A Novel of Hollywood

By Martha Sherrill

Random House. 349 pp. $23.95

On the cover of its November 1996 issue, Esquire magazine ran a picture of a diaphanous beauty beckoning readers from behind the headline "Dream Girl: The Allegra Coleman Nobody Knows." The magazine world greeted the audacious minting of a new star with outward dismissal and secret admiration. That awe quickly turned to a-ha once it became clear that story and subject were counterfeit, a self-incriminating satire of the cult of celebrity and magazines' just-add-water practice of anointing new stars at whim. With that piece, writer Martha Sherrill (a veteran of The Post's Style section) provoked a moment of rare introspection in an industry constantly scanning the horizon for the next bright light.

As if the world weren't saturated enough with stories about real movie stars (according to the Los Angeles Times, there were 8,573,487 celebrity profiles published in 2002 alone), Sherrill has resurrected her fictitious starlet as the subject of her debut novel, My Last Movie Star. The setup is a rich one: A disenchanted celebrity journalist, Clementine James, is coaxed into doing her final profile on an emerging actress named Allegra Coleman, an impetuous free spirit who sweeps through the first chapter like sunlight -- magnetic, vaguely dangerous and impossible to contain. When the two set off on a "Thelma and Louise"-style road trip, identities are shed and danger is courted and kissed when Allegra crashes the car and flees the scene, leaving Clementine behind, the injured receptacle for the anguish and emptiness of the starlet's many fans.

Then the narrative turns into a tempest in a fishbowl. In the accident, Clementine loses an eye and, apparently, all her acrimony toward Hollywood. While convalescing, she checks into an L.A. hotel (under journalistic auspices, awaiting the missing actress's return) and immerses herself in the varieties of fame bequeathed to her as the last person to have had any contact with Allegra -- from Garbo-esque posturing about her lack of privacy to sleeping with her subject's dimwitted TV-star boyfriend. Clementine's nothing-much-happens life is stirred up and displayed as public spectacle -- perfect meat for the cannibalistic hordes of celebrity journalists who are dispatched to whip up excitement and intrigue out of an hour's conversation over herbal tea at the Four Seasons. (Disclosure: I write from experience, having logged nearly 10 years of such awkward and absurd outings as a writer for Premiere.) It's a job whose flashy exterior hides a reality rife with suspicion, seduction and the illusion of intimacy.

In the novel's first chapter, Sherrill offers a powerful insight into this bizarre dynamic between celebrity and journalist, narcissist and mirror. "I wondered how many days after . . . I'd asked my questions, taken my notes at night in the bathroom with the door closed while [Allegra] watched TV on the hotel bed, comforted her through an ordeal or two -- a temporary girlfriend, an extemporary yes-man -- before she'd forget that I'd ever existed too."

As it turns out, it's Sherrill who abandons her protagonist. Clementine's inner life hardly rates much notice among the towering personalities dwarfing her to nothingness. What we do learn of her early on suggests the existence of an intriguing shadow personality, the fantasy vision we all secretly harbor of ourselves as star. "I had arrived in L.A. a gray-faced writer embarking on the last celebrity profile of her life, a New Yorker with small patches of psoriasis from a vitamin A deficiency caused by -- one nutritionist told me -- too much time under fluorescent lights. Now I was brown and barefoot like Allegra. And I had power. Allegra needed me, depended on me. Somehow I liked that but it also made me uneasy. Like I'd let in a stray cat."

But such nebulous questions of power and identity are left unanswered in favor of a narrative that plays out like a typical Hollywood movie in which the shy, skeptical journalist suddenly finds herself the star. Inadvertently, Sherrill has written a perfect vehicle for, say, Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Lopez about an everywoman who gets everything she never dared to dream about.

The struggle to suspend disbelief kicks in most strongly when Clementine becomes the object of international obsession simply because she was the last person to see the AWOL star. To help her survive her sudden infamy, Clementine is visited by a mysterious Greek chorus of actresses from Hollywood's Golden Age who dole out sage advice at crucial moments; everyone from Gloria Swanson to Myrna Loy pops in to hold forth on makeup, men and mortality -- the essentials of life in the limelight.

Sherrill is a deft tease, a writer who flirts with the story of a journalist's struggle with a complex form of Stockholm syndrome -- having been seduced by a world she seemingly detests. "I told myself that writing about movie stars was a temporary gig -- something I did for sheer amusement. It wasn't me. It had nothing to do with me. Eventually I'd steal away from the palm trees and brush fires and the flickering movie screens. My imagination would lodge itself in a sane place, a green place . . . but every year the more I tried to stay away from the movies the closer I got."

Sherrill's observations and insights resonate most when she unburdens herself of the screen-siren visitations and outlandish sequences, one of which features a candlelight vigil held in a Hollywood Bowl packed with a Who's Who of celebrities all solemnly praying for Allegra's safe return. It's hard to admit, but even Hollywood deserves more credit than that. Sherrill seems to have little patience for much of anything in this book, whether it's the shallow characters inhabiting the synergistic worlds of Hollywood and publishing -- Clementine's callow, self-inflated editor is the male incarnation of Faye Dunaway's soulless media baroness in "Network" -- or, seemingly, even her own sentences: "The rain began to start." This is a bit jarring for a seasoned writer with a well-regarded nonfiction book under her belt (2000's The Buddha from Brooklyn).

This book is billed as a "Novel of Hollywood," which describes both its greatest asset and its greatest failing. It's the stars past and present whose complexities and vulnerabilities are most vividly realized. Sherrill's prose throbs when she has Gloria Swanson tell of her concessions to fame -- a back-alley abortion, fabricating an illness to cast herself as a martyr and win public sympathy -- or when she's describing Myrna Loy's tough-broad self-determination. Sherrill has clearly fallen under their spell, and seemingly that of Hollywood, too. It is an honest response but one that makes the disdainful cynicism of her narrator a tough sell. Such disorienting shifts leave the reader searching for the sober soul of a book intoxicated with the world it set out to parody. *

Christine Spines is a contributing writer for Premiere.