Hollywood has been disemboweling itself onscreen since the waning days of the studio system: Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) tells of a once-glamorous silent actress now sealed in amber, and Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1951) exposes an unscrupulous producer. Blake Edwards convinced his wife, Julie Andrews, to go topless in S.O.B. (1981), about a director who convinces his wife to go topless in his new movie, and Robert Altman set a new standard for anti-Hollywood bile with his star-studded mystery The Player (1992), about a studio executive being harassed by a vengeful screenwriter. But you’d have to look to literature—Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust or Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays—to find a tinseltown dystopia as nihilistic as David Cronenberg’s showbiz horror flick Maps to the Stars. Movies about Hollywood are invariably propelled by raging egos, but Cronenberg makes them the stuff of nightmares.
“Why don’t you show me your cunt?” snaps Benjie Weiss, a 13-year-old movie star, to Arnold, his middle-aged manager, in the movie’s opening minutes. “I know you have one. Jew faggot.” With this, Benjie (Evan Bird) hops into a chauffeured black minivan and zooms away, leaving Arnold to fume on a Los Angeles sidewalk. Benjie can get away with this sort of behavior because his PG studio comedy I Was a Bad Babysitter has grossed $780 million worldwide; at age nine he was earning $300,000 an episode for a top-rated network sitcom, and now he’s angling for $8 million to star in the sequel to his box-office smash. He’s also recovering from an addiction to heroin, and his mother (Olivia Williams) worries that his three months of sobriety will be deemed insufficient by the studio, which wants to protect its franchise. Benjie knows better, telling her, “I am the franchise.”
The old cliche in Hollywood stories is an aging actress getting kicked to the sidelines by a younger, fresher one, but screenwriter Bruce Wagner gives this a millennial spin by making teenagers the wary veterans. Benjie and his friend Rhett (Justin Kelly), another child star, hang out in a swank club with two beautiful teen actresses who ridicule another woman as “menopausal” because she’s all of 23. When the boys make a joke about Jack Cassidy, a TV actor of the 60s and 70s, the girls have never heard of him; when the boys explain he’s the father of pop singer David Cassidy, the girls have never heard of him either. Benjie isn’t old enough for high school, but already he has to worry about aging out of the business; once the Bad Babysitter sequel begins shooting, he realizes he’s being upstaged by his eight-year-old costar and fights to get the towheaded kid thrown off the picture.
All children test the limits of their power, but when Justin Bieber does it, he makes news because the limits of his power are so much wider than most people’s. Benji has reached the same phase of his child stardom, acting out at every opportunity just to see what he can get away with. When a crew member on the Bad Babysitter sequel shows up at Benjie’s trailer with his two starstruck daughters, Benjie slams the door in their face, telling the man, “Universal Studios. Put them on the fucking tram.” And in the sort of white-knuckle horror scene that Cronenberg can pull out of his back pocket, Benjie fools around with a revolver Rhett has bought on eBay (“Supposedly it was used at Columbine”) and accidentally kills his friend’s English sheepdog. Tear-stricken, Rhett throws him out, but aside from that Benjie knows there will be no consequences for what he’s done. The next thing he kills might not be an animal.
The other monstrous ego in Maps to the Stars is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), a spoiled movie actress well past her expiration date, and like Benjie, she’s never had a childhood. Her mother was a Hollywood starlet who sexually abused her, yet Havana, desperate to keep her career alive, hopes to play her mommie dearest, who died in a house fire in the 70s, in a new remake of the cult movie that made her famous. Maps to the Stars is heavily populated by ghosts, and at one point the mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), visits Havana to castigate her for “your shitty tits and your used-up cunt.” There’s a great medium shot of Havana, in a meditation pose, as she struggles for composure but finally goes to pieces as a phone message from her manager reveals that she’s lost the part to a younger actress. When that actress pulls out of the project—her young son has drowned in a swimming pool—Havana dances around on her patio, singing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.”
Wagner links these two obnoxious celebrities through a third character—Benjie’s older sister, Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), who arrives in Los Angeles hoping to make contact with her estranged family. Through an acquaintance with Carrie Fisher (playing herself), Agatha gets a job as Havana’s personal assistant, though Havana never learns that Agatha is schizophrenic, or that she’s spent seven years in a psychiatric hospital after poisoning Benjie and setting fire to their home. “I was the original bad babysitter,” Agatha tells Jerome (Robert Pattinson), a callow limousine driver whom she meets upon her arrival. She wears her hair long to cover the large burn mark on the left side of her face and throat, and her scars make her the ultimate outsider in a social group predicated on personal beauty.
Ghosts also figure prominently in Benjie’s story: Cammy (Kiara Glasco), a young fan whom he visited in the hospital when she was dying of cancer, begins materializing out of nowhere, and eventually she’s joined in Benjie’s swimming pool by the little boy whose drowning death inspired Havana’s delighted boogeying. Can it be coincidence that Benjie and Havana, the two biggest celebrities in Maps to the Stars, are even more delusional than Agatha, who’s been diagnosed with a violent personality disorder? There are certain people who consider themselves demigods, who exist in a class by themselves, and who think they can get away with anything. They’re called superstars. Or, psychopaths.