Tune in Tonight: "Hollywood Wives, Part 1"
V.C. Andrews gets most of the credit for opening adolescent female eyes to sex during the 80s and 90s. Sure, some of the “sex” in Andrews’ novels was actually rape, and when it was consensual it all too often involved brothers or uncles, but it was still, for better or for worse, a lot of young girls’ introduction to the pitfalls of pent-up, animal lust. But what of Jackie Collins? She wrote about the same themes, without the Gothic drama and weird family dynamics. Collins wasn’t trying to balance trash with art. Her books were unabashedly pure filth, one graphic sex scene after another, strung together by the most gossamer of plots, usually involving ludicrously rich people and their schemes to destroy each other.
Like Andrews’ books, this rampant fucking rarely led to anything other than ruined lives and even the occasional murder or two, but Collins made a cottage industry of it, publishing 32 books, the most famous of which, Hollywood Wives, scandalized many a middle-school student in the mid-80s. Barely two years after its release, it was made into a miniseries produced by Aaron Spelling and with an all-star cast, half of whom thought that they were appearing in a serious drama, and the other half digging in and treating it like the delicious, finger-licking junk food it is.
Though you’d think it’d be nice work if you can get it, being a Hollywood wife is the worst job in the world, where all your friends are petty and two-faced, and there’s a better than 75% chance that your spouse is sleeping around on you. Every single one of the dozens of characters in Hollywood Wives is deeply dissatisfied with his or her staggeringly opulent life, always wanting, needing, demanding more more MORE than what they already have. Even the dramatic, “Holding Out for a Hero”-esque theme song makes it sound like a bum deal, with the chorus “Hollywood wives/fighting to survive in the jungle of beauty.” The frequent wealth porn shots of boutique storefronts, diamond bracelets, caviar tins, and giant perfume bottles are reminders of why they put up with all this misery.
The movie opens at a charity ball honoring George Lancaster (Robert Stack, wearing a majestic sandy colored toupee), beloved movie star and philanthropist. Most of the major players are introduced here, including Gina Germaine (Suzanne Somers), who, despite her atrocious crunchy perm, is described as “the most beautiful sensuous sex symbol in the United States today.” Though her agent, Sadie LaSalle (Angie Dickinson), thinks she should just be happy with the success she has, Gina is tired of being a mere sex symbol, and wants to be taken seriously as an actress. She’d do just about anything to work with director Neil Gray (Anthony Hopkins, wearing a kicky Caesar-style hairpiece), who, according to his ex-wife, “would rather be with a cheap bottle and a fast broad,” but is trying to be a good husband to screenwriter Montana (Stefanie Powers), who possesses “big talent and a small keister,” as per studio boss Oliver Easterne (Rod Steiger, wearing a rug and a fake mustache), who wants to produce her latest script.
Keep that pencil and paper nearby, because we’re not done. We also meet Elaine Conti (Candice Bergen), a socialite who’s obsessively devoted to saving the waning acting career of her superstar husband, Ross (Steve Forrest), and her friends Marilee Gray (Joanna Cassidy), Neil’s ex-wife, who doesn’t do much except complain about Neil and pay rent boys to keep her company, and Karen Lancaster (Mary Crosby), George’s daughter, who hates him for reasons even she doesn’t seem to understand, and doesn’t do much except make bitchy remarks and sleep with other women’s husbands. There’s also Buddy Hudson (Andrew Stevens), former male prostitute (female clients only, of course) and current struggling actor, who’s trying to make ends meet by serving canapes at the party and getting hit on by women old enough to be his mother. Buddy is newly married, to the sweetest, most innocent, most naturally lovely girl in all the land. Her name, of course, is Angel (Catherine Mary Stewart), and she spends most of the first part of the miniseries being slowly set up as an eventual victim.
The screenplay Montana wrote, Final Reunion, is spoken about in the same low, serious tones as The Godfather. “It’s not a movie, it’s a film,” Neil says, and the behind the scenes machinations, swindling, and conniving begin before it’s even cast. Everybody wants a piece of the action, but none so much as Gina, who’s prepared to sleep her way onto the set, and Ross, who thinks it’s his last chance before fading into aged obscurity. Meanwhile, in a completely different movie, we meet Deke Andrews, also played by Andrew Stevens (though we’re not supposed to know that), wearing a wig and fake beard that makes him look like a dinner theater version of Charles Manson. Deke is a little upset that he’s adopted, and after he finds out that his birth mother is “someone in Hollywood,” he murders his adoptive parents and sets off for California.
But never mind him, the real meat and potatoes of the story are the love lives and professional woes of a bunch of boring, middle-aged rich people. Never has the word “babe” been uttered with less sincerity than when Ross Conti says it, but Elaine is convinced that their marriage is rock solid. Ross would never cheat on her, even if he’s constantly away filming one movie after another, and treats sex with her as an annoying inconvenience. If you’re unsure of how cynical about both the entertainment industry and human nature in general this movie is trying to be, a scene where Elaine, wearing a magnificent Bond villain leather pantsuit, insists to her skeptical friends that “Ross and I do not fool around” immediately cuts to a scene of Ross in bed with a makeup girl half his age. This hilariously on the nose editing is topped later, when Elaine, trying to help Ross get a part in Final Reunion, says “I want Ross Conti back on top,” and the scene cuts to Ross saying “I want to be on top,” before giving Karen a poolside massage.
