life of Men and Monsters looked fascinating. I was also intrigued by Oscar Wilde: The First Celebrity. Particularly in light of the film release of ‘The Happy Prince’, based on Wilde’s life following his release from Prison for Homosexuality. Also, an event discussing the life and work of writer Katherine Mansfield, who I remember studying at University.

I realised as we wandered around the festival, as I soaked in the atmosphere, watched the wonderful events and talked to like minded people, that I had been mistaken in thinking there could be just one literary home for me. In believing that Hay Festival was where it ended. That was where it had only just begun. Because Cheltenham, for me, was just an extension of my first love, a celebration of all things literary in a different setting. Sure Hay would always be my first, I would always have fond memories of the times I had spent there, they could never be replaced. But there are so many other wonderful places to discover and celebrate the written word, the varied art forms and those who have created them. I left Cheltenham with a new found love for literary festivals. With a hunger for finding the next adventure, and a burning question of ‘what’s next?’

© Amanda Griffiths

Cheltenham Literature Festival runs every year in early October, set in the grounds of Montpelier Park, in the town Centre.