Film Column: All The Flesh That Says Yes

Published in The Lifted Brow #25, March 2015

If you look to your left, you’ll see the Westlake home that once belonged to William Desmond Taylor. It became a house of horror when the silent film star-turned-director was shot there on 1 February 1922, in one of the first real scandals to shake Hollywood*. The handsome sophisticate left behind a trail of vice worthy of the silver screen: affairs with a string of starlets, a changed identity (he’d skipped out on a wife and kids in New York), a crime scene picked over by studio bigwigs. His parting gift to the last person who saw him alive — actress Mabel Normand, one of several lovers — was the latest volume of Freud. No one was ever charged with his murder.

Death, desire, wickedness, ignominy: is this where a map to the stars leads? Taylor’s is one of the many lurid tales relayed in experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s 1959 book Hollywood Babylon, the bible of vintage movie scandal. Taylor’s just one of countless ghosts that haunt Los Angeles; Anger tells of wannabe actresses suiciding off the final letter of the Hollywood sign, back when it still advertised a shiny new real estate
development. The original script for Sunset Boulevard (1957), perhaps the most iconic film about Hollywood
monstrosity, was supposed to begin in a morgue, documenting how all the pretty corpses met their ends.

David Cronenberg’s latest film Maps to the Stars positions itself within this spectral morass. His cast of damaged celebs bear the legacy of Anger’s angels, erecting their lavish temples upon the graves of the dead. Many of Hollywood Babylon’s salacious rumours proved unsubstantiated — some are just bald-faced lies — but Anger’s equivocal relationship with truth reveals something about our own hankerings for such gossip: do we even care? In the dream factory it’s impossible to tell where the real ends and the fantasy begins. In
Cronenberg’s imagining, the trappings of fame allow his misfits to enact the kinds of perverse longings documented in that volume of Freud bestowed by Taylor to his paramour.

Limo driver Jerome (played by Robert Pattinson, the impassive Twilight heart-throb still trying to reinvent himself as a serious actor) is writer Bruce Wagner’s stand-in. Wagner’s accounts of his Hollywood childhood read like an excerpt of Anger’s history. He’s the offspring of yet another cracked-up actor, who grew up in a neighbourhood where familiar faces on the street were the likes of Groucho Marx, Charles Bronson, Alfred Hitchcock and his poodles. A Beverly Hills High dropout, Wagner became a limo driver (his clients
included Orson Welles and Larry Flynt) and ambulance attendant while trying to make it as an actor himself,
ferrying catatonic celebrities to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. “I see our movie as a ghost play, not a satire,” Wagner said later.

Jerome’s first client is Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives fresh-faced in the opening scene, staring up at the palm trees that punctuate a California blue skyŽ. Unlike everyone else, Agatha can’t cover up her secrets — they’re writ upon her body. She may hide her scars with symbols of old Hollywood glamour, like long black gloves, but she can’t obscure the burn that creeps across her cheek like a blush. We’ve learnt that when an ingénue arrives in Hollywood she’s not long to be corrupted, much like the trio in Valley of the Dolls (1967) or Naomi Watts’ small-town innocent Betty in Mulholland Drive (2001) who, in David Lynch’s messed up dreamscape, morphs into the chewed-up-and-spatout Diane**. But this one isn’t as green as she appears.

Agatha is hired as a ‘chore whore’ by the actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who sees herself in the damaged girl. Havana’s scars are just below the surface. She’s the daughter of ‘dead cult figure’ Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), who died in an unexplained fire.The fact that Clarice molested her daughter apparently only adds to the mystique. It’s a sick twist Havana remains in the shadow of a maternal ghost who
remains forever young and beautiful, yet another rival for the ageing actress, who’s terrified of being usurped by a younger model***. It’s not unfounded: Havana is on the out. Behind her back, tween girls describe her as
a “mercy fuck”, “like when orderlies rape old people in nursing homes.”

Even child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is getting upstaged by someone younger and cuter. The star of the Bad Babysitter franchise is just out of rehab, and being closely monitored to make sure he doesn’t tarnish the brand. He’s every screwed-up celebrity kid: Britney when she shaved her head, Haley Joel or Bieber with
their multiple DUIs, Amanda Bynes’ very public meltdowns. When they begin filming, Benjie is eclipsed by his tiny co-star, a red-headed freckle face who steals the show by mispronouncing vagina. “Mr Vabina is getting all the laughs,” Benji spits. The ghost of a dead girl — a fan he visited in hospital when she was dying of cancer, offandedly promising to make a biopic of her life — becomes his conscience, articulating his darkest fears.

