It all happened so fast.
From the stage we watched as the lights flared and the opening riff rang out like a call to prayer. A grand piano and a single microphone stood on stage, waiting expectantly, as the pair walked tenderly onto the stage, hand-in-hand, where she took up her post beside the piano and he sat perched on the stool, eyes staring into her soul.
“Tell me somethin' girl...” he began, his voice smooth and clear but resounding with a surprising tenuousness. The undeniable gravelly crooning of Jackson Maine this was not. This was something else.
Without a host to break up the segments, the Oscars were forced to transition quickly, from one presenter and award to the next. Mostly, this was done out of necessity. Yet with the performance of “Shallow,” it seemed to become a directorial choice. The suddenness, the casualness, the whatever-ness of its unveiling, or utter lack thereof, had the effect of turning the viewer into a version of Ally, waiting in the wings at her first Jackson Maine concert and hearing, unmistakably, the opening notes of her song. With its camera angled to look out at members of the audience, their faces masked by the glare, the Oscars pushed us all onto that stage.
In A Star Is Born, it’s Cooper’s Maine who ushers Gaga’s Ally into the spotlight. He is the surefooted veteran; she is the reluctant talent. Before the telecast, it was announced that Cooper and Gaga would not be performing “Shallow” as Jackson and Ally Maine, but as themselves. At the time, this seemed to me like a strange pronouncement to make: Well, of course they would. Right? Yet as the song unfolded, this somewhat redundant fact breathed new life into a tune fans have been listening to on and off since October.
There was none of the stiltedness of the impromptu Vegas performance, during which Cooper (as Cooper) joined Gaga (as Gaga) on stage for a rendition of “Shallow.” But it was clear the roles had been reversed. Cooper, in his natural register, sings the opening verse with the wavering voice of an amateur, trying to slow things downs to counteract his nerves. Gaga looks more comfortable; you can see her listening. At one point, she gingerly brings a hand to her own waist, as if to seal inside the range of feelings Cooper has inspired. When she sits down at the piano and starts to sing, unleashing the full-throated emotion we’ve come to expect from Gaga (not Ally), it’s obvious that she’s the star. In a way, their performance felt like a spiritual coda to A Star Is Born, if Ally Maine went on to become Lady Gaga and Jackson Maine went up to heaven but descended back down to earth as Bradley Cooper—thinner and more manicured, his skin unhardened by substance abuse and his voice expunged of pain—to join her on stage for one triumphant reunion at an awards ceremony in which he does not piss his pants.
It’s hard not to conflate the fates of Gaga-as-Ally-as-Gaga and Cooper-as-Jackson-as-Cooper in other ways, too. Did Gaga not just break up with her longtime fiancé? Did Cooper’s wife, the supermodel Irina Shayk, not appear a bit wooden? And most importantly: if Gaga and Cooper are indeed performing as themselves, and not their characters, then what is to account for their incredible chemistry, the palpable warmth of their gazes as Gaga kicks the song into gear and breaks into those headbuzz-inducing ululations?
Small details, upon repeat viewings, blow up to giant clues. There’s the swagger with which Cooper gets up from his seat and scoops up the microphone stand, on his path to Gaga. There’s the purposeful way he hitches up his pants before sitting down next to her on the piano bench—an action which, according to New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, “is better acting than he did in the whole film.” And then, of course, there’s the way he leans in to share her microphone like he’s leaning in to kiss her, the way her head tilts to meet his, their eyes closed but lids aflutter, faces grazing and framed in a close-up Cooper himself might’ve selected.
For a night history may want to forget, “Shallow” was an indelible Oscars moment. But it was also a moment moment, both bigger and smaller, and more and less significant, than the awards themselves ever could be.