A Peek at the System in School for Starlets
By ALESSANDRA STANLEY
Published: March 4, 2005
"The Starlet," a WB reality show that applies the "American Idol" formula to would-be Hollywood actresses, begins with a cautionary face: the masklike visage of Faye Dunaway, eyes pulled so tight and jaw so taut that she can show expression only through her voice. Luckily, it is still a fine instrument. When Ms. Dunaway eliminates a contestant in the climactic "You're fired" moment of each episode, she lets the timbre fall into a smoky, menacing whisper. "Don't call us," she says. "We'll call you."
The fleeting nature of beauty and stardom is the subliminal lesson in a show that purports to groom young actresses for Hollywood: lilies that fester end up as talent judges on WB or the butt of Showtime's "Fat Actress" reality show.
The young women live together in a Hollywood mansionette that once was home to Marilyn Monroe; the winner of each round receives a gold statuette and the right to sleep in the "diva" room, an opulent master bedroom and boudoir. The last one standing after all the coaching and screen tests wins a management contract, a WB talent deal and a role on the WB series "One Tree Hill."
But the elimination process is the real role of a lifetime. The show's creators have skillfully fashioned a pedestrian talent show into a harrowing contest that blends the gauzy melodrama of "Stage Door" with the brutality of "Platoon."
Most shrewdly, the producers cast 10 young women who all bear a strong resemblance to well-known actresses. Mercedes, 24, is a delicate brunette who could pass for a young Teri Hatcher. Andria, 24, a perky blond former Miss Teen Texas, is a Reese Witherspoon wannabe, and spunky Courtney, also 24, has the short red hair and puffy lips of Molly Ringwald in her Brat Pack days. It's a handy Hollywood mnemonic device: agents hitch their unknown clients to the celebrities they look somewhat like.
The only person who looks like absolutely no one, not even her father, Robert Wagner, is the master of ceremonies, Katie Wagner, a television entertainment reporter with the stiff improbably blond hair, snow-white teeth and waxy, factory-cut features of a cosmetic makeover addict.
"Starlet" is not a cynical, malicious Fox show, however. WB is a cable network that caters to young people. The show casts the contestants' Eve Harrington fever as a universal quest - and even a noble one. In the introduction, as grainy images of a small child bowing onstage in a ballet tutu fill the screen, a narrator intones, "Every girl dreams of becoming a star." Suddenly, the images shift to movie stars like Scarlett Johansson and Uma Thurman sashaying down a red carpet as their fans scream with delight.
The young women express soaring ambition. Donna, a 20-year-old African-American model (the young Tyra Banks), tells the camera, "There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, and there never was, that I will be famous."
Cecile, 20, a tall South African blonde (the young Charlize Theron), is even bolder. "I've always thought of myself as larger than life," she says serenely. "I've always known I was going to be a legend."
Some of them also have poignant up-from-the-trailer-park stories. Michelynne, 18 (Keri Russell in the first season of "Felicity"), was raised in poverty by a single mother and recalls a childhood Christmas when her presents came from the Salvation Army.
Those painful memories come in handy when the contestants are sent to the Hollywood acting coach Bobbie Shaw Chance (a bosomy Konstantin Stanislavski) to learn the method for tapping into their emotions. She gets them started by pointing to a seat in her studio and saying, "By the way, you are sitting where Brad sat."
Ms. Shaw Chance urges students to focus on more than their looks. "Its very easy to be a road company Pamela Anderson," she says sternly. "If that's what you want."
But their acting skills are put to a preliminary test by having to recite two lines from a classic - a scene from "The Bodyguard." All of them have to mimic Whitney Houston berating Kevin Costner. "I do what I want when I want," is one line. The other is: " You work here. You work for me."