The Starlet

Dan Zak

Faye Dunaway established herself as a great muse of cinema, not in the sense that she inspired great movies, but that her inspired performances buoyed her films.

The Starlet

Airtime: Sundays, 8pm ET
Cast: Faye Dunaway, Joseph Middleton, Vivica A. Fox, Katie Wagner
Network: The WB

There is a moment of pathos in the first episode of The Starlet that feels unscripted. The judges are critiquing Hollywood hopefuls and, in between witty put-downs, one judge says, "It's a difficult profession. Don't ever forget that." The wiper blades of reality TV rush to the next shot, washing any impact away, and we are left protesting, "Don't you know who that was? That was Faye Dunaway. How dare you cut her moment short?"

This is the essential problem for The Starlet: we want more of Dunaway and less of the show. Premiering Sunday as the WB's newest contribution to Desperation TV, it follows the pheasant-hunting pattern of the genre: you send foxes into the fields to scare up birds, and watch as someone like Simon Cowell follows their flight, his finger on the trigger. But Cowell is as much a nobody as the talent he guns down. The Starlet has Dunaway, and it doesn't seem to know it. She's billed as an "Oscar-winning legend," but the network seems as clueless as the 10 contestants. The girls gasp with delight when she is introduced, but how many of them have seen The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), or Barfly (1987)?

Seeing the 64-year-old artist shoved into the suffocating format of a reality show makes for frustrating viewing. In the '60s and '70s, Dunaway was America's answer to Jeanne Moreau. As Moreau surfed the French New Wave into the cultural fabric, all wounded looks and flaring eyes, Dunaway was establishing herself as a great muse of cinema, not in the sense that she inspired great movies, but that her inspired performances buoyed her films. Bonnie & Clyde (1967) made her a star, and you can see why. The first shot is a close up of her lips, moist and ready. The camera pans as she looks to the mirror. And there she is, 26 years old, a starlet who had just secured her first top billing, staring at herself as Bonnie Parker. Watch the emotions that pass over her face. She smiles, aware she is pretty, then leans in for a more critical look, knowing she's not pretty enough (like casting agents had told Dunaway). She's naked, restless, drops onto her bed, trapped in the stifling sheets of a modest Southern upbringing (like Dunaway herself had been).

Hearing something outside, Bonnie goes to the window and sees Warren Beatty trying to jack her mother's car. "Hey boy," she yells, "What you doin' with my mama's car?" Moments later, Bonnie joins Clyde outside and they take a walk. When she refuses to tell him what she does for a living, Clyde says, "I bet you're a movie star." And she is, in that instant. Dunaway was soon on the covers of Newsweek, Look, and Life, sporting her Bonnie get-up, the anointed torchbearer for Hollywood's second golden age.

Bonnie & Clyde was the first blow in a one-two-three punch that is still throbbing in the belly of Hollywood. Dunaway redefined the femme fatale as Evelyn Mulwray in Chinatown (1974), perhaps her most understated (and underrated) work. Two years later in Network, she stormed her way to an Oscar as Diana Christensen, a ruthless TV exec and patron saint of sensational programming. Dunaway made her mark playing strong, sexual women who flirt with vulnerability. She had the aura of a starlet but the game of a pro.

Then came the black hole of Mommie Dearest in 1981. Once Paramount saw more money could be made billing it as camp, they changed their campaign tagline from "The illusion of perfection" to "The biggest mother of them all." Dunaway was proud of her performance, but many viewers saw it as a parlor trick. Dunaway said the Joan Crawford character was grafted onto her, and rumors of her on-set temper and perfectionism sprang up like weeds. This, coupled with her move to London in the mid-'80s to raise her son, ended Dunaway's moment.

