Monday, May 25, 2015


Fans of late-career Joan Crawford (and who isn’t?) are sure to relish the sight of 61-year-old La Mommie Dearest as the mannish owner and ringmaster of a traveling circus. While juggling the books and two younger lovers (“I just may let you tuck me in tonight!” she threatens to one) performers in her employ fall victim to gruesome, far-fetched fatalities. Similarly, variety show fans nostalgic for the bygone days when animal acts ruled primetime TV variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace, are sure to get a vaudeville kick out of Berserk!'s interminable parade of capering horses, indifferent lions, playful elephants, and intelligent poodles. All used to pad out the film's already meager 96-minute running time.

But horror fans finding Berserk! to be a little tame and slow-moving by American Horror Story: Freak Show standards would do well to turn a viewing of this circus-set whodunit into a drinking game. As Crawford was still on the Board of Directors of Pepsi-Cola at the time this was made, so the film fairly overflows with Pepsi-related product placement. May I suggest taking a shot of 100-Proof vodka (Crawford’s much-preferred beverage of choice) every time there’s a Pepsi sighting?

Or perhaps you can take a swig each time a mysterious band of shadow materializes out of nowhere to provide our star with dramatic framing and flattering neck shade whenever in medium shot or closeup. But be aware, should you choose the latter option, you’re likely to find yourself plastered to the gills long before To Sir, With Love’s Judy Geeson makes her mid-film appearance as yet another in Joan Crawford’s long procession of troublesome onscreen/offscreen daughters.
Joan Crawford as Monica Rivers  
"We're running a circus, not a charm school!"
Ty Hardin as Frank Hawkins
"In this world, you only get what you deserve. No more, no less."
Judy Geeson as Angela Rivers
"I was shunted around from place to place like a piece of luggage with the wrong address pasted on it!" 
Michael Gough as Albert Dorando
"How can you be so cold-blooded?"
Diana Dors as Matilda
"The next time she puts her arms around you, make sure those lovely hands aren't carrying a knife!"

Although Berserk! (I’m never going to be able to keep up this exclamation point thing) is often lumped together with other entries in the popular What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? hag-horror/psycho-biddy genre; Joan Crawford’s dedication to being the world’s most glamorous, well-turned-out circus proprietress qualifies it more as a gilt-edged example of Grand Dame Guignol. Dressed in a fashion parade of vividly monochromatic cocktail suits (from milady’s own closet, may I add), Crawford magisterially strides about the horse and elephant dung-covered circus grounds‒head held aristocratically aloft, balancing a towering, tightly-braided bun‒barking out orders and wearing the daintiest of impractical, strappy high-heel sandals.
Britain's Billy Smart Circus plays the role of Berserk's The Great Rivers Circus
Smart's Circus (note the BS emblems) was also used in 1960s similar Circus of Horrors

In contrast to the usual abasement heaped upon the typical hagsploitation heroine, every effort in Berserk! is made to make Crawford look good. Not only is she the center of the drama and propels the narrative, but she's also the only character afforded an active love life or much in the way of a backstory ("Long ago I lost the capacity to love..." she intones at one point; her words instantly making me aware of the weight of my eyelids). Unfortunately, due to the film’s obviously sparse budget and perhaps an over-determination on the filmmakers’ part to make its sexagenarian leading lady’s age into a non-issue (one of the more conspicuous Crawford-mandated script additions is a character voicing the opinion, "Your mother will never grow old, she has the gift of eternal youth!" ), the sheer amount of attention paid to showcasing Crawford’s three-ring matronly glamour actually results in a kind of inverse-derogation. 
"Find your happiest colors - the ones that make you feel good."
Joan Crawford - My Way of Life 1971
Joan in her happy colors (given her expression, I guess that's something we'll have to take her word for)

Even if you'd never seen a movie before in your life, you could probably guess the plot of Berserk from its setting alone. A traveling circus plagued by a series of grisly murders finds the deaths have a gruesome side-effect: a boost in attendance. This turn of events means the shadow of suspicion falls (usually across the neck) upon hard-as-nails, cool-as-a-cucumber circus owner, Monica Rivers (Crawford). Especially since, some six years prior, Monica’s husband died in a mysterious trapeze accident. Since that time, Monica has been “comforted” by dour-faced business partner Albert Dorando (Gough). Meanwhile, Monica's only child, Angela (Geeson), has been stowed away at a hoity-toity boarding school.

