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Maybe what made Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s performance of “Shallow” so stunning at the Oscars is also what spoiled A Star Is Born’s Best Picture chances: It treated the dinged-up tropes of romance for romance’s sake as something that can still feel new, which is like treating the greeting-card aisle at CVS as the place for the next great American novel. Taking on a third remake of a story that feels more ancient than even the 1937 original, Cooper’s film insisted that intensity, great camerawork, and two perfectly mismatched leads could restore substance to mush. Which is to say, he relied on aesthetic, or on matters of taste. If many viewers drank it up, inevitably some would spit it out.  

The same could be said for Sunday’s supernaturally intimate rendition of “Shallow,” the building-then-boiling duet that would later win Best Original Song. The first brilliant thing that Cooper and Gaga did was break with the loud, fake-y, predictable rhythm of awards shows: After one acceptance speech ended, the guitar-picking began, without so much as a canned joke of a celebrity introduction. Cameras placed viewers at the back of the stage; the curtain lifted; crew members pushed a piano into place. Welding-hot lights from the stands of the theater, seen from a singer’s vantage, evoked the final scene of A Star Is Born. A slow-floating lens searched as if it were God’s eye, or a director’s. The TV gala, it seemed, had ended. A movie was beginning.

And then Gaga and Cooper got up.

As in, they got out of their seats in the front row where they’d been sitting all night. It was such a simple thing, and so shocking. Naturally, the point of the Oscars is the audience itself, with each member a potential trove of speeches, GIFs, and gossip. Cooper and Gaga provided such treats in generous quantities over the awards season, with months of mutual-admiration spectacles on red carpets fueling speculation—fan fiction, really—of an affair. Last week, Gaga’s engagement to Christian Carino ended, intensifying the heavy breathing among observers. On Sunday, Cooper’s longtime partner, Irina Shayk, sat between him and Gaga in the front row: a theoretically un-extraordinary move that landed like a dramatic twist in the narrative.

All the tabloid baggage of previous months accompanied Gaga and Cooper as they linked hands across Shayk and then ferried from seat to stage, from spectator to performer, from celebrity to artist in action. Actors and pop stars traffic in fantasy, but rarely has the alchemy by which real people morph into fiction been toyed with so powerfully. The two of them—Stefani and Bradley the humans, or A Star Is Born’s Ally and Jackson?—walked up and took positions by the piano, facing each other. They wouldn’t directly regard the cameras at any point, and they’d leave unacknowledged the sea of glitterati perpendicular to them—and in the background on TV—until the end. Each viewer was an intruder.

Neither Gaga nor Cooper won Oscars for acting on Sunday, but they absolutely did the most acting of anyone at the ceremony. Cooper’s singing voice is less an instrument than a character, one that’s unsteady yet handsome, Jackson Maine writ small. His greater power, on Sunday, was in his mannerisms. As “Shallow” reached its full froth, he bolted up and moved the mic stand aside almost violently. But then he sat beside Gaga and nuzzled her with a kind of equine gentleness. In her fluttering lashes and curt finger stabs, Gaga meanwhile conveyed tamped-down, love-struck panic, as if feeling and professionalism were in a duel. The fabulous feral rage that marked her Grammys take on “Shallow” was hidden in this fancier venue, but definitely not forgotten.

Indeed, the contrast between her growling in a jeweled body suit earlier this month and playing piano in Audrey Hepburn’s jewels on Sunday might seem contradictory. But both the Grammys and Oscars versions of “Shallow” bear Gaga’s great hallmarks. They force a reaction. They interrupt the flow. They imagine what would happen if people were allowed to act as intensely as they inwardly feel. But they also suggest that someone can act—as in perform—so well that what they really feel is incidental. At the very end, in yet another seizingly effective micro-moment, Cooper, centimeters from Gaga’s face, opened his eyes and finally looked out at the audience. What was in his head? As with Gaga’s death glare at the Grammys, only he can really answer that. The dream of a great romance, though, is that total understanding can be achieved between lovers, and by their voyeurs.

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