Birdmen of Tinseltown

Julianne Moore and Sarah Gadon in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars.” Courtesy of Focus World.

Julianne Moore and Sarah Gadon in David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars.” Courtesy of Focus World.

A fateful encounter occurs at the Chateau Marmont in David Cronenberg’s perversely entertaining Hollywood satire, “Maps to the Stars.” Grotesquely desperate actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) crosses paths with a fellow aging peer, Carrie Fisher (playing herself), who recommends an avid Twitter fan, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), as a potential personal assistant for the faded screen siren. This turns out to be a bad idea of epic proportions, but how could Segrand turn it down, especially when it’s proposed by Fisher, a woman who (like Segrand) has attempted to build her own career in the shadow of her mother, who happens to be an iconic actress? The most telling line occurs at the beginning of their encounter when Segrand asks, “How’ve you been?” and Fisher dryly responds, “When I get in touch with myself, I’ll let you know.”

Not only is this quip a classic example of Fisher’s wit, which has brought such vibrant life to her self-deprecating, ultimately cathartic memoirs and one-woman shows (such as “Wishful Drinking,” which I caught in Chicago), it’s all the funnier considering how the actress is currently reprising a role that she has spent a sizable portion of her career striving to distance herself from. When I first heard the cast line-up for “Star Wars Episode VII,” I was surprised to hear that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker and Peter Mayhew (who underwent double knee replacement surgery not long ago) would be returning as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Chewbacca, respectively. Yet the casting announcement that caused my jaw to drop to the floor with incredulity was the news that Fisher would once again be playing Princess Leia. Few performers have ever had as complicated a relationship with the fictional persona that gave them worldwide fame.

Consider the scathingly hilarious roast she gave “Star Wars” creator George Lucas the night he accepted the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. She recalled how surreal it was to see her face plastered on countless toys and accessories, such as PEZ dispensers, shampoo bottles and little dolls “that my first husband could stick pins into.” Worst of all was how Lucas owned her likeness, thus leading her to have a daily identity crisis. “Every time I look in the mirror, I have to send you a check for a couple of bucks!” Fisher exclaimed to roars of laugher and applause. Yet beneath the punchlines lie palpable angst fueled by a past that refuses to remove itself from one’s reflection. Leia appears to have haunted Fisher in the same way the feathered superhero, Birdman, haunted Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), the actor who once portrayed him in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s recent Best Picture winner.

Like “Birdman,” “Maps to the Stars” is a show business satire infested with ghosts more psychological than supernatural. As Segrand madly pursues the role of her late mother (Sarah Gadon) in an upcoming biopic, she is stalked by an apparition taking the form of her mother at the pinnacle of her youthful beauty and sensuality. Giving voice to all of her daughter’s insecurities, the ghost hurls abusive words at Segrand, while striking poses that illustrate her physical superiority. At one point, she reenacts a scene from earlier in the film, reciting words previously uttered by her daughter as if auditioning for Cronenberg himself, proving—at least in her mind—that she should be the lead. As in David Lynch’s masterpiece, “Mulholland Dr.”, the phantoms in “Maps to the Stars” represent the paranoid fears of its painfully vulnerable characters, such as the Bieber-esque brat (Evan Bird) visited by the dead girl whom he reluctantly visited at the hospital. In a business that awards selfishness, it’s only appropriate for overprivileged types to be frightened by their own conscience. And then there’s Agatha, an alleged member of the living who glides back into her estranged family’s life like an unwanted specter, provoking violent rage from her father (John Cusack), which Wasikowska’s deceptive innocence makes all the more difficult to stomach. Yet this tormented soul is no less prone to monstrous acts than the heroine (played by the same actress) in Park Chan-wook’s “Stoker.”

For some, “Maps to the Stars” will serve as a welcome remedy to the toxic self-importance of Oscar season, made all the more enticing by the fact that it stars this year’s Best Actress winner, a woman whose staggering filmography flies right in the face of the sexist cliché that an actress’s career is over at age 40. Of course, this was the concept that fueled two of the best films ever made about Hollywood, 1950’s killer double bill of “All About Eve” and “Sunset Blvd.”, which echo throughout Cronenberg’s film. What the director is skewering here, above all, is the industry mentality that prevents vital artistry from having its deserved moment in the limelight. Irrelevance is equated with nonexistence, a fate that Segrand and her mother would agree is worse than death. Whereas Segrand is pathetic but hardly sympathetic, Robin Wright offers a much more palatable take on a similar character in Ari Folman’s under-seen opus, “The Congress,” a sci-fi parable evoking everything from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.” Playing herself, Wright is given an ultimatum from a studio head exasperated with her unwise (or, perhaps, uncommercial) career choices. Believing audiences only want to see the actress as they remember her in “The Princess Bride” and “Forrest Gump,” he tells Wright that the only way her career can continue is if she allows her likeness to be digitally scanned for use in future studio films—and it will be used in any way the studio wishes.

Forming the heart of “Birdman” and “The Congress” is the troubled relationship between movie stars and their offspring, and both films arguably end on a redemptive note, with a close-up of a child presumably smiling at his/her parent standing (or, in one case, floating) offscreen. For all of its audacious flights of fancy, the plot point requiring the greatest suspension of disbelief in “The Congress” is the notion that few moviegoers would be interested in seeing Wright act at age 49. She’s the sort of actress who has only gotten more interesting with every passing year, and is winning new generations of fans with her major role on Netflix’s popular “House of Cards.” The same can be said of Moore, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a linguistics professor with early-onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice” (an indie drama that has cracked the Top Ten at the box office) nine months after being named Best Actress at Cannes for “Maps to the Stars.” These performers have continued to reinvent themselves, transcending the confines of any archetypal persona they’ve brought to life, just as Keaton burst out of his bat suit long ago. Here’s hoping that when Princess Leia makes her much-hyped return this December, the woman playing her doesn’t get submerged beneath the extravagant hairdo. Because there is no movie princess more interesting than Carrie Fisher.

“Maps to the Stars” opened Friday, March 6th, at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre. For tickets and showtimes, click here. “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” opens at every theater in the galaxy on Friday, December 18th.

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