As the body count rises, within the ranks of the circus’ motley troupe of performers, low levels of British panic reigns, motives are plentiful, and red herrings abound. Figuring prominently amongst those most likely to have "dunit" are Bruno (George Claydon), the circus' dwarf clown/toady who’s a tad over-enamored of his leggy employer. Then there’s brassy Matilda (Dors), the in-your-face, peroxided two-thirds of a sawing-a-woman-in-half illusionist act. She's skeptical of Monica from the start, but this may have more to do with Monica's habit of addressing Matilda as "You slut!”. And finally, there's the circus's most recent arrival, high-wire walker Frank Hawkins (Hardin); a six-foot-two hunk of flavorless beefcake with a sketchy past, hair-trigger temper, and a thing for women old enough to be his mother. Especially if they own their own circus.
Mommie Likes
The lack of urgency displayed by the veddy-British investigating detective in the case (Robert Hardy) mirrors that of Berserk!'s director Jim O’ Connolly.  O' Connolly somehow imagines Berserk’s tepid tension and sluggish suspense as engaging enough to withstand the mood-killing interjection of several adorable animal acts (in their entirety!) and a comic musical interlude.
Still, thanks to Joan Crawford’s sometimes baffling acting choices (“You’re crrrrazy!”) and the always-welcome presence of British bombshell Diana Dors, Berserk!’s 40-minutes of plot padded out to 96-minutes of movie flows painlessly enough to its abrupt, highly-preposterous conclusion. One in which the surprise-reveal killer has to utter the great-granddaddy of unutterable, self-expository outbursts:
“Kill! Kill! Kill! That’s all I have inside me!” 
And if you think that line reads ridiculous, wait until you hear someone actually try to deliver it with a modicum of sincerity.
Trog co-star Michael Gough braces himself while a frisky Joan Crawford moves in for the kill. 
As a side note, is there anything more terrifying than a clown painting?

Berserk! Began life as Circus of Terror and Circus of Blood before Crawford vetoed those crude, cut-to-the-chase options in favor of the infinitely more marketable, Psycho-friendly single name tag (see: HomicidalHysteriaRepulsionParanoiac, and Fanatic [the British title for Tallulah Bankhead’s loony masterwork, Die, Die My Darling!]). 
As Crawford’s first film in a two-picture deal arranged by personal friend/producer Herman Cohen (the man who gave the world I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla), the British-made Berserk! was undertaken when Crawford’s reputation as a heavy drinker rendered her an unacceptable insurance risk, stateside.

Coming as it did on the heels of the double-barreled horror blitz of William Castle’s Strait-Jacket (1964) and I Saw What You Did (1965), Berserk! may have further distanced Crawford from her glory days at MGM in the mind of the public, but it did serve to indelibly cement her status as Hollywood’s then-reigning scream queen. A reputation reinforced by her appearances on supernatural-themed TV shows like Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense. And while rival Bette Davis may have appeared in a couple of slightly more upscale UK features at this time (The Nanny -1965 and The Anniversary-1968), Berserk! and Trog gave Crawford what she needed: employment (at a time when many of her peers had been forced into early retirement), leading lady status, and above-the-title billing.
"This is APPALLING! I have devoted myself to making, Angela a proper young lady!"

