Maps to the Stars, David Cronenberg’s first film shot in the U.S., is an unapologetic slap in the face of Hollywood. Replete with star-fucking, stalking, suicide, murder, and incest, it’s essentially the smarter, meaner twin that ate The Canyons in utero. Starring Julianne Moore and an impressive collection of former and current A-listers (many of whom have felt the burn of the studio system), the film depicts Hollywood as a syndicate of self-serving leeches and liars, a capitalistic circle-jerk that spawns banality en masse. This is a place where an aging actress celebrates the drowning of a child when she hears she’ll gain something from the tragic accident.
Cronenberg’s film has drawn comparisons to Mulholland Dr., David Lynch’s poison-tipped arrow shot through Hollywood’s throbbing heart. This assessment isn’t entirely inapt, given the surreal tendencies of both films, and the unflinching abhorrence towards Hollywood shared by both directors. But when you get past the gleaming surface and the occasional nightmarish imagery, Maps to the Stars is more in the vein of Billy Wilder’s opus Sunset Boulevard, still the finest anti-Hollywood harangue unwittingly produced by Hollywood. Cronenberg’s film seems born of the same lineage as Wilder’s, as they share an arsenic-laced empathy for those ruined by the movies and both glean laughs from the living and the dead.
Sunset is, in essence, a ghost story: poor Joe Gillis (William Holden), a hack-for-hire on the wane, loses his wheels, which, as Thom Andersen so keenly notes in Los Angeles Plays Itself, is analogous to castration in the City of Angels. On the lam, Joe seeks solace in an old, archaic mansion, which harbors at least one lonely soul: Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), a silent-film star in the wake of her life, who now reigns over her carrion kingdom of empty swimming pools and sagging tennis nets. Lucky Joe—he always wanted a swimming pool. Wilder, as Manny Farber put it, was a “mean director with telescopic eyes;” we first catch a glimpse of Norma veiled by the horizontal slits of Venetian blinds, a noir staple. Wilder pans up and zooms in ever so slowly, creating an aura of mystery by keeping us at a distance. When Joe–and by proxy, the viewers–first meet Norma proper, she’s preparing to bury a monkey; unbeknownst to Joe, he, in turn, will become her next monkey, and his burial won’t be nearly as dignified.
Wilder grazes over the richly textured details of the house with his observant camera, revealing it to be nothing more than a luxurious tomb. Norma is a fading artifact of the Star System; since the advent of the Talkies euthanized her career, she’s spent the last two decades brooding. At 50, she’s still gorgeous, though her mental health has disintegrated considerably; we learn from Norma’s former-director, former-husband, and current-servant Max (Erich von Stroheim, an acclaimed silent filmmaker whose career was similarly ruined by sound and producers’ sticky fingers) that, “There have been attempts at suicide.”
Norma ensnares and entraps Joe, now nothing more than a glorified gigolo, the perfect metaphor for the ruination of the noble Hollywood writer. The script-doctor becomes a lover and a healer to Norma, who hasn’t felt so good in years. That she’s essentially a succubus, draining Joe the way Hollywood drained her, is a bittersweet consequence Joe only understands when it’s too late.
Death and decay linger over Sunset Boulevard, both the street and the film. Maybe that famous L.A. fog is really just the vaporous collation of Hollywood’s ghosts, whose names and faces are not fit for Vine Street lionization. Cronenberg is concerned with the same ghosts in Maps to the Stars, he employs them as kindling for his blistering satire. Like Swanson’s Norma, Julianne Moore’s aging actress Havana is plenty pretty on the upper side of 50, but hasn’t had a hit in a good long while. Havana is campaigning hard for the role made famous by her mother in a remake of her swansong film. Mommy Dearest (Sarah Gadon) died in a fire, and appears to Havana as a mocking, self-aggrandizing apparition.
The plot of Maps is significantly more labyrinthine than in Sunset, and it offers far more lost souls chasing or trying to recapture fame, but its spirit is nonetheless kindred. Coincidence and fate figure largely in both iterations of Hollywood: a young girl named Agatha (the ever-enthralling Mia Wasikowska), whose face is swathed in severe burns from a fire, enters Havana’s life mysteriously, and becomes her servant. Agatha is to Havana what Joe is to Norma: a vessel to rejuvenation. And, of course, neither actress gets what she wants in the end: Norma plugs Joe, who ends up face-down in that pool he always wanted, and Havana receives a Genie Award, in the face, from Agatha.
Maps is to Sunset what Havana is to her mother: an undoubtedly competent entity that nonetheless feels like a lesser incarnation. Both conjure a funereal feeling, and both skewer Hollywood right through the gut. Maps, however, lacks the exacting wit and ruthlessness of Sunset. Cronenberg relies on the medium shot with fairly bland compositions and lifeless cinematography. It’s possible Cronenberg purposefully made his film visually undistinguished as some sort of commentary, but you still have to look at it, and a bland-looking film is a bland-looking film. You’d never guess that one of the most visually innovative filmmakers of the last century was behind its helm. Wilder’s direction is precise and his visual observations are astute, the result is what James Agee called “A picture-maker’s picture.” (Maps is more like a Bruce Wagner film, a satirist’s satire.) The visuals and voiceover are sometimes simpatico, other times removed: at certain moments, the voiceover tells us, in the parlance of poolroom parlors, exactly what we’re seeing on screen, rendering the visuals incidental and almost vaporous. Other times— as when Joe spots the heat and says, “Uh-oh,” or when he mentions Norma’s “childish handwriting,” which we never get to see ourselves—Wilder pulls the two methods of narration apart, making the gifts of sound and vision both work at once. It keeps you on your toes, your teeth on edge.
Swanson and Moore both deliver career-best performances that teeter on self-parody, which is what both roles demand. Exact and exacting, they chew scenery and spit out lines the way Hollywood chews up and spits out young talent. And, of course, Holden and Wasikowska are both aces, though the latter has an admittedly denser role, with layers of malaise percolating beneath those burns and that jovial smile. But the unseen star of Sunset Boulevard and the progenitor of the scathing Hollywood satire is is its director, the cherubic-faced man who had a head devoid of hair and a heart full of spite. From The Player to Mulholland Drive, Barton Fink to Maps to the Stars, Wilder’s influence endures (despite David Thomson’s best efforts). Yet, when your average cinephile thinks of Wilder, they probably picture Marilyn Monroe’s billowing dress or Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis sporting brassieres. They likely don’t think of Wilder as a bastard as bitter as old diner coffee.
Sunset Boulevard stings just as badly in 2015 as it did in 1950. Like a noxious barb embedded in the skin and scarred over, Wilder’s film has remained with us, slowly spilling its venom. We watch and praise Sunset Boulevard and pretend we’ve learned a lesson just like poor Joe, and yet we continue to pump money into the Hollywood machine, ignoring Wilder, still walking in a self-imposed stupor. ‘Cause you don’t yell at a sleepwalker: he may fall and break his neck.