The media have been narrating her burnout ever since. She starred in a maligned CBS television show in '93, endured legal battles over being pushed out of the Norma Desmond role in the Sunset Boulevard musical in '95. That year, she published her autobiography, Looking for Gatsby, laced with a love of acting but hardly regenerative for her career. She won her third Golden Globe in 1999 for HBO's Gia, which launched Angelina Jolie but did nothing for Dunaway. Since, she has been most visible in three episodes of the second season of Alias and in Roger Avary's The Rules of Attraction (2002), where she played a pill-popping socialite more concerned about the color of her next car than her sociopathic son. The character could've been Joan Crawford's boozer cousin. It was 1981 all over again.

And now this. The Starlet is a milkshake of reality shows. It focuses on talent, like American Idol, and a certain look and poise, like America's Next Top Model. The contestants all live together like The Real World (in a house once owned by Marilyn Monroe), and must put up with ceremonies similar to those of The Bachelor. There is even a catch phrase when someone is booted -- instead of "The tribe has spoken" or "You're fired," it's "Don't call us, we'll call you."

It is Dunaway who delivers this line to two girls at the end of the premiere. She says it with a knowing smile. In her autobiography, Dunaway described how, in 1966, the casting director for The Chase suggested she concentrate on theatre, that she wasn't pretty enough for movies. "I walked the New York streets for hours and hours after that audition," she wrote, "shaken to the core, feeling sure that he must be right." It's ironic -- not because Dunaway is now playing the casting director, but because she's playing it on such a slummy show. She's back where she started.

The Starlet might be understood as farce. Each episode opens with a narrator intoning, "Every girl dreams that one day she will become a star." A montage introducing the 10 girls follows. "I've always known I'm going to be a legend," Cecile says. Donna says, "There is absolutely no question in my mind -- there never was -- that I would be famous." "I'd like to thank the Academy," says Lauren, practicing for a moment this show ensures will never come. Then there's Faye, addressing the camera. "I plan to be quite tough with them," she says, over clips of Bonnie & Clyde and Network, and we glimpse the old Faye caught in that Southern bed. "I plan to be honest. I plan to tear them down if that's needed. Because if you lie to them, you'll make them bad."

At the end of each week, the contestants shoot a screen test. In the first episode, they must play Lana Lang in a scene from Smallville. Afterwards, they parade one by one into a bungalow where Dunaway, Vivica A. Fox, and casting director Joseph Middleton are holed up. The panel and the would-be starlet watch the scene and dissect it. In the first episode, the dissection rarely gets deeper than "You didn't give it your all" or "This is about wanting it. Did you want it? No." It doesn't help that Fox talks over Dunaway during deliberations. When Fox tells one girl, "In a scene, you have to have colors," it begs the question, "What colors were you showing in Boat Trip?"

And at last, the precious line: "Don't call us" -- the pause Dunaway inserts here is delicious -- "we'll call you." Dunaway,on Ellen Wednesday, demonstrated the phrase and it silenced the audience. If she can bring a little gravity to a brainless reality show and sedate a daytime talk crowd with so few words, what might she do at the center of a movie again? Sure, she's different than she was in the '60s. Her fierce attractiveness has faded and her eyes, almost black in Bonnie & Clyde, have turned hazel. But she still has it -- that mysterious movie-star gravity that her contestants lack.

So what does it mean that Dunaway is on this show? Does it illustrate the drought of roles for women her age in Hollywood? Could Dunaway be genuinely interested in The Starlet? Or is the show a twilight shot at stardom? Unfortunately, The Starlet won't launch careers, or resurrect them. Its format does not allow for celebrity-making. Like other reality shows, it encourages disdain for the participants and dangles a corporate prize. The contestants compete for a WB contract and a role on the WB series, One Tree Hill. They perform their scenes opposite Adam LaVorgna, a former regular on the WB's 7th Heaven. They also do line readings from The Bodyguard, which is, shockingly, a Warner Bros. film. It's surprising they don't live in the WB water tower with the Animaniacs.

What would Diana Christensen think of The Starlet? I can see her in the screening room at UBS with William Holden, her dark eyes giving the first episode a once-over. "The show is boring, masochistic, too comfortable with its awkwardness," Diana says. "We won't get the ratings, so kill it. But who is that woman on the right? The older woman, the judge. She should be pictures."

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