By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
After all, "Why would anyone act when they can just play themselves?" Pratt posed that rhetorical question in a Details profile in 2007. The Hills changed radically in its second season, and it's in large part thanks to Pratt, a natural-born plotter who injected the previously story-lite show with a plot by scheming his way simultaneously into the spotlight and Montag's heart. "Basically, I made it, like, my mission to try to go on a date with every girl on The Hills," Pratt told Details. Montag was most welcoming to his advances, and soon Pratt set to work breaking up her friendship with Conrad by spreading a rumor about a nonexistent Conrad sex tape. This was a stroke of genius — what would have been a boon for a more typical reality star like Kim Kardashian was, for the serious-to-the-point-of-humorlessness Conrad, a blight on a personal brand that appeals mostly to tween girls — and it worked.
Without the imminently practical Conrad around to bring Montag down to earth, the Montag/Pratt union became its own brand. From a disastrous recording career (Montag sang, Pratt produced), to the couple's prima donna antics on I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, to their mysterious disappearance from The Hills this season amid allegations of sexual harassment — and after a series of episodes in which Pratt appeared to be turning into a violently unhinged new-age crackpot — Mr. and Mrs. Pratt specialize in spectacular, WTF failure.
As her husband morphed into television's best whacked-out villain, Montag took charge of her own transformation, inspired by insecurities dredged up by seeing herself on TV. "When I watched myself on The Hills ... I was like the frumpy sidekick to Lauren," she told People magazine. The solution: ten plastic-surgery procedures in one day, transforming Montag from a genuine, all-American beauty into a grotesque embodiment of the potential toxicity of Hollywood dreams, a monstrous symbol of the endgame of starlet manifest destiny.
With The Hills ending, Montag, now allegedly divorcing Pratt and shopping her own reality show, has emerged as a cautionary tale. Montag's story — her migration from tiny-town Colorado to California in a desperate bid for upward mobility, her romantic attachment to a shady character who promises to help her become a star, her self-professed "addiction" to self-transformation — recalls The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West's satire with sympathy for the Hollywood rabble. West wrote the novel between gigs as a for-hire screenwriter. Criticized by members of the progressive left (whom West socialized with but didn't actively support politically) for making a living off the very tainted system he criticized, West argued he meant to reveal the extent to which his subjects were unconsciously enslaved by a fantasy. In a letter to a friend, West wrote, "I believe that there is a place for the fellow who yells 'fire' and indicates where some of the smoke is coming from without actually dragging the hose to the spot."
Hills producers have historically avoided focusing on the really real details of its cast's lives, whether that means framing the paparazzi out of scenes, or more morally questionable elisions, as when they failed to document the allegedly "violent breakup" between Conrad and boyfriend Jason Wahler, reported by tabloids but never seen on TV. But when it came to Montag's real-life metamorphosis, MTV took a cue from West, presenting the disaster as spectacle, letting it play out for amusement and horror without intervention. West's would-be starlet/sometime prostitute Faye Greener and his rioting movie-premiere masses were fictional types whose symptoms pointed to a real epidemic, with which Montag, an organic life-form under all that silicone, eventually became afflicted. Montag's physical mutation into the ultimate fake may be the only thing about The Hills that's indisputably real.
That the reality of the rest is debatable became indubitable with the much-discussed final images of the final episode of the series. After a tearful goodbye with Kristin, Brody stares mournfully off into the distance, with the omnipresent Hollywood Sign visible in the background. Suddenly, the Sign starts to move: the camera pulls back to reveal that Brody has been standing in front of a backdrop on a soundstage. Does this mean it was all fake? Or did MTV fake this last scene just to ensure that we'd be left asking that very question? It's some kind of victory for media education that the network that gives us Jersey Shore has provoked its audience to even question the way images are made, to understand that reality itself is always subject to manipulation, and that maddening ambiguities are a fact of real life.
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