tv review

Angelyne Is the Total Package

Photo: Peacock

When the titular Angelyne first appears in Peacock’s revealing, revisionist miniseries about the Los Angeles personality, she’s refusing her humanity. On her pink sheets in her pink bedroom, Angelyne (Emmy Rossum, sometimes unrecognizable under various prosthetics) whispers the “I am an icon” mantra that fueled her rise to the top of hundreds of billboards around Los Angeles. Talent has nothing to do with Angelyne’s desire for fame. Her story is about ambition and the all-consuming way it positions someone at the center of their own universe, and how she materialized out of the glamour and excess of 1980s Hollywood to teach the city her name. Angelyne is a niche figure, but the miniseries from creator Nancy Oliver and showrunner Allison Miller spins her story up into the cosmos from whence the woman claims she came and imbues it with broader observations about femininity as industry and fantasy as self-preservation. “I am not a woman,” Angelyne insists, and Angelyne explains why: Humans die, but fame can live forever.

The redemption plot for women public figures has been chugging along for a while in movies and TV, to fluctuating degrees of predictability and success. Craig Gillespie set up shop in this space with I, Tonya, Cruella, and the miniseries Pam & Tommy. Jessica Chastain won a Best Actress Oscar for sanding the edges off televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. A pair of documentaries about Britney Spears forced a reassessment of how casual misogyny and aughts media coverage went hand in hand. Ryan Murphy reframed Monica Lewinsky in Impeachment: American Crime Story, and Shonda Rhimes did the same for scammer Anna Sorokin in Inventing Anna. Into this space enters Angelyne, “inspired by Gary Baum’s features from The Hollywood Reporter,” with an awareness of the limitations of the biopic and the talking-head documentary, and a willingness to disrupt both. To find the truth? Maybe. But whose?

Over its five episodes, which drop all at once on May 19, Angelyne attempts to unravel the mystique of this “Billboard Queen” whose image loomed over the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. The images were only ever of her — her aggressively hourglass frame, her gigantic bleach-blonde hair, her chunky sunglasses and red lipstick — and the only text was her name and a phone number. Each installment prods at why and how Angelyne became famous, combining faux-documentary framing and flashbacks to piece together a chronology of Angelyne’s life that is complemented by commentary from herself and others. Various timelines cover how she shouldered her way into the band Baby Blue, thinking that music could make her a star; her decision to go solo and change her body to match “who I am on the inside”; and her idolization of Marilyn Monroe and her belief that the best way to become famous is to just live as if you are. (Decades later, she has stuck to that mandate, and sightings of Angelyne around Los Angeles, selling branded merchandise out of the trunk of her pink Corvette, still populate social media.)

Photo: Peacock

Meanwhile, talking-head interviews with Rossum-as-Angelyne and others either support or puncture these re-creations. Angelyne calls herself “a Rorschach test in pink” who reveals others’ ingrained misogyny, judgment, or fetishization, and that observation plays out through the series’ ensemble. Hollywood Reporter journalist Jeff Glaser (Alex Karpovsky) and documentary filmmaker Max Allen (Lukas Gage) complain about Angelyne’s ambiguity and demands to be paid for participation in their projects about her. Baby Blue lead guitarist and ex-boyfriend Cory Hunt (Philip Ettinger) and Wendy Wallach (Molly Ephraim), whose father printed and funded Angelyne’s billboards, have more mixed reactions to Angelyne’s combination of combativeness and naïveté. Most telling regarding the series’ aim might be Angelyne Fan Club president Rick Krause’s explanation that “Angelyne is always in charge,” which Hamish Linklater delivers with a combination of awe and resignation. Via its altered-from-real-life character names and glitteringly imaginative dream sequences, the show wants viewers to know that it’s a mosaic with elements of fiction, and the layers of winking distance it builds in makes that self-awareness clear.

Interview subjects in 2019 contradict one another, spinning oppositional versions of events. Characters in re-creations of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s break the fourth wall to argue about whose memories and version of events are more accurate, and details of those scenes change based on their opinions, like the size and enthusiasm of a crowd watching a musical performance in the first episode, “Dream Machine.” Onscreen text establishing times, dates, and locations injects more uncertainty with phrases like “depending on who you ask.” And yet the unreliability of Angelyne’s narrative — the childhood she won’t talk about, the ex-husband she won’t acknowledge, her refusal to be “confined by the limitations of this dimension” — has its own purpose. When she stops a re-creation to literally erase someone from within it, telling them, “This isn’t about you. This is my story,” that moment conveys the limits of fiction and the schism between what we want to control and what we can’t.

Angelyne revels in these disconnects, but unlike Pam & Tommy, Tammy Faye, or Inventing Anna, it doesn’t apologize for her moments of pettiness, vanity, or selfishness. She’s a feminist fighting against dismissive men who call her a bimbo for her bust size, and a bad boss who runs her employees into the ground, and a victim of generational trauma who escaped into the world of make-believe that is Hollywood, and a figure who calls herself a “sex goddess” and sells a certain cartoonish image of herself without actually seeming all that interested in the physical act. Angelyne gives its titular subject totality, and Rossum easily ricochets between Angelyne’s coquettish sexy-baby voice and a hard, direct glare with all seduction wiped off.

Actors love the opportunity for a transformational performance, and Rossum digs in with relish. The high kicks that become part of Angelyne’s onstage style, the breathy “oohs!” she peppers into conversation, the way she curls her fingers or extends her arms to convey either frustration or glee, the little pout she adds at the end of the line “I hate liars” — it all adds up to a woman who might be performing all the time or none of the time, and the strength of Rossum’s work is that she conveys such evasiveness without any kind of artifice. The series’ precise editing helps too, injecting humor into Angelyne’s interview segments as she trash-talks people who then shake their heads in bemusement and disbelief, and later wrapping her in a kind of defensive armor as she interacts with an imagined extraterrestrial version of herself. It’s a little too neat how Angelyne opaquely introduces questions about displacement, home, identity, and fantasy before offering fairly explicit answers. But Rossum’s performance, incandescent and gritty in equal measure, entangles the assumption that we actually know Angelyne, even if we know about her.

Is that caginess a way of honoring the real Angelyne, who was initially announced as an executive producer and provided access to her life rights, trademarks, songs, and art, but who now has no formal credit on the miniseries about her life? Perhaps. (This miniseries is a passion project for Rossum, who was 13 years old when she first encountered an Angelyne billboard and has spoken about the effort she put into proving her genuine interest to Angelyne when the project was in development.) All these different layers of evasiveness, kaleidoscopic perspectives, and slivers of self-mythology feel like what Angelyne might have wanted. “Back then, you could still disappear or reappear as someone else. You can’t really do that anymore,” Glaser says in one of the series’ more meta lines. But in its thorough, thoughtful depiction of how Angelyne collapsed the illusory boundary between secrecy and sincerity, the miniseries provides both the woman and the icon the freedom to do just that.

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Angelyne Is the Total Package