In a moment redolent of Mommie Dearest's infamous Chadwick expulsion scene, Monica's daughter Angela is expelled from The Fenmore School for Young Ladies. In real life, Joan's daughter Christina campaigned unsuccessfully for the Judy Geeson role, to which Crawford responded to the press, "Christina is not ready to have such responsibility. To co-star with 'Joan Crawford'? Isn't that a lot of pressure to put on the girl?"

The aforementioned Trog (1970) was the second vehicle in Crawford’s contract with Herman Cohen and her last feature film appearance. In the 1994 book, Attack of the Monster Movie Makers by Tom Weaver, producer Cohen refutes claims that Crawford was ever subjected to the kind of on-a-shoestring treatment his low-budget films suggest (namely, the oft-repeated rumor that Crawford had to dress in the back of a station wagon while making Trog).
According to Cohen, Crawford always insisted on being treated like a major star, and to make her happy he was glad to stretch the budgets of both Berserk! and Trog to accommodate the Crawford-mandated expense of: a Rolls Royce and driver, an apartment with a maid and cook, and a large location dressing room caravan. Anything to make Miss Crawford feel like the star she was (or used to be). 
Cohen also relates that it was important he never use the term “horror film” when talking to Crawford about their professional collaborations. Joan, it seems, hated the idea of horror films and considered her films for Cohen to be dramas with “…some horrific moments.”
Scream Queen
At this stage, it didn't matter to Joan what her name appeared on,
just so long as it appeared on SOMETHING....preferably in big letters

I’m pretty much an all-around Joan Crawford fan, but a glance at my DVD collection reveals a decided preference for late-career Crawford. To me, Joan at her worst is actually Joan at her best. I don’t deny the appeal of her early films, but in them, I've always sensed the indelible imprint of the MGM assembly line. She comes across too similar (looks, mannerisms, and speech) to every other major actress on the roaring lion’s payroll at the time. However, the over-the-top, almost frightening Joan Crawford unveiled in Torch Song (1953) and movies thereafter, is another Joan altogether.
Seeming to purposefully shed all those soft and vulnerable qualities evident in her performances in movies like Possessed (1947) and Daisy Kenyon (1947), late-career Crawford retained–if not emphasized–the hardness and severity she brought to her roles in Flamingo Road (1949) and Harriet Craig (1950). Post-1950s Joan Crawford had transmogrified into a being of her own creation. A being who was not so much an actress as the human embodiment of the principles of hard work, discipline, determination, and self-delusion. Joan was no longer just a star; she was stardom triumphant. A larger-than-life entity so committed to giving her fans The Joan They Knew And Loved, her performances took on the quality of grand opera. A quality blissfully ignorant of things like camp sensibilities, drag queen aesthetics, or modulating a performance to the appropriate scale of the film at hand.
Berserk! is a thoroughly harmless (one might say affectless) suspenser that’s a great deal of silly fun in that way unique to low-budget genre flicks that harbor few illusions about themselves and harbor no objectives beyond giving the audience a good scare. But as pleasant as it is to play “whodunit” in a colorful setting brimming with red herrings and hoary fright effects; Joan Crawford is the entire show. And for me, she alone is what makes Berserk! worth watching at all. As efficiently as she carries out her ringmaster duties while showing off her handsome legs in that Edith Head-designed leotard, Crawford single-handedly turns the mediocre Berserk! into a masterpiece of high drama and unintentional circus camp.

Diana Dors, about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to Philip Madoc in Berserk! 1967 
Diana Dors, about to be sawed in half as magician's assistant to David J. Stewart
in the unaired 1961 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents: The Sorcerer's Apprentice

