Hollywood is an industry town that manufactures dreams. Those dreams can be nightmarish, as in Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust (whose woefully underappreciated 1975 film adaptation is as disturbing and ugly as its source), or bittersweet, like Michel Hazanavicius’ The Artist.
Janyce Stefan-Cole’s Hollywood Boulevard is Tinseltown nostalgia of another kind. This first novel also has a marketing campaign worthy of its movie pedigree, featuring a scene between the heroine and her “B movie” ex-boyfriend. More importantly, this modern film noir novel about a movie star, her men, and her craft is an energetically entertaining and absorbing undertaking of a topic whose style and format changes as many times as reels in the multiplex. Not a bad scenario at all.
Ardennes Thrush narrates her own “trashy airport” story . Her circa 1940s leading lady first name is her own; her father saw combat in the Ardennes forest during the Battle of the Bulge. She portrayed a prostitute but is no tabloid fixture. Her mother respected her ambitions enough to give her Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting and pay tuition for classes at Ms. Hagen’s HB Studio. Ardennes is not sentimental, but the New York native misses the downtown that artists could afford rather than the “real-estate heaven” that “big box developers” created for business types and tourists.
An intelligent and creative first-person narrator is one worth getting to know. If Ardennes was real, her IMDB listing would include an Academy Award nomination and a Cannes Best Actress Award. Stefan-Cole is either a genuine film buff, a terrific researcher with a sense of irony, or both because there is a long history of actors—The Artist’s Jean Dujardin being one of the few exceptions—who won that big festival prize but did not go on to win an Oscar.
Fame and a bicoastal lifestyle cost Ardennes her first marriage but not her ego. Despite success, she does what non-actors fantasize about: she quits. She joins her current husband Andre as he directs The Dancer, a combination of Black Swan, Freaks, and Nightmare Alley (another film worthy of the noir thriller it was adapted from) on location at the Hotel Muse. It is at this Los Angeles “nightclub originally, from the late 40s, featuring acts better suited to a circus sideshow” that she contemplates the decisions she has made up to this point—and realizes that even an A-lister with solid credentials is subject to unwanted attention.
While recalling memories of her New York life and the cinematic situations she finds herself in, Ms. Thrush never stops being in character. While she knows Andre’s work is “his mistress,” she nevertheless lovingly describes a movie set as “the undergrowth . . . the miniature universe, the womb and birth and life of filmmaking.” Acting still matters a great deal to her:
The hardest thing about ending a part on stage is coming down from the high, shutting that down. This happens in film too if the part has any meat on its bones. Even if the acting is a struggle from word one to word last, the body systems quicken. You might feel like you’re about to have a stroke standing up before an audience or in front of the camera’s cold eye as you utter your first line . . . With a good part the writer’s voice comes alive through you, the emotions rising naturally out of the words, no gimmicks to rouse a tear, a laugh, a shout.
One of her post-acting plans includes writing. Because of her keen observational skills as an actress, narrator, and writer, Ardennes has enough material to write her own Respect for Acting:
And what happens to the real-life actor, the person inside? Swallowed up, dissolved; sits in a corner on hold, an abandoned self watching from the sidelines as the fictional character takes over. An actor can be personally stupid as a doornail, impossible to converse with, yet speak Shakespeare with eloquence and truth.
In addition to the fun Stefan-Cole has with an actress who has everything yet feels she has nothing, she also has a good time with Hollywood lore. One of the Muse’s claims to fame was that decades ago an aspiring starlet died under mysterious circumstances on the same floor where Ardennes and Andre are staying. The one indulgence Ardennes can’t shake is shoes, causing her trouble of both the Entourage and Sex and the City kind. A charming, good-looking Muse employee is named Sharif. Best of all is Andre’s agent Kurt Tayker, who Ardennes aptly describes as being “given the perfect name, a little joke by a playful God with an Olympian idea of the inanity of human intercourse.”
Both movie and mystery fans will have fun with Hollywood Boulevard, which would make a movie worth seeing—and one Ardennes might consider starring in.