Just Try Quitting Hollywood

Janyce Stefan-Cole
Hollywood Boulevard
(Unbridled Books, 2012)

What’s eating Ardennes Thrush? An award-winning actress, she’s worked relentlessly to get where she is in Hollywood—and then she quits. Right when the world becomes her oyster, Ardennes clams up. She spends her time ruminating in a hotel room while her husband, a famous director, is out on location struggling to keep his most recent project on track.

Written in a companionable prose style, mostly from Ardennes’s point of view, Hollywood Boulevard begins as a troubled artist’s meditations on craft, relationships, and the toll taken on the individual by the grind of the Hollywood machine. But just as we begin to get comfortable in Ardennes’s insular world, we discover that it is under attack. Having decided to extricate herself from the movie world, Ardennes finds that the stakes she has raised through her own talent are too high for her exit to be a clean one, and her life itself becomes a noirish thriller in which she plays the unwilling lead.

Things start to go awry for Ardennes on a lunch date with her former agent, who’s so furious with her over her sudden departure from acting that he dies on the spot. The apparent cause is a heart attack, but that doesn’t stop his housekeeper from accusing Ardennes of murder. Then, an aspiring actor named Eddie, who works in a shoe store, starts stalking Ardennes. There is also a recurring suspicious man Ardennes sees from her hotel window—always in a white shirt—but we begin to wonder if Ardennes is the one doing the spying, out of paranoia, rather than the reverse. An abundance of coincidences combined with too much free time could be the culprit, the reader thinks, until one morning Ardennes receives a box, inside of which are “two dozen roses, but the roses were burned dead and three Mexican Day of the Dead dolls lay next to the long, thorny stems.”

Ardennes’s inner voice is often an interrogative one; after she receives the ominous flowers, it asks, “Was Fits playing a joke? Or was Eddie taking revenge on me for calling the cops? Why the seared rose petals?” The burned roses could be an allusion to a fire that killed another actress years ago at the hotel; or they might not. The woman staying in the room where the actress from the past died starts to look suspect too. When Ardennes is suddenly kidnapped and held hostage, we are as in the dark as she is about why her captor has taken this step and what this person intends to do next, which ironically places Ardennes in the frustrating position other people usually find themselves in when they’re with her, since they’re all curious to know why she quit acting and what she intends to do next. Stefan-Cole has an instinct for creating suspense, throwing out red herrings here and there, and we don’t guess who is really behind all of this until the very end.

In true film noir fashion, Ardennes becomes romantically involved with the handsome Detective Collins, who comes to investigate the delivery of the scorched roses. Throughout the novel we are reminded of how much most of our experience is contaminated by what we’ve seen in the movies. For an actress, this might be even truer, especially in Ardennes’s case. About her first kiss with Detective Collins, she says, “The Detective put his mouth over mine, and I ate into his greedily. ‘Hang on, Billy,’ I said when we were done with the kiss. ‘Billy?’ ‘No one ever told you you look like William Holden?’”

The dialogue throughout the novel has the sharp edges of the dialogue of a Tarantino film, and Stefan-Cole cuts deftly from scene to scene, interspersing pieces of Ardennes’s past as her life in the present incurs more suspense. Stefan-Cole also uses the nervous system of Hollywood itself to its fullest effect; early on in the book, Ardennes takes in the view from her hotel room window: “…houses and villas tumbling steeply down the hills in a hodgepodge of styles, an architectural balancing act. The view to the right veers neurotically into L.A.’s urban sprawl and the sudden verticality of downtown.” Our confused, confusing heroine herself comes across best in reflective moments; some of her thoughts on her craft are the most compelling.

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…Get past the first sentence and hear your voice take control, your body snap inside the character and feel being heard, listened to, watched, seen, clung to.

Hollywood Boulevard is itself an “architectural balancing act.” The intertwining of setting, character, and plot that constitutes this novel’s structure is a marvelous achievement. Taking on a milieu that—partly due to our fascination with films and our tabloid-fueled interest in the people who make them—is so much a part of our collective imagination, Stefan-Cole grasps the superficial celebrity skin of Hollywood and gives it a twist.

Contributor

Justin Courter

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