In the charming 1954 comedy "It Should Happen to You," Judy Holliday plays Gladys Glover, who, seeking fame, rents herself a billboard overlooking New York's Columbus Circle, proclaiming her name. When a soap company wants the space, she trades for six other billboards, which creates a civic mystery, which leads to celebrity.
In a real-life remake of this film, set in L.A. a few decades later, a woman followed a similar playbook, to similar ends. And now, as these things happen, her story, hung on a pair of Hollywood Reporter pieces by Gary Baum, has been converted back into docudramatic fiction with Peacock's miniseries "Angelyne." (It includes a variation on that billboard trading scene.) Where Holliday's character ultimately decides that being known for being known is not as fulfilling as she had imagined, Angelyne, still a local presence — a mirage, almost — in her pink Corvette, has continued to wave that flag into senior citizenship.
Created by Nancy Oliver, with Allison Miller as showrunner and directed largely by Lucy Tcherniak, "Angelyne" stars Emmy Rossum in a role the actor optioned the material to play. The Angelyne phenomenon surely needs extra explanation outside Los Angeles, but audiences will often flock to something they're assured is based on a true story, however much they know about it in advance. And Rossum fans will be interested.
The annals of show business are rife with changed names and invented pasts, regularly cooked up by movie studio publicists. Then there were those who took it upon themselves. Blond Marilyn Monroe was brunet Norma Jean Baker. The history Bob Dylan (ne Robert Zimmerman) invented for himself is enshrined in early album notes. Andy Warhol(a) rarely gave a straight answer to a serious question. But they didn't go to great lengths to hide where they came from, either. And, of course, they were Monroe, Dylan, Warhol. The Angelyne billboards seemed to promise something at first, but they were only ever billboards.
There has been little evidence across five decades, notwithstanding a handful of recordings and film cameos, that Angelyne is any good at anything besides being Angelyne. She is a strangely successful version of a Hollywood failure. "I don't want to be famous for something that I do," miniseries Angelyne tells Harold Wallach (Martin Freeman), the series' version of the printing business owner who backed her billboard campaign, after a humiliating audition. "I want to be famous for who I am."
The question of Who Is Angelyne presents certain challenges, given her insistence that the remade model is her true self, however it might diverge from the person she grew up as — revealed in Baum's second Angelyne article in 2017, negating in the process some of the things she'd made up in the first. (As it's the closest thing the series has to a revelation, I won't print it here, other than to say I was reminded of another movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's.")
Angelyne indisputably has her fans, but "Angelyne" overestimates her cultural effect. It's true that many know her name, because it was plastered all over town for years, and many are familiar with her signature Corvette. But the knowledge (and I dare say interest) usually stops there. As related in the miniseries, this is partly by design: Angelyne has striven to remain a mystery. "I'm a Rorschach test in pink… ooh!," she says, in one of many lines of dialogue farmed from Baum's first Angelyne piece, a standard feature from 2015. (Baum is called Jeff Glaser here, and played by Alex Karpovsky — all the characters' names have been changed, including Angelyne's real one.) "People see what they see."
Upon this pink blank slate has been variously written a one-woman precursor to Twitter, the model for Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian (though not the first person to be famous for nothing), a work of performance art, the ultimate expression of a fame-obsessed culture. Or a woman in control of her body, her image, her intellectual property, her career, her life (which, in this case, all amount to the same thing). One scene has her speaking truth to Hugh Hefner, over using nude photos of Monroe without her consent.
That control seems not to have extended to "Angelyne," the greatest instrument of cultural validation Angelyne may expect to receive in this timeline. She was on board as an executive producer for a while, then walked away. One can see why this might be case. The series, to its credit, does not merely picture the fantastic bubble in which its subject lives — there is plenty of that, including a Busby Berkeley-style fantasy sequence — but it also punctures it with alternative views and established facts. Though a good deal of it is clearly invented — changing the names of your characters does give you a certain license in that regard — and while it is on balance a celebration (otherwise, what would be the point?), there is a respectable attempt to express the essential, if not always the actual, truth of the matter.
The effect is a little schizoid, however, and it's hard to know how to take the series at first, what's meant to be funny ha-ha and what's meant to be funny strange. This is not just as concerns the star, a character half-defined by self-knowledge and half self-delusion, but of most of the other main characters, including Freeman's printer, Hamish Linklater as her fan club president and right hand, Charlie Rowe as her house photographer and Lukas Gage as a young man trying to make a documentary about her, though not the "documentary" we seem to be seeing. Some are caricatures, some not.
The first episode, in which Angelyne, at the beginning of her public career, takes over her boyfriend's band, Baby Blue is the most risible, with its hackneyed band tropes and less than authentic portrayal of L.A.'s late-'70s music scene. But it does allow for the series' only substantial (quasi-)romantic relationship presented at enervating length, and it affords a place for the writers to put in young Angelyne's mouth character-defining real quotes from older Angelyne. She wants a car because "I have to know I can escape" — a Corvette, ideally, like Barbie's "starvette." And she wants to be like Barbie, because "she lives a painless existence — you can stick her with things and she won't cry. ... Wouldn't that be nice, never to be hurt?"
Sporting giant prosthetic breasts, already featured across the tabloidverse, Rossum is good, if a more polished version of the woman she's playing. (It's the obverse of most biopics, where the subject has more charisma than the person portraying them.) To Angelyne's breathy speech and cheesecake poses, her exclamatory squeals, borrowed from Monroe by way of Jayne Mansfield, she adds an actor's poise. One might imagine Angelyne enjoying the portrayal, which both takes her seriously and treats her like a star if it weren't insistent on showing more of the woman than the woman has shown herself. When Rossum briefly drops the voice and the pose, or when Angelyne is cornered or panicking, unexpectedly indicating a person beneath the pink carapace, things start to get interesting. But the filmmakers go only so far down that road — at least until the customary late-series flashback backstory.
"I am not a woman, I am an icon," Rossum's Angelyne will say at the top of the series — a two-dimensional thing. At the same time, the subject is a (mostly) flesh and blood person, clearly living her idea of her best life, with her purposeful positivity and supernatural interests, and doing no one harm. (The icon claim will repeat, in a psychological context.) Without the story Angelyne doesn't want to be told, there's no story worth rolling the cameras for. Indeed, one feels there is something a little shameful, or at least pointless, about dragging the carefully obscured details of her life into the public square, even with the names changed.
Still, I liked "Angelyne" better as it went on — there are some moments, as in a scene when the daughter of Angelyne's billboard benefactor (Kerry Norton) runs into her in a supermarket parking lot, that give you a much-needed sense of two humans speaking genuinely to each other — without ever being wholly convinced that it was a trip I needed to take. It's nothing to warn you away from, though, and that "Angelyne" lasts only five episodes is a point in its favor that other series creators and network executives might want to follow.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under age 17 with an advisory for coarse language)
How to watch: Premiered Thursday on Peacock
———©2022 Los Angeles Times. Visit latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.