In Berserk!, if Joan is less than 100% convincing as the owner of a traveling circus, it’s only because she runs it with an aggressive authority and Machiavellian cunning more appropriate to the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Plus, it's hard to imagine Joan putting up with untidy elephants. 
I can’t say anything about her performance here that I haven’t already covered in previous posts on Queen BeeStrait-Jacket, and Harriet Craig. Only to add that I get a particular kick out of the way Crawford's studied line readings in Berserk! have a way of sliding from her usual over-enunciated, studio-groomed elocution, into a curious brand of Texas-accented dialect:
“That’s JUST whadda mean!”
“Want me to spell it out fuh ya?”
“He’s just mah business partner!”
With dinner over, Hardin's ready for dessert 
The supporting cast of Berserk! is quite good, what with each actor wisely giving the film’s star as wide a berth as possible for the histrionic grandstanding that inevitably shows up. My favorites are Diana Dors, saddled with a truly awful wig but giving each of her scenes an enjoyably bitchy vitriolic punch. The appealing Judy Geeson is given scant to do, but does so with a level of genuineness that almost feels out of place for a movie like this (“Geeson’s pretty but doesn't have the stuff to make it for the long haul,” sniffed Crawford in an interview). And the regrettably-named Ty Hardin (that is, until you learn his real name is Orison Whipple Hungerford …JR!!!) makes an appropriately incongruous choice for Crawford’s love interest. Although I guess his towering frame and obvious youth serve to cast just the right amount of suspicion on his character’s motives.
Ted Lune, Golda Casimir, George Claydon & Milton Reid
Berserk! grinds to a screeching halt in order to accommodate
the cutesy musical number, "It Might Be Me"

Contractual show-biz pairings are nothing new. If you hired TV personality, Steve Allen, you had to take Jayne Meadows. British director Bryan Forbes never worked without his wife Nanette Newman. And, pre-split-up, getting Tim Burton always meant Helena Bonham Carter was not far behind. In the 60s, Joan Crawford and Pepsi were an onscreen pair made in product-placement heaven.

I was ten years old when Berserk! was released in theaters, and I recall how disturbing I found the TV commercials and newspaper ads that prominently featured the image of a man about to have a stake driven through his head by a hammer. I was actually too afraid to see the movie at the time, but I wonder what I would have made of it. As silly as it seems to me now, I might have actually gotten into it then.
This is one of several different "Shock-Limit" quiz teaser ads that
appeared in local newspapers in January 1968

Watching the film today, the plot, such as it is, really fades into the distance, and the entirety of my enjoyment is centered exclusively around Crawford and the Crawford mystique. Like a solar eclipse, Joan Crawford and all she has come to represent as a gay icon and camp godsend blots out everything else. Every aspect of Crawford and her life have been parodied and talked about for so long that it's hard for me to even see her as a human being, much less a fictional character. One she plays as pretty much as a template of her Joan Crawford image. 
As I find with all of Crawford's late-career films, watching Berserk! is like being given a tour of a Joan Crawford tribute museum. And I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.
There are scenes infused with near-confessional references to her real-life failed romances, dedication to work over all else, and her "problematic" mothering skills. 
Joan and Ty adopt a pose ripped from countless vintage movie posters
 (not to mention paperback romance novels)
Indeed, every one of Geeson's scenes with Crawford subliminally calls to mind Mommie Dearest:
"And what about your Christmas card list?"
"Because I'm not one of your FAAAANS!"
"You know, Christina, flirting can be taken the wrong way...."

Perhaps a stronger film than Berserk! could surmount these distractions, but Berserk! has so little going for it that's really compelling; one can't help but welcome every self-referential, over-acted, self-serious moment the great Miss Joan Crawford provides. So, for fans of the best that camp has to offer...Step right up!

The original (spoiler-filled) Berserk! trailer that scared me as a kid.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents; "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" (1961) - Diana Dors stars in this circus-themed episode that was never aired because sponsors deemed it too gruesome.

George Claydon, who played Bruno the clown in Berserk! appeared as the
first Oompa Loompa on the left in 1971's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Diana Dors was not only quite the bombshell in her youth, but in later years became one of television's most articulate, witty, and charming talk show guests. Here's a clip of a 1971 television interview.

