April 1, 2020

‘Maps to the Stars’ shows a morbid world of fame and fortune

For a recent interview at his publicist’s office, author Bruce Wagner wore all-black attire and genteelly smoked an e-cigarette, which, with each toke, revealed the tattoos on his right hand that name the Beverly Hills streets where he grew up from the late 1950s through the early 1970s.

Those years form the background, as well, of his psyche, and inform not only his nine novels, but also the screenplay of his new film, “Maps to the Stars,” directed by David Cronenberg, a saga of a Beverly Hills entertainment-business family whose schizophrenic daughter returns home after a long absence and eventually confronts her parents’ incestuous marriage.

Wagner, too, grew up “steeped in the entertainment culture,” he said, including a lavish bar mitzvah at the Friars Club (Tina Louise from “Gilligan’s Island” was a guest), an event that was not so much a rite of passage as “part of the social fabric of growing up in Beverly Hills at the time.”

Actor Broderick Crawford lived a house away from Wagner’s Rodeo Drive home; Crawford was the stepfather of a friend, and he always answered his door drunk and wearing a ratty bathrobe. When Crawford’s estranged wife overdosed and died in her nearby apartment, her death left an indelible impression on young Bruce.

By the time he was 14, Wagner was in psychoanalysis — another fad at the time — and, two years later, he dropped out of high school and went on to drive ambulances and limousines, which further introduced him to what he refers to as “people in extremis.” He chauffered stars like Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Olivia de Havilland, but also prostitutes, con men and even a homeless alcoholic, whose bedsores were so full of maggots that nurses had to pour kerosene into the wounds to kill them. Then there was the comatose young starlet, who had worn her filthy clothes for so long that they were literally stuck to her body, who Wagner drove to Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

The result — enhanced by Wagner’s theatrical nature — is that his focus as a writer “has primarily been toward poles — extreme wealth and extreme poverty, fame and anonymity, the sacred and the profane,” he said.

“Maps to the Stars” begins as 18-year-old schizophrenic Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikow-ska), severely scarred from burns sustained while attempting to burn her parents’ house down as a child, returns home to Beverly Hills to reconcile with her show-business family.  Her father, Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a self-centered, New Age-y therapist-to-the-stars who is preoccupied with his book sales; her mother, Christina (Olivia Williams), is the steely business manager to Agatha’s younger brother, Benjie (Evan Bird), a superstar child actor who, at 13, is already a recovering drug addict and so monstrously cruel that he makes Justin Bieber look like a prince. Agatha’s only friend turns out to be a limousine driver (Robert Pattinson) — an aspiring actor and screenwriter — who’s considering becoming a Scientologist for the show-biz connections.

Before long, Agatha becomes the assistant, or “chore whore,” to an aging actress, Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), who is desperate to make a comeback by starring in a remake of her actress mother’s most acclaimed movie. But as Agatha is forced to confront the “original sin” of her parents’ marriage — they are, in fact, brother and sister — her thoughts eventually turn to murder and suicide.

Despite the film’s digs at the venal, even vicious, denizens of Tinseltown, Wagner insists the film never set out to satirize Hollywood. True, the characters embody identifiable archetypes: “the aging actress, the limo driver who is a wannabe, the therapist with a special connection to those who have been tortured by acclaim and wealth,” he said. “But for me, this is not ‘Entourage’ or ‘Swimming With Sharks.’ I subscribe to the definition of satire as Swiftian or Rabelaisian — something that is impossibly heightened in order to illuminate the truth. But there is nothing that’s heightened in ‘Maps to the Stars.’ ”

Director Cronenberg agreed. “The film is too realistic to be a satire; it’s more like a docudrama,” he said, speaking from his home in Toronto. “Bruce [claims] that every bit of dialogue spoken is something he’s overheard.”

Wagner began writing “Maps to the Stars” when he was in his early 30s, while he was working, in his words, as “a hack screenwriter” on the far reaches of the Paramount lot. Fraught over his work, he penned what would become his first novel, “Force Majeure,” spotlighting the character of a failed screenwriter-chauffeur — his own alter ego. Oliver Stone eventually optioned that book, asked the author to write a screenplay version and then to direct it, but “as the greedy, for-hire hack I was, I had cheesily adapted the bravest, most authentic writing I was capable of,” Wagner wrote in an essay in The Guardian. “[And] I couldn’t go through with it.”

Wagner — who is also the author of novels such as “The Chrysanthemum Palace” and “Dead Stars” — wrote the script for “Maps” as a harsh antidote to that endeavor. “I knew that in order to purge this path of corruption that I was on in the business, I had to write something that was completely uncensored and embodied some of my interests, which were fame, death, mutilation, and those things which are mysterious and can’t be explained,” he said in our interview. “But Oliver was repelled by the script. He just thought I was insane. So I tried to get the movie going for a while, but it was impossible.”

More than a decade later, the project gained some momentum when Cronenberg signed on to direct; the script’s themes of physical and psychological mutilation echoed those in Cronenberg’s early horror films (“Scanners,” “The Fly”), as well as his more recent searing dramas such as “A History of Violence” and “Eastern Promises.”

Cronenberg, who is Jewish as well as an atheist and existentialist, noted that many of the film’s characters behave in ghastly ways because they “are terrified that they will, in essence, cease to exist,” he said. “If you’re an actor, your purpose and the meaning of your existence is to be on that screen, to be on the red carpet and to be seen and celebrated, to have your image floating separately from your body. So when you think of the character of Havana Segrand, she is like so many actresses who have had their moment of fame, but at the age of 40 have disappeared. It’s a kind of weird pre-death, an existential crisis — you worry about oblivion before actual physical death, and that was very poignant to me.”

For Wagner, the film is a riff on the sacred as well as the profane. “Agatha’s mission ultimately is to liberate the family from its secrets; she wants to end the cycle of incest,” he said. “And even though her methods are faulty, at the end there is something quite sacred and beautiful about the way she [and her brother] choose to leave the world.

“Maps to the Stars” opens in theaters Feb. 27.