Like everything else about Hollywood, Best Actress pretends to be something it’s not. In it, first-time novelist John Kane posits that one of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Actress has a pearl-handled revolver tucked into her Chanel purse and a strong conviction that she’ll be either on the podium or aiming at it come Oscar night.
In the land of fiction, both on the page and on the screen, pretense is pretext, and while Kane’s novel may not qualify as an award-worthy murder mystery, as a wicked sendup of all that glitters it breezes off with the gold. The who’s-gonna-do-it question gets shoved aside between the first and last pages, and the climax can’t help being a disappointmentit puts an end to all the naughty fun. So what if the girl with the gun turns out to be an unconvincing choice of assassin? So was Sharon Stone in Last Dance.
Anything that satirizes already self-parodic targets like Washington and Hollywood needs to go far over the top in order to prove itself art and not mere recording, which is why audiences are chuckling with supercilious amusement at Wag the Dog, while the entertainment-industry soapiesValley of the Dolls, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Lonely Lady, the ultratrashy Tinsellive on as a tawdry brand of classic. (Tinsel was hot stuff in the ’70s, when Born Innocent and Forever passed as dirty books; its high concept was a vice-and-blowjob-rich catfight among three beautiful actresses to play Marilyn Monroe in a big-budget biopic. Barbra Streisand, if I recall, gets the part.)
The problem with books like Best Actress is that the Hollywood hierarchy is so specific at any given time the references can fall out of date in a snap. Still, it beats inventing one of those bloated, unmemorable casts of thousands in a movie industry made entirely of fabricated characters with names even faker-sounding than the real fake names in the business. If such tomes go so far as to thinly disguise the true identities of green-lighters and D-girls, they can only be milked for their full measure of dish by insiders who only read books they’re in. And, however well the Krantz-Robbins-Sheldon axis has done by this milieu, they can’t be outrageous enough or make any jokes at all. The secret to Paul Rudnick’s take on the bohemian high life isn’t mockery but accuracy.
The scheming princesses at the heart of Best Actress are either scantily clad versions of real-life counterparts or so Movieland-iconic that their types exist even if flesh-and-blood equivalents do not. In descending order of talent, there’s Fiona Covington, the demure and almost parodically British wife of hotshot Shakespearean actor-director Colin Tromans. There’s Lori Seefer, a delicate blond ex-child star and now respected actress, who’s more intent on hiding her lesbianism from the public than on winning an Oscar. “Well-preserved diva” Connie Travatano has sung everything from Sicilian Serenades to Connie Goes Liverpool to Under the Glittering Disco Ball and back to, of course, Simply Connie; Connie acts a little and drinks a lot. Redheaded Amber Lyons has gone from folding sweaters (sometimes laced with shards of glass) at the Gap to becoming the hottest young thing in the business, complete with a rock-star boyfriend and a supermodel’s drug habit. And, finally, there’s Miss Karen Kroll, a white-blond small-town beauty and star of many hot-tub romps, trying to overcome bimbohood for good. A number of apoplectic PR dames, entertainment-magazine sharpies, and low-wattage studs fill out the cast.
The novel stretches from the night the nominations are announced to the big event itself; its tidy structure is built in, but Kane quickly starts reconfiguring his creations into intricate patterns of bad habits and scheming vice as if they’re squares in a Rubik’s cube, putting the reader somewhat in mind of Joe Keenan’s Blue Moon series. But Kane’s observations are droller and have multiple payoffs; all he needs to say about the debasement of theater can be found in the title of Connie’s hit Broadway show, Where Am I Now That I Need Me?, and the aside that in Moscow or Bust!, a musical version of Three Sisters, the New York Times noted that she “sings Chekhov the way Chekhov should be sung.”
But it’s Hollywood that comes in for the big drubbing, and Kane’s time among the sun-drenched nativeshe has worked as a publicist and writer in film, TV, and theaterhas outfitted him with a potent arsenal of gags. He clearly has fun constructing an alternate reality that’s as plausible as it is insane. Karen Kroll’s bid for seriousness is told in a succinct four-film run: Purple Moon with Richard Gere, Deadlier Than the Male with Michael Caine, Hangman’s Luck with John Travolta, and Apocalypse with Sylvester Stallone (“she could never get over the feeling that he had learned his lines phonetically”). Of her stint on Seven Come Eleven with Luke Perry, she notes that he “had a great ass; he could have been a superstar, she thought, if he could only recite dialogue through it.” Kane matches his lurid leads with perverse supporting players, like the celibate 60ish agent who hasn’t had a sexual thought since being “frightened by a wild boar while masturbating to a copy of Lady Chatterly’s Lover during a safari in South Africa.” His alternate Oscar lineup is a disdainful commentary: Geena Davis for I Need a Hit, Michelle Pfeiffer for Goddess Descending, Diane Keaton for Strange Garments.
Watching Kane’s five rapacious beauties come unglued in the days leading to the Oscar broadcast is deliciouseven more so since we have information the book’s fictional public (personified, according to the writer for Personality magazine, by “Patti-Sue, checkout girl at the Piggly-Wiggly”) does not. Their public travails are one thing (including, according to Kane’s USA Today update, “a rumored attempted suicide, an alleged murderess, an alcoholic shoplifter, a drug addict and a sex symbol picked up for lewd conduct”). In truth, the cabal includes a genuine murderess (not the alleged one), a star who damaged her vocal cords blowing a well-endowed poolboy, a ditzy heroin addict who stages traffic accidents to get good press, and a tormented lesbian tempted to self-destruction by the chain-smoking ghost of Jacqueline Susann.
Kane’s insider smarts never get the better of him; Best Actress is wry without being cruel, more entertaining than outright hilarious. He does misstep on the side of false or naive premises, as when he notes that Amber’s rock-star boyfriend has “thoughtfully removed his nose ring for the occasion.” As if. And surely Roger Ebert knows a Chanel purse when he sees one. A central plot development hinges on the whole shark pond of Hollywood insidersfrom publicists to entertainment reporters to fellow actorsbeing effortlessly convinced that the Brazilian hunk trotted out by the notoriously gay blonde mere weeks before awards night is 1.) her lover and 2.) straight.
But Best Actress is at the very least what it promises to be: a fast read and a wild ride. We the greedy viewing public assume that there’s much more seaminess and vice to the Movieland backstory than we can invent (it’s only safe to), but we’ll never get to hear the truth before all the scandal is spun out. With the “real” Oscars only weeks away, Best Actressalbeit fictionallyfills in the gaps.CP