Wikipedia biography of actor Ty Hardin referencing his 8 marriages and eventual descent into right-wing, nutjob, ultra-conservatism.

Given how much Joan Crawford favored the dramatic lighting which cast a shadow across her neck,  I suppose it's only fitting that on the day I took this photo of her star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame (in front of the Capitol Records building near Hollywood & Vine) I was unable to avoid this band of shadow falling across it. I can imagine Crawford in heaven telling God how to light her correctly. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2015

Monday, May 11, 2015


Warning: Spoiler Alert. This is a critical essay on David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars, not a review, therefore many crucial plot points are revealed for the purpose of analysis. 

A treasured volume in my library is a hardbound copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, gifted to me by my sweetheart countless birthdays ago. This entertaining, exhaustively encyclopedic collection of classical Greek and Roman myths (with the mysteries of the universe interpreted and scaled to human dimensions) is something of a folkloric map to the stars itself. Here, the inexplicable is named, given human form, and all that is mysterious and random in the galaxy is attributed to the capricious whims and petty rivalries of an incestuous clan of demigods and goddesses holding forth from their thrones in the heavens. At their core, these ancient fables are operatic family dramas and morality tales about overindulged gods & goddesses with too much power and too few boundaries. Leading insular lives of emotional inertia, these mythical deities manipulate the elements (e.g., fire and water) for amusement, and are not above creating chaos out of boredom.

The unfettered moral license of these gods (who have the power to reward favored mortals by turning them into constellations) leads to the marrying of siblings; the abandoning of their temperaments to fervid jealousies and rivalries over imagined slights; and, more often than not, the sort of violent and bloody final-act retribution that gives Greek Tragedy its name.

All of this filled my mind and fueled my thoughts while watching David Cronenberg’s brilliant Maps to the Stars. A modern mythological family tragedy set amongst the flawed, emotionally disfigured gods and goddesses of contemporary pop culture (movie stars) from the airless heights of that insulated Mount Olympus known as Hollywood. 
Julianne Moore as Havana Segrand
Mia Wasikowska as Agatha Weiss
Olivia Williams as Cristina Weiss
John Cusak as Dr. Stafford Weiss
Robert Pattinson as Jerome Fontana
Evan Bird as Benjamin Weiss

Havana Segrand (Moore) is a Hollywood falling-star suffering the first pangs of impending obsolescence, and, consequently, lives in a near-constant state of naked desperation. A desperation not quelled by yoga, meditation, narcotics, age-regression therapy, or “purpose fucking” (sex with well-placed industry types for the purpose of their putting in a good word for you when they can). In a town where the question, “Isn’t she old?” ‒ the definitive dismissal ‒ is asked in relation to 23-year-olds, Havana literally clings to her prominently-displayed Genie (Canadian Film Award) while discussing dwindling career options with her pragmatic agent, whose name is, oddly enough, Genie. 

Hungry for career rejuvenation, Havana fixates on landing the starring role in Stolen Waters, a reimagining (Hollywood-speak for remake) of a 60s cult film which starred her late mother, actress Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon) who died tragically in a fire in 1976. Havana’s desire to be cast in a role that would in effect have her playing her mother, is an obsession unabated by claims on Havana’s part that she was a victim of her mother’s physical and sexual abuse as a child. Nor the distressing fact that her mother – abusive as ever  –  has begun to appear to her as a ghost. 
Clarice Taggert in Stolen Waters

This film within a film, which gets its title from the biblical proverb "Stolen waters are sweet, bread eaten in secret is pleasant," figures prominently in the lives of several characters in Maps to the Stars
The film itself, which seems to be about a seductive, schizophrenic patient at a mental institution, not only carries allusions to the character of Agatha (Wasikowska), but reminded me a great deal of the 1964 Jean Seberg/Warren Beatty film, Lilith. In that film, Seberg plays a schizophrenic patient in a mental institution and Beatty a therapist who's doomed by his obsession with her. In Hebrew mythology, Lilith is the name for a female demon representing seduction and chaos.