Similarly, Mommy’s ghost won’t leave Havana alone. Clarice turns up at the most inopportune of moments, inserting herself into a particularly lacklustre threesome. “Don’t make me into Mommie Dearest,” she says. Yet despite Clarice’s protests she’s just like the overbearing Joan Crawford as envisaged by Faye Dunaway. “I’m bigger and I’m faster,” says Crawford as she trumps her exhausted daughter in a race. “I will always beat
you.” What Mommy wants is to remain the victor, determined that her daughter’s star won’t outshine hers. And yet Havana wants to take Clarice’s place in the most spectacular fashion possible: by playing
her in a remake of her most famous film.

Stolen Waters seems to be the mystery that binds the whole mess together. It plays on every television set, a torrid black-and-white affair that we only glimpse briefly: Clarice’s passionate declarations of love, Clarice being dragged off to an asylum. The film’s lines are rhythmic and intoxicating, snippets of which are repeated by various characters: “On all the flesh that says yes / on the forehead of all my friends / on every hand held
out / I write your name… Liberty.” And yet liberty is perhaps the one thing they can’t buy, as the clusterfuck
of vainglorious ambition grows ever more tangled.

“That would be so amazing for you to play your own mother,” says Carrie Fisher (playing herself) when Havana bumps into her at a café. “Every daughter should have that opportunity.” This is the ultimate Oedipal fantasy. What better way to become the mother than by playing her onscreen, taking her place not only
in the father’s arms, but in the eyes of all her adoring fans? Havana is meditating on her palatial porch when
she finds out she didn’t get the part, her primal scream drowning out the wind chimes. She diligently congratulates her successor when she sees her later on Rodeo Drive: “For a second I wanted to do it. And then I was like work it out in therapy, bitch.”

Havana pays celebrity masseuse Stafford Weiss (a perfectly cast John Cusack), Benjie’s father, astronomical sums to do just that. Stafford is in the tradition of Cronenberg’s perverse doctor figures, from Dr Raglan encouraging his patients to express psychical pain through their physical body in 1979’s The Brood to the rivals Jung and Freud in A Dangerous Method (2011). He’s a new-age guru with an hour-of-power TV show, whose experimental therapy involves patients shouting invectives at their aggressors: “You’re saying, ‘Hey Mom, come on in… This is my house. I built it with my pain and my hope… Mi casa es su casa.” Clarice just repeats the bromides back in mock sing-song.

Soon enough, each star begins to explode. Agatha isn’t the innocent she seemed: she’s a Weiss who’s finally been released from a facility in Florida, locked away with the family’s secrets. Her scars are the mark of their transgression, a failed attempt at baptismal fire. Benjie and Agatha’s parents are brother and sister, and she’s determined to atone for their sins. (She’d settle for acting it out in a movie: “I think it wouldn’t be pretentious, if we got the whole mythological thing going on,” she says in her pitch to Jerome.) Desire and perversion
form a tangled web, where the union of brother and sister is just another Oedipal fantasy. “It’s all coming
to an end,” says Agatha, as they lay down on the burnt ruins of the house their parents built.

Agatha and Benjie stare up at the constellations, a swirling catalogue of fallen stars that they’ll soon be
joining. The Hollywood sign watches over them from the hills above. Cautionary Tinseltown tale A Star is
(1954), the last great role for supernova par excellence Judy Garland, ends with a fitting line from T.S.
Eliot: “This is the way the world ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.”

* At the same time silent clown Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was on trial for the rape and manslaughter of actress Virginia Rappe the year before. He took her into a bedroom at a par, but she came out on a stretcher — her spleen was ruptured. Rumour has it he’d assaulted her with a broken bottle. He was acquitted.

** Diane is based on one of the starlets featured in Hollywood Babylon, silent film actress Marie Prevost, who was ousted when the talkies came in and everyone heard what Anger describes as her “Bronx honk”. She drank herself to death in 1937. It was weeks before her mangled corpse was discovered in her apartment, half-eaten by her starving dachshund.

*** Surely Cronenberg is playing on Julianne Moore’s star image, so often cast as the long-suffering mother in the likes of Far From Heaven (2002), Savage Grace (2007) and, most recently, a horrendous Carrie (2013) remake.