Tuesday, March 10, 2009

True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet (Lifetime, 2008)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I put on a DVD I’d recorded over the weekend from Lifetime called True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet, which I thought would be a cautionary tale about a young, innocent girl lured into the movie business, O.D.’ing not only on substances but all the trappings of fame, and ultimately crashing and burning. The opening sequence showed her flying on coach to Fort Wayne, Indiana after a four-month stint in rehab, and when we heard the voice of the central character, Morgan Carter (played by a young actress with the all-too-“starlet-ish” name of Joanna ‘JoJo’ Levesque) on the soundtrack, I assumed this would be the narrative voice by which we’d be introduced to the flashbacks of how she blew a promising career on drinking, drugging, partying and general diva-ish irresponsibility.

Instead, all that is the backstory; the “frontstory” tells us how Ms. Carter’s mother Bianca (Lynda Boyd) and her agent Sam (Justin Louis) concocted a plan to have her stashed away in Fort Wayne, Indiana to live with her “Aunt” Trudy (Valerie Bertinelli, still hot and so good-looking for her age it’s hard to remember she and Ms. Levesque are supposed to be playing a generation apart!) and attend high school for a normal senior year under an assumed name, “Claudia Miller,” and with a budget restricted to what your average lower-middle-class high-school senior’s parents could afford. Though Levesque narrates the movie (written by Elisa Bell from a novel by Lola Douglas) in a sort of prematurely grown-up wise-girl voice that periodically compares the “real” incidents of the story to those in the movie scripts about high school Morgan Carter has played in, we can pretty well predict what’s going to happen: she’s going to settle in and work through adversities, decide she actually likes a normal lifestyle and give up her film career (including a promised starring role in a Steven Soderbergh film!) in exchange for a normal senior year and the love of the obligatory hunky guy, Eli (Ian Nelson, who’s blond an a bit gawky but still someone I’d like to see more of).

There’s a somewhat unexpected turn of events in which Morgan is “outed” by Debbie (Leah Cudmore), her rival for Eli’s affections, after she sneaks away for a night at a club in Chicago with her Hollywood friend Marissa (Shenae Grimes) — who’s been quietly collecting all Morgan’s proffered parts in her absence — and almost relapses into alcohol (in order to preserve Morgan’s status as a “nice” substance abuser, Douglas and Bell carefully confine her addictions to alcohol rather than drugs) — and she’s photographed by the paparazzi who recognize her despite the elements of her disguise: dark hair, grown long, and a somewhat heftier body than the one she had in her Hollywood days.

The last is the result of one of the most annoying plot devices in this film — the fact that healthy eating is listed as one of the Hollywood affectations, along with drinking, partying, reckless spending and diva-ism, that Morgan/Claudia has to break with in order to be a “real” person again (she has to load up on cholesterol-filled cafeteria food, fast-food hamburgers and ice cream, and as Marissa points out to her when she shows up on the scene, porking out that way is going to be as devastating to her hopes for a Hollywood comeback as her long-standing disappearance). Anyway, Morgan not only has a revolution in her own life but pushes “Aunt” Trudy (she’s not her real aunt, just an old friend of her mom’s, whose own sexual life was so extensive that Morgan has no idea who her father is and calls him “the sperm donor”) towards fulfilling her lifelong dream of going to medical school.

As dumb as True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet is — and as obviously inspired by the real-life public meltdowns of mini-talents like Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse (I was once asked if I thought Lohan was the Judy Garland of our era, and I replied, “What? All the substance abuse and none of the talent?”) — the ending is actually moving; giving up the dream role in the Soderbergh film (though maybe it was just going to be Ocean’s Fourteen and she was going to play a precociously young card dealer in Vegas), she settles in to return to the high school in Fort Wayne, burdened by the fact that everyone now knows who she is and also on the outs with Eli, who resents the way she lied to him (she gave him a ludicrous tale of her previous life actually abstracted from a TV-movie she’d done for Lifetime — nice to see the Lifetime people ridiculing their own genre — though if she’d told him the truth — “I’m Morgan Carter, star of She’s the Bomb!” — he’d probably have said, “Yeah, right”) — I found myself caring about her, even crying a little, and wishing she’d take the route Jodie Foster did for real: get her grades up, get into a good college with a strong drama department, learn a lot more about life and acting and return to the movie business a stronger actress and a better person.