Astronomy maps may reveal the gravitational interlink of star clusters in the heavens, but the boulevards and intersections on those geographical maps to the stars’ homes sold on Los Angeles street corners can’t begin to chart the inbred network of aligned interests and commingled gene pools that make up Hollywood. In Maps to the Stars, Havana’s central storyline is orbited by a cast of characters whose lives at first seem unrelated, but later reveal themselves, in almost Altmanesque fashion, to be just as incestuously interconnected as everything else in the City of Angels.

First, there’s Benjie Weiss (Bird), the obnoxious child star of a lucrative movie franchise. A recovering drug addict at thirteen, Benjie is already beset by the fear of being replaced by a new and younger model, and his nights are haunted by visions of the ghosts of two dead children. His ambitious stage mother (an anxiously flinty Olivia Williams) dotes on him as one would a valuable commodity, while his narcissistic father (Cusak) is too busy managing his career as the nation’s best-selling self-help guru (“Secrets Kill!”) to be of much help to anyone beyond his high-profile clients.
The Magical Child
The ghosts that appear to Benjie are those of the drowned child of a rival (another of Havana's manifest wishes - like the fiery death of her mother), and a cancer victim whose body in death is adorned with tattoos of maps to the stars. Tattoo patterns that look unsettlingly similar to Agatha's disfiguring burns.

The mysterious catalyst for joining these individuals is Agatha (Wasikowska), a schizophrenic teenage burn victim of mysterious origin who comes to town to, in her words, Make amends,” but serves as the narrative’s uniting thread and unwitting agent of chaos. Representative of the interrelated nature of this city of beautiful grotesques itself, Agatha is biologically linked to some characters, spiritually linked to others.
 Agatha’s journey from Florida to Los Angeles by bus suggests a meagerness of funds contradicting her engagement of the film’s final character, Jerome Fontana (Pattinson), the limousine chauffeur with the celebrity-ready name, to escort her to a particularly significant Hollywood site upon arrival. Fontana, like everyone else in Hollywood who isn’t already actually in the film business, is a wannabe. In this case a wannabe actor/screenwriter hired to drive the chariot for someone who turns out to be this modern myth’s angel of doom/redeemer.
A cast-out *angel surveys the ruins of Mount Olympus (aka the Hollywood Hills)
*After I posted this screencap, my partner brought my attention to the fact that the holes in Agatha's top create "wings" on her back (or the scars of the wings lost after breaking the rules of heaven) did I miss that? 

Written by one-time Hollywood chauffeur Bruce Wagner (who penned 1989s rather awful but marvelously titled, Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills), Maps to the Stars has the wittily bilious tone of the work of a Hollywood barely-insider: someone close enough to get the details right, but not so favored by the gods as to have been ensnared and blinded by the intoxicating siren song of fame, wealth, and status.

Less a Hollywood satire than a fame culture fable with elements of magic realism, Maps to the Stars is my kind of movie…which isn’t the same thing as saying it’s a slam dunk crowd-pleaser I’d recommend to everyone. Like a great many of David Cronenberg’s films, your appreciation of it has a lot to do with how comfortable you are being made uncomfortable.
But like the dream fantasies of Robert Altman (Images, 3 Women) or Polanski’s raw glimpses into the dark nature of relationships (Venus in Fur, Carnage), Maps to the Stars is an exploration of the condition I find most compelling in films: humanity in extremis.
Worshiping at the Altar of Fame

