Ellie Parker April 9, 2015
There’s a scene in David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. in which Naomi Watts, in her breakthrough role, auditions for a coveted part in a romantic thriller, or something like that. In it, she is practically forced to seduce the old guy she is acting alongside, all the while maintaining the tension of the scene, owning it, feeling it. To act is one thing — to act to act is another. As the scene, and the film, progresses, there’s a sense that Watts is pulling out every artistic fiber from her body and placing them onto a silver platter for us to scrutinize. This isn’t going to be some film she does in desperation to pay the bills; this is going to be her big break, and whether you like Lynch’s style or not, you’re going to remember the name NAOMI WATTS, in big, bold letters over a 1940s-style marquee, no less. It’s a great performance. Would it have been so astonishing, though, if Watts had not lived the life of a struggling actress for so many years?
After Mulholland Dr. was released, Watts became a sensation seemingly overnight; leading roles in The Ring, 21 Grams, King Kong, and more, followed. Today, she is considered one of Hollywood’s top actresses. But for about a decade before her big break, she was traveling from audition from audition, rejection to rejection; in interviews, she has said that she almost quit the business several times. Can you imagine if she had? Typically, when an actor describes their early struggles, stories of sympathy seem to go out the other ear. You’re sitting before us on the guest chair of a talk show — who cares about what happened to you all those years ago? You’re successful now, aren’t you?
It all seems far away, part of an eventually glamorous storyline. We forget that everyone has to start somewhere: not everyone can be Lauren Bacall or the Apparently Kid. For some, it only takes a few minutes to achieve worldwide fame; for others, it can take years and copious amounts of dedication.
Ellie Parker, a passion project for Watts (she produced), is a semi-autobiographical account of her horrendous years trying to “make it” (and failing), and the results are outlandish but also sad-funny, well-acted. Filmed with a video camera possibly even worse than the one you used to record your family’s Christmas vacation in 1999, Ellie Parker bears the texture of the fragile emotions of the actors who aren’t quite successful enough to afford an expensive lens. It’s all very strange, to say the least — the close-ups are really close up, mind you — but I really admire a film like this. It’s like a Cassavetes reject that has just enough heart to really stick with you when the story doesn’t always want to.
Watts portrays Ellie with harrowing truthfulness. She’s a mess, to put it nicely. Outside of her ferocious auditions, she’s dating a loser musician (Mark Pellegrino), confessing her every thought and feeling to her slightly uninterested therapist (Ellie later notices that the word therapist also could be pronounced “the rapist”, which seems like a more accurate label anyway), figuring out show business with her equally dissatisfied friend (Rebecca Rigg), and slowly discovering that the more rejection she receives the more she loses her sense of self. She also sleeps with an aspiring cinematographer who thanks her for crystallizing the fact that he’s gay (he simply imagined she was Johnny Depp), and she also goes to a callback in which every single producer is seriously stoned. There’s no business like show business, sure, but damn, Ethel Merman was lucky. At least she could sing about it like it wasn’t totally soul sucking.
Ellie Parker has already been forgotten as some weird experiment Watts attempted with some pals — few liked it (except for the always open minded Roger Ebert) — but I think it’s one of her best films and certainly one of her best performances (in a career full of many). Several major actresses have attempted to go back to their roots by, for example, starring in a movie where a respected director is at the helm and they play a drug addict/single mother/stripper/prostitute who doesn’t wear any makeup, ultimately winning an Oscar along the way (then going back to sizable paychecks); but hardly any, if any, have gone as far as Naomi Watts goes with Ellie Parker.
If it seemed like Watts was giving a piece of herself to David Lynch and us viewers in Mulholland Dr., then consider Ellie Parker to contain her soul. It’s hard to really know how much of the film is based on fact, but one can infer that Watts did humiliate herself in auditions and did contemplate quitting more than a few times. The fact that the film ends on such a depressing note (Ellie eventually decides to quit acting, only to come back for the aforementioned, unexpectedly and disappointingly pot-infested callback) speaks louder than anything Watts ever had to say when she was preaching on Inside the Actors Studio all those years ago: acting is a tough occupation, and anything even resembling success is good enough. And if you have to transform yourself from a Southern Belle to a Brooklyn junkie/ho/Mafia item in the driver’s seat of your car in exasperation, so be it.
Ellie Parker is abrasive in its style and intense in its acting, but it’s anything but the unwatchable mess so many critics sidelined it as originally. This is a funny, sad, but surprisingly admirable account of a struggling actress. A-