“La La Land” (2016) chronicles the joys and disappointments of a young actress navigating Hollywood as an aspiring star ― the auditions, the swanky parties, the brushes with fame from the wrong side of a coffee counter.
But in a Hollywood now exposed as Harvey Weinstein’s predatory playground, what is “La La Land” but a big, fat beautifully-choreographed lie?
To be fair, the Cinderella story rang true for at least one person: Leading lady Emma Stone, who has said that story reflects her own early journey. Stone moved to Hollywood at age 15 and, after a few years of failed auditions, landed her breakout role in “Superbad” (2007). She was 19 when it hit theaters; she would win her Oscar for “La La Land” a decade later.
It’s not an indictment of Stone to call her straightforward path from obscurity to superstardom exceptional. She apparently never had to heed the advice of Courtney Love, who in 2005 warned young actresses, “If Harvey Weinstein invites you to a private party at the Four Seasons, don’t go.”
Damien Chazelle’s film, called by the LA Times a “love letter to Los Angeles,” is an homage to the starry-eyed hopefuls ― “Here’s to the fools who dream,” sings Stone’s Mia ― and the rags-to-riches stories that motivate them to buy one-way tickets to LAX.
Was Hollywood trying to sell the illusion to us, the outsiders ― or to itself? No doubt it’s difficult to reconcile that the “luck” of many a budding starlet came in the form of powerful, dominating men who could offer leading roles and Vanity Fair covers in exchange for, at best, a front-row seat to unsolicited masturbation, and at worst, the total pits of depravity. And while many are (unconvincingly) claiming ignorance, the “casting couch” preceded the erection of the Hollywood Sign.
Most of the allegations against Weinstein end with “She declined and left.” We’ll never know just how many stars, from A-list to D, instead chose not to leave and reaped immeasurable benefits. Such trade-offs, seemingly mutually advantageous, are muddy and complex. (It’s certainly not a novel concept and certainly not limited to Hollywood.) Kissing the frog could turn a nobody into a princess.
Weinstein played dream-fulfiller, much like good-hearted Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who toward the end of “La La Land” drives 278 miles from LA to Boulder City to convince a disheartened Mia to do one more audition. It’s a grand gesture of chivalry and relentless support, the vote of confidence Mia needs to nail that fateful audition, sealing her destiny as a star.
How many men of Hollywood see themselves as Sebastians? How believe that their guidance and expertise is invaluable to sweet-faced LA transplants with little professional experience but a whole lot of potential? How many ― despite lacking the looks, personality and heroism of Gosling’s character ― believe that their unique industry insights deserve repayment in bed?
How many women, desperate to join the ranks of the glittering elite and convinced that there’s no alternate path, oblige?
Mia arrives at her audition looking decidedly unsexy in an ill-fitting blue sweater over a white camisole. As an encouraging Sebastian waits outside, she enters the room to shake hands with a polite white man and an important-seeming black woman, who handles most of the pre-audition conversation. It is exactly what Hollywood claims to be and consistently is not.
“La La Land” ends on a bittersweet note as we see all that Mia gave up in pursuit of her dreams. It’s the tragedy of what we sacrifice as we chase our wildest aspirations ― and that nagging question in the back of our minds of whether it was all worth it.
“Here’s to the fools who dream, crazy as they may seem,” a shaky-voiced Mia sings. “Smiling through it, she said she’d do it again.”