Whether a genuine part of Cronenberg’s vision or merely a projection born of my fondness for Greek mythology (I suspect it’s a little of both), I love the idea of Maps to the Stars being something of a modern take on the classic Greek tragedy. 
Hollywood, with its temporal gods and goddesses engaged in hollow conflicts in pursuit of ignoble victories, makes for a terrific modern-day Mount Olympus, just as the town’s self-centeredness and overabundance of swimming pools suggest the reflective springs of Mount Helicon which seduced (and ultimately drowned) Narcissus. 
Wash Away My Sins
Plagued by guilt and the burden of secrets, Cristina suffers an emotional breakdown. The dual elements of fire and water - to either purify or destroy - are recurring motifs running throughout Maps to the Stars

In the interwoven stories of the protagonists, all the elements of Greek tragedy are there: Secrets, ambition, incest, jealousies, violence, ghosts, visions, morality, purification through self-immolation, redemption, liberation, and the godlike summoning of the elements of fire and water. 
Agatha, whose name means “good” in Greek, arrives in Hollywood dressed in a manner to conceal the scars from burns suffered in a fire she started as a child. Among the Hollywood trendoids, she looks as if she's from another planet. In fact, when asked where she’s from, she responds, “Jupiter. We know she's been institutionalized for arson in Florida, so we take it to mean she’s from the city of Jupiter, Florida. But Jupiter is also the name of the Greek god who married his sister, Juno. And as we later learn, Agatha is a child born of incest.
Carrie Fisher as Herself
A central theme of Maps to the Stars is the incestuous nature of Hollywood. Havana Segrand is an actress haunted (literally) by her actress mother, yet longs to play her in a film. Carrie Fisher, daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds, wrote Postcards from the Edge, a semi-autobiographical book and film about the troubled relationship between an actress and her considerably more-famous mother. The presence of Carrie Fisher in the film can't help but also evoke thoughts of Star Wars and all those incestuous Leia/Luke/Vader familial subthemes. 

Maps to the Stars reminds me so much of those 70s films that made me fall in love with movies in the first place. Of course, a major selling point from the getgo is the absence of anything Comic-Con suitable in the narrative, but I really found the characters and the film’s attempt to say something real about our culture incredibly fascinating. It's a funny, frightening, ugly, sad, brutal film that is ultimately very moving (and touching). And the film earns bonus points for doing so in a way that refuses to spell everything out. 
Best of all are the performances of the uniformly excellent cast. John Cusak oozes smug menace, Evan Bird’s repellent child star shows the wounds of neglect, and in the film’s least-developed role, Robert Pattinson (this is the first film I’ve ever seen him in) is so good you wish he’d been given more to do.
However, Maps to the Stars really belongs to the women. Oscar-winner Julianne Moore gives one of those totally raw, risk-taking performances that's likely to divide audiences. Me, I've met my share of Havana Segrands in my time, and Moore seriously nails it in her willingness to “go there” in her searingly naked depiction of the ugliest aspects of what it has come to mean to be a movie star.
False idol?
Havana's Genie award plays too significant a role in her life.
Incidentally, director David Cronenberg is a five-time Genie Award winner 

I first saw Mia Wasikowska many years ago on the superb HBO series, In Treatment. She impressed me then, as she does now, with her natural presence on the screen. A calming presence that nevertheless has an edge to it. An edge bordering on mystery, vulnerability, and a lurking sense of something perhaps unsavory in her nature. She's quite hypnotic here, appearing open yet as closed off as a clam.
Love how when we first see her she is cloaked in a souvenir crew jacket for "Bad Babysitter," Benjamin's endangered movie franchise. Of course, we later discover find out Agatha herself was the ultimate bad babysitter; almost killing her brother when they were children and he was left in her charge.
Rounding out this trifecta of female perfection is Olivia Williams. Long one of my favorite actresses, Williams balances out Moore's scattered self-enchantment and Wasikowska's cloaked inscrutability with an intense characterization of a woman hanging on by a thread on the verge of an abyss. As one of those armies of bright, intelligent women whose every waking moment is devoted to the career of her child (Hollywood is loaded with them), Williams is a vibrating livewire of frustrations and barely contained tensions, Williams is both terrifying and heartbreaking as the stage mother whose fatal flaw is that, deep beneath her steely facade, she may not be quite soulless enough to survive in Hollywood. 

