When Lady Gaga steps onto the scene in House Of Gucci, it’s clear a star has walked onto the set. Her every move feels imbued with a sort of Old Hollywood sense of performance and style, a willingness to embrace both the glamour and the messiness of what acting should be rather than stifling her personality to fit into a bland box. She sways her hips, she bats her eyelashes, and she changes her delivery to match whatever her co-stars are giving her. You never forget she’s Lady Gaga, as it doesn’t matter whether she’s a good impersonation of the woman at the movie’s core, but you also fully buy into her performance as Patrizia Reggiana because of how committed she is to it. It’s an ideally unhinged role for an ideally unhinged performer.
When Lady Gaga steps onto the stage in the new CBS concert, One Last Time: An Evening With Tony Bennett And Lady Gaga, it’s impossible not to get that same sensation of watching a star make her entrance. She’s vibrant and completely lacking any self-consciousness as she sashays and throws her arms around to the jazzy beats the band behind her delivers. Unhinged isn’t an unfair descriptor for her in this situation either, especially as we watch her pivot between something of a parody of a jazz singer and an enthusiastic but inelegant emcee. She’s got exactly the right energy of Roxie or Velma in a production of Chicago (something she’d be marvelously suited for): consistently trying to make a case for herself to the audience as a talented performer worth paying to see.
That sincere willingness to put herself out there, to sell herself and to shift style without ever sacrificing the essence that is Gaga, is her greatest asset, as well as what some people perceive as her greatest weakness. Though Gaga’s charisma often threatens to take over whatever scene she’s in—something that many have lazily labeled as scenery chewing and bad acting—her chemistry with every single actor (or performer) she’s paired with onscreen is palpable. She can rise above whatever dullness her co-star brings to the table, be it a muted Jeremy Irons in House Of Gucci or Tony Bennett, talented as the 95-year-old man is, sucking the life out of the room as soon as he gets onstage to perform solo numbers in their shared concert.
It’s not something that she’s been adept at since the start of her performing career, though the gems and disasters that preceded her impressive work in Bradley Cooper’s A Star Is Born have primed her for something greater than what once was expected from her. It is why I modestly pitch this: Lady Gaga should have her own variety show.
You may look at that statement with skepticism, especially considering some of her past concert specials have been less than what was expected of them. Take the now decade-old ABC special, A Very Gaga Thanksgiving. Self-consciousness is present in everything she does in it; her performance of “The Lady Is A Tramp” feels stilted and both her interview with Katie Couric and a sketch with a bunch of fourth-graders who know who Jackson Pollock is just come across as awkward and scripted.
Her subsequent holiday special, Lady Gaga And The Muppets Holiday Spectacular, didn’t exactly inspire hope. It plays like a half-assed promotional concert for the Artpop album, with every single guest spot and Muppet interaction being based around Lady Gaga and her music instead of actually incorporating her into sketches and jokes. That the special doesn’t take advantage of Miss Piggy and Gaga butting heads and being parodies of each other to some extent, limiting their interactions instead of amping up the antagonism, is its greatest flaw. But there is one minor treasure to be found, the sole point where she removes herself from the kooky curated album promotion persona: a duet of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The performance is still self-conscious, which is easy to notice in her eyes, but there’s a sincerity in the way she plays a horny bombshell of a woman that feels like a clear precursor to the kind of acting she’d later turn to.
Over the next few years, Lady Gaga’s next two pieces of art showed us how delightful she could be as a performer when she wasn’t solely focusing on album advertising. The first was American Horror Story: Hotel, which, while not exactly a good season of television, did feel like Ryan Murphy asking her to cycle through a variety of classic actress impressions that would be of great use to her as she explored new roles. Though Jonas Åkerlund’s “Telephone” video had Gaga and Beyoncé both playing exaggerated caricatures of themselves (and paying tribute to various cinematic gems), it was still locked within the persona that she was selling in the Fame Monster era. But it felt like something fresh.
Around the same time, her Great Performances concert with Tony Bennett showed that she could bring new vitality to old songs without limiting herself to the jazz standards of Cheek To Cheek (though songs like “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” were a good glimpse of how much life she could breathe into duets with the muted Bennett). Her impeccable performance of “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” stays out of the realm of Cher imitation (despite the fact that she’s dressed like her) and feels like Gaga putting her own dramatic spin to the tune.
So much of her career up to this point has felt like a heightened drag performance, and that’s precisely the kind of energy one needs for a variety show. Some might take this as an insult, but it’s exactly what makes her so exciting to watch—even when she’s been reduced to playing a parody of herself (like the “Old Lady Gaga” SNL sketch), she manages to adapt beyond the Gaga persona and give a little something extra. The theater kid energy she shows off in SNL’s “4th Grade Talent Show” is what she brings to every role. It’s in the way she does the sign of the cross and says, “Father, Son, House Of Gucci,” or the way she playfully chats with the audience in her latest concert, or even her charming interviews from the A Star Is Born and House of Gucci press circuits.
In spite of how many bumps in the road there have been on the way to the current iteration of Lady Gaga, it’s not hard to imagine her leading (or, at the very least, co-leading) a variety show with a collection of talented figures popping in as guests. I can’t help but envision her going beyond SNL sketches and instead fooling around with folks like Maya Rudolph and Martin Short (whose own short-lived Maya & Marty deserves a comeback), or popping into something like At Home With Amy Sedaris, or even becoming part of whatever the next Kristen Wiig-Annie Mumolo collaboration is (yes, I want Lady Gaga’s Barb & Star Go To Vista Del Mar).
She’s shown her ability to perform graciously with others, to participate in live and filmed sketch comedy routines, and to offer up memorable moments in conversations with practically anyone she chats with on a talk show. Her whole career has been defined by having unique vision after unique vision, and often finding the right collaborators to make those visions pop; her skill as a performer just hadn’t caught up to that level of ambition. Now, the time has come for Gaga to embrace both sincerity and chaos, to team up with folks who want to experiment further with breaking down the persona of Gaga and see how many offbeat characters she can give us.