A scene in David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars shows ‘ageing’ movie actress Hannah Segrand (Moore) rushing onto her pool patio for a little elated gig with chore-whore Agatha (Wasikowska). A rival’s little boy has drowned in another pool somewhere in Hollywood. Things are looking up.
States of extreme confusion are Cronenberg’s stock in trade and a Hollywood populated by emotionally distant and deceptively close stars and gods is a natural choice of habitat. Not surprisingly, Bruce Wagner’s screenplay is self-consciously heavy on the invocation of grand themes from Greek mythology: brother-sister incest, emotional infanticide and a bevy of visitors from the netherworld.
All quite apart from the regular cast of treachery, greed and ambition that humdingers its way through Segrand’s coterie: her feel-good spin-guru Stafford Weiss (Cusack), his tormented wife (Williams), recently detoxed child-star son Benjie (Bird) and the bad daughter who’s back in town. Watching it all through his rear-view mirror is the hired limo driver Jerome (Pattinson in a neat inversion of his role in Cosmopolis). He’s working on his own screenplay, so yeah, “everything is research”.
Jerome’s role is loosely based on Wagner’s own experiences starting out in Hollywood. His view of indolent, detached curiosity has been done before (Altman’s The Player to name just one). What Cronenberg/Wagner bring to this game is the detachment of meta-textual commentary on stardom, presenting Hollywood as a firmament of humans “acting” as celestial bodies. It’s a consistently unpleasant and deliberately unnatural angle, contextualised by DP Peter Suschitsky, whose background in still photography imparts a predatory stasis to Rodeo Drive and Hollywood Boulevard. Characters move through these abeyant spaces as people but also as merchandise. They are human subjects (evidenced by a constipated Moore straining on the loo), but see themselves as god-like objects of adulation and emulation. These are freshly and viciously observed dualities, albeit slightly overdrawn and slackly edited.
But as the curtain closes on a last shot of tragedy there’s little question that Cronenberg has again framed some pretty bad lands. This Hollywood is Medea and she’s a titled logo beaming in the distance: an impervious signifier of status, watching the slaughter of her children from her perch in the hills.
Maps to the Stars | Directed by David Cronenberg (Canada, USA, France, Germany 2014) with Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack. Starts September 11.
Originally published in issue #130, September 2014.