A major asset to any film is having a director in control of what message they’re trying to convey. Like many films set in the world of privilege and power, Maps to the Stars is an indictment of the malignant allure of wealth and fame and its potential to foster delusions and corrupt the soul. But Canadian-born David Cronenberg - this is his first film [partially] shot in the US - succeeds where Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby and Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street so miserably failed: he’s able to depict the excesses of extensive wealth without simultaneously glamorizing it.  
On the Rodeo Road to Recovery
Havana (seen here with brand-new personal assistant, Agatha) self-medicates
by spending $18,000 on clothes at Valentino

As a longtime LA resident who’s worked for many years as a personal trainer in the same peripheral capacity to celebrities as Map to the Stars’ interchangeable chauffeurs and “chore whores” (personal assistants); trust me, there’s nothing satiric or exaggerated about the details of celebrity life depicted in this movie.
The grotesquely oversized homes feel sterile and devoid of inhabitants; the children who act like adults, the adults who like children; entire identities are invested in one’s desirability or employability (often one and the same); and everybody feels so guilty for living lives of such undeserved privilege they seek absolution in self-serving spirituality, health foods,  narcotics, holistic drugs, and alcohol. Better than any film I’ve seen in recent years, Maps to the Stars captures the isolated, bubble-like existence of Hollywood’s rich and famous. A space so airless and devoid of perspective or self-awareness it actually could be what so many already assume it to be…another planet.
Stafford Weiss, self-help shaman-to-the-stars, guides Havana through one of her body's
"Personal history points." *Note the barefoot shoes - an instant douchebag signifier

Maybe it’s just me, but movies set in Hollywood seem to take on a mythological quality without even trying. The stuff of Greek tragedy: fate, love, loss, retribution, redemption, ambition, hubris, abuse of power – sounds like your typical studio pitch meeting!

What makes Hollywood so ripe for mythologizing is the city, in its present incarnation anyway, represents something of a Paradise Lost. It's a place blessed by the gods with ideal weather and sublime vistas, yet it's also a community of artists with the potential to globally elevate and inspire (figuratively speaking, people in the film business make dreams for a living). But what is Hollywood in reality? A place where everyone has smiled into the face of the devil and allowed themselves to be blinded by the golden glare of fame and wealth.
Inner Peace
Movie stars tend to use spirituality as a means to justify self-absorption and rationalize materialism.
Here Havana's tranquility takes a major hit with the news that she's lost out on a coveted movie role 

David Cronenberg, master of the “body horror” genre, parallels Agatha’s external disfigurement (which she goes to great pains to conceal) with the internal spiritual decay of Hollywood’s beautiful people (which they make no effort to conceal at all). Agatha’s arrival is disruptive because her desire to make amends really means forcing others to confront and/or expose their secrets.  
Just as Havana’s regression therapy is a means of confronting her past through the reliving of it; Agatha ritualistically recites Paul Éluard’s poem, Liberty, while one pair of siblings ceremoniously restages the wedding of another pair of siblings (their parents), in order to free themselves from the toxic damage of that bond. To free themselves from the chain of addiction, cycle of abuse, legacy of mental illness, and the curse of ghostly hauntings.
Dressed for A Date With Destiny
The burning of Los Angeles is a vivid metaphor of purification in Nathanael West's classic novel, The Day of the Locust. In that book and in the brilliant 1975 film, West depicted a Hollywood devoid of love and undeserving of redemption. David Cronenberg finds contemporary Hollywood to be at least as monstrously grotesque as West did back in 1939, but he also posits the possibility that it is a city capable of reclamation.
"Love is Stronger than Death"

On my school notebooks
On my desk and on the trees
On the sand and on the snow
I write your name

On all the flesh that says yes
On the forehead of my friends
On every hand held out
I write your name


Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2015