Gina follows Neil to Palm Beach, and he finds her in his hotel room bed, wearing only a towel and so much eye makeup she looks like Pris in Blade Runner. “I must have fallen asleep,” she says, and she and Neil spend a few moments bantering in the stiffest, meant to be clever manner possible, during which Neil weakly protests that he’s a happily married man, and then they fall into bed together. Later, they end up on the same flight back to Los Angeles, where they once again trade some awful, clumsy banter about how naughty Gina is for sneaking a peek at the script for Final Reunion, Neil once again weakly protests that he’s a happily married man, and then they fall into plane seat together. He’s helpless against her feminine wiles, you see (and her disappearing and reappearing Southern accent), but we’ll just have to take his word for it, because they have so little chemistry that the swelling saxophone music has to do all the heavy lifting for them. Their passionate moments come off as creepy and off-putting, like if the scene where Ash attacks Ripley in Alien was remade into a romantic comedy.
Elaine wants to throw Ross a party so that Hollywood can be reminded of how great he is (“Dusty Hoffman, Travolta, and Stallone will give us the hot young side,” she says about the guest list, the third or fourth funniest line in the episode). Ross is only interested in getting the script for Final Reunion, and the only way he’ll have a chance is if he fires his agent and hires Sadie LaSalle to represent him, but she refuses to work with him, for vague reasons which will almost certainly be revealed by the end of the miniseries, in case you’re dying to know. Elaine, at least as desperate for Ross to acknowledge her existence as he is to be cast in Final Reunion, pulls some strings to get him a copy of the script. While waiting for that to come through, she soothes her nerves by going to Gucci and helping herself to a wallet without paying for it. Elaine tells Marilee that Ross bought it for her as a gift, to which Marilee responds “Oh, I didn’t know he was such a romantic,” with derision and sarcasm dripping off every word. You’ll soon discover that most of the dialogue in this movie is said with an arched eyebrow or barely concealed smirk, because everyone is hateful and phony in Hollywood can you believe anyone wants to live here?!?
Buddy, the closest thing the movie has to a hero, just can’t seem to catch a break in the biz. He doesn’t have an agent, which means not even secretaries will give him the time of day, throwing his headshot in the trash before he’s barely out the door. He and Angel are barely scraping by, and though some of their problems would be solved if Angel were to get a job, Buddy doesn’t want her to because it’ll mean she doesn’t really believe that he’ll make it as an actor, somehow…? Alright, whatever you say, Buddy. With perfect soap opera timing, Angel announces that she’s pregnant, and a desperate Buddy lies his way into Montana’s office, claiming to be a friend of Warren Beatty’s. His deception so charms Montana that she gives him a chance to read for her, and though she’s impressed, she tells him it’s unlikely he’ll get called back to do a screen test if he doesn’t have an agent. Grasping at his last straw, Buddy digs out a business card for Jason Swankle – I’ll repeat that, Jason Swankle – the pimp/interior designer who used to employ him as an escort. Played by Roddy McDowall, Jason tells Buddy, while all but licking his lips like he’s imagining Buddy turning into a cheeseburger, “You were the best stud in my stable,” and offers to take him back any time he needs the work. It sure looks like Buddy might be returning to the farm, as it were, but we won’t find out until part two.
In that other movie, Deke (who is absolutely not being played by the same actor who plays Buddy and how dare you imply that this movie would try something so cheesy) is murdering his way across the country from Philadelphia to California, while menacingly stroking his beard and announcing to every person he meets that “I’m goin’ ta Hollywood! Ta see my muddah!” If his mutilating a Philadelphia accent didn’t make it abundantly clear that Deke is a real bad guy, he adopts a stray cat for the sole purpose of killing it, then creeps on a little girl whose mother has the poor sense to pick him up off the side of a highway. While Hollywood Wives is a celebration of excess, it doesn’t suffer from an overabundance of subtlety.
Though you’d think ending part one on Deke getting ever closer to Hollywood (while taking a baffling route that seems to be several hundred miles north of where he really needs to be) would be a good cliffhanger, alas, we get one more scene with Neil and Gina, the most boring couple in the whole series. Neil still can’t stop himself from sleeping with her, but blows off her demand that he help her get a screen test for Final Reunion. A frustrated Gina says “I know what this town thinks of me. They wouldn’t let me test for Joan of Arc last year,” and Neil’s laughter at that is matched only by that of the audience. Gina will not be dissuaded, however, and shows Neil her “negotiating posture”: a giant, movie projector sized camera hidden behind a two-way mirror in her bedroom. “If you don’t let me test, Neil, I swear to God I will show this tape to Montana,” she says. “Every lovely, dirty frame.” Part one ends on a shot of her staring at Neil with steely-eyed, bath towel draped determination.
By the time I finish watching it, I will have expended at least 6,000 words on Hollywood Wives, the most I’ve ever dedicated to one show here. Other than Lace, a miniseries with a plot so absurd you need a serial killer wall to understand it, no other TV program is such a perfect, trapped in amber example of the 1980s obsession with wealth, at the expense of happiness, personal relationships, and possibly even your very soul. It’s a hysterical rollercoaster ride, where the audience is supposed to hate these characters, but also envy them, but also be happy when they get what’s coming to them, but also feel sorry for them, all at the same time. It makes the bold statement of “Sure, these people are miserable, they can’t trust anyone, and wouldn’t know how to tell the truth if their very lives depended on it, but those shoes!” There really is no other statement that better encapsulates the 80s than that.
Original airdate (part 1): February 17, 1985